Jim Davis, a Ball State alumnus and creator of the “Garfield” comics, spoke in Sursa Performance Hall Wednesday night to impart industry wisdom and connect with students.
His talk was centered around the business behind "Garfield," and was structured around several tenants that have guided his career.
His overall message was to take risks and respect the value of your artistic work.
“This is not really a science, it’s something we learned,” he said of navigating the industry.
Davis talked about Garfield’s ability to relate to the audience, explaining that he felt the character “held up a mirror” to the public, and that’s why so much affection surrounds him.
Junior animation major Olivia Peterson was inspired by this point.
“As an animator, I hope to create animations and cartoons that speak to people that way,” she said.
Davis encouraged students to not be afraid to innovate.
Early in Garfield’s life, Davis knew he wanted to have a book series, but produced the book differently than most industry standards at the time. It was an odd size, used thick paper and was more expensive than many at the time.
“We became the laughingstock of the industry,” he said.
However, the book’s odd size forced many booksellers to stock it as an end piece or near the cash register, which boosted sales. In the end, its oddities made it a success — at one point, seven out of the top 15 books on the New York Times bestseller list were "Garfield" books.
Davis also stressed the importance of protecting your work.
“If we take care of the cat, the cat will take care of us,” he said.
Davis lived by this idea in his career. In Garfield’s early stages, he was approached by a kitty litter company who wanted to use the character as its spokesperson.
Though Davis wasn’t making much money at the time, he decided not to sell Garfield to protect the character’s integrity.
“I wanted him to be the cartoon cat, not the kitty litter cat,” he said.
Davis also explained that as the character grew, he made sure not to overwork Garfield.
One product, a stuffed animal Garfield that could be attached to a car with suction cups, caught on with shoppers and became a huge fad. Despite the success, Davis decided to scale back production to give Garfield a rest and make sure he stayed versatile.
“Our program hangs by one thin, orange thread,” he said.
The move was successful, and Garfield is still thriving today. In addition to finally moving Garfield to the web (he had to obtain the domain name www.garfield.com from a fan club in Canada), many new projects are in the works, including a deal with Alcon Entertainment for a new "Garfield" movie set for 2020 or 2021.
Davis was also eager to connect with students and took many questions from the audience.
For many, being able to talk with Davis was a dream come true.
“Garfield was the first cartoon I ever tried to draw,” Peterson said.
At 6 years old, she used computer paper to trace the character — it was her first inkling that she would want to animate in the future.
“I got to see one of my childhood heroes,” she said.
Beyond connecting with students, Davis was able to finally answer an age-old question asked by a Ball State student: “Why does Garfield like lasagna so much?”
Davis replied with a laugh, “I love lasagna, that’s why!"
Davis will be teaching two master classes in the art department soon and continues to be a strong presence in the Ball State community.