Jim Davis Talks "Garfield's" Comic Book Life

Fri, May 4th, 2012 at 6:00am PDT | Updated: May 4th, 2012 at 8:10am

Comic Books
Kiel Phegley, News Editor
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Over nearly 35 years in comics, "Garfield" has proven more longevity than even nine lives would provide. The insanely popular comic strip and its titular lethargic cat have driven record sales of comic collections, dolls, clothing, cartoons, movies and more since cartoonist Jim Davis introduced them in 1978. But up until this week, there was still one area the fat feline never conquered: comic books.

This week, BOOM! Studios launched the first issue of a "Garfield" comic book series as part of its all-ages Ka-BOOM! imprint. While in some respects, comics are comics no matter where they appear, the pamphlet format holds a number of different storytelling challenges and opportunities that the daily gag strip doesn't. And so to explore those possibilities to their fullest, Davis tapped acclaimed comics and animation writer Mark Evanier and his longtime collaborator on the "Garfield" newspaper strip Gary Barker to bring the orange tabby, his cartoonist Jon, Odie, Nermal, Arlene and the rest of the gang to the comic book format.

CBR News spoke with Evanier about his plans for the series when the project was announced, and today we're happy to bring Davis into the discussion as well. Below, the world-renowned creator discusses why it took so long for Garfield to make the jump to the floppy comics format, how perceptions of and interest in his character have changed over the years, what the Internet has brought him as a cartoonist and to the comic strip medium as a whole, his future plans for Garfield from deluxe collections to stage musicals, and much more.

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CBR News: Jim, the series that debuted this week from BOOM! Studios is the first ever comic book formatted "Garfield" project, but I can't imagine that this is the first time someone has come to you wanting to do a project like this. What kept you from moving forward with a comic book series in the past, and why was this the pitch that made you finally move forward with that?

Garfield Jim Davis spoke to CBR News about "Garfield's" long journey from comic strips to comic books

Jim Davis: I guess it was a perfect storm for the creation of the comic book, and by that I mean the availability of Mark Evanier and Gary Barker and the opportunity to do a comic book. Because "Garfield" is a comic strip, I'm very comfortable in that zone, with the timing, and it's something I've been doing for years. It's been easy for me to do that and turn it into compilations and everything. But a comic book -- and I don't think I'm telling you anything new here -- is an entirely different animal in terms of the composition, the timing and things like that. While I grew up reading comic books, they were not as many as probably all of your fans read. Mine were more the Harvey comics. [Laughs] I read "Baby Huey" and "Casper The Friendly Ghost."

So I always wanted to make sure that when we did a comic book, we did it right. Other people were always wanting to do it their way -- basing it on TV specials or other books and things like that. It just wasn't true to the kind of stories that we could tell in the comic book format. Of course, Mark Evanier and I have been working together for 20-some years on the TV shows and specials. Mark over that time has probably put as many words in Garfield's mouth as I have because I think he's going on 200 half hours for TV with Garfield. And Gary Barker [and I] have been working on the comic strip together for well over 20 years as well. Gary is a wonderful comic book artist in his own right having done a couple of "Hulks" for Marvel and countless other projects. So given the opportunity to work with BOOM! and to work with Gary and Mark, it doesn't get much better than that. I said, "That'd be great," and so the time has come.

In the first issue, we see Mark and Gary using the format to parody superhero stories a bit. Were there any specific kinds of things you wanted to see them tackle along those lines, or did you let them loose to do as they will?

One of our mottos here is "Never believe your own press releases." [Laughs] So we never take ourselves too seriously. If you look at the comic strip and especially the different animation we've done for TV, we're always knocking down the fourth wall and poking fun at ourselves. Mark Evanier, of course, is a great fan of comic books and comics in general, so we just couldn't resist the temptation to send that up here. In fact, if you take a look at the direct-to-video special we produced a couple of years ago called "Garfield's Pet Force," it was a spoof on superheroes and comic books. And Gary had created the Pet Force forever ago -- doing superhero versions of Garfield, Odie, Nermal and Arlene. So it was just a chance to give those a nod. In fact, in the video the comic strip world and the comic book world converge in a story of parallel universes to create this fantastic story. So we certainly all looked at each other when this new project started and said, "We've got to include a knock on the comics." [Laughs] Here we just crafted all those elements together.

