By Mary Vespa
November 01, 1982 12:00 PM

Cats, as any dog person will attest, are not really cute and cuddly. They’re sneaky and sly. They curl up on your best blue suit just so they can decorate it with their spare hair. “Cats,” boasts a renowned authority named Garfield, “can shed at will.” They’re finicky. You would be, too, if somebody tried to feed you horsemeat. And they sleep all day—except when they’re eating or shredding upholstery. “There must be more to a cat’s life,” Garfield muses. “But I hope not…I’m fat and I’m lazy and I’m proud of it!”

And that’s why everybody loves Garfield, America’s top cat. He is a terribly tubby tabby with orange fur, black stripes and a penchant for drop-kicking a dumb dog named Odie, clawing cushions, stealing his master’s meals, mugging Girl Scouts for their cookies and devoting himself to the purrsuit of the perfect catnap. “He’s a little bit of Archie Bunker and Morris the Cat tossed together,” says Jim Davis, the man who made this monster. “He’s a very calculating cat. He’s a very believable cat.”

He also has a TV special, Here Comes Garfield, on CBS this week, backed by 100,000 sound-track albums and 495,000 Ballantine books at $4.95 each. Plus an estimated 55 million readers in 1,200 newspapers that he has picked up in just four years (making his the fastest growing comic strip in history). Plus seven million copies of 16 Garfield books (with an unprecedented six simultaneously on the New York Times best-seller list). Plus 1,500 Garfield products—from 69¢ bookmarks to $200 stuffed cats—that have earned between $15 and $20 million. Garfield, in short, is one fat cat.

Jim Davis does not own a real cat. He used to have 25 of them when he was a kid on an Indiana farm. They seemed to go pretty much their own way, except at mealtimes, when they converged. “We cats are loners,” Garfield explains, speaking, as is his custom, for Davis himself. “With one possible exception: We can be very social when it comes to food.”

So Garfield is not modeled after a specific cat. Neither is he an extension of his creator, though Davis concedes that there’s a bit of the beast in him—”maybe 20 percent.” Desirée Goyette, the lyricist and singer (along with Lou Rawls) for the TV show sound track, thinks Davis is understating the case. “Garfield is Jim’s alter ego,” she says. “He is that person all of us would like to be, if we were totally honest—a person who gets what he wants when he wants it.”

In fact, America’s premier puss is modeled and named after Davis’ Grandfather Garfield, who died when Jim was 5. “He had a huge lap,” Davis recalls. “I remember looking up his nostrils most of the time. He was a huge man…A very stubborn man. A very opinionated man. And cantankerous.” That’s Garfield, all right.

Davis himself is in the strip, too, playing Jon Arbuckle, Garfield’s owner, the butt of all of the jokes, the average guy who ends up with egg on his face and tattered furniture in his living room. “Jim is definitely that,” Goyette says. “He is down to earth the way Jon is, completely unpretentious.” And he’s still that way, even after being catapulted, at 37, into fame and fortune.

Part of that success is timing. In this era of the cat, Jim Davis won a 1981 Reuben (the Oscar of the funnies) for best humor strip. And 1982, proclaims comic strip artist Mort (Beetle Bailey) Walker, “is the year of Jim Davis.”

What brought on all this catomania is a question that should give social scientists paws for reflection; perhaps Darwin was wrong, and maybe all of humankind stemmed from cats instead of apes. Whatever its origins, the nation’s feline fetish first became apparent in 1973, when George Gately introduced Heathcliff, Garfield’s cartoon cousin. Two years later cartoonist Bernard Kliban’s whimsical album, Cat, hit the best-seller list. Since then, there have been 250 cat books—from The Official I Hate Cats Book to 101 Uses for a Dead Cat. They have invaded the screen—in Cat People—and the stage—in Broadway’s $4 million-plus musical, Cats. And those are just the fantasy cats. There are 25 to 34 million real cats treading on little feet all over the country. “Cats rule the world,” Davis says. “I don’t think it’s just a fad. When you’re through with your cat, you can’t throw it in the trash.”

