Roanoke Times Copyright (c) 1995, Landmark Communications, Inc. DATE: THURSDAY, June 17, 1993 TAG: 9309240340 SECTION: EXTRA PAGE: 1 EDITION: METRO SOURCE: WENDI GIBSON RICHERT STAFF WRITER DATELINE: LENGTH: Long
Of course, we're speaking of Garfield, the fat, lazy, 14-toed, mirror-loving feline who turns 15 years old on Saturday. His first words to his comic strip master, cartoonist Jon Arbuckle, ``FEED ME.''
In those days, Garfield was a slumped-over, jowl-sagging, despondent-looking kitty - a big hairball compared to the portly and sassy Garfield we know today.
Nope, back in the summer of '78, Garfield was just another strip launched in 41 newspapers. He wasn't yet America's No.1 comic strip character or top-rated Saturday morning cartoon host.
But Garfield's creator, Jim Davis, had big plans for his fat cat. In a recent telephone interview from his Muncie, Ind., office, Davis explained how America's most widely syndicated comic strip - appearing in more than 2,400 newspapers and published in more than 60 million books worldwide - came to be.
After working on the ``Tumbleweeds'' cartoon in 1969 with its creator, Tom Ryan, Davis launched his own strip, ``Gnorm Gnat.'' But, as one publicist told him, ``nobody can identify with bugs.'' And, Davis realized, ``he was right.'' So after five years of writing gags for a gnat, Davis squashed his creation in its final panel with a giant foot falling out of the sky.
Eager to begin anew, Davis turned his attention to developing a new strip. ``I noticed dogs were doing well [in comic strips]. And there were no cats. So I thought if dog lovers would like a dog strip, cat lovers would like a cat strip.''
Davis envisioned taking a year to develop this cat-lovers' cat, but when another cartoonist - ``someone of note'' - walked into the syndicate prepared to sell a cat strip, too, Davis was given three weeks to launch his.
On June 19, 1978, the first Garfield was born. He was named after Davis' grandfather, James A. Garfield Davis. The cat's most noticeable change since his inception has been in his dashing looks. Within six months, Garfield had straightened up his rounded shoulders and raised his furry head high, adopting a posture to match his know-it-all attitude. Gradually, Garfield's eyes grew larger, along with his mouth, and for a while his arms even extended each time he reached for more pie or lasagna.
But as Garfield moved through what Davis calls a ``Darwinian evolution,'' Davis never turned to cat pictures for aid in drawing.
Garfield's personality, however, has undergone little change. Davis says Garfield has become ``softer,'' with a certain vulnerability he displays on rare occasions. As Davis puts it, ``He can kick Odie [the dog] off the table, but he can take up for him, too.''
While Garfield may be only 15 years old, he's lived a fat lifetime as America's most widely syndicated comic strip. The 24 Garfield titles published by Ballentine Books are sold worldwide and have appeared on the New York Times Bestsellers List - 11 of them in the number one spot.
The hammy cat also has landed feet-first from print to the tube, starring in 13 prime time specials and capturing four Emmy awards and 13 nominations for outstanding animated programming. The Saturday morning cartoon ``Garfield and Friends,'' number one for all Saturday morning programming, will begin national television syndication this fall.
Add to Garfield's success the more than 500 licenses granted to merchandisers in 69 countries and merchandise printed in 26 languages. Proof a cat can meow in any language.
With Garfield raking in the big bucks, folks may wonder just how rich Davis has become since smashing his gnat for a cat. Davis replies: ``The only [question] I don't answer is how much I make.''
He is quick, though, to share with folks some oft-repeated answers:
Davis doesn't own a cat because his wife's allergic to them.
He grew up with 25 cats - on a farm.
Garfield is not based on one person. Rather, he is any human ``in a cat suit.''
Davis says Garfield has all the basic human foibles. ``He overeats; he oversleeps. I think we all feel like we do more than we should do. I think Garfield relieves a little of the guilt.''
``I hear more than my share of cat stories,'' Davis says. And those tales have supplied him with ample writing material. However, ``When I write, the gags seem to come from the situation [Garfield's] in at the time.'' Davis admits, Garfield seems to write himself some days.
Davis shares a love for lasagna with Garfield, and has learned that cats really do like the dish. ``Maybe it's the cheese.''
As Garfield's 15th birthday approaches - and, frankly, everyday but Monday is a party for Garfield - Davis says his cat can sniff a celebration is in the air. ``If there's cake in it for him, you can be sure he knows it's his birthday.'' Make that a chocolate cake with gobs of chocolate icing, too.
Davis adds that Garfield isn't getting any older, though. Only bigger.
Which makes us wonder just how many lives Garfield's used up in his 15 Earth years. ``He's got to be closing in on one,'' Davis says, mentally calculating the number of Garfield years in nine lives. ``I can only be doing this strip for 135 years,'' he figures. ``So I have 120 left. I can life with that.''
And, so can Garfield.