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Tails from a Garfield writer

UC alum Mark Acey has written and edited about 60 Garfield books for Jim Davis over the last 15 years

by John Bach

Mark Acey has certainly put his English lit degree to good use. Who could forget such classic works as "To Grill a Mockingbird," "Julius Caesar Salad" and "Macbreath"?  The 1982 University of Cincinnati grad is head writer and director of publishing for Paws Inc., the Garfield empire created by Jim Davis and his 28-year-old comic cat.

Acey has written and edited about 60 Garfield books over the last 15 years from children's stories, "Any Cat Can Cook," to adolescent pieces, "Garfield's Big Book of Excellent Excuses," to a historical coffee table book for all ages, "Garfield at 25: In Dog Years I'd Be Dead." The audience ranges from "womb to tomb," Acey says. "Garfield's brand of humor transcends age. Whether you're young or young at heart, or someone named Young with a transplanted pig heart."

Mark is one of dozens of creative and business talents — Jim Davis included -- who keep the fat cat purring inside the Paws Inc. studio in Albany, Ind. The 36,000 square-foot complex, which sits on 121 acres of farmland, includes a three-story atrium, an exercise facility, a cafeteria, a private greenhouse and even its own solar aquatic water treatment plant.

"It is the greatest job in the world," says Acey, A&S '79, Ed '79, MA (A&S) '82. "I get paid to be a smart aleck. In junior high it only got me detention." Acey spends most of his workdays at the studio, but tries to spend a couple of days a week working from his home an hour away in Carmel, Ind. -- "with or without pants," he adds. "You can't beat that." Whether in studio or at home, Acey's career revolves around Garfield, the star of the most widely syndicated cartoon strip in the world, numerous TV shows and two feature films. It is a career, he has found, that sparks conversation.

Garfield Literary Classics

"My wife (Jugnoo Husain, MD '81, 'not related to Saddam,' Mark points out) is a doctor, and when I tell people at her functions that I write for Garfield, they light up. Suddenly that becomes more interesting than pathology. It is like, enough about tumors, let's talk about the fat cat."

Though Acey has done some writing for the comic strip, most of his work involves either products or publishing, since Garfield has become a merchandising behemoth. Recall the stuck-on-you craze that had the flabby feline suctioned to seemingly every other car window in America. Tens of millions were sold in the late '80s.

Plus, "the rude dude with an attitude" has clawed his way into hundreds of books. The books, often a compilation of Davis' newspaper strips and biting wit from writers like Acey, have sold more than 130 million copies around the globe. Eleven have even hit the No. 1 spot on the New York Times bestseller list.

"It is truly a worldwide phenomenon," Acey says. "I still get a kick when I'm in Toronto or Paris and see a book. It is like, 'Hey, my name's in that.'"

The 48-year-old funnyman has earned a long creative leash.

In Dog Years I'd Be Dead

"I pretty much deal with the publishers and come up with the book concepts," Acey says. "It all starts with an idea, then I work with the art director and the designers to come up with appropriate illustrations."

Of course Acey doesn't write only Garfield books. The projects that cross his desk include posters, T-shirts, ad copy, toys, signage and even greeting cards. Writing greeting cards happens to be the way he got his start as a humor writer with Cincinnati's Gibson Greeting Cards in 1983. It turned out to be a bigger break than he knew. That's where he met Jim Davis and wrote his first Garfield greeting card 23 years ago. Four years later, he went to Paramount Greeting Cards to serve as editorial director. Acey left that position after a few years to move to Muncie, Ind., so his wife could complete her residency. The location was perfect for his career.

"It happened to be the world headquarters of Garfield," Acey says. "We did have it in our minds that Jim Davis might hire me. I had taken field trips there when I worked at Gibson, and one of my buddies, Jim Kraft (MA (A&S) '78), had already been hired.

"So I wasn't a stranger to Jim Davis -- just strange. Luckily he likes that in a writer. I pretty much deposited myself on his doorstep, and, luckily, he opened it. It has been just fabulous. I am extremely lucky."


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