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The Self-Made Man: Jim Davis

If you were a kid in the 1980s, you probably read Garfield in the paper, watched Garfield & Friends on TV, and bought every bound collection of Garfield strips you could afford. If you’re a kid now, you probably know Garfield because of the godawful CGI movie they made a couple of years ago. Also, if you’re a kid, you probably shouldn’t be reading TSB yet. There are a lot of butt pictures on this website and they aren’t for young, impressionable eyes.

Anyway, Garfield creator Jim Davis is unique, in that his comic strip has become not just a popular, profitable franchise, but an honest-to-god licensing, syndication and entertainment empire. Davis has made a fortune off drawings of a hyper-obese cat and his dorky owner, to the point where his company, Paws Inc., has 50 artists (Davis doesn’t do much drawing these days) and a global network of agents, managers, and administrators to manage the company’s merchandising revenue, which nets them anywhere from $750 million to $1 billion annually.

The great Jim Davis

Davis, who was born on a farm in Muncie, Indiana, developed an interest in cartooning thanks to that unsung patron of the arts, childhood asthma. When he was too sick for his chores, he would draw, and often included labels so other people could identify what he’d drawn. Those labels eventually became dialogue, and Davis kept drawing even after his asthma cleared up, going on to major in business and art at Ball State University, where he holds the dubious honor of maintaining one of the lowest GPAs in BSU history. That’s still not as bad as what David Letterman used to say about their football team.

Davis’ entry into the world of syndicated cartooning came after college, when he worked as an assistant for Tumbleweeds creator Tom Ryan. Davis’ first strip of his own, Gnorm Gnat, was rejected by syndicators, who told him that he had talent, sure, but “Who can relate to a bug?” Whoever asked that would get a much different answer today, I’m sure.

Sent back to the drawing board, Davis drew upon his childhood on the farm, which had up to 25 cats hanging around at any given time, and also noticed that there weren’t any comic strips about cats. Garfield was born soon after, and Davis claims the character is a composite of all those cats, with the name and bombastic personality of his grandfather.

Garfield went live in June of 1978, and by 1981 Davis launched Paws Inc. as a way to manage the revenue it was already bringing in. An early indication of the strip’s appeal came not long after its debut; the Chicago Sun-Times canceled the strip for who knows what reason, but reinstated it when over 1300 readers protested their decision.

Some people, including other cartoonists, have criticized Davis’ zeal for squeezing profit out of his creation, and for his strip’s lack of substantive real world commentary, and parodies like Garfield Minus Garfield and Lasagna Cat often voice those criticisms. However, Davis is actually a fan of Garfield Minus Garfield and has kind words for most of his contemporaries.

Whatever his faults may be, and even if Garfield really is bland, morally-hollow pablum engineered for middle-class tastes, Davis has the best approach to getting wildly rich off something most people do as a hobby: he keeps working, enjoys what he’s earned, and doesn’t get caught up in gossip and industry politics because, frankly, he’s too rich to give a crap one way or the other.

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About Dave Kiefaber Dave Kiefaber is a Baltimore-based writer who regularly contributes to Adfreak and the Gettysburg Times. His personal website is at www.beeohdee.blogspot.com.

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