That Darn Cat: The Extraordinary Story of Jim Davis’s ‘Garfield’ Empire
June 19 marks the anniversary of the 1978 debut of literally the most read comic strip in the world: Jim Davis's Garfield. Syndicated in over 2,600 newspapers around the world, the daily non-adventures of a lazy orange cat and the dumb person he lives with have delighted readers and audiences for decades.
Davis created Garfield after a previous strip, Gnorm Gnat, failed to find an audience, probably because people struggle to identify with bugs. Feeling that there was an abundance of dogs to be found in the comics pages, Davis decided to instead try a strip about a cat, having grown up on a farm in Indiana that had twenty-five cats on it.
The titular character was named after and partly based on Davis's grandfather, James A. Garfield Davis. After a false start with the original version of the strip, which focused more on Garfield's owner Jon, the strip debuted in forty-one newspapers in 1978, after Davis retooled it to focus more on Garfield, whom the newspapers liked better.
Success was quick to follow. Within three years, Garfield was running in 850 newspapers and swiftly became a merchandising juggernaut. In 1981, Davis founded Paws, Inc. to help manage merchandising, licensing, and the production of the strip. The Muncie, Indiana, company employs nearly fifty artists and administrators to handle the licensing, and has bought back the copyright to the Garfield library of strips from the syndicate.
In the 1990s, Davis stepped back from drawing the Garfield strip itself, instead contributing only writing and rough sketches, while the daily strip itself is produced by Brett Koth and Gary Barker.
Besides being the world's most widely syndicated comic strip, Garfield has also found great success in other media. Between 1982 and 1991, twelve prime-time animated television specials were aired, including Garfield in the Rough, Garfield's Halloween Adventure, and A Garfield Christmas. These specials were followed up by the popular cartoon series Garfield and Friends, which ran from 1988 to 1994 and also featured segments based on Davis's other syndicated strip, U. S. Acres. This was followed in 2008 by The Garfield Show, a CGI-animated series on Cartoon Network.
Two live action films, Garfield: The Movie and Garfield: A Tale of Two Kitties, featuring the voice talent of no less than Bill Murray, debuted in 2004 and 2006, respectively. And then there are the books: Garfield strips have been collected into over sixty books, with such titles as Garfield at Large, Garfield Takes the Cake, and Garfield Tips the Scales, which introduced a horizontal format for reprinting daily comic strips that came to be known as the “Garfield format.”
Other merchandising includes video games, original books, figurines, diecast cars, plush toys, a 1991 music album called Am I Cool or What?, fruit snacks, Chia pets, and of course the suction-cupped plush toys that were and possibly still are in everyone's grandma's car window.
Additionally, Garfield has appeared in commercials for American Express, Kellogg's, Alpo, Embassy Suites, Campbell's Soup, and McDonald's. Davis has been criticized by other cartoonists, notably Calvin and Hobbes creator Bill Watterson, for this abundance of merchandising, but presumably Davis is crying all the way to the bank about it.
Whatever your opinion is of the Garfield strip today, it is impossible to deny that this fat, orange cat has been an indelible part of the childhood of multiple generations in its over thirty year history, as evident in such derivative works as Garfield Minus Garfield and whatever's going on with Chip Zdarsky.
So maybe take today to think back to a simpler time when we could all agree Mondays were terrible and that was hilarious, and eat a lasagna and smoosh a spider in honor of this one cat who's a Big, Fat, Hairy Deal. Happy birthday, Garfield.