On Strips: 1982 Jim Davis Interview

By | Friday, September 30, 2016 Leave a Comment
Garfield debuted in 1978, and quickly rose to prominence as a popular strip. That popularity continued to rise, eventually leading to dozens of animated specials (for both TV and home release), multiple ongoing television cartoons, and two feature films. El Santo recently pointed out that Walter Shapiro conducted an interview with Jim Davis back in 1982, shortly after the very first animated special debuted. Several decades on, it's an interesting historical look at Davis' approach, where he was still adjusting to the character's fame, so I thought I'd try rerunning the entire piece here...

Cartoonist Jim Davis, 37, has seen his feline creation, Garfield, grow in 4 1/2 years from an unknown cartoon character into an international marketing sensation. Not only does this fat, lazy cat, with few social graces, appear daily in 1,300 newspapers (including The Post), but Garfield has also made publishing history with seven cartoon collections simultaneously on The New York Times trade-paperback best-seller list. Garfield has recently conquered two peaks of American popular culture: his own cartoon special on CBS and his face on the cover of People magazine. Davis, who grew up on a farm near Fairmont, Ind., is a dropout from Ball State University in Muncie who broke into cartooning in 1969 as the assistant on the "Tumbleweeds" strip. After failing to sell a comic strip about a bug (Gnorm the Gnat), Davis developed Garfield in 1976, but newspaper syndication did not begin until 1978. Last year, Davis formed Paws, Inc., to handle the development and marketing of Garfield products, which will gross an estimated $50-$60 million this year. Davis is married with a 3-year-old son, Alex. He does not own a cat. His wife, Carolyn, is allergic to them. Jim Davis, the creator of a multimillion dollar conglomerate stemming from his cartoon character "Garfield", talked recently to Walter Shapiro of the Washinfton Post.

Q: Given the fact that you have one of the few jobs that you can do virtually anywhere this side of Tirana, Albania, why are you in Muncie, Ind.?

A: The major cartoon strips, most of the cartoonists originally are from the Midwest.

Q: But the key word there is originally.

A: Charles Shultz (the creator of Peanuts) is from St. Paul, Minn.

Q: I bet he ain't in St. Paul now.

A: He lives in Santa Rosa, Calif., now.

Q: Forgive me for sounding non-grateful for lunch (at one of the best restaurants in Muncie, the one at the airport). But if I had something going like this, I would be in someplace scenic overlooking the Pacific or the Aegean. Why Muncie?

A: I like to visit friends. I like to fish. I like to work, primarily. Just the business of getting on with life is just very easy here. There are no hassles. Whereas in New York -- I find it hard to believe people actually ride a train an hour and a half each way each day.

Q: Does the fact that Muncie was the "Middletown" of the famous Lynn study and that Muncie is the heartland of America -- for all that represents in terms of both Midwestern Babbittry on one hand and a good place to raise a family on the other -- does that figure in at all?

A: We probably have a better balance as far as being in touch with the pulse of American society here. It formulated my writing style, and my opinions. It's solid. We have to have a sense of humor to live here. If you don't bowl, there's precious little to do here in the winter time.

Q: What's your average?

A: Used to be very good. I used to have a 180 average.

Q: You said that you need some sense of the pulse of life to write the strip. Yet there are no topical references (in Garfield). You don't even make reference to cultural events like Pac-man and the pro football strike.

A: It's a conscious effort to include everyone as readers. If you were to mention the football strike, you're going to be excluding everyone else in the world that doesn't watch pro football. Garfield is an international character. Therefore, I don't even use seasons. The only holiday I recognize is Christmas. I don't use rhyming gags, plays on words, colloquialisms, in an effort to make Garfield apply to virtually any society where he may appear. In an effort to keep the gags broad, the humor general and applicable to everyone, I deal mainly with eating and sleeping. That applies to everyone, anywhere.

Q: Don't I hear in what you're saying the word lowest common denominator?

A: Yes, I distill everything. The Garfield art is very, very simple. Usually there's a tabletop. Nothing distracts the eye. Hopefully they see the characters, the expression. There's as few words as possible. Garfield's expressions are very carefully drawn. There's not much space. We've only got about 3 inches by 7 inches.

Q: But there are cartoonists who fill it with a lot more than you do.

A: There are a lot better artists than I am, too. I've never been much at drawing. Which, I'm sure, is another reason that the simplicity in the strip is very helpful. Long after they've forgotten the art work or the particular punch line, they remember the character. The predictability of the personality of the character in the long run helps to maintain the comic strip.

Q: Listening to you I hear a very clearly defined theory of what a comic strip should be. Was the theory there from the beginning and Garfield has been carefully honed to fit the theory?

