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Jim Davis talks Garfield, calls him 'a human in a cat suit'

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Jim Davis

Cats have invaded every corner of modern pop culture, from Internet memes to Taylor Swift’s life—but there’s one quintessential feline who’s been a mainstay for generations. Jim Davis’s Garfield has made lasagna and sarcasm synonymous with cats for over three decades, appearing in comics for 2,100 newspapers worldwide and 200 million readers (not to mention TV series and feature films).

In a nostalgic reissue, Davis and his Garfield empire, Paws Inc., have compiled five Garfield holiday specials into one DVD: Garfield’s Halloween Adventure, Garfield’s Thanksgiving, A Garfield Christmas, Garfield on the Town, and Garfield in Paradise. To commemorate the occasion, Davis spoke to EW about Garfield’s human-like mannerisms, growing up with 25 cats in Indiana, and what he really thinks about Mondays. Oh, and in case you were wondering: He’s a lot more like Garfield’s friendly owner, Jon Arbuckle, than the timelessly wry kitty.

EW: I read on the official Garfield website that you grew up on a farm with 25 cats. Is that true? Did any of those cats influence Garfield?

Jim Davis: That’s true. We had 120 acres, and it was always a good idea to have lots of cats because [most] cats are mouse hunters, as opposed to Garfield. I pulled Garfield a little bit from several cats I knew, but more from the fat housecats that lived with my grandparents and friends—cats who had their own chair. It was the indoor cats that most influenced him. He was also influenced by a lot of people. Basically, Garfield is a human in a cat suit. He exists in a cat’s body and moves like a cat and does many cat-like things, but really his basic personality is hopefully a lot like we all are, way down deep, with just our basic animal urges.

Do you currently have any cats?

Yes! I have a cat. His name’s Nermal. Not a social cat. He disappears when company shows up and then comes out. He’s very friendly to us, though. He’s named after the Nermal in the comic. Interestingly enough, I created the name Nermal because I kept running into copyright problems with character names as I was putting the strip together. I never heard the name Nermal ever. It sounded cute, and so I just created it. Then immediately after putting it in the strip, I heard from all kinds of people named Nermal. Nermal Smith, Nermal Jones.

You created Garfield in the 1970s as a response to the lack of cats in the comic book world. Can you talk about how Garfield came to fruition?

I had tried to get syndicated for years. I was working on the Tumbleweeds comic strip for years, and I played around with a bug idea, Gnorm Gnat. Finally a syndicate editor said, “The gags are great, the art’s good. But bugs? Nobody can relate.” That turned on the light. I took a long, hard look at the comics and I thought, “Dogs are doing really well. Snoopy, Marmaduke, Fred Basset. Lots of dogs, no cats.” I thought, “Hah! If people like dogs in the comics, maybe people would like cats.” You need to write about what you know. Having grown up with cats, I was certainly comfortable with the subject.

Can you talk about working on the Garfield specials, and how Charles Schulz helped you with some ideas for Garfield?

[Schulz] was instrumental in getting Garfield to stand up and walk on two feet for the first time. I was working on Garfield’s first special at Bill Melendez’s studio in L.A., and Sparky [Schulz] was in the next room working on one of his specials. I wanted Garfield to get up and dance through the opening credits, and…he looked terrible standing up. He just didn’t look natural. Sparky asked me how it was going, and I said, “Not so well.” I was doing the layout drawings, and I said, “Look at him. Garfield, he looks awkward.” He said, “That’s because you gave him these little cat feet.” He told me what he did with Snoopy’s. Snoopy used to walk on little dog feet, “and when I stood him up, I made his hind feet really big like human feet, and it looked natural.” He said, “Here, do this,” and he took my pencil and drew over the top of my drawing with these big feet like he has today. He said, “So there! Now he’s standing.” I go, “That’s it!” I was blown away. Here was Charles Schulz drawing on my drawing. When Garfield got the big back feet, then he could walk.

I saw that the previous Garfield Holiday special DVDs were selling on eBay like rare collector’s items. Can you tell us a little bit about why you decided to compile all five Garfield specials into one DVD?

The holiday specials, I think, just have a special place in everybody’s memory, everybody’s hearts. The Halloween special’s 30th anniversary is coming up next year. You watched them as kids, you watched them with your kids, grandkids, and they’re still going. There’s a real good reason to bundle them together and release them that way. Along with that, we put in a couple of my favorite specials—Garfield on the Town, which was the second special we did, Garfield actually meets his mother on that. It was very special. Between you and me and your readers, Garfield in Paradise is absolutely one of my favorites. It’s bright, funny, [there’s] rock n’ roll in it. I got to direct Wolfman Jack. It was just way fun. We did it for silliness.

Garfield has become a very marketable character. What are some of the weirdest Garfield products that have been created?

Someone wanted to do a toilet seat. But then they set out great examples of toilet seats with Mickey and Snoopy and stuff like that. So I said, “Well…okay.” And it went really well! Turned out to be a great product. The thing Garfield does for products is to lighten things up. So things like toilet seats, checkbook covers, things that are a little more mundane—he tends to lighten up the subject a little bit. People like to identify with it.

So, do you really hate Mondays?

I love Mondays, I do. What I did with Garfield is that I determined everyone else hated them, and interestingly enough, we find this on Facebook—we’re getting ready to hit 17 million fans. Garfield can’t hate Mondays enough. Every Monday, Garfield says he hates Monday on Facebook. And still it gets 50, 100,000 likes. Every time. I really struck a familiar chord with readers when Garfield started hating Mondays.

What kind of traits of yourself do you inject into your characters—Garfield, Garfield’s owner Jon, even Odie?

Jon has my eternal optimism. That’s me. I’m the guy whose glass is half full, always looking on the bright side of things. He’s a daydreamer, easygoing, puffy cheeks. I have that. I’m more Jon than any other character in the strip. I created Garfield with all the human weakness: he loves to eat, sleep to a fault, pretty much lives for himself, loves shelter, food, the basic stuff. He’s unapologetic about it. Then I created a contrast from there. As Garfield is bright and cunning, Odie is not so bright, very accepting. Odie is a free spirit. It’s in the contrasts and the conflicts in the characters that humor is derived. If everybody looked alike and got along, there would be no humor.

Loaded question: Can I assume that you are more of a cat person than a dog person?

That’s an interesting question. I have to say yes, because I work for one. But even on the farm, I spent more time with the cats than I did with the dogs. Love the dogs, but to me, cats are kind of magical. There’s more going on behind those eyes than they share with you. Very bright. Dogs, you know where they stand. They pretty much wear their emotions on their sleeves. You know where you stand with the dogs. Cats are more serious. I find that very appealing.

Cats have been more taken over the Internet, dominating pop culture. What do you think about the cats in today’s pop culture landscape?

I think it’s great. When Garfield got started, a lot of cat books came out at the time. Early ’80s. The New York Times called it ‘Cat Chic.’ I think there is a real affinity for cats. and I think people moving to the cities have made cats even more popular. In fact, cat ownership passed dogs just a few years ago. Since I did a cat strip, I think it’s a wonderful thing. We attribute a lot of thoughts and feelings to cats. I think it’s all good.

The Garfield Holiday Collection will be available on DVD today exclusively through Walmart, and will be released for digital download on Nov. 11.

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