Davis was born in Fairmount, Indiana, near Marion where he grew up on a small farm with his father Jim Sr., his mother Betty, his brother Dave, and 25 cats. His love of cartooning emerged during the time he would normally be doing chores, but couldn't due to asthma. Davis' childhood on a farm parallels the life of Garfield's owner, Jon Arbuckle, who was also raised on a farm with his parents and brother Doc Boy. Jon, too, is a cartoonist, and also celebrates his birthday on July 28.
As an Art and Business major at Ball State University, he distinguished himself by earning one of the lowest cumulative grade point averages in the history of the school along with David Letterman. While attending Ball State, he pledged and became a member of Theta Xi Fraternity.
Prior to creating Garfield, Davis worked for a local advertising agency and in 1969 began assisting Tom Ryan's comic strip, Tumbleweeds.
He then created a comic strip, Gnorm Gnat, that ran for five years in The Pendleton Times, an Indiana newspaper. Davis tried to sell it to a national comic strip syndicate, but according to 20 Years & Still Kicking!: Garfield's Twentieth Anniversary Collection, an editor told him, "Your art is good, your gags are great, but bugs - nobody can indentify with bugs!" Five years after starting Gnorm Gnat, Davis drew a giant foot that fell out of the sky, crushing Gnorm and ending the comic strip.
On June 19, 1978, Garfield started syndication in 41 newspapers. Today, it appears in more than 2,500 newspapers, the world record for a currently-syndicated comic strip. There has been speculation that Garfield was named for the assassinated President of the United States, James Abram Garfield. This is only indirectly true, however. According to the book Garfield at 25: In Dog Years I'd Be Dead, he is actually named after Davis' grandfather, James Garfield Davis, who was named after President Garfield.
"Garfield and Friends" was an animated cartoon series that ran for seven years between 1988 and 1994; it was also created by cartoonist Davis and featured segments that were based on his comic strips; Garfield and U.S. Acres, a lesser-known comic strip, also created by Davis, featuring Orson the Pig and ran in newspapers during the late 1980s. Outside the U.S., the strip was known as Orson's Farm. He also created a strip based on Mr. Potato Head that ran from 2000 to 2003.
He now resides in Muncie, Indiana where he and his staff continue to produce Garfield under his own company, Paws, Inc., which started in 1981. He was married to Carolyn, a singer and elementary teacher whom he met while both were attending college, and has a son named James with her. However, according to IMDB and Garfield at 25, Davis is now divorced from Carolyn and, since 2000, has been married to a woman named Jill, the senior vice president of licensing who has worked at Paws for about twenty-five years.
Ironically, Davis did not have cats when he started Garfield because of Carolyn's allergies, but they owned a Labrador retriever named Molly. With Jill, the family has expanded to include children Ashley and Chris, granddaughter Chloe, and cats Link, Spunky, and Spritzy. Regarding leisure activities, Davis says in Garfield at 25: "When we're not working on Garfield, Jill and I like to golf, garden, attend school activities with the kids and go out for dinner and a movie once a week."
He is the America's best cartoonist!