A: There's a lot of hindsight in the theory. But there were seeds of the theory there, initially, yes. I'd like to say it was some sort of a divine inspiration that created the strip. In fact, it wasn't so much that as a conscious effort to come up with a good, marketable character. I've been trying to get syndicated for eight years. That's a lot of time to try to figure out what makes some strips go and others fail.

It's essentially a formula. I notice dog strips are doing well, and I knew an animal strip would be strong. People aren't threatened by an animal. They have a lot of latitude. Do a lot of things that humans can't. By virtue of being a cat, Garfield's not black, white, male or female, young, or old or a particular nationality. He's not going to step on anyone's feet if these thoughts are coming from an animal. So that was my first theory.

Secondly, it was doing all the writing myself. I think the personality in the long run was going to be the real payoff. So I set out to design the character with some texture. I knew it would have been easy to go the cute- cat route, but that wouldn't have been true to my humor, either. I felt a selfish, cynical, lazy type of character with a little soft underbelly would endure.

Q: A large, soft underbelly.

A: Yes. Garfield can do a lot of comments that I don't think a shallower character could do. He seems to be getting more depth to his character every day.

Q: Forgive me, I read the strip daily in The Post and I'm not sure I see the depth.

Q: Okay. Maybe the character's a little bit static, but then all at once a tiny little aspect of his personality will come forth and give me some new material. But it's been very slow, primarily because I'm having to reestablish the same Garfield over and over again for selling one or two newspapers a day every day of the week. We've about saturated the market. (But) each day, depending on the size of the paper, he may have 20,000 or 100,000 brand-new readers for the very first time. I have a feeling of responsibility for the brand- new readers. The fact that he loves lasagna, he's lazy, that he's cynical, that he's selfish, that he hates to exercise, loves to sleep. So only on the day that we determine we've saturated the market will he really start expanding. But being so close to him, the subtle changes I've built are much more obvious to me.

I think down the road, even if it means him finding a girl friend, even if it means Jon getting married to Liz the lady vet or something, it's going to change. It's going to have to. Just to keep me interested.

Q: When you sold the strip in 1978, ending your years in the wilderness, did you imagine all of this mass-merchandising marketing going along with the strip?

A: Well, I saw licensing down the road. I really did. But I was happy just to be cartooning. If nothing had ever happened with the licensing, I'd be the last guy in the world to be disappointed. But having watched the success of the Peanuts property over the years,, and seeing what was happening with the Muppets, I knew that sort of thing could happen with a comic strip. And primarily an animal, again. Snoopy is very popular in licensing. Charlie Brown is not. But, yes, I felt we would have some books. Hopefully some dolls. Maybe even down the road a TV shossibleow and T-shirts. It's the timing I wasn't prepared for. I thought I had a lot of time to prepare, get established, let the strip mature and then think about licensing.

Q: One of Garfield's favorite sayings is "Cute rots the intellect." Looking around this room, I see about 82 Garfield dolls in different sizes, pennants, caps, girls' panties, girls' aprons, jigsaw puzzles, lunch bags, boxes and 892 other things that could very easily be described as cute.

A: Oh, it's not a pretty sight, Walter.

Q: It's rotting my intellect as we speak.

A: None of that is cute. Look at that look in his eye. There's something else on his mind. He's looking ornery. To me cute is "Have a Smurphy day." Don't quote me on that. That's cute. Cute is the Keene paintings with the big eyes, with the kids always crying. That's cute. Cute is three fluffy kittens all staring off camera in the same direction on the month of March.

Q: But you walk into the same Hallmark gift store that sells all these -- the tabernacle of American cute -- and there, in a corner, Garfield is holding his own. People are buying it and saying to themselves, "Oh, isn't that cute? That Garfield poster or that Garfield lunch box?"

A: Garfield had better never hear them say that. He says things like "I hate Mondays." That's not cute.

Q: Maybe I'm not used to this monument of hucksterism, but it says cute to me. The sort of things that strangers talk about in elevators when they're not saying, "Have a nice day."

A: We get this every day from licensees. We're constantly fighting. They want to put him in situations with big hearts kissing Odie. Things like that. Close as he gets to cute is holding his teddy bear. He loves his teddy bear. He can open up to an inanimate object like a teddy bear. That's what we use for the children's stuff. If they want something sweet, I still stop short of cute.

Q: How many licensed objects do you have at this moment?

A: We did 800 last year. Individual objects.

Q: If we were going to do a Garfield museum with one of every item, sort of a Noah's ark of Garfield.. . .

A: 581 Do you mean like one of each greeting card? It would be talking maybe 4,000, 5,000.

Q: What you're saying is that your $50- or $60 million from licensing in 1982 is a show of rare restraint on your part? That it could easily have been $300 or $500 million?

