Friday, December 13, 2013

Garfield gives readers a big laugh, a psyche joke or just a nice thought, says creator Jim Davis

By Nancy T. Lu

Meet Jim Davis, the cartoonist behind the fat, lazy and cynical cat named Garfield. He identifies himself with Jon the most in the comic strip. As he put it, “Jon’s the cartoonist. He has the same big cheeks. He is also wishy-washy, a daydreamer.”

The casual and relaxed Davis was quick to add during an interview years ago: “I’m a little of Garfield. I love lasagna. I treat this as a joke. I didn’t realize that some cats do love lasagna. I don’t know if it’s because of the wheat, the cheese, the meat or maybe all of them.”

Jim Davis visited Taipei in 1991 with his wife, Carolyn, and then 12-year-old son, Alexander. As it was possible to know how advanced he had to be with his syndicated comic strip, he managed to get away occasionally whether for business or pleasure.

As the gags which newspaper readers go over each day could have been written six months or even a year ago, Davis made it a habit to tack ideas on the wall and to wait for the right time to use them.

People tended to wonder how Davis, only 46 at the time of the interview but 68 today, did his comic strip. In fact, many of the letters he received – 300 every week on the average in 1991 but many more today – showed his reading public’s curiosity in this area.

“I try to balance the gags,” Davis pointed out. “I don’t want the readers to think that Garfield is predictable.”

Davis also noted: “When people open the newspaper, they don’t know if they are going to get a big laugh, a psyche gag, or just a nice thought. I don’t make people laugh everyday. It is enough that I make them smile or feel better.”

According to the artist behind the Garfield strip carried by 2,000 newspapers all over the world and read by millions of people everyday then, one cartoonist told him that the secret behind a successful cartoon strip is “to get the character hit over the head at least once a week.” Therefore, Davis resorted to the so-called psyche gag.

“I also try to do quotable quotes once a week,” he explained. “Garfield says something that can be repeated. Lines like ‘I’d like mornings better if they started later’ help people cope with life a little better.”

Contrary to what some people may think, comic strip ideas do not come easily to Jim Davis at any time of the day. He revealed: “I have to concentrate very hard. When I am writing, I have to be so deep in my concentration that I sometimes can’t hear the phone ringing.”

Davis at work usually began by visualizing the feline creature in a place that must be very quiet. He elaborated: “I literally see him in my mind’s eye. There he can start forming. I am just a conduit for Garfield. I can create him but he does his own gags.”

He casually described his creative process: “By the time I find myself in a writing mood, my heart rate swells to over a hundred. I’m sweating, my toes are tapping. I can’t keep this up for long stretches of time.

“Writing is too physically exhausting. I can get in and out of it. In fact, it has its peaks and valleys. When the ideas begin coming in a rush, I can’t write fast enough. Three gags may come in a minute and then nothing for an hour.”

He continued: “I watch Garfield in my head. I wait for him to do something funny. He has to make me laugh first. I’m the toughest audience. I try not to second-guess the reader. I feel by and large I’m more of an editor than a writer. It’s easy to have funny thoughts but it’s tough to tell which funny thoughts make people laugh.”

Several second-generation cartoonists in America have carried on the work of their fathers with success. Asked about such possibility in his family, Davis said in 1993: “My son shows interest in what I do. He is, in fact, a much better artist at 12 (at the time of this writer’s encounter with his cartoonist father) than I was. He draws a lot. He does a wonderful job but it’s too early to tell how serious he is. He does have good instincts in judging what makes people laugh.”

The father and the son got together often to sketch. When setting out on the road, they brought along their sketchbooks and found time to draw together.

“Hopefully there will be some life to Garfield later on,” Davis thought out loud.

Successful as he has been, Davis shows interest in the works of his fellow cartoonists. In fact, many of them he could call his good friends. Only a month earlier before his Taipei trip, he played golf with Johnny Hart in the B.C. Open in upstate New York.

“Johnny Hart can draw a rock and make it look funny while I draw rock with a difference,” remarked Davis. This big fan of the B.C. strip, however, claimed that he was a better golfer.

Mort “Beetle Bailey” Walker was the cartoonist whom Davis wanted very much to meet at the time of his launching of the Garfield strip back in 1978. In a way, Walker influenced him, he admitted.

The late Dik Browne, in the opinion of Jim Davis, was one of the most well-loved cartoonists in history. Dik Browne, the creator of Hagar the Horrible, began working with Mort Walker on the strip called Hi and Lois in 1953. His two sons – Chance Browne of Hi and Lois today and Chris Browne of Hagar the Horrible – have followed in his footsteps and found success as cartoonists.

The artwork of Garfield is done today by the staff of Jim Davis. “We practice together every morning to control the consistency of the drawing,” he said. “There are 15 artists (actually more today) in the staff but not all of them are allowed to draw the character. Several are.”

What does Davis do when he is not working on Garfield, which is actually a full-time job? Or, how does he escape from escapism? He reads nonfiction like medical journals and cookbooks. As he likes wines, he pores over wine journals. He picks up trade magazines. He reads “anything that’s real.”

As for psychology, he considers it to be fiction.

“Young artists who send me their work tend to put in too many words,” said Davis when asked to reflect on the topic of humor. “They try to draw too well. I also ask myself what it is about the cartoons of Johnny Hart and Mort Walker that makes me laugh. I also ponder on why B.C. lines are funny. When Johnny Hart draws a rock, it’s funny. How can there be so few lines and so much expression? As it turns out, it’s a lack of discipline….It’s an attitude not only in writing but in artwork as well. The more you do it, the better you get.”

The personnel working for Davis back in 199l numbered 50. Three handled the fan mail broken down into 35 categories to facilitate reply. Some readers were autograph seekers. Others wanted to tell cat stories. From them, Davis picked up good situations for the comic strip.

Davis, however, made it a rule to be very careful about the sensitivity of the comic strip followers. In fact, Garfield did not tread on grounds like politics and religion to avoid triggering controversies.

The strips from Davis at one point showed Jon’s misbehavior while on a date, and this coincided with the debates on sexual harassment in the United States at that time.

A mother and a daughter took the trouble of writing to object to the mention of witches by Garfield, saying witchcraft was “a religion not to be treated with sacrilege.”  

“People try to read things that are not there,” said Davis.

In 1987, Jon went on a blind date with a caller who dialed a wrong number. Although she had a very nice voice, she turned out to be “the size of a barn” – in short, too big. Thus, she had to enter the house through the garage. Fat men wrote to object to Davis’ treatment of fat women.

Davis took precaution not to offend, revealing: “I keep some people in mind at times when I do a gag. Will it offend my parents? Will my wife understand it?”

Davis heads Paws, Inc., a company engaged in the merchandising of Garfield products ranging from the hot water bottle to the aquarium. Many were made in Taiwan in the 1990s. He described his studio as a room measuring 40 feet in width and 150 feet in length and holding 6,000 samples of Garfield products being marketed in the world. Davis was thinking about setting up a museum in Indiana, U.S.A. Garfield’s legions of followers just keep growing more than three decades after his birth. 

(Note: Photo of Jim Davis was downloaded from Internet.)

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