If part of his success comes from timing, the rest derives from Davis’ sense of humor. He gives Garfield credit for coming up with lines like “I’m not overweight—I’m undertall” or “Show me a good mouser and I’ll show you a cat with bad breath.” Garfield, says Davis, has “his own head with things. He’s a real prima donna.” But don’t let Davis fool you. He writes the jokes—not the topical humor of Doonesbury or the sophisticated musings of Peanuts—but “the kind of laugh that leaves you feeling a little better.” That, he says, is the real talent of the cartoonist: “A lot of hopeful cartoonists take the work too seriously. The more fun you have with it, the more fun people have reading it.” The Davis rule for a good cartoon: “The fewer the words, the better the timing. Ta Da Ta Da Boom!…Drawing a strip is like telling a joke. It is telling a joke.”

Davis spends one or two full days per month writing gags (staying six to 10 weeks ahead on his cartoons). Then he draws. “My body fits the drawing board,” he says. “I’m almost in a permanent slouch.” He is so busy that he sometimes only sketches in the first panel of a cartoon and Garfield’s facial expressions. He is known in the business as a “big foot artist,” as opposed to a “wrinkle artist” who turns out finely detailed strips. “There is a simple line in the expressions and gestures,” Davis says. He works hard to get that just right. Then he leaves the rest of the drawing and the lettering to his assistant, Valette Hildebrand, 36.

Garfield was born in 1976, and in the two years before he made his debut in newspapers, he changed a lot. He grew stripes and “his eyes got larger to get more expression; so did his mouth,” Davis says. “His body got a little smaller just so I could get him around easier. His limbs got longer to make him more animated and his ears got a little shorter because I didn’t need them.” Garfield’s personality hasn’t changed much, though. “He’s always had this thing against cute. He says, ‘Cute rots the intellect.’ ” So Davis added a nemesis to the strip: Nermal, the world’s cutest kitten. Garfield has this thing against dogs too. “They’re rusting our nation’s fire hydrants,” he grumbles. But there is a nicer side to Garfield, and it comes out in the TV show, when he goes to the pound to rescue Odie, the world’s dumbest dog.

Davis’ feel for four-footed creatures goes back to the days when he was growing up with a younger brother on his family’s 120-acre beef-and-grain farm near Fairmount, Ind. The place was a lot like the farm Garfield visits in the strip, and the farmers are a lot like Jim’s parents, Betty and James. “It was an incredibly happy childhood,” Davis says. “All I remember is sunshine and pets and running around.”

“Jim,” says his mom, “was a very determined child. He always wanted to do things like walk before he was ready.” But when he was 7 months old, he developed severe asthma. It kept him inside and almost killed him when he was 9; it plagued him until he was in college.

“You have to do something when you’re lying in bed,” Davis explains. “So you play with your mind.” His mother tried to entertain him. “She’s the one who got me started. She’d give me a paper and pencil and make me try to draw. I’d draw someone, and as soon as I learned to spell, I’d have them saying something. Then I started drawing boxes and in second or third grade, it was cartooning.”

When he wasn’t drawing cartoons, he was reading them. Henry, a bald-headed, frozen-faced kid, was the first; it had no words. Then Davis graduated to Peanuts (whose creator, Charles Schulz, became an idol), Beetle Bailey, Steve Canyon, Li’l Abner and Pogo. He dabbled in cartooning at Fairmount High (James Dean’s alma mater), drawing a crude panel called Herman, and at Ball State University, where Davis studied art and business and, as one of his own books puts it, “distinguished himself by earning one of the lowest cumulative grade point averages in the history of the university.”

In 1967, after dropping out of college, he got a job at a Muncie, Ind. advertising agency as a $1.60-an-hour paste-up boy in the art department. And he got married, in 1969, to “fun-loving and good-looking” Carolyn Alterkruse, 35, a frat brother’s ex-girlfriend. Two months later, Davis went to work assisting Tom Ryan, creator of the comic strip Tumbleweeds, a contemporary spoof on the Old West. “I always loved the cartoons,” Davis says, “but I never seriously thought I could do it for a living until I started with Tom. I learned the discipline and how to maintain a strip.”