I'm sure you hear this a lot when you talk to people, but I read a lot of the original horizontally formatted "Garfield" strip collections when I was a kid. We must have had 30 or so of them floating around our house. And now, my older brother has dug them all up, and my 5-year-old niece reads them every night before she goes to bed. Garfield has become pretty ubiquitous in that way where generations of people interact with the character through books and newspapers and the movies and TV. Has that changed your approach to the strip in any way, or have you gotten used to the idea?

I guess one of the things I decided to do with the comic strip initially in 1978 and 1979 has actually served us very well today in that I wanted to do the kind of humor that touched everyone. I wanted to shine a mirror back to the reader, show them themselves in a way and deal with topics that were not timely and not insider political gags and commentary. I wanted to do eating and sleeping and situational humor that would allow us to laugh at ourselves and to feel better once we'd laughed. People are still eating and sleeping today, meaning the humor is still as pertinent today.

Davis always intended for Garfield's humor to shine a mirror back on the reader

You talk about those books, and at book signings, I've taken books that I signed for a parent and resigned them for the child. In some cases, I've done it for a grandchild as they've passed them down. [Laughs] I love to do that. I absolutely love it. It does not help new book sales all that much, but the fact is that there's something universal between the generations. And it means that the humor too is still hitting home. But to say I get used to it? No. Never. The novelty still hasn't wore off. It absolutely amazes me that other people laugh at the strip because I try to make myself laugh at it first, then if someone else does, that's a bonus.

Like you said, "Garfield" started in the late '70s and through the '80s there was a giant peak of interest in the character. That cooled off for a number of years, but recently it seems your work has grown in popularity again. Some of that comes from projects like the movies or the "Garfield Minus Garfield" strip that started on the Web and you helped turn into a book. Do you think there's something about the past few years that has brought on a renewed interest?

In a way I guess there's been a renewed interest in Garfield because we've taken him from the newspaper page and put him on the internet, so now the digital Garfield is reaching a new generation. But I remember Al Capp saying one time when he was under fire with the left and being so political said, "My aim has not changed. It's just that the landscape has shifted." And I feel that in the late '70s and early '80s, Garfield was a bit of a bad boy. He was a bit of a rebel who resented authority in his owner Jon. He said things like it was. And believe it or not, back then that was kind of naughty. [Laughs] And then along came "The Simpsons" who in comparison to Garfield were a little bit naughtier. When "Don't have a cow, man" happened, kids in schools weren't even allowed to wear "Simpsons" t-shirts because of the rebellious nature of the sentiment. And then a few years later came shows that were even edgier -- certainly "South Park." So I think the nature of how the humor has become -- how graphic or textural or whatever you want to call it -- by comparison Garfield is certainly a kinder, softer, gentler character even though he's doing the same humor he was in 1980.

And I think because of the Internet -- you've got to remember that with syndicated cartoons and characters, there's only so much space on the newspaper page. The pages used to be inhabited in part by what we used to call "The Undroppables" -- Blondie, Beetle Bailey, Snoopy and now Garfield. But there's only a couple of dozen comics overall. So that's all the world was exposed to until the World Wide Web. Now you can be exposed to virtually tens of thousands of characters. There is a watering down on the following of each of the characters simply because there are many thousands more characters than there ever were before. So that obviously has an impact on the overall awareness and popularity of a character.

Now that Garfield's online full time, we're up to five million fans on Facebook, and I'm delighted to see the readership there. And I'm also delighted to see that people are still wanting to read the comics in their traditional format -- three or four panels at a time with the words above them. I didn't know. I really didn't know if eventually things would have to be animated. Maybe all strips would have to become CGI? I didn't know. Fortunately, for a while we've had this Honeymoon where people still love to read comics in a comic strip format. And I think Garfield has held up rather well thanks to the Internet. It's nice to see.