A: Yes. That's true. What's Strawberry Shortcake last year? They're claiming $300 million. Same thing with the Smurfs. Our program has grown so large not because we've had to get out and hustle, but because the demand has been so great.

Q: When I see a strip in The Post, a Garfield strip, that doesn't make me laugh, how many levels of laugh testing has it passed before it gets to me and I don't laugh? Are there 10 strips a month that you put together and the consensus here is this is just not funny enough to get us through 10.4 percent unemployment?

A: It is a very loose formula. Not every strip is meant to make people laugh. Occasionally I even put in one to make people think. That's very rare. The first time Garfield met Pooky.

Q: The teddy bear?

A: Yes. He said "What's this? A teddy bear? A dumb stupid teddy bear?" In the last frame he's hugging it and I think he even has his thumb in his mouth and he says "Well, I think I'll call it Pooky." It's just a little twist that helped deepen him a little more. That's an investment in this strip. On those days you're not going to laugh, you're going to go "Huh? That's new." You're learning a little more about him.

I like to go for one or two big laughs a week. Usually those are the sight gags. Garfield getting hit over the head or hitting Odie over the head. Then I like to go for a couple of nice thoughts. Where he's making some broad statement on life that's nice or humorous. It ought to get a smile. Then I like to go for what I call a quotable quote. Something people can take to the office or to school.

Q: And put it up on the wall.

A: Right. And that was long before licensing. That wasn't an effort for something I could use later. It's something that capsulizes how he feels. I mean, right there alongside of "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country," (there's) Garfield's quotes like "Show me a good mouser and I'll show you a cat with bad breath." "Life's like a hot bath; feels good while you're in it but the longer you stay the more wrinkled you get." They may not have the same appeal, but it's something I can use to illustrate how he feels about things. It comes in handy in interviews now and then, at any rate.

In The New York Times last week, seven of the top 15 books on the trade-paperback-books best-seller list were Garfield books. Aren't you crowding out the rest of American literature? There are a certain number of books that are not going to get advances because the publishers are saying (what sells is) Garfield. There's a Garfield greed that is crowding out the more substantive aspects of American literature.

I don't know what would be any more substantive about the books it's crowding off. Like "I'm O.K., You're O.K." or "101 Uses for a Dead Cat" right below that. I think "Chocolate" is on there now. "Thin Thighs in 30 Days." What's the sex book? Books on how to trim your belly. Something about making yourself more beautiful. Things like that.

Q: But the Garfield dollars are coming out of someone's pocket. And like every reporter -- somebody who wants to write the big book -- I think the pocket it's coming out of is my pocket. So why is this damn cat taking bread out of my mouth?

A: I can't defend the books on the list. (Cartooning) is something uniquely American. Nobody in the world does it better than Americans do today.

Q: My understanding is that a year ago you went from just being Jim Davis and went to Paws, Inc. How big a company are you?

A: We've got 13 employes.

Q: No, I mean, if I were to do dollars.

A: Let's say for argument's sake that there's $15 million in the marketplace and we average a royalty of 6 percent. A million-five. Take 50 percent of that in taxes. A lot goes out for wages and stuff. That might be a little conservative. But we live from royalty check to royalty check.

Q: Would I be making a mistake to say that you yourself are going to make more than a million dollars from that cat this year?

A: Yeah, that's safe to say.

Q: A typical Sunday strip in color, in The Washington Post -- how much time does that take, your part of it?

A: It would take me about four to six hours.

Q: And the daily strip?

A: Depending on the number of characters, would take me only about an hour, an hour- and-a-half.

Q: So the strip takes you about 13, 14 hours a week. No wonder you describe this as being retired.

A: That's true, the other 60 hours is just messing around, licensing, doing promotion, things like that. Just signing fan mail is many hours a week. One of the advantages of being self-employed is you get to work many more hours than a normal employed person.

Q: But you could achieve a relatively high standard of living somewhere around hour 14 with just the strip.

A: That's correct. I think that's part of the Midwestern work ethic. People usually don't sit around holding magic markers and write their favorite sayings on their china. So we do that for them -- second-guessing what they're thinking. This "I Hate Mondays" has been very very popular. I personally don't hate Mondays, but a lot of people do.

Q: Do you have any theory at all about what the wild, overwhelming success says about Americans in 1982?

A: I think it says they have good taste. It also speaks well of newspaper readers. In order to look at a two-dimensional drawing, black and white -- to relate it to real life -- takes some ability to draw abstract relationships and that in itself takes a certain amount of intelligence. The nicest letters I get are those letters that say Garfield brightens their day a little bit. They look forward to seeing him. That's the whole reason to be for the character. That's fulfilling. And I think it speaks well for American that they are following the character as they are.

Q: And the way America ought psulizeto be is fat and sleepy?

A: And happy.
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