With Ryan’s encouragement, he started a new strip, Gnorm the Gnat. But after five years, Davis deadpans, “I started getting the idea from all the rejection slips that bugs weren’t marketable.” So it was back to the funny pages. “I took a long, hard look at the comics,” he remembers. “I saw there were a lot of dogs doing very well—Snoopy, Marmaduke…I didn’t know of any cats.”

So he created Garfield. But it was no overnight success story, for he had lots of competition. Mort Walker estimates that each cartoon syndicate gets about 1,500 ideas a year—from which it picks one. “Of that one,” he says, “the chances are maybe one in 50 that the strip will succeed.” Davis kept working for Ryan; he free-lanced as an artist and advertising writer and he and Carolyn even threw Tupperware parties to make money. They were living in Muncie on $8,000 a year and driving a car “that was old enough to drink.”

“Carolyn never doubted I would get syndicated,” Davis says. “She provided a great home life and a lot of support. It was blind faith on her part.” He admits: “Quite frankly, at 32, I was getting a little nervous.” But he spent a year perfecting the strip—moving the spotlight from Jon Arbuckle to Garfield because “the cat had all the punch lines”—and then tried to sell it. In January 1978, after only two rejections, Davis made a deal with United Feature Syndicate. “It was like semiretiring,” Davis says.

Soon after, Garfield became a phenomenon, turning his creator into a millionaire. “I stop short of being a workaholic,” Davis says, “although sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference.” Though he never did get that business degree, he has the instincts of an MBA and he used them. He made friends with the salesmen hawking his strips. Their success led to the first book, Garfield at Large, in 1980, and that led to more books and to the Garfield products—from the $50 lasagna dish (“I never met a lasagna I didn’t like,” says Garfield) to Garfield clothes, sheets and toys. And that led to the TV show. Davis oversees it all with his dozen employees in Paws, Inc., a company he started last year. “We design Gar-fields for each and every product,” Davis says proudly. “The thought of rubber-stamping them isn’t for me. I have a real conscience about licensing.”

It is no disrespect to say that Garfield is, after all, a commodity to be sold like any laundry detergent. “Mothers between the ages of 18 and 34 are cat lovers, so we targeted our marketing to that audience,” says Arlene Scanlan of United Media Enterprises, which flogs Garfield products. “From there it seemed to evolve to kids, 8 through 13. Then we found that Garfield is a phenomenon on college campuses. Now we are seeing that men love Garfield—men who don’t love cats. It doesn’t matter. They love Garfield.” And he’s still growing. “Snoopy is way of life,” Scanlan says. “Garfield will be.”

Yes, it’s a dog-and-cat fight out there. Though Charles Schulz likes Davis personally, an acquaintance says that Snoopy’s creator views Garfield as competition. “He’ll make little digs like, ‘How’s that stupid cat doing?’ ” Schulz admits that if Garfield and Snoopy ever became neighbors, “It would destroy poor Snoopy’s life, and make him a nervous wreck…He would probably have to move away.”

It’s enough to turn even a cat’s head. But not Davis’. “Everything I did cannot erase the fact that I am an Indiana farm boy,” he says. “Except for the media attention, precious little has changed.” His friends confirm that he’s still the same Jim, except he’s well-off enough now to be a wine expert and—like Garfield—he knows good food. He doesn’t even have to give Tupperware parties anymore.

But he still lives in his native Indiana and is building a cedar and glass house and a studio on 30 wooded acres near Muncie. Since he is a celebrity, Davis has to travel a lot, and he has bought himself a twin-engine Beechcraft prop-jet so he can spend more time with Carolyn. When he is home, he gets up at 5:30 or 6 every morning and quits work by 6 p.m. to play with his son, Alex, 3. “Alex,” he says, “taught me all over again the childlike delight of discovering things.”

Davis tries to keep that sense of wonder in the strip. And he tries to keep his perspective. “I look forward to a long and fruitful relationship with Garfield,” he says, ever mindful that “Garfield is famous. I am not.”