Though comedy has gotten bolder over the year's, "Garfield" endures

We live in an era where everyone's always trying to declare the death of this or that, and some of the biggest cries have been over newspapers and also newspaper cartooning and syndication. While strips continue to find an audience online, the traditional distribution models are very different now. As someone who's had complete control of his strip and has been able to put all his archives online, what do you think will survive about the form versus what may be on the way out?

Of course, the death of newspapers is a little premature. Yes, we're going to see the death of over-leveraged newspapers, but community newspapers and local newspapers and regional newspapers are going to do just fine. It's the "selling" newspapers that get bought and sold so much that they can never generate the advertising dollars to pay their debt load, and they're going to have their problems. But syndication, by and large, is going to be challenged. When I started out, you either got syndicated or you were nobody. There was no way into the papers without being represented by a syndicate.

Actually, you were saying you're in Chicago, and the Sun-Times was one of the papers responsible for some of the popularity of "Garfield" in that in '78 we started out and got into 41 papers. The Sun-Times was the biggest one, and they dropped me after about three months. They had to cut some comics for budgetary reasons, and they figured cutting the newest ones would be easiest. Within about three days, they had about 1,300 phone calls and letters that came in, so they had to put him back in. And that got a lot of publicity. So when it did, a lot of other papers saw that and picked him up. I ended up going to Chicago and doing an interview with the editors there because of the reaction I got. So I owe Chicago a vote of thanks because it really showed me early on that we had some staying power.

Now if you want to cartoon, you just cartoon. You put it online, and this is great because everybody who wants to see it can come across it. It may not have the size of readership and certainly not the income of the syndicated cartoonist, but you've got your start. You've got a readership and you've got feedback. You've got this stage to build your skills, and over time the good creators are going to survive and even thrive. I think that's wonderful. Though on the other side, I can tell you that the established creators are looking over their shoulders because these kids are good. They have a lot wonderful, wonderful cartoonists online, and I think it's great for the industry. These kids are excited and they're making great work, and that's what's going to help cartooning survive. What could have killed it was a handful of old guys like us getting older -- and less funny -- in a handful of newspapers, which could usher out comic strips as we know them. But I love all the youth and all the energy online. And hopefully, some day there will be a way for these people to earn a living, and that will really help the art form survive and even thrive. So I think it's all ushering in a great new era of cartoonists.

The other thing I wanted to ask you about was that today, we hear people saying that we're in the Golden Age of comic strip reprints. Everything from "Captain Easy" and "Popeye" to "Peanuts" and "Calvin & Hobbes" are getting these deluxe hardcover reprints. Have you thought about thought about doing this with "Garfield"?

Davis plans to wait for a milestone like 50 years before releasing a deluxe hardcover reprint of his strip

I'm sitting here staring at my "Calvin & Hobbes" and my "Farside," my "MAD Magazine" collection and "Archie." I've even got "Archie!" [Laughs] So I know exactly what you mean, and I've been approached by all the publishers about it, but I tell them the same thing. Let me hit some bigger milestone, 50 years or something, and then we'll do a compilation. I'm not ready for it yet. To me, it's nice to do a retrospective, but "Garfield's" not ready for it. We're out there in a lot of other forms, and we've got plenty of books in print, so I can wait. 2013 will be 35 years, so 50 years feels about right.

The "Garfield" comic launches this week. The strip and the cartoons continue on. Is there something else that you'd like to do with Garfield that you haven't gotten to yet?

I think one thing I haven't done yet is a musical. I'd love to do one of those some day. I've worked on treatments and have gotten a book done, but nothing's happened yet. Some day we'll put something on stage. I thought I'd let this "Cats" show do its run, and when it went away, I'd do Garfield. [Laughs] But I got tired of waiting on that. So that would be the next thing. And we're going to be doing more TV. We've got our French animators and producers coming in tonight, and we're going to start doing treatments for the fourth season of "The Garfield Show." Cartoon Network internationally has picked up the third season, so we're going to be on TV for a while longer. But I'd say stage is the last thing we haven't done.

"Garfield" #1 is on sale now from BOOM! Studios.

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TAGS:  boom! studios, kaboom!, garfield, jim davis, mark evanier, gary barker

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