Time has flown for the fat orange cat who loves to eat lasagne and push stupid dog Odie off the table: comic-strip favourite Garfield recently turned 40. His American cartoonist creator, Jim Davis, who, incidentally, marked his 73rd birthday on July 28, has been in Hong Kong to launch a celebratory exhibition, “Glamorous 40: Garfield’s Art Asia Tour”, at Elements, in Tsim Sha Tsui.

Garfield was “born” on June 19, 1978, when he appeared for the first time, syndicated in 41 newspapers in North America. Today, his antics can be enjoyed in 2,200 news­papers in 111 countries and territories, including Hong Kong, and the lethargic feline – who hates exercise and describes the word diet as “die with a t” – has been featured on millions of items of merchandise, from pencil cases and lunchboxes to coffee mugs (Garfield, after all, loves coffee), pulling in an estimated US$750 million to US$1 billion a year.

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Dressed formally in a suit and tie for the exhibition opening, Davis is affable and down-to-earth. He is no stranger to Hong Kong, having visited six times since 1984. It’s all a far cry from his childhood, growing up on a farm in rural Fairmount, Indiana – with 25 cats.

“It was a wonderful life, being outside in the sun, with the animals and plants, and raising food,” Davis recalls. “We worked hard, but we laughed a lot. It was a good life, happy and wholesome.” Any dreams of becoming a farmer though were dashed at a young age; Davis was diagnosed with asthma in infancy and often forced to stay indoors while other children played outside. In conse­quence, with the pencil and paper supplied by his mother, Davis was encouraged to entertain himself by drawing. His early doodlings were so bad, he says, that he had to caption them: “cow”, “dog”.

“I was awful at it, but [legendary Looney Tunes animator] Chuck Jones said every artist has 100,000 bad drawings in them, and once you get that 100,000 out of the way, every drawing’s going to be good,” Davis says. “If you enjoy drawing, you’re going to draw more. The more you draw, the better you get.”

As Davis improved, he dreamed of becoming a cartoonist. But with limited space in the nation’s funnies pages, which were busy with what he calls the comic-strip “undroppables” – Beetle Bailey, Blondie and Peanuts – he was not always hopeful. He continued drawing, though, and after studying art and business at Ball State University, in the compact Indiana city of Muncie, in the mid-1960s, he found work as a commercial artist with an advertising agency.

In 1968, Davis plucked up the courage, and his drawings from high school and college, to call on Tom Ryan – the cartoonist behind Tumbleweeds, a popular comic strip set in and around the fictional Old West town of Grimy Gulch – who also lived in Muncie.

“I told him, I was always interested in becoming a cartoon­ist, and he saw my drawings and asked me right there if I wanted to be his assistant,” Davis recalls. “I said, ‘Well let me think about it … Sure!’”

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A few weeks later, Davis began his apprenticeship under Ryan, not just helping the older man (Ryan was Davis’ senior by 19 years) to finish his drawings, but even answering his fan mail. “Tom was a very tall man, a very quiet, nice man,” Davis recalls. “He worked very hard on Tumbleweeds. He would labour over each and every word, getting it just right. I learned so much from Tom; from the care he took in crafting his comic strips each day.”

Davis worked with Ryan for nine years. During that time, he submitted ideas to newspaper comic-strip syndi­cation service United Feature Syndicate, including one about insects. Davis’ Gnorm Gnat (about a gnat called Gnorm, naturally) was published in The Pendleton Times, a weekly newspaper in Indiana, from 1972 to 1977 (it helped that a school friend was the editor), but the editor at United Feature – having sent the struggling cartoonist rejection letters for five years – offered Davis some advice: “Your art is good, your gags are great, but bugs … Nobody can relate to bugs!”

It was a moment of epiphany for Davis, one that led him to Garfield.

The cat began life as a big tabby with small eyes. Over the years, he has evolved – his body shrinking, although he remains distinctly on the portly side, his hind feet growing, allowing him to walk upright and to indulge in more physical humour, and his eyes growing more expressive. When it came to humour, Davis was determined that the gags be universal.

“More often than not, when you laugh with Garfield, it’s because you’re saying, ‘Isn’t that true?’ You’re looking at something that resonates with you. Year after year, you develop a familiarity and an affection for the character because they’re like a friend.

