Jim Davis Circa 1979

By | Wednesday, July 29, 2020 3 comments
Yesterday was Jim Davis's 75th birthday and Tom Heintjes shared this photo of him...
Jim Davis
What I find interesting is how much we can glean from him by other elements in the shot.

Farrah Fawcett poster
First, in the upper right, you can see the bottom of the famous Farrah Fawcett poster, allegedly the single best-selling poster in history. The poster was actually the idea of Pro Arts Inc. who hired Bruce McBroom to shoot Fawcett, who did her own hair and makeup for the shoot as she was still mostly known for small, bit-parts on television at the time. The poster came out in early 1976 and was so popular that it led to her getting a starring role in Charlie's Angels later that year. The poster sold even better after the show's popularity took off. I mention the history a bit here because there's an implication that he kept that poster up for several years, as we'll see in a minute.

Kliban cat calendar
The next item of interest is the calendar. Although the date is a little fuzzy, the image helps to confirm it's March 1979. The image is a relatively identifiable Kliban cat cartoon. Bernard Kliban's cat comics first became quite popular in 1975 with his first book, and the first Kliban cat calendar came out in 1977. The first calendar was the best-selling calendar of that year, and Kliban calendars continued to be the best-seller every year through 1981. Although not visible in the black and white photo above, that cat above the March 5-6 boxes is colored orange like Garfield.

1979 Peanuts strip
Next, there's a comic section from the newspaper visible on Davis's desk. I'm guessing it's The Chronicle-Tribune based out of Marion, IN. Davis, I believe, was actually living in nearby Muncie at the time but the Muncie newspaper is The Star Press, and there seem to be too many letters in the masthead for that. Regardless, plainly visible before the fold are the top two panels of a Peanuts Sunday strip. I believe that's the March 4, 1979 strip; there are only two Sunday strips between 1976 and 1980 that feature Charlie Brown by himself in the first panel, and him with Lucy in the second. (It's possible that it's an even longer timeframe there; that's just as far as I went in either direction.)

So the photo is at the earliest from March 4, 1979, although possibly a little later. Davis would have been a little shy of 34th birthday and likely had that Fawcett poster hanging up for at least a few years by that point.

Garfield strip
The Garfield strip Davis seems to be work on, though? We can actually see the whole thing pretty clearly. It actually ran in newspapers on October 29, 1978, about four months prior to the earliest date this could've been photographed.

My guess is that he wanted to use a Sunday strip since those are just bigger and would take up more of his art board, and four months seems that it would be about the right amount of time for a syndicate to get his original art back to him after he sent it in for production. (Recall this is 1979 and you couldn't send files electronically yet.) So I can see it being possible that this was actually the latest Sunday strip he had original art for, but had already been published. I can also see him not wanting to use an as-yet-unpublished strip as that might give away the joke before readers saw the actual strip itself in their newspaper. But I could be over-thinking it, and he just simply liked that strip for whatever reason.

What I find interesting is the three non-Garfield elements we can use to date this photo are three of the most popular pop culture items of their respective genres. The most popular comic, the most popular calendar, the most popular poster. You could say they were the most broadly appealing items of their day. I find it interesting that Davis gravitates towards that so strongly, even in his personal life. Davis was always clear that he tried to write Garfield to be as broadly appealing as possible. In a 1982 interview, he stated, "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... 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."

So that he himself is so strongly influenced by and seeks out the most popular is interesting. What I don't know is that because he just liked stuff that everybody else seemed to like, or was he actually studying those items to determine what made them popular? In that same interview, he also said, "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 did he get that Kliban calendar because he actually likes Kliban cats (I've never heard him mention Kliban as an influence) or was he just doing research for how to make Garfield more marketable? The cynic in me says the latter, particularly in light of multiple times Davis has claimed that he chose to make Garfield a cat because he "noticed that nobody had yet created a popular comic about a cat." It seems hard to claim that when he had a Kliban cat calendar on his wall only a few months after he created the character. I can't find Davis mentioning Kliban at all until 2015, although he clearly had at least an awareness of him early on.

I've kind of felt this way for a while, but I feel it kind of makes Davis seem more and more like Bob Kane, and I'm left thinking he's better at crafting a story about himself than he is about crafting one for the comics pages.
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Matt K said...

Very impressive analysis.

Thanks. I was initially just curious to see if I could date the photo, but as I was looking up the individual pieces, I kept seeing "best-selling" pop up over and over. That got my wheels spinning a bit.

Anonymous said...

If there was anyone Davis clearly ripped off it was Kliban. I don't know a lot about Davis as a cartoonist but the Kliban influence in the early strips is very clear. At least in the drawing--not the weird conceptualism of Kliban's cats. Now, whether he pursued this influence because of genuine stylistic admiration or simply as an expedient way to capitalize on something popular...well, that's anybody's guess. The interesting thing is that Garfield isn't all that bad of a strip for kids. It's simple and straight forward and inventive with its sight gags. I can see why those Garfield books of the 90s were so popular with children. I mean, yes, it's terrible...but compared to 99% of what is in the daily funnies it ends up looking not half bad. I love cartooning but those newspaper strips are generally very very sad nowadays.