Few fictional cats are as beloved or as sarcastic as Garfield. For over 40 years, this wisecracking, lasagna-loving, Monday-loathing feline has remained a pop culture mainstay. While he started out as a staple of the newspaper comic pages in the 1970s, his rising popularity in the ’80s spawned a television series, various specials, and a merchandise empire. He remains just as fresh and relevant today, appearing not only in the funny pages but on social media as well. (Look no further than his Twitter account for daily updates on his fabulous, furry life.)
The Origins of Garfield
It may seem like Garfield has been around forever, but believe it or not, there was a time before this orange fat cat existed. Garfield is the brainchild of American cartoonist Jim Davis, who named his creation after his grandfather James Garfield Davis. The tabby’s personality was an amalgam of the many farm cats Davis had grown up with in rural Indiana. The soon-to-be-iconic cat character made his first appearance in 1976 in a comic strip called “Jon,” which only appeared in local newspapers in Davis’ home state of Indiana. “Jon” centered on the daily life of Garfield’s owner Jon Arbuckle, but it soon became clear who the real star of the strip was.
On June 19, 1978, the “Garfield” comic as we now know it made its nationally syndicated debut. The comic generally revolves around Garfield’s laziness, sarcasm, and love of food, with minor conflicts stemming from his disdain of Jon and his slobbering dog Odie. Appearances by Liz the vet, Nermal (the world’s cutest kitten), and Pooky, his beloved teddy bear, round out the cast of characters. Garfield’s witty wisecracks — such as “Diet is die with a 't' at the end” and “I’m not overweight. I’m undertall” — made him an instant hit and have remained hallmarks of the comic well into the present day. The cat’s wry observational humor proved a winning and relatable formula with universal appeal, one that only grew in popularity in the decades that ensued.
Little has changed in the Garfield universe since the 1970s. However, astute modern readers may notice several minor differences from the early days, especially in regard to Garfield’s physical appearance.
In keeping with his fat cat reputation, he was initially drawn more crudely, with massive cheeks, a rounder back, and a more blob-like figure. (Let’s assume he was wolfing down a little extra lasagna back then.) Another major difference from the early years is the appearance of a now-discontinued character, Jon’s roommate and Odie’s owner, Lyman. Davis originally thought Jon needed another human character to converse with, but that soon proved unnecessary — Garfield’s thoughts provided all the humor required. By 1983, Lyman disappeared without any explanation, though he made two cameo appearances over the following decades.
Garfield the Pop Star
Garfield wouldn’t remain limited to the printed page for long. His popularity rose to new heights in the 1980s when a slew of animated television specials hit the airwaves. Here Comes Garfield was the first in 1982, but it was the follow-up Garfield on the Town in 1983 that was the most memorable. The shockingly poignant cartoon finds Garfield lost downtown, only to reunite with his mother Sonja and his street cat siblings at his birthplace, an abandoned Italian restaurant. The special proved Garfield was more than just a commercial cartoon, but a critically successful one — capable of emotional heft and heart. The special even won an Emmy, as did three other Garfield specials over the course of the decade. In 1988, the animated TV show Garfield and Friends premiered; the series became a staple of Saturday morning cartoons, running for seven seasons and over 100 episodes.
Garfield’s biggest (literally) debut, however, came in 1984, when he made his first appearance in balloon form at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. This rendition came in at a whopping 398 pounds, measuring 61 feet long and 35 feet wide. A remodeled version in 2003 included Garfield’s beloved teddy bear, and was said to be large enough to contain 37,000 pans of lasagna.
Garfield’s popularity continued into the 2000s with multiple live-action films. Garfield: The Movie (2004) and Garfield: A Tail of Two Kitties (2006) find a CGI version of the world’s laziest cat voiced by none other than Bill Murray. While Murray seems like a perfect fit, one other legendary actor was considered for the role — Jack Nicholson. Nicholson was never directly contacted, as Murray was asked first and immediately accepted the part, but it’s fun to imagine what could have been.
Garfield’s success shouldn’t come as a surprise. Davis originally set out to create a character that was not just relatable but highly marketable. Indeed, the tabby is the center of a merchandise empire that includes T-shirts, plush toys, posters, and even a VISA credit card. His likeness has been licensed over 400 times for various products worldwide. Among the most memorable are a Garfield-themed Caribbean cruise that set sail in 2003 in honor of the strip’s 25th anniversary, and the Garfield-themed restaurant that opened in 2019 in Toronto, serving up pizza, coffee beverages (called Garficcinos), and of course, lasagna.
As of 2021, the strip has appeared in over 2,500 newspapers across the country and holds the Guinness World Record for the world’s most syndicated comic. And that’s to say nothing of its international popularity. Garfield is read by nearly 200 million readers worldwide and is published in 80 countries, including translations in over 40 languages. In most, the cat is still known as good old Garfield, although in Sweden he goes by Gustav.
Garfield’s dominance can also be seen all over the internet. In the early days of the web, Garfield offered fans an “email (service) with cattitude” at the site gmail.garfield.com. (This was around 1998, well before Google was associated with the term “gmail.”) It’s worth noting that Garfield’s then-parent company, Paws Inc., never owned the actual domain ”gmail.com.” Instead, users who signed up got a much more charming email address — “@catsrule.garfield.com.”
Garfield has also inspired various memes and fan sites. One of the most notable tributes is “Garfield Minus Garfield,” which erases the cat from his very own comic. It’s absurd and at times existential in a baffling, reverential way. Even 40-plus years into his existence, Garfield’s presence (or lack thereof) still finds new ways of surprising us. For a cat whose main hobbies are eating and sleeping, he sure has accomplished a lot.