Why we don't hate Garfield.

Taking stock of people and ideas in the news.
June 11 2004 5:35 PM

Garfield

Why we hate the Mouse but not the cartoon copycat.

Illustration by Charlie Powell

Aspiring cultural juggernauts could not have asked for a better how-to guide to world domination than Garfield: The Movie, out in theaters today. The film is an example of the kind of product that Garfield creator Jim Davis likes to attach his product's name to: Predictable, unfunny, and eminently forgettable. The movie won't take the nation by storm—in fact, it will probably vanish very quickly—but it will make a tidy sum in theaters and on DVD and then be remembered only by the small sample of tots in the viewing audience who turn into ironic hipsters during their college years.

And that's exactly how Davis wants it. Nothing scares the man more than the backlash that's created by white-hot success. He knows that the flip side to building almost any mass-market culture-industry icon—think Mickey Mouse or McDonald's—is intense loathing by the minority who will despise it. Davis's genius is that he's created the most widely syndicated comic strip in history—with the attendant profusion of plush toys, T-shirts, and themed Caribbean cruises—and yet, through careful brand management, he's largely managed to deflate the naturally occurring cultural counterattack.

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Today, Garfield the comic strip appears in nearly 2,600 newspapers around the globe, and its readership is estimated at 260 million. If the readership number is right, then 4 percent of the world's population reads Garfield every single day. Garfield products—sold in 111 countries—rake in between $750 million and $1 billion each year. This was not accidental: Davis meticulously plotted Garfield's success. And part of his calculation was to make the strip so inoffensive that it's hard to hate it even for being anodyne.

Davis makes no attempt to conceal the crass commercial motivations behind his creation  of Garfield. Davis has the soul of an adman—his first job after dropping out of Ball State, where he majored in business and art, was in advertising—and he carefully studied the marketplace when developing Garfield. The genesis of the strip was "a conscious effort to come up with a good, marketable character," Davis told Walter Shapiro in a 1982 interview in the Washington Post. "And primarily an animal. … Snoopy is very popular in licensing. Charlie Brown is not." So, Davis looked around and noticed that dogs were popular in the funny papers, but there wasn't a strip for the nation's 15 million cat owners. Then, he consciously developed a stable of recurring, repetitive jokes for the cat. He hates Mondays. He loves lasagna. He sure is fat.

The model for Garfieldwas Charles Schulz's Peanuts, but not the funny Peanuts of that strip's early years. Rather, Davis wanted to mimic the sunny, humorless monotony of Peanuts' twilight years. "After 50 years, Snoopy was still laying in that dog house, and rather than getting old, it actually has the opposite effect," Davis told the Chicago Sun-Times last year during the press blitz for Garfield's 25th anniversary. "It says to all of us, some things in life can be counted on, they're consistent." In In Dog Years I'd Be Dead, a book to commemorate Garfield's 25th anniversary, Davis calls the Peanuts licensing machine "a template that I could apply to Garfield." In his very first week, Garfield aped Snoopy by declaring, "Happiness is a warm television set."

From the beginning, Davis put as much energy into the marketing of the strip as he did into creating it. (It's telling that he's been inducted into the Licensing Merchandiser's Hall of Fame but not the hall of fame hosted by the International Museum of Cartoon Art.) In 1981, only three years after the strip's debut, he set up Paws, Inc., a privately held company to handle the licensing of Garfield products. Originally, Paws did only the creative work needed for product design, while Davis' syndicate managed the business side, but in 1994 Davis purchased the rights to license Garfield products from the syndicate for a reported $15 to $20 million. Even before that, Davis took an active role in the selling of his creation. Before agreeing to a deal with Alpo to put Garfield's face on a new line of cat food, Davis visited the company's plant, talked to its employees, and spoke with the grocery industry about the company's reputation. In his 1982 interview with Shapiro, Davis admitted to spending only 13 or 14 hours a week writing and drawing the strip, compared to 60 hours a week doing promotion and licensing.

Garfield's origins were so mercantile that it's fair to say he never sold out—he never had any integrity to put on the auction block to begin with. But today Davis spends even less time on the strip than he used to—between three days and a week each month. During that time, he collaborates with another cartoonist to generate ideas and rough sketches, then hands them over to Paws employees to be illustrated.

By comparison, Davis spends nearly every morning working on "concepts for new products," he writes in In Dog Years I'd Be Dead. Paws, Inc. has become a 60-employee licensing behemoth. There's a Garfield Stuff direct-mail catalog that began in 1997 and an online version at catalog.garfield.com. There's a "Garfield Pizza Café" in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and Nevada's gambling board just approved a slew of Garfield slot machines. Garfield was the frontman for a 24-nation promotion by a grower of apples, pears, and cherries that targeted countries from Thailand to Guatemala to France. The Chinese government uses Garfield to teach English to children.

What's kept Garfield in business for so long is Davis' canny understanding of how much is too much. Garfield had the most successful debut of any comic strip in history. The first strips were printed on June 19, 1978, in only 41 American newspapers. But by 1980, the first Garfield compilation was a runaway New York Times bestseller, and in 1982, Garfield was on the cover of People. In 1983, the strip was appearing in 1,400 newspapers in 22 countries. That year, Davis placed seven Garfield books simultaneously on the Times trade-paperback best-seller list, a feat that's never been repeated. The next year, Garfield got his own balloon in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.

But Davis feared overkill. Garfield was veering into the realm of faddishness. In the late 1980s, Garfield plush toys with suction-cup feet were so popular than criminals broke into cars to steal them and sell them on the black market. Davis, protective of his creation's unobjectionable blandness, knew he had to act fast before people began to hate Garfield. "We accepted the royalty checks, but my biggest fear was overexposure," he told Entertainment Weekly in 1998. "We pulled all plush dolls off the shelves for five years."

And that's what makes Garfield: The Movie a perfect addition to Davis' cartoon kingdom. It will be gone before anyone realizes it was there.

Chris Suellentrop is the deputy editor for blogs at Yahoo News and a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine. He has reviewed video games for Slate, Rolling Stone, and NewYorker.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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