I used to like Garfield the comic strip cat when I was young. That hardly makes me special, as it seemed every other kid in my school also had a bunch of the books and learned to draw him on our textbook covers (and a few pages, despite our burgeoning judgement). Garfield was the perfect, bland paste f a comic to cut my teeth on, but as I grew older my tastes matured in the predictable directions. Since then I hadn’t really gave him much thought until the movie came out, when I paused to think “Wow, that looks terrible.”
Turns out according to this article on Slate.com that that’s exactly what Garfield’s creator, Jim Davis, wanted. Well, not the “that looks terrible” part, but the “never really thinking about Garfield” part. Turns out that Garfield is a brand first and a comic second. Shock and surprise, I know, but what’s interesting is that while most comics probably start off as art and then sell out, Garfield was designed from the start to make moolah:
Davis makes no attempt to conceal the crass commercial motivations behind his creation of 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.
…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.”
I had kind of heard that already, though. I knew Davis doesn’t write or draw his own comics anymore, and that the comic was as purposefully bland and unimaginative as the white Wonder Bread we all loved as kids. But what I wasn’t aware of, though, is the pains Davis goes to keep it that milquetoast:
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.”
Wow. Here’s a guy so protective of his brand’s demure image that when a product became too successful he pulled it off shelves. That takes guts. As for the rest, I know that many artists hate Davis (webcomic artists in particular it seems), the guy seems to be the friggin’ American dream in action. He found a business and exploited it. Better yet, his creation isn’t killing people, robbing them, or destroying The Environment. Not like that damn mouse.