Creator Jim Davis Talks About Enduring Legacy of ‘Garfield’

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On anyone’s short list of greatest comics ever, the venerable “Garfield” is going strong after more than 35 years. Now in more than 2,100 newspapers and read by more than 200 million across the world, Jim Davis‘s creation was named by Guinness World Records as “The Most Widely Syndicated Comic Strip in the World.”

One of the most influential too, its influence on pop culture since its June 19, 1978 debut undeniable.

An element of the success of the strip is its successful translation into film. Now a special DVD set, the Garfield Holiday Collection, drops on November 4 ($14.99), including such memorable shorts as “Garfield’s Halloween Adventure,” “Garfield on the Town,” “A Garfield Christmas,” “A Garfield Thanksgiving” and “Garfield in Paradise,” along with a new featurette and other extras.

Davis took some time this week to discuss the fat cat and its ongoing legacy with Wizard World.

Wizard World: Many strips have come and gone in the 35+ years since ‘Garfield’s’ debut – what are the essential elements that have made it endure?

Jim Davis: Eating and sleeping. Eating and sleeping. It never goes out of style and it doesn’t hurt that there are so many cat lovers out there.

I intentionally avoid making political statements and commenting on current events. That goes a long way in keeping the strip timeless.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, I love doing the comic strip. It’s a great way to make a living.

WW: Did you start the comic with ideas of the direction it would go, or did it take on a life of its own?

JD: It definitely took on a life of its own.  In fact, Jon Arbuckle was supposed to be the star of the strip. They say you should write about what you know, and I knew plenty about being a struggling cartoonist. Garfield was meant to be Jon’s sidekick but Garfield had all the best lines. It didn’t take long to recognize who the real star was.

WW: Which are some of the strips that received the most feedback, positive or negative, over that time?

JD: A strip in the early 80s…Garfield is in the same prone position looking forlorn in all three panels. First panel he says, “I’m down…down, down, down, down, down.” Second panel: “Down down down, dooby do, down, down.” Third panel: “Comma, comma, down dooby do down, down.” Neil Sedaka, who wrote those famous lines (Breaking Up Is Hard To Do) called immediately and asked for the original. Since then I’ve had lots of people mention that particular strip to me.

I got some rather strange feedback from a series of strips I did near Halloween in 1989. The entire week was about Garfield getting lost and having to face his greatest fear….loneliness. It was pretty dark I suppose. I started getting calls from fans and newspaper editors who were concerned that Garfield was going to the dark side. “Is Garfield dead or just dealing with some serious existential angst?” Heck, I was just trying to do something scary for Halloween. I still get questions about that series of strips to this day.

WW: What is the significance of the franchise being privately owned, after all these years?

JD: I think getting the rights back from the syndicate was an expression of independence.  I wanted to be in control of Garfield’s destiny.  It may have inspired some other creators to do likewise. Intellectual property is a tricky business.

WW: It’s known that ‘Garfield’ is kind of a combination of various cats from your childhood. What are some other early influences that have gone into the franchise’s development?

JD: The simple lessons I learned from my parents as a kid…If you’re going to do something, do it right.  Be nice to people.  Go the extra mile (if my dad asked me to move a bail of hay, he meant five.) Family comes first. Those principles still guide me and are reflected in the franchise today.

WW: Sometimes comic strips are really best left as comics and don’t adapt as well to other media. What made ‘Garfield’ work so well in the shorts featured in the DVD collection?

JD: When I write I always picture Garfield in my head. I put him in a situation and watch what he does until there’s a funny conclusion. Then I back up three frames and boom…there’s the comic strip. Apparently that comes thru and lends to his adaptability. Garfield IS animated in my head.

WW: What was the first item or product licensed outside of the strip itself? What are some of the more unusual ones?

JD: Once the comic strip had been in the papers a few months and appeared to be gathering a following the calls started to come in.  A coffee mug, a nightshirt…it was unexpected and I was unprepared.  The first product that I got really excited about was the first compilation book, Garfield At Large. Some of the more unusual ones would include a toilet seat cover, a chess set, and the there was a request for us to design Garfield on a funeral urn. Thankfully that was a one-off.