The comic strip “Garfield” is a lesson in planned mediocrity for profit.

There was a time in my youth that I was a big fan of the comic strip Garfield and I have the books of collected comics, coffee mugs, and plush toys to prove it, but something happened to the comic strip over the years that caused me to stop caring about it at all: it stopped being funny and started recycling the same tired jokes repeatedly in an almost predictable manner. In short, it started sucking really hard like a man dying of thirst on the last drops from his canteen.

My first clue as to why came with the revelation in an interview some years ago with the strip’s creator, Jim Davis, in which he talked about how after the strip’s rise in popularity he hired a staff of people who write and draw the comic for him while he maintains creative control. I naturally assumed that Jim decided to sell out the strip and it was merely a victim of its own success, but it turns out that keeping Garfield as bland an inoffensive as possible was Jim’s goal from the very beginning as is revealed in an article over at The Slate by Chris Suellentrop titled: Garfield – Why we hate the Mouse but not the cartoon copycat.

Today, Garfield the comic strip appears in nearly 2,600 newspapers around the globe, and its readership is estimated at 260 million. If the readership number is right, then 4 percent of the world’s population reads Garfield every single day. Garfield products—sold in 111 countries—rake in between $750 million and $1 billion each year. This was not accidental: Davis meticulously plotted Garfield’s success. And part of his calculation was to make the strip so inoffensive that it’s hard to hate it even for being anodyne.

Davis makes no attempt to conceal the crass commercial motivations behind his creation of Garfield. Davis has the soul of an adman—his first job after dropping out of Ball State, where he majored in business and art, was in advertising—and he carefully studied the marketplace when developing Garfield. The genesis of the strip was “a conscious effort to come up with a good, marketable character,” Davis told Walter Shapiro in a 1982 interview in the Washington Post. “And primarily an animal. … Snoopy is very popular in licensing. Charlie Brown is not.” So, Davis looked around and noticed that dogs were popular in the funny papers, but there wasn’t a strip for the nation’s 15 million cat owners. Then, he consciously developed a stable of recurring, repetitive jokes for the cat. He hates Mondays. He loves lasagna. He sure is fat.

The model for Garfield was Charles Schulz’s Peanuts, but not the funny Peanuts of that strip’s early years. Rather, Davis wanted to mimic the sunny, humorless monotony of Peanuts’ twilight years. “After 50 years, Snoopy was still laying in that dog house, and rather than getting old, it actually has the opposite effect,” Davis told the Chicago Sun-Times last year during the press blitz for Garfield’s 25th anniversary. “It says to all of us, some things in life can be counted on, they’re consistent.” In In Dog Years I’d Be Dead, a book to commemorate Garfield’s 25th anniversary, Davis calls the Peanuts licensing machine “a template that I could apply to Garfield.” In his very first week, Garfield aped Snoopy by declaring, “Happiness is a warm television set.”

Garfield’s origins were so mercantile that it’s fair to say he never sold out—he never had any integrity to put on the auction block to begin with. But today Davis spends even less time on the strip than he used to—between three days and a week each month. During that time, he collaborates with another cartoonist to generate ideas and rough sketches, then hands them over to Paws employees to be illustrated.

On the one hand I have to give Jim Davis credit for being a very smart man who accomplished exactly what he set out to do, but on the other I have to confess that I’m a little bummed about learning that Garfield’s suckiness was part of the plan all along. It shows that I’m not beyond preferring a comfortable belief over reality. I just accepted the idea that Jim Davis sold out as being a rational explanation for Garfield’s decline into mediocrity as being sad, but not uncommon among people who suddenly find their projects or themselves very popular. Learning that Davis was aiming for mediocrity all along—that he in fact feared massive success as cutting into his long-term profitability—is surprisingly discomforting. I understand why this bothers me and it’s a purely emotional reason: I loved the early years of Garfield and like any fan I had invested a certain amount of emotion into it. Thinking that Davis ruined Garfield by selling out is less upsetting than thinking he intentionally dumbed it down in order to prevent a backlash.

