Larson’s Comic Strip Is Published Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Gary Larson’s The Far Side was the most popular and most influential single-panel newspaper comic of the 1980’s and early 1990’s.

Summary of Event

Gary Larson’s career as a cartoonist began when he sold six cartoons to a local Seattle magazine named Pacific Search for ninety dollars. On the strength of this initial success, Larson quit his job at a record store and went to work producing a regular feature for another small paper, the weekly Sumner News Review, where his single-panel cartoons appeared under the title Nature’s Way. Finding that cartooning paid too little, however, Larson quit and took a job as an inspector for the Humane Society—a fitting occupation, considering the role that animals played in his cartoons. In 1979, he resumed his career as a cartoonist when a friend showed his work to an editor at the Seattle Times and the paper began to run Nature’s Way as a weekly feature in its Saturday edition (usually the least widely read edition of the week). Larson, Gary

The Seattle Times paid Larson only fifteen dollars per cartoon, however, so in the hope of placing his work in additional paying markets, Larson drove south to San Francisco in the summer of 1979. He met with the comics editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, Stan Arnold, Arnold, Stan who offered Larson a deal for his cartoon to appear daily and eventual syndication through Chronicle Features, the newspaper company’s syndication arm. (Arnold briefly suggested that Larson create a comic strip, but Larson strongly preferred working in a single-panel format.) The name of the panel, The Far Side, was chosen by the Chronicle editors, not by Larson himself. Ironically, shortly before Larson received the offer from the Chronicle, the Seattle Times dropped Nature’s Way because it attracted too many complaints.

Gary Larson.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

The Far Side made its debut in the San Francisco Chronicle on January 1, 1980, and began appearing in other newspapers through Chronicle Features later that year. Larson’s quirky humor soon won The Far Side wide popularity, although the cartoon also had its avid detractors. One early incident was prompted by a panel captioned “Cow Tools,” which showed a group of cows standing around some lumpy objects made of indeterminate material. Larson later claimed that the lumps were not meant to represent literal tools, but thousands of fans and media observers attempted to puzzle out the tools’ uses, helping attract attention to the panel.

Although The Far Side had no regular continuity between panels or regularly appearing characters, it did have a recurring “cast” of visual images. Most of Larson’s humans were grotesques, including overweight middle-aged women with beehive hairdos and fat kids with acne and glasses. (The generally unflattering way in which Larson depicted humanity may be why The Far Side attracted little criticism on racial grounds, even though the population of humans featured was very heavily white.)

A huge variety of animal life appeared in The Far Side, including such seldom-anthropomorphized creatures as insects and squids, but cows and dogs were particularly prominent. Much of Larson’s humor was based on portraying animals in human domestic situations, as in a 1988 panel in which an insect couple admonishes their daughter, going out on a date, to wash off her pheromones. The joke relies on the reader’s knowing what pheromones are. As Larson’s humor frequently drew on his knowledge of science, The Far Side became a favorite of the scientific community. In 1989, Dale H. Clayton, an entomologist, even honored Larson by naming a newly discovered louse for him; Strigiphilus garylarsoni is a chewing louse found on owls.

Another typical source of humor in The Far Side was the difference in the perspectives of humans and animals. One strip showed a group of dog scientists puzzling over “the doorknob principle.” Unlike such previous anthropomorphic cartoon stars as Charles M. Schulz’s Schulz, Charles M. Snoopy and Jim Davis’s Garfield, Larson’s animals maintained a resolutely nonhuman perspective. Literalizing metaphors was another favorite Larson device. One panel shows astronauts on the Moon, with one peeling back the lunar surface to realize that it is only a paper Moon.

The Far Side was one of the most successful comic strips of the 1980’s. Larson was often linked with Berkeley Breathed, Breathed, Berkeley creator of Bloom County, Bloom County (Breathed) and Bill Watterson, Watterson, Bill creator of Calvin and Hobbes, Calvin and Hobbes (Watterson) in discussions of a new generation of newspaper cartoonists who were making the rather staid comics pages culturally exciting again. The Far Side was published in more than nineteen hundred newspapers, and Larson’s achievement was recognized by his peers in the National Cartoonists Society, who voted The Far Side the best newspaper panel in 1985 and 1988 and presented Larson with the society’s Reuben Award for Outstanding Cartoonist of the Year in 1990 and 1994.

Larson’s popularity did not preclude hostility, and the cartoonist received a lot of hate mail. Ironically, considering Larson’s previous employment as a Humane Society inspector and his strong support for environmentalism, some of his most controversial panels depicted cruelty to animals. One example is the 1988 panel captioned “Tethercat,” which shows dogs playing tetherball with a cat as the ball. Although pain, violence, and even torture were common in The Far Side, the effect was muted by Larson’s drawing style, in which characters never appeared to be suffering.

The first book-length compilation of Far Side panels, titled simply The Far Side, appeared in 1982, published by Andrews McMeel, the book-publishing arm of the Universal Press Syndicate, the dominant force in printing collections of newspaper comics. (When Larson’s contract with Chronicle Features expired in 1984, he moved The Far Side to Universal.) The Far Side eventually appeared in more than twenty compilations, which were translated into seventeen languages. The panels also appeared in popular calendars and on coffee mugs, greeting cards, and posters. An animated Far Side television special was also produced, although Larson’s lack of continuity between panels made his work very difficult to adapt in a continuous medium and its lack of continuing characters limited its licensing potential.

The last original Far Side panel ran on January 1, 1995. The last two panels actually had a continuity between them, a first for The Far Side. Larson in the role of Dorothy from the film version of The Wizard of Oz returned “home,” only to be surrounded by people who looked like his characters. This was not quite the end of The Far Side, however, as Larson drew thirteen more panels that appeared in the last collection of panels, titled Last Chapter and Worse (1996).

Significance

Larson’s weird, often implicitly violent humor and rejection of a regular cast of characters, regular settings, and continuity influenced or paved the way for the work of other single-panel cartoonists (some of whom possessed better drawing skills), such as Dan Piraro, Piraro, Dan creator of Bizarro. As of the early years of the twenty-first century, however, no other cartoonist had managed to replicate Larson’s success.

Despite his enormous success, Larson himself maintained anonymity, although not to the near-total degree achieved by Bill Watterson. After retiring the cartoon, Larson worked on various Far Side-related projects, such as collections and calendars. He also wrote a children’s book, There’s A Hair in My Dirt! A Worm’s Story (1998), which shows some of the same sensibility as The Far Side and displays Larson’s interest in using the form of the children’s book to teach science.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Heer, Jeet, and Kent Worcester, eds. Arguing Comics: Literary Masters on a Popular Medium. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2004. Collection of scholarly essays discusses newspaper comics, both as social phenomenon and as art form, from the late nineteenth century through the 1960’s. Provides historical context for the advent of The Far Side and other cartoons of the late twentieth century. Includes index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Larson, Gary. The Complete Far Side. Kansas City, Mo.: Andrews McMeel, 2003. Complete collection of all the published Far Side panels in chronological order, including many making their first appearance in a book. Also includes much additional material by Larson and others.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Last Chapter and Worse: A Far Side Collection. Kansas City, Mo.: Andrews McMeel, 1996. This collection of the last Far Side cartoons includes some additional material by Larson.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. The Prehistory of the Far Side: A Tenth Anniversary Exhibit. Kansas City, Mo.: Andrews McMeel, 1989. Collection of Larson sketches, early work, favorite cartoons, and a few particularly controversial Far Side panels with Larson’s recollections of his career and thoughts on his creative process.

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