When the fat cat comic became syndicated 20 years ago, the engine started purring on a whole cat-age industry.
One hundred forty years ago this June 19 (that’s in cat years, we think), a lazy orange feline with a jones for lasagna and withering contempt for his owner shuffled onto the syndicated comics pages of 41 newspapers. More than 13 prime-time TV specials, four Emmys, some 6,000 products, 100 million books, and 2,550 papers later, Garfield is one fat cat.
Creator Jim Davis had spent two years fine-tuning the contentious relationship between the grouchy cat, his milquetoast owner, Jon (Davis’ pen-and-ink alter ego), and befuddled dog Odie—in a strip he’d thought would be called Jon. “It took just a few weeks to realize I worked for a cat, not a cartoonist,” notes Davis, now 52. His previous strip, Gnorm Gnat, had failed to attract a syndicator, and with Snoopy the comics’ top dog, Davis drew inspiration from the 25 cats that had lived on his parents’ Indiana farm. He named his creation after grandfather James Garfield Davis.
And Garfield kept landing on its feet. When the Chicago Sun-Times canceled the strip after only three months, 1,600 complaints got it reinstated. And when 1980’s Garfield at Large leapt to the top of the New York Times best-seller list—and sat there for 100 weeks—Garfield became the fastest-growing comic strip in his- tory. By 1982, seven Garfield books had all simultaneously pounced on the Times paperback best-sellers list.
Davis attributes Garfield‘s allure to its non-topical humor. “My grasp of politics isn’t strong,” he admits. But his grasp of marketing is: Garfield’s Cheshire grin has adorned everything from cat food to underwear. When 225 million suction-cupped, splay-pawed Garfields were sold between 1987 and ’89, he became a bona fide cultural phenom. “It was too popular,” says Davis. “We accepted the royalty checks, but my biggest fear was overexposure. We pulled all plush dolls off the shelves for five years.”
Davis, currently separated from his wife, lives on a 121-acre spread in Albany, Ind., that also houses Davis’ 60-employee company, Paws (he works with his 19-year-old son, James). Dedicated solely to Garfield, its motto is “If we take care of the cat, he takes care of us.” (Davis’ only other syndicated comic-strip venture, U.S. Acres, was discontinued in 1989 after three years.) In 1994, to better tend kitty, Davis bought full rights to his creation from United Media for a reported $15-20 million. Next? A $120 million Garfield theme park opening next May. Guess cats do have nine lives.