The Surprisingly Simple Reason Jim Davis Created Garfield

The Garfield Movie Credit - Courtesy of Sony Pictures

The Garfield Movie, in theaters May 24, offers a healthy dose of body pawsitivity in a sprawling story about how an orange tabby named Garfield became America's most famous fat lazy cat.

The film starts with Garfield (Chris Pratt) on his smartphone, ordering his beloved lasagna to be delivered via drone. It turns out to be a last supper of sorts: Garfield is then kidnapped by a devilish white Persian cat named Jinx (Hannah Waddingham), who used to be in a gang that stole milk with his father, Vic (Samuel L. Jackson). Garfield has long thought his father abandoned him in an alleyway, but he learns that Vic actually left to get food for the family, and Garfield was gone by the time he returned. In his absence, the movie reveals, Garfield befriended his future owner, Jon (Nicholas Hoult) when he found him eating alone at an Italian restaurant. The cat gobbled up plates of pizza and pasta, and then nuzzled Jon until he took the cat home. Though they were separated, Vic watched Garfield grow up from his perch in an oak tree across from Jon’s house.

In nearly two emotional hours, Garfield does eventually make peace with his father after he finds a series of scratch marks on the oak tree that Vic made and realizes that his dad was telling the truth about watching him grow up. By the end of the film, Vic is part of the family, joining in for dinner with Jon and lazing around on the couch.

The hiss-tory of the Garfield comic strip, which inspired the movie, is much less complicated, however.

<span class="copyright">Courtesy of Sony Pictures</span>
Courtesy of Sony Pictures

Garfield creator Jim Davis started cartooning as a child on a farm near Marion, Indiana, when he spent a lot of days homebound because of bad asthma. He made his mother laugh with his drawings and kept doodling to make her smile. Lots of his early drawings were of the farm animals, like cows and horses, but he also drew some of the dogs and 25 cats on the property.

Davis later landed a job as an assistant on the comic strip Tumbleweeds, and started dreaming up a comic strip about an animal. An early one was about a gnat named Gnorm Gnat, but an editor quickly told him that people would most likely not want to read it. There was already a comic strip about a dog named Snoopy, but Davis didn’t see any about cats and wondered if he could create one to appeal to cat lovers.

Garfield debuted June 19, 1978, in 41 newspapers. The cat's name is a tribute to Davis’s beloved grandfather, James A. Garfield Davis—"a large gruff man with very kind eyes, so the personality fits Garfield," the cartoonist told The Today Show in 2003.

The origins of Garfield’s constantly hungry purrsonality can be traced to that of Davis, who has always loved lasagna just like the fictional cat. “I put Garfield on diets when I go on diets. I love food,” Davis confessed to The Boston Globe in 2003. But he says he sees himself the most in Garfield’s owner Jon because he’s “a daydreamer” and “a wishy-washy optimist” who has trouble getting dates (a problem Davis says he had in college).

In 1980, the first Garfield compilation had pounced to the New York Times bestseller list. Garfield was one of the reasons TIME did a cover on cats a year later, arguing that between the comic strip and the musical Cats, there was “a cat boom in the U.S.” In 2003, the Guinness Book of World Records dubbed Garfield the world’s most widely syndicated comic strip. By 2004, Garfield was a movie star, with Bill Murray voicing the character in Garfield: The Movie. Twenty years later, The Garfield Movie puts a new spin on the cat's origin story.

One of the reasons Davis thinks a comic strip about a fat orange cat has endured is because anyone can relate to his love of eating and lazing.

“People like Garfield because he relieves their guilt,” Davis told CBS News in 1994. “We live in a time where we’re made to feel guilty about overeating and oversleeping and not exercising. And Garfield not only does that, but defends his right to do that. He’s happy with himself.”

Write to Olivia B. Waxman at