Written By: Gina McIntyre

The following is from LIFE’s new special issue Garfield: Greatest. Cat. Ever. (Just ask him.), available at newsstands and online.

Ever since Garfield swaggered onto the pages of 41 American newspapers on June 19, 1978, the rotund feline famous for his love of lasagna, naps, and sarcastic asides has occupied a special place in the cultural consciousness. Lazy, self-centered, and an unrepentant grump, the cat turned out to possess enough deadpan charm to entertain generations of audiences. Trends might come and go, but Garfield is no fad—in fact, he’ll be back on the big screen in 2024’s animated feature The Garfield Movie, voiced by none other than Chris Pratt. 

The character has enjoyed a remarkable run, says creator Jim Davis, precisely because he’s both reliable and relatable, routinely expressing familiar feelings and frustrations. After all, who among us hasn’t wanted to eat pasta and nap all day? And does anyone actually like Mondays? 

“I hold a mirror to the reader and show them [their lives] back with a humorous twist, that’s all,” Davis says. “We’re made to feel guilty for overeating, not exercising, and over-sleeping. Garfield relieves our guilt by enjoying all of those things. More often than not, when someone laughs at a Garfield gag, it’s because they’re thinking, ‘Isn’t that true?!’”

In an age when attaining a satisfying work-life balance seems virtually impossible, and at a time when everyone is constantly asked to do more, achieve more, be better or risk feeling less than, Garfield serves as a potent reminder that some days, the healthier option is just going back to bed. The furry protagonist was clearly ahead of his time when it came to the idea of self-care.

But Garfield was also very much a creature of the 1980s—maybe the creature of the 1980s, a decade that celebrated conspicuous consumption in all its myriad forms and transformed the character into an A-list superstar. During the “greed is good” era, Davis’s comic-strip cat could be found not only in daily newspapers around the globe—when daily newspapers were a thriving concern and most households were subscribers—but also on the New York Times best-seller list, the cover of People magazine, and as a balloon in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. 

That’s in addition to headlining his own Emmy-winning animated TV specials and a Saturday morning cartoon, Garfield and Friends, not to mention the onslaught of merchandise featuring the feline. T-shirts, posters, coffee mugs—you name it, Garfield was on it. At the height of the Garfield craze, people simply couldn’t get enough of the obnoxious yet imminently lovable cat. 

“Garfield was all over the place,” says Robert J. Thompson, professor of popular culture at Syracuse University. “It was a user-friendly comic strip, which means not a whole lot of words and plenty of white space in between. And if you missed [Garfield] in the paper, you saw [him] in the licensing products and in the back windows of people’s cars or the TV specials. … Garfield was pretty much everywhere.”

Although no one could have anticipated just how successful Garfield would become, Davis had high hopes for how the cat might fare. He designed Garfield to appeal to the widest possible audience. In dreaming up the chubby character, Davis studied comic strips that were popular in the late 1970s and took notes. He’d noticed numerous high-profile offerings centering on dogs, most obviously Peanuts, with its anarchic beagle hero Snoopy. So he chose to create something for the world’s many cat lovers, taking inspiration from the felines who lived on his parents’ farm in Fairmount, Indiana.

“I pulled Garfield a little bit from several cats I knew, but more from the fat housecats that lived with my grandparents and friends—cats who had their own chair,” Davis told Entertainment Weekly in 2014. “It was the indoor cats that most influenced [Garfield]. He was also influenced by a lot of people. Basically, Garfield is a human in a cat suit. He exists in a cat’s body and moves like a cat and does many cat-like things, but really his basic personality is hopefully a lot like we all are, way down deep, with just our basic animal urges.”

To flesh out the strip, Davis developed characters—nerdy owner Jon Arbuckle, clueless dog Odie, obnoxious fellow feline Nermal—who could serve as foils for Garfield. As he explained to EW: “Jon has my eternal optimism. That’s me. I’m the guy whose glass is half full, always looking on the bright side of things. He’s a daydreamer, easygoing, puffy cheeks. I have that. … As Garfield is bright and cunning, Odie is not so bright, very accepting. Odie is a free spirit. It’s in the contrasts and the conflicts in the characters that humor is derived. If everybody looked alike and got along, there would be no humor.”

Additionally, Davis decided to omit timely political and cultural references. Garfield exists in a space where years don’t pass, characters don’t age, and no one ever argues about current events. “If you were to mention the football strike, you’re going to be excluding everyone else in the world that doesn’t watch pro football,” Davis explained to the Washington Post in 1982. 

Although critics sometimes groused that the cartoonist played things too safe, the public loved Garfield, and once it took off, Davis almost never wavered from his gag-a-day approach. The comic strip’s visual style was simple, the humor grounded in universally relatable day-to-day experiences, all the better to translate for international audiences. “I don’t use any proper names, I try to use as few colloquialisms as possible, and about the only sport I recognize is golf, which is easily translatable,” Davis told the National Post in 2007. “[If] I have to do a gag that’s based on something I know will be difficult to translate, I always encourage the translators to capture the essence of the gag, the spirit of the gag, and write it for their own vernacular. In fact, for a while, Garfield loved sushi in Japan. Until Italian restaurants opened up and they knew what lasagna was.”

Garfield-mania did abate somewhat as the 1990s gave way to the 21st century, but the character never vanished from view. In 2002, Garfield was named the globe’s most widely syndicated comic strip by the Guinness Book of World Records. It made the leap to the big screen in 2004 with Garfield: The Movie, followed two years later
by a sequel, Garfield: A Tail of Two Kitties. An animated series called The Garfield Show subsequently premiered in America in 2009. 

Garfield-branded merchandise continued to be big business—in 2018, the Guardian reported that the character brought in an estimated $750 million to $1 billion annually worldwide. 