“When you read the comics, it’s your quiet time before you go to work or go to school, or it’s the end of the day. It’s you, just one-on-one. I treasure that and I keep Garfield simple and quiet, saying just a few words. I don’t think people want to spend too much time on it, so I try to keep the gag to 10 seconds at the most, 25 words or less.”

We’re made to feel guilty about overeating and over­sleeping, and Garfield does that and he’s OK with that, and that helps relieve people’s guilt.
Jim Davis

Davis says “Sparky” – the nickname of Peanuts creator Charles Schultz – had the same philosophy: keep things simple. “When you read a comic strip, it’s in your head, and that’s a different timing than saying something on stage or in a movie,” he says. “You read faster than you speak, so I time the gags for the reading.”

Garfield was named for Davis’ grandfather, James A. Garfield Davis, and has his personality – he’s a grumpy male with a heart of gold. “My grandfather was very big, very stern, but you could tell in his eyes he was a teddy bear,” the cartoonist says with a chuckle. “He had very soft eyes, and so – when I think of when I created Garfield – you could tell this grumpy cat had a good heart, he was a good person. And that really attracts people.”

Davis says Garfield makes readers feel better about them­selves. “We’re made to feel guilty about overeating and over­sleeping, and Garfield does that and he’s OK with that, and that helps relieve people’s guilt. We’d all like to lose a couple more pounds, we need to get out and exercise a few more times than we do, and Garfield says, ‘Hey, that’s OK. Chill.’”

Despite the global popularity Garfield enjoys today, he was not an overnight success. Davis had hoped the comic strip would run for at least three years, but the Chicago Sun-Times newspaper dropped it after a few weeks. The cartoonist feared it was the beginning of the end.

Three weeks later, the newspaper had received more than 1,000 complaints from readers, and Garfield was back – this time, to stay. There would be books, too, 15 of them, the first, Garfield at Large, a compilation of comic strips from 1978 and 79 published in the United States in 1980. Unconventional in size and shape – short and wide, rather like it’s protagonist – it cost US$5 to make rather than the usual US$1.95.

“We were the laughing stock of the industry because the book would not fit on the bookshelves with the others. They had to place them by the cash registers. It turned out it was a good gift price for people wanting to buy for birthdays and holidays. It just took off.” Garfield at Large would top The New York Times’ best­seller list for two years. By 1988, seven Garfield books were on the list simultaneously (leading to complaints from other publishers, more publicity, and more people reading the comic strip).

Licensing, too, turned out to be a smart business move, and Davis established the company Paws, Inc, in 1981. “Six months into the strip, one of the syndicates contacted me to say a large kitty litter company wanted to use Garfield on its packaging, and offered US$50,000,” Davis recalls. “My first pay cheque for my strip was US$30 for the month. I had never made over US$10,000 in my life in a year. And so there was this offer of US$50,000 to do kitty litter.

“I laid awake for two nights and then called up the syndi­cate, and said, ‘I can’t do it. Garfield will be known as the kitty litter cat rather than the comic strip cat. We have to wait until people get to know him and we get more papers, and then he can be known as the comic strip cat.’”

Six years went by before Davis did the first licensing deal, with both he and Garfield appearing in a live-action, animated commercial for American Express.

Paws receives licensing requests daily, Davis says, and once a week he attends a meeting to say yay or nay. “We don’t do alcohol, tobacco, sex aids … we turn all that down,” he says. “That’s a little too adult. We try to keep everything family oriented.”

Asia is Garfield’s biggest market, his creator says. Possibly because the Monday-hating moggie is lazy at heart. “Eating and sleeping are not politically sensitive,” Davis says, with a smile. “Our motto is: if we take care of the cat, the cat takes care of us.”

In February, though, Davis was drawn into a controversy over something he said in an interview in 2014. He explains that he wanted to work with an animal, and he goes on to give his reasons. He then adds, “The cat isn’t male or female, Chinese or French. Everyone can relate. You look at the cat, not at its nationality.”

One reader leapt on the news, tweeting that Garfield was genderless and attempting to edit his Wikipedia page. Others fought back, offering examples of comic strips to prove the cat was male.

The to and fro continued for 60 hours before Wikipedia locked the page. After days of silence, Davis responded in The Washington Post: Garfield is, indeed, a guy – and he has a girlfriend, Arlene.

