In the 1980s, there were two comic strips I never missed in the daily newspaper: Garfield and Calvin and Hobbes. Both never failed to bring adult-level humor, yet kid-friendly jokes that made my day. As much as Calvin and Hobbes gets credit for being one of the most popular American newspaper comic strips of all time, I always say it comes in second to artist and creator Jim Davis’ Garfield.
For more than 40 years, Davis’ innate ability to identify and poke fun of our daily life (work, family, responsibilities and enthusiasm for the simple things that make each one of us just plain happy) was magic in three comic panels. Garfield’s sarcasm and wit took the edge off the day.
Through the 1980s and 1990s, I was drawn to the numerous bound book compilations of daily strips. My well-loved copy of Garfield: Bigger Than Life, the third book published in 1981, still has a place in my bookcase. Penguin Random House recently released Garfield: Belly Laughs, the incredible 69th compilation book, testament to Davis’ imagination and relevance in pop culture.
That’s why when I heard my employer, Heritage Auctions, had secured an exclusive agreement with Davis to auction the artist’s entire archive of roughly 11,000 daily and Sunday original comic strip art, I nearly fell off my chair. The exclusive partnership meant the entire world would be given the opportunity to own the one-of-a-kind original artwork for a comic strip that brought the entire world a chuckle or two.
Syndicated nationwide in 1978, the comic strip chronicles the life of Garfield – a lasagna-loving, responsibility-dodging, manipulative fat cat who happens to hate Mondays – his human companion, Jon, and Odie, the dog. Garfield is one of the most syndicated comic strips in the world, running in 2,100 newspapers and read by more than 200 million people.
In an exclusive interview with Antique Trader magazine, Davis reflects on his creative years and his future. Those who worked directly with Davis to bring the collection to auction also give Antique Trader readers a behind-the-scenes look at how they plan to bring more than 10,000 individual pieces of artwork to auction for the foreseeable future.
Growing up on a farm in Fairmount, Ind., with his parents, James and Betty, and younger brother, Dave, it’s not surprising Davis is a down-to-earth person befitting his small-town upbringing. As for being considered one of the world’s greatest cartoonists, Davis deflects the praise.
“I don’t think about that,” Davis says about his legacy. “Cartooning is such a subjective thing. To be honest, I’m still trying to get it right. One day I’d like to write that gag that will make the whole world laugh!”
Few people know his title character was inspired by his grandfather: “I named Garfield after my grandfather, James Garfield Davis. He was a large, stern man, but he had a kind heart … kind of like a certain cartoon cat,” Davis said.
So when did Davis become convinced he could actually make a living as a cartoonist whose work is based on his grandfather? Oddly enough, when he was certain he had no future at all.
“About three months into doing Garfield, the Chicago Sun-Times dropped the strip for budgetary reasons,” Davis said. “They figured that, if they dropped the newest strip, they’d get the least flack from the readers. We only had around 50 papers back then and I figured that this was the beginning of the end; I’d never make a living at cartooning.
“Within just a few days, the Sun-Times got 1,300 calls and letters demanding the return of Garfield. They must have been cat lovers. It was at that moment that I had a sense Garfield had staying power and that we’d be able to garner more papers, making the opportunity to make a living at cartooning a distinct possibility.”
Once Garfield gained a foothold into newspapers across the nation, Davis reveled in the opportunities to make people laugh; however, there is one particular cartoonist who made the laugh maker laugh time and time again.
“One cartoonist who could always make me laugh was Johnny Hart with B.C.,” Davis admits. “His punch lines would regularly come right out of left field catching me off guard. The strip was just silly and I had the feeling that Johnny was having as much fun doing the strip as I was reading it.”
Since the early 1960s, Hart had secured publishing deals that would compile his strips into paperback books. These compilations made it easy for new and existing fans to follow days-long story lines in a single easy format. Publishers offered the same to Davis and that’s when a book line opened the doors to more marketing ventures. The wildly successful franchise evolving from the strip launched animated television shows, multiple movies and an empire of licensed products. Garfield’s face has appeared on nearly every product imaginable from stuffed animals to reusable Christmas window clings, wristwatches and even staple removers. Utilizing sneering, yet family-friendly, humor only a large orange cat could pull off, Garfield is one of the most profitable comic strip characters of all time, rivaled only by Snoopy and other Peanuts characters.