“I say this all the time: Everyone is a fan of something, and they want their fandom to tell the story of who they are,” says Amanda Cioletti, vice president of content and strategy for Informa Markets’ global licensing group. “Engagement with licensed properties can reflect identity and self-expression for audiences. Garfield speaks to many with his frank, no-holds-barred, lasagna-loving self. He’s got a timeless, gruff charm that resonates, no matter the decade.” 

Although Davis sold the rights to Garfield to Viacom in 2019, he continues to play a hands-on role in the creation of the comic strip, ensuring that the characters and humor remain true to its essence. “I work in the same way with the same folks that I have for the last 35 years or so,” Davis says. “I write gags, and a couple of other people submit writing that I edit for use. I have long-time assistants who work on the drawing, inking, and coloring of the strip. I approve, sign, and date each strip before it goes out.” 

The fact that Davis remains so invested in his signature creation sets Garfield apart from some other long-running comic strips that have been passed on to other artists, often to their detriment, says Mike Peterson, who authors the Comic Strip of the Day feature for website Daily Cartoonist: “You get a lot of ‘zombie strips,’ which are strips that have been taken over. The original artists have been dead for 50 years, but the strip goes on. They’re not very imaginative. They’re not very interesting. But Garfield is still being produced. I realize Jim Davis [is] not sitting in a garage someplace scratching that out on Bristol board, but it’s still a fresh strip every day. It’s a new piece.”

That freshness is vital in attracting new readers to Garfield, though, given the precipitous decline in print newspaper circulation, fans young and old have long since begun keeping up with the cat in other media. Davis’s strips can be found online, on such sites as GoComics, and in 2023, Random House published the 75th Garfield book, Garfield Fully Caffeinated. Meanwhile, other creators are penning adventures for the character—people like Judd Winick, the New York Times best-selling creator of Hilo, who grew up on Davis’s comic strips. 

Winick told the website Comic Book Resources that it was a dream come true to be invited to contribute a short to BOOM! Studios’ 2017 graphic novel Garfield: Unreality TV, as he’d loved Garfield since childhood. “When I was 9 or so, it first started to run in my local paper,” Winick told Comic Book Resources. “It was around the same time that the second Garfield collection came out, Garfield Gains Weight. I was just nuts for it. I can’t tell you exactly what it was, but when I was little, I just thought it was so damn funny. Maybe it was because Garfield is so mean, maybe because it was kind of slapsticky, but it just hit me in the right sweet spot back then.”

It’s easy to forget just how revolutionary the notion of Garfield as a kind of lovable antihero was back when the cat first exploded onto the scene, Thompson notes. A protagonist who proudly embraces his flaws—who is, in fact, defined by them—felt entirely new and delightfully subversive. “We were just beginning to see those kinds of characters in the culture,” Thompson says. “Now, of course, it’s commonplace to have non-heroic [protagonists], from Mad Men to Breaking Bad to The Sopranos. They’re all [series about] antiheroes. 

“But Garfield was coming out when that was still relatively new, and there was something appealing about his unapologetic, cynical, sarcastic, lazy, hedonistic, apathetic personality,” Thompson continues. “We had all certainly known cats like that, but we also recognized humans like that. In fact, I think a lot of us recognize portions of ourselves in [Garfield]. If we had someone else feeding us and providing a roof over our head like Garfield did, we would probably be happy to lie around all day, dreaming of lasagna and complaining about Mondays.”

And even though the sassy cat, who celebrated his 45th birthday in 2023, has entered middle age, he remains as witty and wily (and hungry) as he’s always been. Times may change, Davis notes, but Garfield remains the same. “Whether we read the comics over breakfast or after school or work each day, comic strips and their characters become a part of our lives,” Davis says. “They entertain us and make us feel a little better every single day. We can count on the comics. In a world where life is changing almost daily, Garfield still loves lasagna and hates Mondays.”

Here is a selection of the many images in LIFE’s new special issue Garfield: Greatest. Cat. Ever.

Garfield courtesy of Nickelodeon © 2024 by Paws, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

In The Garfield Movie (2024), Chris Pratt voices the title character, while Nicholas Hoult plays pal Jon Arbuckle and Harvey Guillén is Odie.

Courtesy of DNEG Animation

The Garfield Movie (2024) has one scene in which the cat is literally living large, much to the consternation of Odie.

Courtesy of DNEG Animation

A still from the 2006 movie Garfield: A Tale of Two Kitties, which mixed animation and live action and had Bill Murray voicing the title character.

Photo by 20th Century Fox/Kobal/Shutterstock

Garfield creator Jim Davis showed a drawing of Odie to the dog who played Odie in Garfield: A Tale of Two Kitties (2006).

Gemma La Mana/20th Century Fox/Kobal/Shutterstock

Garfield creator Jim Davis posed with Cathy Kothe in her Long Island home in 2014, Kothe holds the Guinness record for the largest collection of Garfield memorabilia, with more than 6,000 objects.

Courtesy of Cathy and Robery Kothe

For more than 30 years, plastic Garfield phones like this one had been mysteriously washing up on French beaches; the riddle was solved when a shipping container full of them that had been lost during a storm was found in a sea cave.

Fred Tanneau/AFP via Getty Images

More Like This

arts & entertainment

The Dawn of Rock: America Finds Its Thrill

arts & entertainment

The Amazing Story Behind “Jumpman”

arts & entertainment

The Ageless Rolling Stones, Through the Ages

arts & entertainment

LIFE Said This Invention Would “Annihilate Time and Space”

arts & entertainment

LIFE Gushed That This Actress Was “Paulette, Hedy and Ava, All in One”

arts & entertainment

“The Synanon Fix” in LIFE