You’re probably familiar with Garfield, the fat cartoon cat who loves lasagna and leisure, but how much do you know about Garfield’s creator? Jim Davis, the cartoonist responsible for drawing Garfield, turns 71 today. To celebrate his birthday, here are 11 facts about the man behind the legendary comic.
1. HIS ASTHMA LED HIM TO DISCOVER DRAWING.
Born July 28, 1945 in Indiana, Davis lived with his parents and younger brother on a farm. Surrounded by cows and 25 cats—which Davis later used as inspiration for Garfield—he hoped to become a farmer (like his father) when he grew up. But his frequent asthma attacks led him to avoid the outdoors, and eventually discover his love of drawing. “Being asthmatic, I spent a lot of time inside. TV wasn’t as prevalent in the 1950s, so my mom would shove paper and pencil in my hand to entertain me,” he revealed in a 2009 interview.
2. HE DREW BUGS BEFORE TURNING TO CATS.
Circa 1983. Getty
After studying art and business at Indiana’s Ball State University, Davis worked as an assistant for Tom K. Ryan, the cartoonist who drew the Tumbleweeds comic strip. Davis’s first comic strip, called Gnorm Gnat, ran for a few years in a local Indiana newspaper, but the bug-centric strip wasn’t popular. And in June 1978, when Davis debuted Garfield, the orange cat wasn’t an instant success. By the end of the summer, editors at the Chicago Sun-Times decided to stop running Garfield. After 1300 readers complained, the newspaper brought Davis’ strip back, and Garfield now appears in thousands of newspapers around the world.
3. HE GOT INSPIRATION FROM HIS OWN LIFE TO WRITE GARFIELD.
Davis named Garfield after his grandfather, James Garfield Davis (who was named after President James Garfield). He also based Garfield’s personality on his grandfather, a large, cantankerous, curmudgeonly man with a gruff exterior but soft heart. Using even more inspiration from his own life, Davis set the comic strip in Muncie, his Indiana hometown, and made Garfield’s owner, Jon Arbuckle, a cartoonist. Most casual readers of the comic strip aren’t aware of Garfield’s location or Jon’s profession, though, because Davis wanted to make the strip as universal and relatable as possible.
4. CHARLES SCHULTZ DREW GARFIELD AS WE KNOW HIM TODAY.
A 1979 comic, viaGarfield.com
Early Garfield strips realistically depicted the cat with four small legs and paws. After Garfield had been running for three years, cartoonist Charles Schultz looked at Davis’ drawings and made a suggestion: “Give him big human feet.” Schultz drew the cat standing upright with large human feet, allowing Davis to make Garfield more anthropomorphic and relatable.
5. HE HELPED CREATE AN AMUSEMENT PARK RIDE.
Despite plans for it, an amusement park dedicated solely to Garfield never came to pass, but fans of the fat cat can still get a taste of what a Garfield amusement park would be like. With Davis’s blessing and input, visitors to West Mifflin, Pennsylvania’s amusement park Kennywood can ride “Garfield’s Nightmare.” Kennywood opened back in 1898, and its "Garfield’s Nightmare" attraction has featured a boat ride, a black light, and scary fluorescent images of Garfield since 2003.
6. HE APPRECIATES AN EXISTENTIAL TAKE ON GARFIELD.
Garfield Minus Garfield
, a webcomic that removes Garfield from the Garfield comic strip, offers an existential, nihilist take on Jon’s thoughts. As the creator of the parody strip, Dan Walsh, told The Washington Post: “It’s a completely different comic once Garfield has been removed. It suddenly becomes more surreal and dark, more Monty Python than Dick Van Dyke, more South Park than The Simpsons.” Davis admitted that he was a fan of Walsh’s work, calling Garfield Minus Garfield funny and inspired.
7. DAVIS IS ALL ABOUT THE MERCHANDISING.
Since 1978, Garfield has grown from a comic strip to an international brand, with movies, TV shows, books, video games, and merchandise. In 1981, Davis founded Paws, Inc. to manage Garfield’s licensing. Dozens of licensing experts, artists, and writers work at Paws, which is located in Davis’ home state of Indiana. And the operation is huge: Garfield merchandise—from posters to clothing to calendars—earns nearly $1 billion in revenue per year.
8. LAST YEAR, DAVIS FULFILLED HIS LIFELONG DREAM TO WRITE A MUSICAL.
As a young man, Davis was involved with high school plays and community theater, and working on a Garfield musical was always on his bucket list. In the summer of 2015, Davis debuted Garfield: The Musical with Cattitude. The musical’s plot entailed Garfield running away from home after having a disappointing birthday which happened to fall, of course, on a Monday. The show ran for two months at Adventure Theatre / Musical Theater Center in Glen Echo, Maryland.
9. TODAY, HIS ASSISTANTS DRAW THE DAILY COMIC STRIP.
Because Davis is so busy running his licensing company, he relies on his staff of cartoonists to help him create the daily comic strip. Davis writes and sketches multiple strips at one time, and his assistants help with blue-lining, inking, coloring, and lettering. But the buck stops with Davis, who reviews all the final strips to ensure a cohesive voice and his authentically Garfield tone.
10. DAVIS ENJOYS HIS ANONYMITY.
Because most people know his characters and not him, Davis admits that he gets to enjoy the perks of celebrity without some of the disadvantages. "Being a cartoonist, you really enjoy a lot of anonymity… So I just hide behind Garfield," he's said. "The only time anyone knows the name or spots me is if I’m out on book tour and I’m meant to do publicity. We don’t suffer any of the kind of attention problems that I think people do on TV or in movies."
11. LIKE GARFIELD, DAVIS IS A BIG FAN OF LASAGNA.
Garfield loves lasagna, and Davis is no different. "I love the good things in life—food, relaxing, TV, food. I do love lasagna, and just about any Italian food, especially pizza," he revealed in an interview for his website. But don’t expect to find any fancy, hifalutin lasagna in his freezer. Davis prefers his lasagna simple: “The more basic the better. It has to have meat in it. It has to have cheese in it,” he said.