Yet I’m still fascinated by the fact that I’m bothered by the idea of Garfield as an intentionally designed mass-market product as opposed to a creative endeavor with the special spark it takes to succeed. Somewhere along the way I bought into the idea that creative people should hold their art as their primary concern and any business motivations as a secondary concern—art for art’s sake with any commercial success being a natural outgrowth of the quality and popularity of the art. I have no idea when I bought into this idea, but I can recognize that it’s one I’ve held for a while and that explains why I have a major dislike for musical performers such as Britney Spears or whoever the latest Hot Boy Band happens to be at the moment as these people aren’t so much discovered as they are “created” by the music industry. I certainly don’t have a problem with artists becoming popular and earning lots of money as a result of the quality of their art, but the idea that someone would set out to design their art purely with the aim of ensuring commercial success at the expense of quality sticks in my craw. That’s the approach most TV execs seem to take in developing their programming which is largely why I don’t tend to watch much commercial television.

I admit that there’s really nothing wrong with that approach and it can even be a very smart one to take if your primary goal is to be rich and famous, but it’s an approach I would find hard to take myself even though I’m probably more than smart enough that I could pull it off. SEB gets quite a bit of traffic these days, way more than either of my previous two anime websites ever did, and I’m being asked by various outsiders all the time if there’s any way I could make some money off of SEB. Technically I already have made a little money with it if you consider the fact that perfect strangers who are fans of the site have purchased the odd item or two off of my Amazon Wish List to send my way on occasion, but the folks asking the question usually mean a more direct revenue from hosting ads on the site. Back when I was running The Casual Otaku and Anime Links.com both sites were briefly a part of the IGN.com affiliate network and the banner ads I hosted brought in a total of over $7,000 for the year or so that we participated. Considering this was right around the time the Internet bubble burst and the bottom fell out of online advertising, which was a pretty good sum for a couple of guys sitting around writing amateur reviews on anime titles.

Yet I’ve been resistant to putting ads on SEB for the simple reason that this is a personal creative project of mine with very little cost involved and I’d rather it not become about making money as much as expressing myself. It took a while for me to decide to make use of the Amazon affiliates program for putting up links to products I think are worth buying and that has only just recently generated any type of revenue (I made a whole $13 last quarter). The Cafe Press shop I set up to sell T-shirts was more because I thought it would be cool to have SEB T-shirts than because I wanted to make money at it. To date I think I’ve sold one T-shirt in the entire time I’ve had that shop open. I never expected to make much, if anything, off either of those things though. I mainly did them because I could and I thought it was neat and they would be there if anyone wanted to use them, but SEB has always been about the one creative thing I’m any good at: shooting my mouth off. Only recently have I kicked around the idea of possibly putting Google’s AdWords (or whatever they’re called) on SEB, but I’ve not thought about it too seriously for the reasons I’ve mentioned already. Even if I do break down and put them on SEB I’d probably have the same attitude about them as I do the Wish List, Cafe Press shop, and the Amazon affiliate links.

Anyway, it’s amazing how much self-reflection I can engage in over an article about a mediocre comic strip, eh?

12 thoughts on “The comic strip “Garfield” is a lesson in planned mediocrity for profit.

  1. I wasn’t even aware that Garfield was still being published. I thought it ended when the ‘80s did.

    I was never a fan. I was, and am, a Bloom County/Outland girl.

  2. Oh, I’m definitely in the Bloom County Fanboy Club, though I was less enchanted with Outland. I have most of the collected strips from Bloom County in book form and a few stuffed Opus’s here and there.

    I hear that Bloom County is back as a Sunday only strip and I’ve seen exactly one so far and it was… OK. Probably have to see a few more before I decide if it’s worth reading again.

    Right now my favorite newspaper comic strip that I make a point of reading online every day is Foxtrot. Pretty much all the other strips I read regularly are web comics.

  3. I was never a Garfield fan either. The comic just didn’t have any edge to speak of and though I love cats and see much humor potential in their mysterious ways, Garfield was more like a slug to me – a selfish opinionated slug, but a slug nonetheless.

