On the prowl: Behind the scenes at Garfield HQ
The house that Garfield built is set back from a little-traveled country road near Albany, Indiana.
Paws Incorporated headquarters, as it’s formally called, is home to the world’s most famous cat, but it’s not a studio that often opens its doors to the public.
Inside, the world of Garfield comes to life in ways that go beyond just a simple comic strip.
The orange tabby cat has been immortalized in television shows, a few movies and on too many household and clothing items to count. It’s all because of the things that happen at this building.
Earlier this month, Garfield creator Jim Davis granted The Star Press unfettered access to the Paws facility, built in 1989, allowing the paper to share with its readers a detailed, extensive look at the inner workings of what has been recognized as the world’s most widely syndicated comic strip.
Davis, who turned 70 in late July, took some time to discuss the success of his comic strip — and even teased the possibilities that might lie ahead for his characters. But we’ll get to that.
Paws for identification
The business arm of the Garfield brand, Paws was founded in 1981 by Davis and has since grown to be one of the most successful companies in the area. Only the smallest fraction of fans have been able to see this building for themselves, primarily for reasons of practicality.
“We would love to be able to give tours of the building, but this group is so busy … so (friendly), that we’d never be able to do our jobs,” marketing director Kim Campbell said. “They’d be so engaged explaining what takes place here from day to day, our team wouldn’t have time to make Garfield anymore.”
Paws employs just shy of 45 cartoonists, artists, designers and account managers at its building near Muncie. It’s high-stakes here, but in a laid-back environment, particularly given the fact each employee is directly involved in some capacity with the creation and distribution of the orange, fat cat.
The company manages more than 400 license-holders for Garfield-related items, Campbell said; paired with its presence in more than 110 countries, Paws is perhaps one of the most extensive global businesses in East Central Indiana.
Before the current building was established in the late 1980s, Paws headquarters was based in a ranch-style home on the same swath of land. Bedrooms, the living room, even the kitchen became offices as Jim Davis’ enterprise grew. Eventually the building got so cramped, it was necessary to build something brand new.
“Brand new” came in the form of an open, 10,000-square-foot office space, complete with a kitchen, gym and a large atrium with greenspace inside.
“Every office in this building has a window facing (greenspace) in some form or another,” Campbell explained. “Jim has always thought it important that we’re able to see the beauty around us.”
With its location so remote, Campbell said, staffers can be on the phone with someone in another part of the country — or world — and see a deer pass by.
“It’s quite interesting hearing some of the reactions, because people often think of us as being (out in the open) in a city,” she said. “But being so close to nature has really been helpful for our creative team.”
There’s a path that much of the staff takes advantage of on nice days, too, she said.
Overall, the energy at Paws is far different from what’s found at many corporate offices in Los Angeles, New York or Chicago. That’s part of the reason Davis chose to stay in Muncie, she said.
“Everyone who works at Paws is here for the same reason,” Campbell said. “We want Garfield to be successful. No matter where he is, he’s still the same cat. We are able to make the most of that dedication right here in the Muncie-Albany area.”
Earlier this year, through a partnership with Indiana Farmers Insurance, Garfield found his way to the top of Indiana Farmers Coliseum, a popular feature at the Indiana State Fairgrounds in Indianapolis. Garfield is also part of an ongoing campaign for the Shelter Pet Project. He was at one time a “spokescat” for the Boy Scouts of America, a national reading initiative and the “Got Milk?” campaign.
In April 2015, the Hamilton Township Volunteer Fire Department received a donation from Paws, in the form of Garfield artwork on its new ladder truck.
The success and resonance of Garfield has at many times taken shapes vastly different from what is found in print nowadays.
New adventures for an old cat
Despite all his success, Garfield, who in 2002 dethroned “Peanuts” as the most syndicated comic in the world, has had his share of struggles as a result of a recent decline in printed syndication.
At the time the Guinness Book of World Records committee recognized Garfield as the most popular strip, about 2,570 print publications included the cat in their comics section. Today, that number is down to around 2,100 — but he’s still number one.
It’s not that publications are leaving Garfield behind, but rather that many of the publications are ceasing operation or changing their style of storytelling, Campbell said.
The Star Press has published the strip every day since Garfield debuted on June 19, 1978, according to a look at the newspaper’s archives.
“Our print production is still strong, and our animated (TV shows) have gotten to be huge in recent years, including overseas,” Campbell said. “We’re still really popular all over the world.”
In fact, Garfield has seemingly gained more popularity — particularly on the international level. Early versions of the cat’s television escapades are also seeing bounces in numbers thanks to streaming services like Netflix and Hulu.
As of this story’s publication, the second of a pair of mid-2000s live-action Garfield films, “Garfield: A Tale of Two Kitties,” was also available for viewing through HBO’s streaming service.
Props from the movies are scattered throughout the office, including a painting used in the second film depicting Jim Davis as a high society Englishman. In the movie, it was seen briefly in the background during a shot in a hallway.
Today, it hangs on a wall near an autograph signing table Davis visits every morning; the walls are adorned with letters and comic ideas from children and adults alike, all of whom have an affinity for the cat and for Davis himself.
