Jim Davis, the man who has raised the world's most famous housecat since 1978, decided two years ago to begin selling his original strips through Heritage Auctions. That choice, the Garfield creator says now, was an easy one not because he needed the space in the vault, but because he loved the idea of letting readers own those hand-drawn originals dating back to the strip's debut.
Fans' reasons for buying those Garfield strips have varied since they began appearing in Heritage's Comic Art auctions. Some collect special dates, strips that first ran on a birthday or an anniversary. Some collect certain characters, maybe Jon or maybe Odie, or certain gags about hating Mondays or loving lasagna. Some, because a specific strip helped pull them through a particularly rough patch. And some, merely for the bragging rights.
"You have a piece of the franchise there: 'Hey, look at this, on this day 200 million people read this strip, and now I have it on my wall,'" Davis says with an appreciative chuckle. He once gave away his works to family and friends; and some he donated to museums, among them the National Museum of American History. But what a worldwide audience adored, what readers of more than 2,500 newspapers pored over each morning, a single owner can forever admire, appreciate and, yes, show off.
After all, says his creator, "Garfield is there to entertain. He's there to please. He's there to make people feel a little better. I've heard some wonderful stories about kids coming home from school after a tough day and sitting in the closet and reading one of the books until they feel better enough to come back out into the world. I know there are strips that have spoken to other people, and it's just fun to give other people an opportunity to own a special strip."
But now, for the first time, Davis is giving fans a chance to go beyond owning a strip.
Bidding is open now as Heritage Auctions presents "Jim Davis: The Art of Garfield," a special auction featuring more than 130 works including paintings, production cels from the award-winning animation specials, calendar artwork, signed lithographs and, of course, those beloved original strips, including many from the Sunday paper. The live auction takes place at HA.com on April 15, and there's even the chance to buy, in several individual lots, hundreds of preliminary sketches Davis and his creative team conceived while working on Garfield almost from the moment of his creation in 1978.
When asked why he would part with and share those rough drafts, Davis says he's actually eager to show his process.
"People are interested in it," he says. "I know I enjoy watching rehearsals as much as seeing the performance, because I love the interactions and watching people tweak the work and make it better. I like tours of manufacturing plants. I like seeing things put together. It shows an effort that goes into creating a piece. It's not like you just sit down and paint."
With Jim's design direction, Davis' art staff produced some delightful and playful pieces, of course, chief among them an acrylic-on-canvas portrait of Garfield from 1997 that's as iconic as any Garfield piece ever created. Here, too, are painted pieces celebrating Christmas (with Odie serving as Rudolph's replacement); parodying Grant Wood's American Gothic; and depicting the cat with his hand in the cookie jar, among others.
When discussing the cels for those prime-time specials, Davis recalls the stories behind each scene, the result of intense collaborations that involved him drafting the production drawings and directing the voice actors in the studio. Says Davis, when he looks at the cels being offered in the auction, "I can remember every moment, because they were hanging on my office walls for weeks until we made it click. We had great fun doing that. These all have a story behind them."
Davis, who stopped putting pen to paper in 2011, still draws Garfield every single day, now using digital tools. That's but one reason why this work remains so special to so many, because it will never exist in this form again.
"There's a thing about holding art," Davis says. "When you touch it and have a tactile relationship with something, it's part of you. It's your baby. There's literally an emotional attachment to the art."
But when asked if he was at all hesitant about parting with the pieces, Davis says: No, not really. In part, that's because they're going to new homes, to owners for whom these singular moments resonate. But more so, Davis says, it's because he's still trying to get it right.
Yes, Garfield may well be a global franchise worth a fortune. But to his creator, he's still a cat very much in need of his care and attention.
"I have never taken it for granted," Davis says. "I am still trying to tweak, fix, make something better, make something funnier. Ask any artist what they think of their own art, and you will always get the most critical response. I keep pushing. I am sitting here in my library with drawings and cartoons, little sculptures sitting all over the place. I am reminded of what he's done, where he's been. The books are lined up all over the shelves. That part I have to ignore. I would be overwhelmed if I tried to think of it all together. I try to focus on what I've done the last few weeks and where I want to take him.
"Writing is like a working meditation, I take everything into account and zone out and let the ideas and thoughts come to me. It's still getting easier after all these years. I know more every day. It's not work. It's about getting into the right frame of mind and having Garfield dictate things to me. I just edit. That's all I am doing grabbing what's out there."