Even so, the most valuable collectible ever made pales in comparison to original art. In November 2011, the iconic strip switched to digital production, meaning the Bristol board Garfield originals offered by Heritage represent all that will ever be created.
The original 11,000 daily comic strips and Sunday funnies offered at auction are not cheap. The running value of a daily strip is between $400 and $600, depending on the gag and character appearances. Sunday section comics and even preliminary art often sell for as much as $6,000 each. The archive to be auctioned also includes Davis’ original art for his second strip, U.S. Acres. In fact, the auction house estimates the entire archive may very well surpass $5 million.
That’s a lot of lasagna.
All strips are sold with a PAWS Inc. Certificate of Authenticity, signed by Davis himself. “I’m very excited about my exclusive relationship with Heritage Auctions. I’ve always taken my responsibility to the strip seriously (go figure), so it’s gratifying to know that I’m reaching the ‘serious’ comic collectors ...”
Brian Weidman, a Heritage comic book cataloger and lifelong Garfield fan, worked directly with Davis to bring the massive archive to auction.
“I used to hound my mother to get me the compilation books whenever they came out and always loved when Garfield was being mischievous,” Weidman said. “What I could never figure out when I was young, though, was why Mr. Davis switched from very small features (like the eyes) to larger features. While talking to him, I had to ask the one question that has been nagging me since I was 10.
“His response was something I never would have guessed. According to Mr. Davis, there was a newsprint paper shortage in the 1980s and the papers shrunk the print so they could use less paper and fit the same amount in. To combat this, Mr. Davis increased the size of the features so readers could still see. To me, this was the best thing that could have happened, because the features of shock, happiness, surprise, sadness are all what makes Garfield so special. Not only that, but that nagging puzzle that had gone unsolved for over 35 years, was finally pieced together.”
So what is it like for a Garfield fan to have permission to leaf through a character from his childhood, picking which comic to offer at auction?
“Typically, if I end up looking for anything specific, it would just take me forever because I end up reading nonstop and then laughing,” Weidman said.
Will these original artworks increase in value over the years as fans and collectors decorate their walls with pieces of American comic history?
“I get asked this question a lot,” Weidman said. “My answer is always the same: Collect what you like. Get what you like and you will never be upset. If something makes you smile and laugh, it holds a place in your heart. Value doesn’t matter at that point, only that it means something to you. If you were to win a Garfield strip, and you were so happy with it that you hung it on your wall for 20 years because it meant something to you, would it then matter if it went up or down in value?”
Weidman admits the more expensive strips tend to be those featuring multiple characters and iconic subjects. “Some have Garfield and lasagna. These tend to be more sought after and hold more value. When they show up, they go for higher prices and tend to keep doing so. The same can be said if Odie and Jon are in the panels.
“All strips, even within themselves are not equal, but remember, as opposed to comic books, there is only one piece of the original art. That makes it unique!”
Now that fans are just beginning to own the original art, Davis keeps a positive attitude and said he is optimistic about the future of what’s now known as the comic strip style of illustration art.
“I would say that I’m among a small group of the last syndicated newspaper cartoonists,” he says. “There were around 300 of us a few years back. That doesn’t seem like many, but newspapers could only run so many strips. Now, with the Internet, there are probably 300,000! We’re looking over our shoulders at these young cartoonists today. A lot of them are very, very good!”
Don’t expect the sale of the Garfield’s comic strip’s original art to signal the end of the character’s more than 40-year impact on pop culture. Shortly after announcing the exclusive deal with Heritage Auctions, Davis sold the rights to his spider-swatting kitty and his family to Nickelodeon, the children’s television network. With the sale to Nickelodeon, Davis sees that Garfield will live on to entertain a whole new generation of viewers and readers.
“You hit the nail on the head,” Davis said. “We’ve done a pretty good job at entertaining the readers and viewers for over 40 years. We’re confident that Nick will continue to entertain them with Garfield for at least another 40 years!”
Heritage auctions two original daily Garfield comic strips per week, while Sunday strips and themed dailies are sold during larger quarterly auctions. Visit Comics.HA.com to see which new original comic strip art is up for sale every week. Who knows, maybe you’ll end up owning a piece of the Garfield legacy that will give you more joy than a compilation book.