Jim Davis’s set chair is also on display near the entrance of the Paws building.
Then there’s “The Garfield Show,” which is a CGI-based children’s television program that’s been on the air in the United States since 2009. It debuted in France, where it is produced, in 2008.
In 2012, the show entered uncharted waters when it was picked up by a Chinese television station. Garfield has also found success in Japan, another Asian market which has its own adorable cat: Hello Kitty.
Memorabilia and boxes
In a large conference room on the second floor of the building, visitors can encounter more Garfield apparel and merchandise than they’d know what to do with.
It’s all from recent years, despite the fact that the height of popularity for Garfield merchandise in the U.S. came in the late 1980s and early ’90s.
There’s Garfield bedding, furniture, clothing (including underwear) and, of course, dozens of trinkets, books and stuffed animals.
“We do our best to keep this room up-to-date,” Campbell said. “We have a collection of essentially every original piece of Garfield memorabilia from the past couple of years on display in (here).”
But what about the older stuff?
Well, Jim Davis has never been fond of the idea of just throwing things out, Campbell said. So rather than toss old things, Paws hangs on to them, albeit in a much less colorful way.
Walking down a flight of stairs, Campbell explained that all the old merchandise — including copies of books, clothing and so on — are kept in the basement archives.
“We usually don’t bring people down here,” Campbell said, noting this was the first time journalists had ever been permitted in the Paws archive area. “Here, we have everything.”
Stacked on sliding shelves are boxes upon boxes of merchandise, each labeled with the date and contents.
These aren’t items that are ever really looked at anymore, she said. In the rare instance that one is removed from the archives, it’s always brought back right away, Campbell noted.
Stuck on your mind
One of the most successful products in the archives is from the late 1980s, Campbell said.
As she told it, Jim Davis in early 1987 was pitched the idea of putting Garfield on car windows by attaching some sort of adhesive to the stuffed animal’s paws and sticking it on the glass. The adhesive of choice? Suction cups.
“If it’s there in a week, we’ll do it,” Davis told the pitch team. It was, so production started. By late 1987, Dakin Toys, a San Francisco-based group had sold tens of millions of the unit, Campbell said.
“It was really one of the most successful products of all time … not just for us, but for any single cartoon character,” Campbell said. “It was so popular, that it actually caused some problems.”
The “Stuck on You” dolls as they were called, led to strings of car break-ins across larger cities in the U.S., she said.
“It’s kind of ridiculous that people would break in to a car for a little thing like that, but they were — they still are, I think — popular,” Campbell said.
A conversation with Jim Davis
Part I: Life in Muncie
Jim Davis plans to keep drawing Garfield, as Campbell puts it, “until he’s old and wrinkled and can’t pick up a pencil anymore.”
That’s the way Davis himself has expressed to his employees the desire to remain a cartoonist for as long as possible, she said. Regardless of what comes next, it’s all but certain to involve the Muncie area. It’s been Davis’ home for 50 years, and he has no intention of packing up and going elsewhere.
“To do what I do, all I need is to be near a mailbox,” Davis said. “Or, these days, a computer with a modem.”
He never had a reason to leave from the start, he said. He worked on the “Tumbleweeds” comic strip, drawn by another Munsonian, Tom Ryan, from the time he graduated from Ball State University until he began Garfield a decade later.
He’s found that being away from the hustle-and-bustle of big cities, and being closer to nature, aids in the creative process.
“It’s great to be able to walk through the woods and offset the pace of what we do here,” he said. “Friends and family are nearby, so it’s all good.
Part II: On the drawing board
As for what happens next with Garfield, well, who knows really? Davis himself said he’s always looking for new ways to bring the old cat to life.
Since Davis sticks with situational humor — which doesn’t rely on current events — the possibilities are seemingly endless.
“Because I deal with eating and sleeping, everyone can identify with (him) … and everybody loves cats,” Davis said. “I’ve really checked everything off my bucket list. I’ve been able to do TV and movies.”
The last thing on that list, Davis said, has long been a musical centered around the lasagna-loving cat. It’s something he’s been working on for years, but until recently it seemed to be a non-starter.
“We’re doing that right now … we started a musical in Washington, D.C., at a children’s theater,” he said. “We want to get some traction (going with) schools and children’s theaters (around the country).”
In addition to the musical, Davis said he’s “confident” there will be another Garfield movie in the future, though it’s not imminent.
“My hope is that the next movie is all (digitally animated),” he said. “Even if we signed a contract today, it’s going to be another three or four years before it hits the screen.”
As for the daily comic strip, well, that’s a whole different story. But that’s not to say they’re going to stop production anytime soon.
“I want to be here forever,” Davis said with a laugh.
It’s been 37 years since Garfield first found his way onto the funny pages. Through it all, he’s stayed in Muncie and stayed the same cat he’s always been, albeit having lost some weight, gained some friends and found quite a bit of fame.
Story by Mickey Shuey, The Star Press
Photo by Jordan Kartholl
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