Cartoonist Jim Davis-The Man Behind Garfield

Odd Jobs, People
on March 8, 2009
David Mudd

Growing up on a small farm near Fairmount, Ind. (pop. 2,866), Jim Davis figured he would follow in his father's footsteps and become a farmer. But as severe bouts of asthma made that job seem unlikely, the bedridden youngster began drawing to pass the time. It was the genesis for what would become his career as a cartoonist and creator of one of America's best-loved characters-Garfield the cat.

"I loved farming but just couldn't do it," says Davis, 63, at his studio complex in the countryside near Albany, Ind. (pop. 2,368). "I kept having asthma attacks. Being asthmatic, I spent a lot of time inside. TV wasn't as prevalent in the 1950s, so my mom would shove paper and pencil in my hand to entertain me."

Those early stick drawings were so crude that young Jim "had to label what they were," recalls his father, James William Davis, 88. "You couldn't tell if it was a horse or a dog. His people always had belly buttons though."

Rural roots
During his youth, Davis and his younger brother, David, helped with farm chores and raised Black Angus cattle. Active in 4-H, he won many county fair ribbons with his prize heifer Pepper.
"I learned to work through the asthma," Davis says. "When I couldn't breathe, I would grab the headboard of my bed and pull myself up to breathe and let myself back down to exhale. To this day, I appreciate my health, appreciate being able to breathe."

A shy child who stuttered, Davis attended a three-room school with two grades in each room. There he met Nellie Barnhardt, a teacher who helped him overcome his stuttering.

"She would touch my throat and say, 'The words are in there, you just have to let them out one at a time,'" Davis recalls. "She taught me to say everything in my head first, to speak slowly, and I still do that today."

At Fairmount High School, Davis played football and acted in theater productions. With 65 students in his graduating class, he is grateful that he attended a small country school. "I weighed 100 pounds and was asthmatic, and I still got to start in football all four years. That's the beauty of a small school. You can do so many things."

After graduation, Davis attended Ball State University in Muncie, Ind. "I have the distinction of earning one of the lowest cumulative grade point averages in the history of the university," he says with a chuckle. "A fellow classmate named David Letterman earned the other one."

Creating a cat
After college, Davis "lucked into a position" as an assistant to Tom Ryan, creator of the popular Tumbleweeds comic strip. "I saw the discipline and long hours it took to be a success," Davis says. "I started trying to get my own strip syndicated. It took years of trying, but finally I found a comics editor who saw something in my work."

Davis originally created Gnorm Gnat with an all-insect cast, but editors told him insects aren't funny. So he turned his cartoonist talents closer to home, working on an idea about a bachelor cartoonist and his fat cat. The lazy feline kept getting all the good lines, so Davis wisely put the spotlight on the lasagna-loving, coffee-drinking, self-centered, dog-hating cat.

Why a cat? "I looked around and there were plenty of strips about dogs, but none about cats," Davis says. "I knew cats. We had 25 at one time on the farm."

He named his creation after his grandfather, whom he describes as "a big guy with a dry wit who appeared gruff but deep down inside was a softie."

"Garfield is a human in a cat suit," Davis explains. "People identify with him because he says and does the stuff we'd all like to say and do if we thought we could get away with it."

Since the orange cat with the attitude waddled on the comic page on June 19, 1978, his popularity has spread. Garfield holds the Guinness World Record as the most widely syndicated comic strip, with 230 million daily readers. More than 135 million copies of Garfield books-translated into 27 languages-have been sold around the world. The cat also is featured on products from cups to key chains, and bedspreads to leather jackets. The entire Garfield enterprise is administered from Paws Inc., the comical cat's headquarters near Albany.

"Staying in Indiana has been good for my work," Davis says. "I'm happy here and, for me, being happy is very conducive to doing humor. I love the people here, the seasons, the trees, the quiet and lack of traffic. If things get hectic, I can go out and take a walk in the woods."
The Paws complex is a state-of-the-art studio and business facility with about 60 artists, writers and licensing agents, many of whom have worked with Davis for decades. The Davis home also is on the site.

"I hired my wife, Jill; that's how I met her," Davis says with a grin. "She's been here 27 years, and she's the vice president of licensing. Actually I work for her, which is a good arrangement, because it frees me up for the creative stuff."

Jill and Jim have three children: Ashley, 24, who works in the Paws office; Chris, 22, a local police officer; and James, 29, serving with the U.S. Marines in Afghanistan. His parents live nearby and often meet their cartoonist son for lunch in the Paws cafeteria.

Even today, Davis honors his farm upbringing. "I get up about 4 in the morning," he says. "That's quiet time for me. I love to watch the sun rise."

Commuting about 100 yards to work, Davis tries to imagine what antics his witty kitty will reveal that day. "I watch Garfield. He writes his own stuff, really. I don't write. I edit," he says. "Garfield performs in my head. If I tried to make him do something funny, especially something he didn't want to do, it would look forced."

Never in his wildest dreams did Davis expect Garfield would become such a success. "I was just drawing cartoons when I was little to make my mom laugh. She is still my best audience," Davis says.

So what does Mom think of the feisty feline? "Well, he is very ornery," says Betty Davis, 86, giving her son an affectionate nudge in the side. "If Garfield was my son, I'd have to make him behave."

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