Garfield Creator Draws on Experience in Managing the Fat Cat’s Empire
Keeping a 23-year-old comic strip fresh is a considerable challenge. But Jim Davis, the creator of “Garfield,” says he and his cat have a strategy for success.
Davis, 55, believes that innovation, hard work and savvy decision-making are key to assuring that Garfield will be around for many years. He continually searches for ways to improve his strip and maintains a disciplined work schedule to assure that the “crisis du jour” and “project du jour” are properly handled.
“It feels as if I’m just getting started,” he said. “I want to make the gags fresh and even sharper. There is always something to shoot for.”
Davis is not just a comic strip creator but head honcho of Paws Inc., which employs more than 60 people near Muncie, Ind.
A self-proclaimed “chronic doodler,” Davis first turned to cartooning when, as a child, he was bedridden with severe asthma. He said the pastime helped him through hours of solitude.
“For me, it was a form of expression, the way some people write stories or do poetry,” he said. “But I never entertained the thought, at least for a long time, that I could make a career of it. It seemed so out of reach.”
Davis’ interest in cartooning continued to grow. To sharpen his drawing skills, he took art courses in college. He also studied the work of successful cartoon artists whom he considered his mentors and heroes: Mort Walker (“Beetle Bailey”), Al Capp (“Li’l Abner”) and Charles Schultz (“Peanuts”).
To learn the trade, he apprenticed for nine years with “Tumbleweeds” creator Tom Ryan. Watching Ryan conduct his daily business gave Davis insight into both the mechanics and business of cartooning. And it prepared him for his next step.
“Once I saw how Tom did it, I got the confidence to do it myself,” he said.
While he worked with Ryan, Davis created his own strip, “Gnorm Gnat,” and submitted it to syndicates. For five years, Davis was turned down. Only one Indiana newspaper picked up “Gnorm Gnat.” Davis’ first paycheck was $28.
“I got so many rejection slips, I could have papered my bedroom wall with them,” he said.
Davis considered this period a learning opportunity. As he sent out submissions, he kept perfecting his cartoons. He also listened to feedback from peers who advised him that a comic strip about insects was a difficult sell because readers didn’t identify closely with insects. Eventually, Davis terminated his “Gnorm Gnat” strip to search for a more lucrative project.
He conducted an ad hoc market study of successful comic strips: Were there any untapped or underrepresented niches that he could exploit? He didn’t have to look far. In the mid-1970s, many comic strips were about dogs; few had cats as their protagonists. Davis knew cats: He had grown up on a farm inhabited by 25 wild felines.
In 1976, Davis created Garfield, a fat, lasagna-loving, grouchy cat, with a personality reminiscent of his own and that of his curmudgeonly grandfather, James Garfield Davis. He also introduced Jon Arbuckle as Garfield’s owner: “an average guy” who shared some of Davis’ traits.
Davis became very disciplined in his work habits. He’d start work at 6:30 a.m., draw for 11 hours and read self-improvement books for inspiration.
Davis decided early on that he’d steer clear of controversial subject matter. He believed that readers turned to comic strips to escape from their daily stresses. He also had witnessed firsthand the fallout that inflammatory material provoked.
“When I saw the grief that Tom got from his cartoons about male-female relationships and cowboys and Indians, I realized that I could have greater latitude with [noncontroversial] situations and humor.”
Two years later, United Media accepted “Garfield” for syndication. “Beetle Bailey” creator Walker recalled how excited Davis was--until he read the fine print in his contract.
“He showed me his contract and I pointed out, ‘Do you realize you don’t own your own originals?’ And he looked down at it and responded, ‘Oh, wow,’ ” Walker said. Later, Davis would remedy this in a big way.
At first, “Garfield” appeared in 41 papers. Davis and his then-wife Carolyn struggled to live on $8,000 a year. Meanwhile, Davis kept honing his comic strip. He said he achieved success only when he stopped trying to analyze the comic marketplace and focused exclusively on making Garfield funny. First, he shifted focus away from Garfield’s owner, Jon, because “the cat had all the punch lines.” He also exaggerated Garfield’s features--sketching larger eyes, a wider mouth and bigger stripes--for comic effect.
