trust the name it took me 233 times to practice saying with a straight face

Renowned cartoonist Jim Davis steps to the podium. A phalanx of photographers go to significant lengths to position themselves in a way that will honor his press agent’s request that Davis’ ass-length ponytail not be visible in any pictures. The media outnumber the fans at this symposium, though those few pilgrims who braved the snow to see his keynote speech at the Great White North Winter Summit Comic Convention in Butte, Montana, huddle together and hunch forward in the front three rows of chairs in the Emerald Room of the Best Western Plus Butte Plaza Inn with an intensity of devotion that makes Doctor Who enthusiasts seem casual by comparison. This intensity, of course, is best exemplified by their fierce reaction to anyone who mistakes them for Garfield fans, quickly correcting any mistaken assumption they they might be here to talk about anything other than U.S. Acres, Davis’ lesser-known daily strip set in a barnyard, which has scaled dizzying creative heights over the 27 years of its existence but never achieved the same commercial success as Davis’ iconic lasagna-loving cat.
Though U.S. Acres has been widely reported to have been cancelled in 1989, living on only as the “And Friends” side of the titular equation on the “Garfield and Friends” animated Saturday morning series that ran on CBS from 1988-94, its abiding duration continues to thrill its cult-like followers. Davis created U.S. Acres as a way to give voice to the subversive anti-capitalist message that he knew his regular audience couldn’t handle. Garfield, whose licensing rights enrich Davis by tens of millions of dollars every second of every minute of every day, pays the bills, but U.S. Acres is where he lets his creative side run wild. “These are stories that need to be told, but many are not ready to hear them,” he says.
Davis’ staff can usually shit out a month of Garfield strips in about four hours, which leaves him plenty of time to carefully craft the narratives of U.S. Acres. He spends a few weeks each month in a remote cabin in Utah, requiring absolute solitude to fret over even the finest details of each panel, whether applying a touch of pointillism to Roy the Rooster’s comb to simulate its spongy texture, or selecting an ink that is rated three grades blacker than standard comic-drawing ink to color in Orson the pig’s nostrils, the inner darkness of which is the strip’s most famous visual commentary on the emptiness of consumer culture.
When Davis first published U.S. Acres, his previous success led to a highly anticipated launch and predictions that he would have another hit on his hands. Eventually, however, the critical darling, saddled with high expectations, became too controversial for most audiences, first being bumped off the comics page and onto the op-ed page next to Doonesbury, but over time even the shitty newspapers (St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Edmonton Sun) jumped ship once Davis expressed his intention to run a week of strips in which Sheldon the baby chick, forever unwilling to fully emerge from his eggshell, used a banana to demonstrate the proper method for putting on a condom. Eventually U.S. Acres was only getting published in a handful of alt weeklies. The irony of Davis having nearly emptied his Garfield earnings to keep his passion project alive is that he soon found that his characters flourished away from the spotlight.
Davis engages the assembled fans with a long Q-and-A session, pausing before seemingly every other thoughtful answer to remark about how nice it is to be surrounded by people who appreciate his artistic vision in its purest form. Everything goes smoothly until an earnest young cub reporter elbows her way through the crowd. “Tell us about Odie’s owner Lyman,” she demands. “Don’t you think these people deserve to know why hasn’t he been seen since 1979?” Though not as often as it used to, this still occurs from time to time. As security drags the woman away, a visibly shaken Davis adjusts his tie uncomfortably and fumbles for a glass of water.

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August 2012
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