Jim Davis is the creator of Garfield, the orange and black feline who is obsessed with lasagna and hates Mondays. Garfield debuted in 1978 and has since become “The Most Widely Syndicated Comic Strip in the World,” according to the Guinness Book of World Records. I reached out to Mr. Davis and he graciously accepted my Q&A. So here is Temple of Geek’s 10 Questions with Jim Davis.
(Danniel Slade) Mr. Davis thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me. I would like to start off by asking when did you know that you wanted to be a cartoonist?
(Jim Davis) Cartooning seems to have been in my DNA from the get go. As a kid, my mom used to hand me paper and pencils to keep me busy. My drawings were so bad I had to label everything. I was a constant doodler, and eventually, I got better. I earned the reputation as the class artist and later contributed drawings to the school newspaper and yearbook. I told my dad I wanted to be a cartoonist when I was preparing to go off to college — he convinced me to take some business classes as a backup, so I majored in art and business. After college, I went to work for an ad agency but then a job working as an assistant for the cartoonist T.K. Ryan (Tumbleweeds) opened up and I grabbed it. Seeing firsthand what it took to be a syndicated cartoonist was instrumental in propelling me forward and giving it a go on my own.
(DS) How did you come up with the idea for Garfield?
(JD) I failed with my first idea – it was a strip about a bug, Gnorm Gnat. I must have received about a million rejection letters from the syndicates until finally one comics editor took pity on me and gave me some advice. He said, “the art is good, the gags are funny, but bugs? Who can relate to a bug?” That’s when I took a close look at the comics pages to see what was working. I saw a bunch of strips featuring dogs, Snoopy, Belvedere, Marmaduke, Fred Bassett – but there were no strips about cats. I knew a lot about cats from growing up on a farm where we had dozens around. They were all barn cats – mousers. Garfield was pretty much an amalgamation of the cats I remembered as a kid. The name came from my grandfather, James Garfield Davis. He was sort of a lovable curmudgeon, which is how I framed my cartoon cat.
(DS) Okay, I need to ask this because I have always wondered. Why lasagna?
(JD) I wish I had a lofty answer but I don’t. It’s simply because I love lasagna.
(DS) How did you develop the personalities of Jon, Garfield, and Odie? Did you base them off of anybody you know?
(JD) Jon is basically me. I’m wishy-washy, soft spoken, and like Jon, I had a lot of dating disasters. Originally Jon, a cartoonist, was to be the star of the strip and Garfield was his wingman. But Garfield had all the best lines. He demanded the starring role so I gave it to him. Odie was created to be Garfield’s foil. Comedy requires contrast – fat/skinny, young/old, smart/stupid, cat/dog.
(DS) I grew up on Garfield and Friends and could not wait to see it every Saturday morning. What was is like going from comic strips to animation?
(JD) I was nervous about going into Saturday morning cartoons – there was the risk of overexposure, and being pigeonholed as a kids property. Having been born on the comics pages, GARFIELD was being read by adults. So it was a leap of faith. Turns out over 40% of the Saturday morning audience were adults. At any rate, animation gave Garfield an opportunity to stretch his legs. The confines of the three-panel comic strip don’t give you a lot of time to develop stories and plots. Animation helped to round out all the characters.
(DS) Garfield and Friends introduced me to the gang at U.S. Acres. How did you come up with the concept of the farm animals?
(JD) I’m a farm kid. They say write about what you know, so I did.
(DS) What are your thoughts about the parody comic strip “Garfield Minus Garfield”?
(JD) I thought it was genius. I had never looked at the strip through those lenses before. Fans of Dan Walsh’s webcomic called it an existential masterpiece. I just thought it was funny.
(DS) You are involved with the Professor Garfield Foundation to support children’s literacy. How did that start and what do you provide for children?
(JD) I used to do a lot of book tours and I’d hear from parents that their children learned to read thanks to the comic strip. The simple word-picture association in the strip apparently fascinated kids enough that they wanted to figure out what the cat was saying. After hearing this quite frequently, I started to think maybe the comics had value as a teaching tool. I went to my alma mater, Ball State University, which is a well-known teacher’s college., and happens to be about 10-minutes from the studio. They did some research and concluded there was definitely something more than just anecdotal evidence that comics could be used for educational purposes. So, we linked arms and started the Foundation. Our crown jewel is a free educational website, www.professorgarfield.org. It’s heavy on content for kids of all ages and we’ve been able to attract a lot of partners to help us in our mission. The emphasis of the website is on literacy, but there are also interactive lessons on art, math, music, social studies, and science.
(DS) Can you tell us a fun story about working on Garfield that we may not have heard?
(JD) It was the late great Charles Schulz who taught Garfield to dance. I was working on the first TV special, “Here Comes Garfield” at Bill Melendez studios. I was having trouble getting Garfield to dance on his back feet. Charles Schulz happened to be in the next room and when he stopped in to say “Hello” I told him that I was struggling with the dance scene. He said, “That’s because you’re drawing Garfield with little cat feet!” He took my pencil and showed me how Snoopy had little dog feet while he was on all fours, but he had BIG dog feet when he stood up. That gave him better balance. From that point forward, Garfield was on two feet more often than not.
(DS) Are there any future projects that fans need to watch out for involving Garfield and gang?
(JD) There are a couple of exciting projects … but I can’t talk about them yet! I can tell you that we’ve signed a movie development deal with Alcon Entertainment and that we’re working on a new TV series. It hasn’t been picked up yet, but I have my fingers crossed.
(DS) Thank you so much for taking the time to answer some of my questions. Please let our audience know how to find out more about you.
(JD) It was my pleasure. www.garfield.com/jim-davis