Garfield creator Jim Davis is well aware of the internet's cat obsession. In fact, he's got an upcoming strip about it. "But if I told you the joke, I'd have to kill you," he deadpans, before cracking his paternal composure with a chuckle. (He did tell me, and I've chosen life.)
"Cats are absolutely perfect for the internet," says Davis. Davis himself spends hours watching cat videos on YouTube at his home in east central Indiana, the birthplace of Garfield and James Dean. ("They do have one thing in common, and that's the cool factor," he says mock-seriously.) He's a sucker for a good pratfall -- his favorite TV show is still America's Funniest Home Videos. Sometimes he finds cat videos inspirational: "They'll fall off something and I'll go, 'Oop! I can do that.'" But while clicking around YouTube, he realized that Garfield's old holiday specials from the '80s -- "A Garfield Thanksgiving," "A Garfield Christmas," "Garfield in Paradise" -- had racked up millions of views. Obviously, he deduced, it was time to issue them on DVD as the Garfield Holiday Collection.
Surprised that Davis, at one year shy of 70, and with a conjectured $800 million fortune, still scrutinizes Garfield's online hits? He's always been a comic-strip scientist -- it's the secret to Garfield's 36-year success. "I didn't want to do anything else," says Davis. Syndication was the goal. So though he initially wanted his strip to star insects, he changed it to cats, which seemed much more appealing. Imagine a lasagna-loving roach on your coffee mug.
Garfield was launched in 1978, canceled months later, and brought back after fans papered the Chicago Sun-Times with letters. "I thought it was the beginning of the end, and I hadn't even had a beginning," says Davis. Today, Garfield is published in 111 countries, and though Davis long ago could have farmed Paws Inc. out to underlings, he continues to host regular meetings about Garfield's 68 -- yes, 68 -- mobile apps and Facebook page (17 million fans), where he gauges the traffic for every post.
"We hate Monday every Monday, and every Monday we have 80-, 100-, 120,000 likes," says Davis. "We can't hate on Monday enough."
Davis isn't a natural artist. "The drawing is still coming along," he admits. When he looks at old strips, he gets depressed. When he advises his team how to draw the cat, his key tip is that it's all about the eyes. (Garfield does throw Beyoncé-level side-eye.) Davis used to make faces in the mirror: hunger, shock, irritation. "A fully grown man making big eyes and a mouth," he laughs. "Not a pretty sight!"
As a child, his drawings were so bad that he'd have to label them, writing "cow" under his cow and drawing an arrow. Arguably, he was lucky he was lousy. "Putting words with pictures was a natural thing," he explains.
He has an explanation for everything: Odie's height (contrast), Jon's flailing arms (also contrast), Garfield's continuing popularity. "He has the courage to say and do things that people wish they had the courage to do," says Davis. "Way down deep we'd all like to sleep in, eat more, exercise less." He knows why Garfield is a hit in Scandinavia -- "Long, cold winters; I think they read a lot" -- and doesn't work in Tokyo.
"They don't tell one-liners in Japan," says Davis. Frustrated, he tried an experiment: hiring a translator to retranslate the kanji version of his comics. A punchline where Garfield grumbles, "I'd like mornings better if they started later" was garbled into: "It's quite early and I wish it weren't so." Worse, a fence standup routine where the cat cracked, "I know a dog who's so ugly, cars chase him" got Benihana'd as, "I once knew a dog with unfortunate looks. So unfortunate, in fact, he was pursued in traffic by vehicles." Groans Davis, "There's nobody in Japan named Shecky.
"My whole goal is someday to write the perfect gag, the one gag that makes the whole world laugh," adds Davis. "It's in me somewhere."
Davis can also wax at length about the strip's lingering technophobia, which has given the mistaken impression that Davis himself wasn't web-savvy. "TV sets can make a strip look dated," Davis insists. Only this year did he finally give Jon a flatscreen and a smartphone, which Garfield used to Instagram his dinner.
Calculation is key to the cat's success. Take Garfield's mouth. In the strip and the original cartoons, it never moves -- after all, the cat isn't really talking. But the producers of the first Garfield movie insisted on animating his lips. "It's so big that it'd be real obvious -- even distracting," Davis sighs. And now that TVs are bigger, those lips have to flap in The Garfield Show on Cartoon Network, too.
Yet on one point, Davis won't budge: Garfield doesn't speak. Which validates the premise of Garfield Minus Garfield -- an internet homage where the non-verbal cat is erased from the frame to hammer home that Jon is, in essence, a weirdo talking to himself. "Desperate, even," admits Davis. "That was very interesting to see."
But isn't Jon, well, Davis himself: an Indiana farm kid with a real-life brother named Doc Boy? The real guy, the once-hopeless cartoonist who today licenses Garfield cycling jerseys, ceiling fan blades, guitar straps, golf club covers, and blood pressure monitors, seems a lot more content.
"As secure and even-tempered as all of us are, underneath we're probably raving lunatics as well," says Davis cheerfully. "We mask it well."