The Garfield comic strip debuted on June 19, 1978, in 41 newspapers. By the early 1980s, it had expanded into 2,000 publications and helped launch a craze that Time magazine dubbed "Cat Chic." Marking its 25th anniversary this year, the fat cat now appears in more than 2,500 papers worldwide and has spurred sales of 130 million books.

"I credit book publishing with Garfield's success," creator Jim Davis said. Garfield at Large, the first compilation title based on the property, came out in 1980 and led to a 20-fold increase in newspaper syndication sales, according to Davis. The books generated awareness for the character and, unlike the throw-away daily strips, gave fans something they could keep and re-read.

They also are profitable; lead publisher Ballantine is the number-two Garfield licensee in royalty revenues, according to Mark Acey, director of publishing and, along with Scott Nickel, one of two writers at Davis's 60-employee company, Paws Inc. "The two big pillars of our licensing program are publishing and social expressions, not just monetarily but for building lifelong fans." ("Social expressions" refers to greeting cards and other captioned items.)

With Garfield at Large, Davis and Ballantine broke away from the traditional mass-market compilation format. Davis had the idea that a horizontal book would allow fans to read the strips as they're laid out in the newspaper, instead of stacked. "It preserved the flow and evolution of the character," he explained. The format gave rise to challenges, however, such as high printing and binding costs and merchandising difficulties. "We were, for a while, the laughingstock of the industry."

But it turned out that the book's $4.95 price (versus $1.98 or $2.98 for competitors) was considered appropriate for gift-giving, while the odd size spurred retailers to display the books at the register or as face-outs. The title immediately hit number one on the New York Times bestseller list and stayed there for two years. All told, 11 Garfield books occupied the list's top spot during the 1980s; seven titles appeared simultaneously in 1983.

Wide Appeal

Ballantine's compilations form the core of the 300-book Garfield publishing program, which encompasses everything from coloring and activity books to leather-bound collectible editions. Ballantine has released more than 100 titles, including the compilations--this year's, Garfield Eats Crow, is the 39th--and other formats, such as the mass-market Garfield's Insults, Put-downs & Slams (1994), in its 16th printing. Other current U.S. publishers are Andrews & McMeel (for gift titles and a new cookbook), Troll (children's books and clubs), Bendon (coloring and activity), Merriam-Webster (dictionaries) and Easton Press (leatherbound editions).

For 2003, about a dozen Garfield books are planned, five of those from Ballantine, which is repackaging its early compilations in a larger format with color and will introduce the fifth repackage, Garfield Takes the Cake, this year. Ballantine is also promoting a value pack of the first three repackaged titles, known as the Fat Cat Pack. Meanwhile, the $35 Garfield 25th anniversary book, In Dog Years I'd Be Dead, introduced in time for last year's holiday season, had a first printing of 100,000, according to Jennifer Osborne, Ballantine's associate director of licensing.

Osborne attributes the success of Garfield, in part, to the character's popularity with every age group. "With Garfield, the audience is so completely broad," she said, reporting a big fan base in the college market, as well as among adults and kids. Garfield also backlists well, with 75% of titles still in print.

Roy Wandelmaier, publisher of decade-long licensee Troll, whose titles include Garfield's Big Book of Excellent Excuses (1999), agreed that the property performs at all age levels. "It's unusual for a licensed property to have that wide an appeal," Wandelmaier said, recalling that Garfield was one of Troll's first license acquisitions. "Most licenses come and go, but this one seems as popular now as it was 10 years ago." While not sure why Garfield resonates with kids, Wandelmaier believes sarcastic humor is part of it: "He's sort of a wiseacre."

Garfield has long been connected with education, such as through literacy organizations and licensed school curricula. The Merriam-Webster dictionary, in which Garfield strips illustrate selected terms, grew out of the character's success as a teaching tool. Davis explained that he has always received mail from fans--not only children, but immigrants and learning-disabled adults--telling how Garfield helped them read.

Celebrating the 25th

To promote Garfield's birthday and the 25th anniversary book, Davis is on tour for the first time since the early 1980s, with stops at bookstores as well as animation galleries. Meanwhile, B. Dalton, Waldenbooks and Barnes & Noble stores are endcapping the anniversary book, along with backlist titles, during June and July. Other events include a one-week cruise in May, attended by Davis, and featuring a memorabilia auction; a "Happy Birthday to Me" touring show, opening at Dollywood in June; a TV special on the Discovery Travel Channel in September; promotions and anniversary products from licensees; and birthday events in Paws' hometown (Muncie, Ind.).

The year will close with a live-action/computer-animated feature film, scheduled for a December 19 release. Although Garfield had a long run on television--12 primetime specials beginning in 1982 and Garfield and Friends, a Saturday morning series that aired from 1988 through 1995 and then in syndication--the character has never starred in a movie.

Davis, whose two favorite Garfield book titles are Garfield at Large, "because it got everything started," and Garfield's Nine Lives, which features nine stories in different drawing and writing styles, predicts that books will remain important to the franchise over its second 25 years. "Next to the comic strip, it's the most important thing we do," he said.