AMA: Jim Davis, Garfield Cartoonist

Jim Davis’s lasagna-loving loafer celebrated his 40th birthday June 19. We spoke with the cartoonist who created our favorite comedic cat.

Congratulations on 40 years.
It’s almost congratulations for making it 40 years! It’s funny, because I swear it’s been like a finger snap. I had these big plans; I wanted to do this for 25 years. I’m still trying to get it right.

Why did you set the strip in Muncie?
Because I started here. I grew up on a farm near Fairmount, Indiana, about 25 miles from Muncie. Once I got syndicated, I didn’t think twice about staying here in Indiana. Friends, family are all here, and, frankly, the cost of living, the quality of life, and education is all here in Indiana. It never occurred to me to even think about any other place.

How many strips do you still draw yourself vs. are produced by your team?
I do all the writing. Now, that’s based on gags that are also suggested by a couple of other guys, but I rewrite them so everything has this singular Garfield voice.

How long does it take you to draw a strip?
It doesn’t take me very long to rough it up—I can do that in half an hour once I come up with a gag. But the whole art process takes the entire day to do a Sunday, and three or four hours to do a daily.

What’s the secret to making Garfield look identical in each frame?
I’ve always marveled at how cartoonists could draw characters that looked exactly the same from frame to frame, but it’s like a signature. If you do it a few hundred thousand times, it’s easy.

What’s a typical workday like for you?
I start really early. Growing up on a farm, I never got out of the habits, so I’m at my desk by five o’clock in the morning, sometimes a little earlier. I’ve got drapes that I can close to make the room dark and quiet, because when I write, I watch Garfield in my head like I’m watching a TV set. I put him up a tree, I have him in a boat, or staring out a window—and then I just watch him. And I ask myself, What would he do? What would he say? What would the other characters do and say? Where would they go? And I just watch until something funny happens—then I back up three frames and cut it off. One strength I have is being able to recognize something that’s funny.

What makes something funny?
More often than not, it’s because people are saying, “Isn’t that true?” It’s something that resonates with you; that you didn’t see coming until the last frame. Some comedians have great timing; well, there’s a timing to reading, and with the visuals. If I get too complicated with the visuals, people will stop and look at the detail. So, I usually put Jon and Garfield at a simple tabletop—that way you can breeze through the gag. And I like to get to the punchline an instant before the reader would’ve figured it out. If they figure out the punchline before they get to the last panel, it’s spoiled. But if they have to think too hard after getting to the punchline, then that timing’s gone. So you have to arrive there together.

How do you conquer writer’s block—or, in this case, cartoonist’s block?
I don’t write, most days. I try to be far enough ahead that I can go, “Okay, I’m really tired today, I’ve got the sniffles, I’ve got a lot of other things to do.” I don’t write those days. And then some days I’ll be coming in going, “Everything’s hitting me funny today,” and I’ll put other stuff aside and just write on those days. I trust my instincts on that, because you can’t force a gag. If you try to write through something like that, the readers will know it. You absolutely cannot fool them.

Are there any topics you consider off-limits?
Everything political. I like to do the kind of jokes that leave you feeling better after you’ve laughed at them. A lot of humor is cruel or shock humor, and you laugh out of embarrassment, or it’s a nervous laugh. Not that I don’t laugh at that stuff myself—I do—but it’s an easier gag to do. I don’t do rhyming gags or gags with proper names in them because they don’t translate well—in 28 languages, the gag has to respect the readers in other markets and other cultures.

When are Jon and Liz going to get married and start a family?
It took them 25 years to get around to the first date—I’m figuring another 75 years. They don’t move very quickly. Fifteen years ago, we took a cruise with 400 Garfield collectors, and I asked, “What would you like to see in the strip?” And it was overwhelming: They said, “Let Jon get a life; let him start dating Liz!” They said, “It’s everybody’s greatest regret that Charlie Brown never got to kick that football. Don’t do that to us!” So that next Valentine’s Day I had them kiss for the first time. I’m kind of afraid to let them actually get married, though—then it’s gonna be Blondie!

You’ve said in previous interviews that you wish you’d made Garfield’s favorite food pizza, because lasagna is difficult to draw. Is there anything else you’d change about the strip, in hindsight?
The original Garfield had no stripes, and I got a call from the President of United Media saying, “We’re really taken with this strip, and we’re thinking about syndicating it. But I was looking at your character, and it seems like he could use some stripes.” I go, “Stripes! That’s brilliant!” Do you know how many millions of stripes I’ve drawn over the last 40 years? Garfield would not have stripes.

Why do you think Garfield has remained funny generation after generation?
A few years ago, we interviewed teenagers about why they liked Garfield. They said, one, he’s funny, and two, he has attitude—he resents authority. He says things that we don’t have the nerve to, like, “I hate mornings.” We’re made to feel guilty about not exercising and overeating, and Garfield defends his right to do those things.

But back in 1978, he was a bit of a bad boy for having those attitudes. Then along came Bart Simpson with “Don’t have a cow, man”—he even had more attitude—and then Beavis and Butt-Head, and then South Park, and now Garfield’s mom-approved, even though he hasn’t changed his opinions or attitude, because the whole landscape’s shifted in front of him. When you’re dealing with absolutes like eating and sleeping, every generation can relate to that.

What keeps you excited about drawing the same character day after day for 40 years?
I’m still trying to get that perfect gag. And the thought that people are enjoying it; getting the letters saying how it makes people feel better. But I don’t have to take the bows or sign the autographs—that’s Garfield.

We finish the interview, and you step outside and find a lottery ticket that ends up winning $30 million. What would you do?
I’d still keep doing the strip. But I’d probably drive to work in a Ferrari and get a new set of golf clubs.

Is retirement on the horizon for you?
Not for cartooning; I’d like to be able to do this as long as I can. It’s what gets me out of bed in the morning—it’s just great fun. On the business side, I’d like to get some more help, because I would like to play some more golf.