The fuss put Davis in mind of his time working with Ryan, and replying to Tumbleweeds’ fan mail. “When Tom [Ryan] was doing Tumbleweeds, we called [the strip’s characters] ‘cowboys’ and ‘Indians’. We got these terrible letters from people saying, ‘How dare you put Indians in a humour strip and play them like that,’ when, in fact, Tom treated them with great dignity. He gave them all the best punchlines, and we got mail from Native Americans saying, ‘Thank you for paying attention to us.’

“And then Hildegard Hamhocker is always chasing Tumbleweeds, so we would hear from the National Organisation of Women, saying, ‘How dare you objectify women as being man chasers.’ I was answering those letters, thinking, ‘If I get a comic strip, I’m not going to deal with humans, I’m going to deal with cats.’ A cat can do terrible, awful things like hack up a hairball on a table-top, and people go, ‘Isn’t that cute?’”

That said, at the outset Garfield was considered a “bad boy”. “He overate, he overslept and he resented authority, as represented by Jon,” Davis says, referring to Jon Arbuckle, Garfield’s cartoon owner.

“But then along came Bart Simpson, and he had more attitude, and then Beavis and Butt-Head, and along came South Park, so Garfield is now mom-approved. He hasn’t changed, he’s still the same, but the landscape has shifted in front of him. It’s much more liberal, edgier today than it was in 1978.”

And while Garfield’s original fans have grown older, new, younger ones have come along, in part thanks to parents and grandparents passing down their Garfield books to the next generation. At book signings, Davis often finds himself re-dedicating books to sons, daughters or grandchildren, and he enjoys seeing their ragged, well-read pages.

Literacy is another of Davis’ passions. “The National Cartoonists Society did a poll for newspaper editors, to find out what readers liked about comics,” he says. “The poll found of all newspaper readers, two-thirds learned to read through comics. Of those, half learned to read the comics with their parents, the other half looked at the pictures until they figured out the words.”

This is one reason why Davis tries to use no more than 25 words over three frames while being as demonstrative with the art as possible. Soon after Garfield started, he began receiving letters from parents and teachers telling him children had learned how to read from comics. “I’ve heard from big executives, Nobel-prize winners, that their son or daughter learned to read through comics they couldn’t read in school. Some kids are wired differently,” he says.

While Davis has plenty of anecdotal evidence for this, there is nothing yet quantifiable. His Professor Garfield Literacy Foundation has teamed up with his alma mater, Ball State University, which is also a teaching institution, to carry out research in the area.

“Here [in Hong Kong and China], I understand that comic reading is not exactly encouraged by parents of young children. They like to get them started with something more substantial, but the fact of the matter is, for a young child, do you want to read this cartoon or do you want to read this classic piece of literature? C’mon. First they have to learn how to read, then, when they learn how to read, they start enjoying it more and then they’ll naturally gravitate to classic literature someday, something more thoughtful. But you have to start somewhere.”

Alongside a five-metre-tall statue of Garfield kicking back in an armchair and other, smaller sculptures, the Elements exhibition includes more than 40 Garfield-themed works by artists from Hong Kong, Taiwan, mainland China, Japan and the US. And while Davis remains very hands-on with the comic strip, there is a team behind him helping to draw the comics, answer fan mail and look after licences. Garfield’s creator does, though, sign off on every comic strip.

“I don’t work [on the strip] every day,” Davis says. “Most days I’m not very funny. I can sit down and tell very quickly when nothing is occurring. I don’t worry about it. Other days, I wake up really rested, and on those funny days, I’ll cancel what I had planned.”

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“Even golfing?” I interrupt (it is well known that Davis is an avid golfer).

“No! Let’s be reasonable here,” he says with a laugh. “But the staff understands on funny days I get alone in my office and then it’s like meditation. Consciously I can put Garfield up a tree looking at a window, and then my work’s done, and I sit back and conjure him up in my head, and watch him like a television set.

“I figure out what he would say, what he would do, where he would go, what the other characters would do and say. And then when they do something funny, I just back up three frames and cut it off and that’s the strip. If he makes me laugh, I’m confident he’ll make other people laugh.”

The “Glamorous 40: Garfield’s Art Asia Tour” will be on display at Elements shopping mall, in Tsim Sha Tsui, until September 2.