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Judd Winick Lives Out a Childhood Dream: Writing and Drawing Garfield

by  in Comic News Comment
Judd Winick Lives Out a Childhood Dream: Writing and Drawing Garfield

Judd Winick has gotten to do a lot of cool stuff in his comics career. He’s created concepts including The Adventures of Barry Ween, Boy Genius and the current all-ages series Hilo, and written major superheroes for DC Comics and Marvel including runs on Batman, Green Lantern and Exiles.

Yet it wasn’t until now that Winick got to realize a dream held since he was a child: Writing and drawing a Garfield story. Winick got the chance to put his spin on Jim Davis’ famous feline in BOOM! Studios’ Garfield: Unreality TV anthology graphic novel, released from the company’s KaBOOM! imprint and available now in comic book shops and June 6 in bookstores, with contributors including Mark Evanier, Scott Nickel and Antonio Alfaro. Winick’s 10-page story, “Dream Big,” includes both a black-and-white framing sequence reminiscent of the newspaper strips, along with a full-color action in a traditional comic book style; as bad lasagna causes the Monday-hating cat to dream a monster vs. robot battle between Giant Garfield and Mech-Odie-A-Tron.

CBR spoke to Winick about the story, his long history with Garfield, the success of Hilo and whether or not he’s looking to return to the world of superhero comics, where he penned famous stories including the Jason Todd-centric Batman tale “Under the Hood.”

CBR: Judd, given your background in comic strips, how important was Garfield to you in your formative years? Obviously it looms very large in that space.

Judd Winick: To go into full nerd speak, just as people refer to a certain Doctor of Doctor Who as being “my doctor,” meaning their favorite Doctor who got them into loving the show, Garfield was “my comic strip.” When I was nine or so, it first started to run in my local paper. 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 slapstick-y, but it just hit me in the right sweet spot back then.

And Garfield truly, 100 percent, inspired me to become a cartoonist. I immediately began drawing Garfield. I really learned how to draw in those early years by copying Garfield over and over again. I eventually would make my own comic strip, Marvin, which was also about a fat angry cat. It was my first plagiarism. Well, to be honest, not out-and-out plagiarism. More like fanfiction. But yes, I loved it so much.

Your story’s notable since you’re bringing your own interpretation to the characters — they’re recognizable, but it’s definitely something a little different than the classic depictions. What was it like coming up with your own take on Garfield, Odie and Jon?

I thought about it a bit before I dove in to make the story. What I landed on was I actually wanted to do a couple of classic Garfield comic strips. Simply because right now, I was given the opportunity to do that! Actually do Garfield comic strips! Who can say no to that? But with that, I wanted to put a huge twist on it and make like the work I do, the work that’s really me, right now. Which was sequential art, and big ol’ action adventure stuff. Also, I didn’t want to stray too far from Garfield‘s voice. I didn’t want to make it any more mature, I didn’t want to make it less “Garfield” than the actual characters. This spin I wanted to put it on it was the story I was making up, not the tone.

I’d imagine that you probably didn’t realistically expect to have a shot at Garfield before this opportunity came — what was it like coming up with the story of “Dream Big”? Did you ever have any Garfield gags running through your head over the years? And how fun was it to utilize both comic book style-panels and the traditional three-panel format?

If you would’ve told the nine-year-old me, who was reading Garfield, that someday he would be working on Garfield, I think he would’ve had a heart attack. The truth is, for a very long time, comic strips were just that — comic strips. The fact that they’re branching out into other forms of storytelling gives fans like me an opportunity to take these characters that we grew up with and tell the stories.

It is not dissimilar to finally being able to write superhero stories. As a kid, I read Green Arrow, X-Men and Batman, and as a grown-up being able to write those characters was mind-blowing. This was sort of a similar feeling. And the opportunity to bust these characters out from their regular comic strip format and into a sequential art format was really liberating. One of the greatest burdens in doing comic strips is that they’re literally just so small. It really takes a true talent — you have three or four panels to tell a joke, and very little room for art. This is something that has been discussed for decades among comic strip cartoonists.

I did a comic strip, Frumpy the Clown, for about four years, so I can attest to it personally. There’s so little room to draw this tiny story. Half the panels are taken up by dialogue. But that’s the challenge. Talented people are able to do it. I didn’t have that burden with this little story. I could branch out and do whatever I wanted. So, I got to do both. It was awesome fun.

To a degree, Garfield has been looked down on by some, but it feels like recently, that’s turned around a bit and it’s gained more appreciation. What was it like for you to add to a character like this?

Well, to be honest, I don’t accept your premise that Garfield as looked down upon. I don’t know who you’re hanging out with, but none of that talk was coming from anybody I know. [Laughs]

But I do absolutely agree that there’s been a resurgence. And I think that has everything to do with guys and gals who are my age who grew up on this comic strip are now handing it off to their children. I did just that. I gave my kids my old, beat-up Garfield collection. It just cracked them the heck up. They love it.

And it was a reminder to me, and I’m guessing a lot of people too, how great Garfield really is. So, I think some of the stuff is just generational. They go up on the bookshelf for a while then they come back down.

Now that it’s been about two years since Hilo has been out in the world, how have you enjoyed this phase of your career? It’s clear that all-ages material is a real growth market in the comics industry, and Hilo in particular has certainly seen success — what’s it like being in this world full-time, rather than your years in superhero comics?

To say I’m amazed and thrilled with the success of Hilo is an understatement. I can barely put words to it but I’ll try. I never had any expectation that the Hilo series would become a New York Times bestseller, I never had any expectation that it would be as successful as it is. “Gratifying” doesn’t really do it justice. I’ve kind of come full circle. I’ve always viewed myself as a cartoonist, but I got away from it for a number of years. I simply wasn’t writing and drawing. I simply wasn’t a cartoonist.

I started out as a comic strip cartoonist. I had a syndicated comic strip. And syndicated comic strips are not just for kids — they’re all ages. If you think about it, young and old alike would open their newspapers and read the funnies. That’s where I started. And now I feel like I’ve come back to that. Hilo, thankfully, wasn’t viewed as a children’s book series, but as an actual all-ages series. For one, there’s no bigger thrill in the whole wide world than doing school visits. I went to schools, headed into an auditorium, and there were 300 kids going bananas. It’s like no other feeling on Earth. Simply because they like this cartoon I came up with. For that reason, I do as many school visits as I possibly can. I highly recommend it to everybody.

On the flipside, it’s a huge thrill when I meet the men and women who have read my Green Arrow run, or Batman, or Exiles, and tell me how much they’re digging Hilo. I think the advantage came from having written superhero comics for as long as I did — I put my 10,000 hours into writing superhero comics, to reference the phrase. So, doing this all-ages story, which is serialized, I really get to draw from that. Hilo is an ongoing story, and the grown-up comic book readers enjoy that. And the kiddos, as I mentioned, really dig it. Again, if you can find some way to earn the adoration of children, do it. Hundreds of kids yelling out, “Outstanding!,” which is Hilo’s catchphrase, is just nuts. I love it.

Speaking of superheroes — DC Comics has gained serious traction in the past year with its Rebirth initiative. As someone who worked on those characters for years, have you kept an eye on what they’ve been doing? Do you have any inkling to return to that world?

I’m still, and always will be one of the biggest superhero fans around. And of course, I never say never.

Garfield: Unreality TV is on sale now in comics shops, and June 6 in bookstores.

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