In the 1970s, Davis created a comic strip called Gnorm Gnat, which met with little success. One editor said, “…his art was good, his gags were great,” but “nobody can identify with bugs.” Davis decided to take a long, hard look at the comics and he saw that dogs were doing very well, but there were no cats at the time. Davis figured that since he had grown up on a farm with 25 cats that he could come up with a strip based on a cat. He then proceeded to create a new strip with a cat as its main character and thus created Garfield, who borrows the first letter of his name from Davis’s earlier work.
Garfield originally consisted of four main characters. Garfield, the titular character, was based on the cats Davis was around growing up; he took his name and personality from Davis’s grandfather, James A Garfield Davis, who was, in Davis’s own words, “a large, cantankerous man”. Jon Arbuckle came from a 1950s coffee commercial, and Odie was based on a car dealership commercial written by Davis, which featured Odie the Village Idiot.
Early on in the strip, Odie’s owner was a man named Lyman. He was written in to give Jon someone to talk with. Davis later realized that Garfield and Jon could “communicate nonverbally”. The strip, originally centred on Jon, was first rejected by the King Features, Post-Hall and the Chicago Tribune-New York News agencies, all of which asked Davis to focus on the cat, who in their opinion, got the better lines. United Feature Syndicate accepted the retooled strip in 1978 and debuted it in 41 newspapers in June of that year (however, after a test run, the Chicago Sun-Times dropped it, only to reinstate it after readers’ complaints).
Garfield’s first Sunday page ran on 25th June 1978, being featured as a third-pager until 22nd March 1981. A half-page debuted the following Sunday, with the strips for 14th March and 21st March 1982, having a unique nine-panel format, but UFS curtailed further use of it.
The strip’s subject matter in the early months varied from the pattern into which it later settled. Today, some might be deemed politically incorrect, such as strips involving Jon’s pipe smoking or his subscription to a bachelor magazine. Another point that limited the global appeal of these strips was the American/Canada-centric humour, with a few jokes being untranslatable into some languages. However, by 1980, the strip adopted the universal family fare for which it is now known.
Notably, the strip underwent stylistic changes, from the 1978–83 strips being more realistic, to appearing more cartoonish from 1984 onward. This change has essentially affected Garfield’s design, which underwent a “Darwinian evolution” in which he began walking on his hind legs, “slimmed down”, and “stopped looking […] through squinty little eyes”. His evolution, according to Davis, was to make it easier to “push Odie off the table” or “reach for a piece of pie”. Jon also underwent physiological changes. He now looks older than in the 1990 strips – he is taller and he has larger features.
Garfield quickly became a commercial success. In 1981, less than three years after its release, the strip appeared in 850 newspapers and accumulated over $15 million in merchandise. To manage the merchandise, Davis founded Paws, Inc. By 2002, Garfield became the world’s most syndicated strip, appearing in 2,570 newspapers with 263 million readers worldwide; by 2004, Garfield appeared in nearly 2,600 newspapers and sold from $750 million to $1 billion worth of merchandise in 111 countries. In 1994, Davis’s company, Paws, Inc., purchased all rights to the strips from 1978 to 1993 from United Feature. The strip is currently distributed by Universal Press Syndicate, while rights for the strip remain with Paws.
While retaining creative control and being the only signer, Davis now only writes and usually does the rough sketches. Since the late 1990s most of the work has been done by long-time assistants Brett Koth and Gary Barker. Inking and colouring work is done by other artists, while Davis spends most of the time supervising production and merchandising the characters.
Garfield is copyright © Paws, Inc. If you like the cartoons we reproduce here on Jammy Toast, please consider purchasing some of the Garfield merchandise. These are available through Garfield.com where you can view them in full-colour and at a higher quality!