'Garfield' creator Davis has no time to laze around

Monday, May 8th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

"Cartoon Characters" is an occasional series on the cartoonists whose work appears on the comics pages of The Dallas Morning News.

In one sense, Garfield is a comic strip: The central characters are a cat fixated on laziness and lasagna; his rather dense owner; and a clueless dog who serves as the cat's favorite victim.

In another sense, Garfield is a comic corporation: a staff of nearly 60 artists, designers, business people and support personnel, all working to, as it were, feed the kitty.

Paws Inc., a four-building complex spread over several scenic acres near Muncie, Ind., is Garfield's international headquarters, with Jim Davis, the strip's 54-year-old creator, at the helm. And the global implications should not be overlooked. Besides the nearly inescapable Garfield presence in stores and on TV, meet the newest members of the Paws Inc. family: The Garfield Pizza Cafe has opened in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and characters from U.S. Acres (another comic strip by Mr. Davis, now defunct) will appear on eggs - yes, fresh eggs - in Argentina.

What does all this have to do with a cat who has a soft spot for his teddy bear, Pooky, and a hard line toward just about everything else? It's an indication that Garfield's practice of putting off till tomorrow what he can sleep through today has a universal appeal. The strip appears in about 2,600 newspapers worldwide.

"To keep the gags broad and the humor general and applicable to everyone," Mr. Davis says, "I deal mainly with eating and sleeping."

The Paws Inc. offices are about 25 miles from Marion, Ind., where Mr. Davis grew up on a farm. When asked why he became a cartoonist, he usually cites the answer of the late Al Capp, creator of Li'l Abner: "It helps to have been dropped on your head as a baby."

Mr. Davis suffered no such mishap, but his cartooning origins are related to a childhood malady.

"Because I was asthmatic as a kid and spent a lot of time in bed," Mr. Davis says, "Mom used to shove a pencil and paper in my hand urging me to draw to entertain myself. I was so bad, I had to label everything."

He attended Ball State University in Indiana, where David Letterman (a year behind him) was a friend. Mr. Davis assisted Tom Ryan on the Western comic strip Tumbleweeds from 1969 until 1978, when Garfield made its furry debut.

And a conglomerate was born.

Mr. Davis says he will write a month's worth of panels in one week for the comic strip, which bears his name, though he doesn't draw it. The rest of the time, he wears other corporate hats, addressing such areas as publishing, merchandising and animation. Everything that Paws Inc. produces in the name of Garfield must get his final approval.

A benefit of centralized production, Mr. Davis says, is getting Garfield's color right. Mr. Davis says the chubby cat's particular shade of orange is difficult to match.

"If I had known that when I started, I would've made him white."

Mr. Davis admires cartoonists who do all the work on their strips themselves, but the Garfield operation has simply gotten too big for him to do that. He's not the only cartoonist to have assistants, and comic-strip characters have been marketed almost as long as there have been comic strips. But Garfield combines the ubiquity of Peanuts with the marketing acumen of Dilbert.

This may seem rather monolithic for what began as a comic strip, but Mr. Davis knows he bears ultimate responsibility for his creation, in all its permutations. The truly "corporate" strips, he says, would be those that feature Disney or Warner Bros. characters and do not have a cartoonist's signature.

Before beginning Garfield, Mr. Davis says, there weren't any cat comic strips. That's no longer the case, but he doesn't believe the genre has reached the point of cliche. There are dog comic strips, but that doesn't mean they're all the same; he cites Snoopy and Marmaduke as similar-but-different examples.

Garfield's biggest impact on the comics pages, he says, has been right between the eyes: More characters have large, expressive eyes. Garfield's are often mostly covered by equally large eyelids to convey his usual unimpressed state.

In case you were wondering, Garfield is not named after the 20th president of the United States. He's named for Mr. Davis' grandfather, James A. Garfield Davis . . . who was named after the 20th president of the United States.

If his grandfather had been named for Chester A. Arthur, the assassinated president's successor, would there today be Chester coffee mugs and Chester wall calendars and Chester parade balloons?

Mr. Davis admits the name has possibilities.