If I could be friends with any nearly-40-year-old cartoon cat then it would definitely be Garfield. His interpretation of the world and his attitudes towards eating and exercise mirror my own very closely.
He first appeared on June 19th, 1978 in 41 newspapers in the U.S. and it is this very three box strip which tells you everything you need to know about possibly the laziest animal in existence. It’s an introduction to him and his owner:
Box one: “Hi, there…I’m Jon Arbuckle. I’m a cartoonist and this is my cat, Garfield.”
Box two: “Hi, there…I’m Garfield. I’m a cat and this is my cartoonist, Jon.”
Box three: Jon – “Our only thought is to entertain you.” Garfield – “Feed me.”
Garfield is the star of the strip and is drawn as fat, lazy and sardonic, with a love of insulting people, eating and sleeping. When he’s awake he is drawn to either tormenting the other members of his household or assuming the identity of one of his many alter-egos, his favourite being the Caped Avenger (he wears a natty cape for this one).
Garfield shares his life not only with Jon but with his teddy bear, Pooky, attentive female feline Arlene, cutesy kitten Nermal and tongue-with-dog attached Odie.
Jon is a sleepy-eyed geek; often portrayed as fairly gullible and a bit tight with money. He has frequent fashion disasters when trying to impress the opposite sex (see Dr. Liz Wilson).
Pooky is very important in Garfield’s life; so much so that he chats to him as if he were real and gives him hugs; Jon is often jealous that Garfield appears to love the toy far more than his owner.
Tiny tabby Nermal knows he is cute. He is frequently told this by Jon and plays up to the image regularly to get what he wants. He enjoys annoying Garfield by commanding Jon’s attention and reminding Garfield how much older and less endearing than him the big cat is.
Arlene has a bit of a thing for the orange fuzzball that is Garfield, although it’s sometimes hard to see why as he is frequently rude to her. She features regularly in the cartoon, with one particular theme being the moonlight fence meetings with her crush and she is often portrayed as Garfield’s moral guidance. Not that he always listens to her of course.
Dr Liz Wilson is Garfield’s vet and is constantly trying to get the fat cat eating less and moving more. She is also the object of Jon’s affections. He spent a lot of the early years of the cartoon mooning about after her and failing to get her to go out with him but persistence pays off and somewhere in the mid-2000s he finally got his girl.
And of course, there’s Odie. Yellow, huge-tongued, cross-eyed Odie. Generally portrayed -and spoken about by Garfield – as an imbecilic canine, Odie occasionally is shown to actually be more intelligent than anybody suspects. Garfield has a mixed relationship with him: mostly it involves insults and kicking the poor dog but there have been moments when Garfield appreciates the role Odie plays in his life and acknowledges that he would miss him if he was no longer around.
Garfield’s antics (let’s face it, Garfield was the definite star of the show, with Jon playing a much more insignificant second to him) soon caught the nation’s attention and by 1979 his strip was being featured in 100 newspapers across the U.S. A year later Garfield had his own full-colour book of cartoon strips on the shelves, called ‘Garfield at large’. It reached number one on The New York Times bestseller list and was at that position for almost two further years.
Sorry, strike that. A little while later Garfield had two more bestselling books on the list: ‘Garfield gains weight’ and ‘Garfield bigger than life’. As you can infer from the titles, Garfield likes his food. And then some. Words that wouldn’t describe the ginger feline would be ‘svelte’ or ‘health-conscious’: his favourite food is lasagne and his scales often get Garfield’s fur up by telling him the truth about his heaviness.
By 1982 the comic strip was now visible in approximately 100 American newspapers and its creator, Jim Davies, was ready to boost Garfield’s career with his own television feature. ‘Here comes Garfield’ was shown on 25 October that same year. It was made by Davis’ own creative studio, Paws, Inc., which he set up in 1981 in Indiana.
You remember what I said about Garfield having three bestselling books in The New York Times bestseller list? In November 1982 you could also add ‘Garfield takes the cake’, ‘Garfield weighs in’, ‘Here comes Garfield’ and the ‘Garfield Treasury’ to that list. That chubby critter was one literary beast!
The amount of papers that included Garfield in 1983 now numbered 1,400 in 22 countries, in seven different languages but even this paled in significance by 2013 when it was appearing in 2,580. It is currently the world’s most syndicated cartoon strip: the Guinness World Records says so.
Alongside the cartoon strip and the bestselling books, Garfield also became a much loved television character. Animated specials (‘Garfield on the town’, ‘Garfield in the rough’, Garfield’s Halloween Adventure’, to name but a few) came out every so often and the mocking moggy’s exploits won Davis several Emmy awards in the ‘Outstanding Animated Program’ category. ‘A Garfield Christmas’ was based on Davis’ own family get-togethers and is now rightfully considered a classic.
In 1988 Garfield took charge of his own Saturday morning show on the same channel. Each program was half an hour long and showed two cartoon stories, interspersed with ‘Garfield Quickies’ and an episode of ‘U.S. Acres’, another Davis creation.
Not just content with being a print and screen star, the Garfield brand had paws in many other pies. He became a giant helium balloon in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and the Orange Day Parade and who remembers the ‘Stuck on You’ phenomenon in the late 1980s?
Suddenly it seemed that Garfield’s grinning face was everywhere: you couldn’t walk down the street without seeing hundreds of the furry toys suction-cupped to car windows. Tens of millions of them were sold in just a couple of years. And that’s just adding to the number of plush Garfields, lunchboxes and every other type of merchandising that bore his name and grin.
Just to ensure he was conquering all forms of popular culture, Garfield took a step into music too. In 1991 he released a children’s album of R&B and jazz songs called ‘Am I Cool or What?’ The tracks were inspired by him (‘Shake Your Paw’, ‘Nine Lives’ etc.) and performed by some pretty big names, such as B.B. King, Natalie Cole, Patti LaBelle and The Temptations.
Advanced film technology made him a bona fide movie star too, with several computer animated/live action features made in the 2000s – voiced, no less, by the one and only Bill Murray, whose derisive tones suited Garfield perfectly.
Garfield was and remains an everyman’s cat. His exploits never verge into deep political or social commentary, they’re just fun and funny and accessible to everybody and if you have your own cat then you’ll recognise many of his characteristics (particularly the ones to do with food). You just know that when Garfield unleashes his cutting remarks on Jon, he’s just giving voice to what every cat, worldwide, is actually thinking about their own humans.