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Garfield Creator Draws on Experience in Managing the Fat Cat's Empire

Making It

Through hard work and savvy decision-making, cartoonist Jim Davis has made Paws Inc. a multimillion-dollar venture.

February 25, 2001|SUSAN VAUGHN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Keeping a 23-year-old comic strip fresh is a considerable challenge. But Jim Davis, the creator of "Garfield," says he and his cat have a strategy for success.

Davis, 55, believes that innovation, hard work and savvy decision-making are key to assuring that Garfield will be around for many years. He continually searches for ways to improve his strip and maintains a disciplined work schedule to assure that the "crisis du jour" and "project du jour" are properly handled.

"It feels as if I'm just getting started," he said. "I want to make the gags fresh and even sharper. There is always something to shoot for."

Davis is not just a comic strip creator but head honcho of Paws Inc., which employs more than 60 people near Muncie, Ind.

A self-proclaimed "chronic doodler," Davis first turned to cartooning when, as a child, he was bedridden with severe asthma. He said the pastime helped him through hours of solitude.

"For me, it was a form of expression, the way some people write stories or do poetry," he said. "But I never entertained the thought, at least for a long time, that I could make a career of it. It seemed so out of reach."

Davis' interest in cartooning continued to grow. To sharpen his drawing skills, he took art courses in college. He also studied the work of successful cartoon artists whom he considered his mentors and heroes: Mort Walker ("Beetle Bailey"), Al Capp ("Li'l Abner") and Charles Schultz ("Peanuts").

To learn the trade, he apprenticed for nine years with "Tumbleweeds" creator Tom Ryan. Watching Ryan conduct his daily business gave Davis insight into both the mechanics and business of cartooning. And it prepared him for his next step.

"Once I saw how Tom did it, I got the confidence to do it myself," he said.

While he worked with Ryan, Davis created his own strip, "Gnorm Gnat," and submitted it to syndicates. For five years, Davis was turned down. Only one Indiana newspaper picked up "Gnorm Gnat." Davis' first paycheck was $28.

"I got so many rejection slips, I could have papered my bedroom wall with them," he said.

Davis considered this period a learning opportunity. As he sent out submissions, he kept perfecting his cartoons. He also listened to feedback from peers who advised him that a comic strip about insects was a difficult sell because readers didn't identify closely with insects. Eventually, Davis terminated his "Gnorm Gnat" strip to search for a more lucrative project.

He conducted an ad hoc market study of successful comic strips: Were there any untapped or underrepresented niches that he could exploit? He didn't have to look far. In the mid-1970s, many comic strips were about dogs; few had cats as their protagonists. Davis knew cats: He had grown up on a farm inhabited by 25 wild felines.

In 1976, Davis created Garfield, a fat, lasagna-loving, grouchy cat, with a personality reminiscent of his own and that of his curmudgeonly grandfather, James Garfield Davis. He also introduced Jon Arbuckle as Garfield's owner: "an average guy" who shared some of Davis' traits.

Davis became very disciplined in his work habits. He'd start work at 6:30 a.m., draw for 11 hours and read self-improvement books for inspiration.

Davis decided early on that he'd steer clear of controversial subject matter. He believed that readers turned to comic strips to escape from their daily stresses. He also had witnessed firsthand the fallout that inflammatory material provoked.

"When I saw the grief that Tom got from his cartoons about male-female relationships and cowboys and Indians, I realized that I could have greater latitude with [noncontroversial] situations and humor."

Two years later, United Media accepted "Garfield" for syndication. "Beetle Bailey" creator Walker recalled how excited Davis was--until he read the fine print in his contract.

"He showed me his contract and I pointed out, 'Do you realize you don't own your own originals?' And he looked down at it and responded, 'Oh, wow,' " Walker said. Later, Davis would remedy this in a big way.

At first, "Garfield" appeared in 41 papers. Davis and his then-wife Carolyn struggled to live on $8,000 a year. Meanwhile, Davis kept honing his comic strip. He said he achieved success only when he stopped trying to analyze the comic marketplace and focused exclusively on making Garfield funny. First, he shifted focus away from Garfield's owner, Jon, because "the cat had all the punch lines." He also exaggerated Garfield's features--sketching larger eyes, a wider mouth and bigger stripes--for comic effect.

His perseverance paid off. "Garfield" became the fastest-growing comic strip in history, forcing Davis to develop business skills as keen as his cartooning abilities.

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