His perseverance paid off. “Garfield” became the fastest-growing comic strip in history, forcing Davis to develop business skills as keen as his cartooning abilities.
By 1987, just nine years after Garfield’s launch, the cat--through the comic strip, merchandising, licensing and book sales--was reaping Davis an estimated $31 million annually, according to Forbes. Between 1987 and 1989, Davis sold an estimated 225 million suction-pawed Garfields, making the stuffed animal one of the decade’s top fads.
Davis built a network of advisors--licensing experts, accountants and lawyers--to help him manage his Garfield empire. He befriended the sales reps who peddled his strip, hoping that would help get “Garfield” into additional venues. He looked to his syndicator, United Media, as a mentor of sorts. During the 15 years he worked with the firm, he strove to learn as much as he could about the intricacies of the syndication business. His goal was “to take control of [his] destiny.”
In April 1994, Davis’ company, Paws Inc., bought out Garfield’s syndication and licensing contracts from United Media for an estimated $15 million to $20 million, according to Editor & Publisher. The move was hailed as “one of the most momentous events in the history of newspaper comic strip syndication,” by Creators Syndicate President Rick Newcombe.
“United Media certainly built up the comic strip and taught us all about licensing, but after 15 years, it was time for us to give it our stamp,” Davis said.
Davis asked Universal Press Syndicate to distribute his strip, which was appearing in 2,400 newspapers. The decision, he said, allowed him more latitude and long-term security.
“Jim Davis is a master of both humor and brand creation,” said Lee Salem, executive vice president and editor of Universal Press Syndicate. “He’s like a creative Tasmanian devil, exploding constantly with . . . energy, new ideas and creativity. And he knows what newspaper readers like.”
Today, Davis strives to create a stimulating, positive work environment for his employees. His Paws campus on a 500-acre spread in Indiana, 25 miles from his childhood farm, is dotted with woods, ponds, a meadow and prairie land.
On the grounds are a three-story, light-filled atrium, video editing suite, recording studio and animation studio, as well as nature trails and a putting green. The corporate motto is, “If we take care of the cat, the cat will take care of us.”
“One thing we ask ourselves is, ‘Are we having fun yet?’ ” Davis said. “Because, if not, it affects the whole organization. We’re a creative house here.”
He rises at 4:30 each morning and makes the 100-yard commute to his office, where he spends about three hours writing, reviewing mail and planning his workday.
“The rest of the day is determined by the crisis du jour and project du jour,” he said. Davis oversees all Garfield-related enterprises, including calendars, book covers and e-commerce ventures.
“I get to change hats a lot,” he said.
Though the world is familiar with Garfield, Davis is convinced he can hold his 220 million readers’ interests. The cat, he said, will make sure of that.
“I’ve never worried that I would run out of material because I’ve never written the material,” he said. “I just watch Garfield. I put him in my head like a TV screen and watch him. I ask what he would do, what he would say. It’s almost like a working meditation. I just edit the material. The important function I serve is to make other people laugh.”
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The Man Behind the Cat
Jim Davis, creator of “Garfield,” has spent 24 years regaling children and adults with his cantankerous cat’s antics. Today “Garfield” appears in 2,600 newspapers in 111 countries. Here are Davis’ tips for cartoonists:
1. Read everything you can get your hands on. The more you read, the more knowledge you’ll have. Your cartoons will be richer for this and will have more depth.
2. Learn to draw well. Specifically, learn to draw realistically. This will enhance your cartooning abilities.
3. Get education beyond high school, particularly in areas related to your career--art and writing, for example.
4. Get a job in art or journalism that affords you opportunities to observe how cartoons are created.
5. Have fun while you’re creating. The reason some cartoonists fail is that they “labor it too hard"--they write too many words, they put in too much effort. My belief is that if you’re having fun creating it, people will have fun reading it.