    I’m glad you spoke about commercialization though Les, and how you feel about the option of turning SEB into a money making-enterprise. I wouldn’t begrudge you rewards for your efforts but this place is about deeply felt convictions and heart-of-the-matter realities to me. I just can’t see you being able to maintain that integrity while commercializing SEB.

    Still, there are many things edgy and unique about this site, and heated discussion and clever banter are marketable items. Or have you considered plastic or stuffed-fabric Les dolls? A squeeze-me-and-I-rant Les doll would be even more intriguing.

    These submission words amaze me with their timeliness, sometimes. The word this time is “trade”!

  4. And now,

    thew amazing
    fucking
    adventures
    of bland man!

    See him, watche television!
    See him consume mass marketed, pre-digested and possibly pre excreted food!
    See him play computer games!
    See him go to temple on Sunday,
    and worship robo jesus!

    Watch him shrivel!
    Watch him decay!
    and have an anniversary…

  5. Hmp. My word? “Amount.” (Hey Les – is “crass” or “commercial” in the captcha list? 😀 )

    I sort of liked Garfiend in the early 1980s. I pretty much stopped being an enthusiast after three years – so not much collecting of things, though I did the requisite junior-high-school-girl folders.

  6. Ah, Milo, Opus, Dave, and gang.  Those were comics.  I too felt ‘duped’ by the Garfield manufacturing ploy.  I think my dissapointment stems from my personal feeling that you should always do your best. 

    Once an artist stops delivering their best effort it is no longer art and merely commercial product.  Britney is little more than a well shaped Pepsi can.

  7. On the other end of the spectrum, look at Calvin and Hobbes.  Their creator never sold out, yet there was such a demand for products that C&H stuff was all over the place illegally.  Is it better for the artist to not sell out, lose the revenue, and see copies of his works sold everywhere?  I wish he had sold out for the sole reason that he would never have released window stickers of Calvin peeing that we see on so many redneck trucks and muscle cars.

  8. Have to respect Calvin & Hobbes, and Farside, for ending when they felt they couldn’t maintain their level.  Really sucks, b/c they are two of my all time favs.  Not sure if Bloom Cnty qualifies, since Breathed drug it out into Outland. 

    The only comic strip collection I’ve recently bought is Get Fuzzy.  Not on the level of Bloom County, Farside, or C&H, but it makes me laugh enough to shell out cash. 

    Watterson could’ve made money licensing the Calvin image to the Christians, who’ve co-opted it into the Calvin praying stickers.

  9. I love Calvin and Hobbes for more than it’s a funny strip. I love Watterson’s approach to his work of art, which was to him just that. I have a few of the collector’s books with his comments and it’s funny when he explains how certain strips were about his showdowns with the business people.

    I used to be a big Garfield fan, when I was ten, but over the recent years I’ve noticed the writing is just terrible.

  10. If you think about it, this Garfield thing is somewhat like politics. And how capturing the swing voters or those in the middle ground would get you the most number of voters, or audience in the instance of comics.

    According to Watterson, he refused to licence any part of Calvin and Hobbes for commercial reason. And that is one of the reasons why he often fought with the publishers. Therefore any Calvin and Hobbes merchandise you see is most probably a copyright violation.

  11. I was a Garfield fan for a brief period from the time it started until they got halfway through cycling the same jokes again.  That wasn’t long enough to buy any books or memorabilia.

    I do have a couple Foxtrot books, a couple For Better or Worse, Charles Adams (from the ‘60’s), a lot of Far Side, Calvin & Hobbes, and Doonesbury. And a couple very early BC from the ‘50’s.  And lots of old Mad.

    My current favorites: Boondocks and Frazz (whose author is a big fan of C&H).  I always start the paper with the funnies, then go to the rest of it if I have time.  Eat dessert first!

    Wish our local paper would get rid of fossil comics like Peanuts, Blondie, Lockhorns, Garfield, Wizard of Id, etc.  So many deserving new cartoonists out there.

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