x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

'To: Anyone, Abu Dhabi'

Feature Garfield, the title character of the world's most widely syndicated comic strip, has been shipping the kitten Nermal here for nearly 25 years. John Mather speaks to the cartoon's creator and asks him why he chose the capital.

The first time Nermal was nearly shipped to Abu Dhabi on Jan 28 1984.
The first time Nermal was nearly shipped to Abu Dhabi on Jan 28 1984.

Garfield, the title character of the world's most widely syndicated comic strip, has been shipping the kitten Nermal here for nearly 25 years. John Mather speaks to the cartoon's creator and asks him why he chose the capital.
Garfield, the obese cat who believes "lethargy takes real discipline", stands in front of a mirror admiring his physique while Nermal, the self-proclaimed cutest kitten in the world, sits beside him. "How do you think I look?" Garfield asks.

"Like a million, give or take a year," Nermal responds. "I think I carry my weight rather well," Garfield continues. Nermal shoots back: "You should. You've had the practice." Finally, Garfield says: "Do you think I have a strong chin?" "Which one?" With that, Garfield pats Nermal on the head, stuffs the kitten in a box and places him on the doorstep with the address: "Anyone, Abu Dhabi". It is not the first time the lasagne-loving feline has tried to ship his nemesis to the capital. The joke began in 1984, when Jim Davis, Garfield's creator, picked the UAE as the last stop on the Annoying Kitten Express. Since then, the gag has been syndicated in more than 2,000 newspapers worldwide, and has put Abu Dhabi on the map for many people contemplating a move to the Arab world. But few know why Davis chose Abu Dhabi as the place where all the cute kittens go.

"I wanted to pick something that sounded like nothing in the United States," he says from his office in Albany, Indiana, where he runs the all-things-Garfield company Paws Inc. "I didn't want to send him to Middleton or Springfield." The cartoonist remembers liking the ring of Abu Dhabi - "it sounds like a song" - but his assistant was pushing him to send Nermal to Tierra del Fuego, the archipelago on the southernmost tip of South America.

So Davis began researching his choices. He discovered the UAE, then an adolescent nation, is a friend of the United States and predicted the two countries would remain peaceful. "I was careful to pick a location that we were not going to be at war with in 10 years," he says. "And I just love that name. It was a perfect fit." Davis is keen to emphasise that his choice is in no way a reflection on the UAE. "I don't think of it as a place of banishment." Instead, he says, Abu Dhabi, with its lyrical name, holds a metaphorical position in Garfield's life. "Nermal represents all Garfield's insecurities. He's young, very cute and rather slender compared to Garfield.

"Nermal is the exact opposite of Garfield. When he sends Nermal to Abu Dhabi it's like any of us when we're in denial about our own state in life - we'll pack up all those insecurities and send them far away." Perhaps surprisingly, Davis has never visited Abu Dhabi or the UAE. "Nermal goes there often. He may have developed some friendships there. But I have no desire to go." Since becoming a grandfather, Davis, like Garfield, has become a homebody and he doesn't travel much any more (in 2002, he sold his paw-print-covered private jet). He has two sons and a daughter and three grandchildren. His son James recently returned from a tour in Afghanistan.

Born on July 28 1945 in Marion, Indiana, Davis now works an hour's drive away in Albany. Growing up, he was surrounded by 25 cats on his family's farm. He credits his childhood asthma, which kept him indoors and away from farm chores, for developing his artistic abilities and his family for his sense of humour. After university, he began working as an assistant for Tom K Ryan, the creator of the Tumbleweeds comic. His own first comic strip, about a bug named Gnorm Gnat, struggled to impress newspapers and ended its unsuccessful run when a giant foot crushed the main character. He then turned to the comic pages for inspiration and noticed there weren't any cats. Cats, he says, are allowed to get away with anything and so Garfield can take "our guilt away for being essentially lazy slobs".

At his office there are two cats: a fat tiger cat and another originally called Charlie Brown, now renamed Nermal. Garfield the cartoon is a composite of the imagined personalities of the cats on Davis's parents' farm and his grandfather, the original Garfield, who died in 1951. "My grandfather was a big man with a grumpy, crusty wit but a heart of gold," he told a newspaper in 2006. "He seemed gruff, but his eyes gave him away. He had the world's largest laugh."

On June 19 1978, Garfield made his first appearance in 41 newspapers. Thirty years later, the wisecracking layabout, who maintains a strict regime of sleep, eat, watch TV and repeat, is the most widely syndicated cartoon in the world, according to Guinness World Records. An estimated 263 million people follow his exploits in newspapers and he has starred on TV and in film. Davis has estimated Garfield, whose face has been slapped on everything from bumper stickers to underwear, earns Dh2,755,500 million annually. A new edition to the Garfield brand could be a UAE-based Garfield theme park. Davis says he has been following the country's development with interest but as it stands, there is "nothing we can announce yet and nothing concrete".

Until there is a plan, Garfield will continue shipping Nermal to the UAE "for as long as he can. Absolutely. I think in these changing times some of the constants are reassuring. I see no reason not to send Nermal to Abu Dhabi for the next 100 years." In fact, a permanent move to Abu Dhabi for Nermal might suit both characters. Garfield, who describes Nermal as a "wide-eyed mindless little piece of fluff", "the Shirley Temple of the feline set", and "so cute it's disgusting", would rid himself of one of many annoyances. And Nermal, who revels in rubbing his cuteness in the face of others, would find a land filled with thousands of cats, both cute and otherwise.