Five years ago, Gary Larson released The Complete Far Side, the definitive collection of his cartooning and the coda to his career. Larson’s fans, this one included, had kept hope kindled that he would revive The Far Side, even though he hadn’t drawn new cartoons for it in more than a decade.
It’s hard to remember now how bizarre and shocking The Far Side was; today’s cultural landscape is much more accepting of the random, off-beat, and downright strange. Larson’s strangeness was all the more unsettling because of its apparent normality; his rural-to-suburban world of cats, cows, kids, and couples seemed to live in a world almost like ours, but a good couple of steps away from it.
Looking back on it now, The Far Side is a strikingly analog world; rotary phones and four-door cars are about the extent of the technology. Computers themselves are absent, let alone the internet, cellular phones, or any of the ambient technology that surrounds us. (The Complete Far Side itself begs for a digital edition; the print edition weighs 18 pounds and includes more than 4000 cartoons in more than 1200 pages. My kingdom for an iPad version…).
Below, I try to encapsulate Larson’s worldview in The Far Side, using ten of the most exemplary panels:
1. “It just says ‘helf’”
While the people in The Far Side are often dumb, their stupidity is of a certain, stable kind: they are unfailingly literal. They obey rules, conventions, and social codes to an exactingly absurd degree.
2. “Let’s Get This Baby Off The Ground”
Larson’s taste for the absurdity generated by being too literal extends to language. Pun/sight-gag combinations are a Far Side staple, and Larson has a knack for finding the most ridiculous and surreal linguistic overlaps.
3. “The Hendersons Have the Bomb”
Overlapping might actually be Larson’s central technique. By transposing the rules and conventions of one part of the world onto a completely separate part of the world, Larson manages to critique both. Here, the nuclear arms race is mapped onto the suburban “keeping up with the Joneses” phenomenon, and both practices come out seeming pretty silly.
4. “Sort of Heavy Huffing and Puffing”
Larson, at his best, would even overlap more than two “worlds.” Here, the three little pigs not only exist, but they exist in our world and behave according to our rules and are subject to our problems. It’s a complexly simple joke that is both dark and absurd.
5. “You Had to Encourage Them to Take Thirds”
Larson’s absurdity often masked his darkness. Death, hell, torture, the end of the world: it was all in play. (One of the pleasures of The Complete Far Side are the included notes from outraged fans and breathless newspaper articles about his more controversial pieces.) I remember reading Far Side collections as a pre-teen and feeling like I was getting away with something—and perhaps I was.
6. “Bummer of a Birthmark”
In The Far Side, animals were both smarter and more sympathetic than the people. At its most melancholic, The Far Side outright lamented the fact that animals are the subjects of humanity.
7. “What We Say to Dogs”
The intersection of the human world with the animal world is probably the most frequent topic in The Far Side, and usually it is the obtuseness of the humans that generates the comedy. For all our supposed mastery, Larson seems to say, we sure are stupid.
8. “Boneless Chicken Ranch”
At its most extreme, Larson’s discomfort with the dominion humans have over nature manifested itself as comedic grotesques. The grotesque (monsters, mutants, giants, etc) appeared in The Far Side as a sort of warning against assuming we have mastered nature. The bizarre lurked around every corner, lived in every basement, and was concocted in every lab, just waiting for the ignorant and arrogant.
9. “Billy…the Tide’s Coming In”
Just as Larson pokes fun at our supposed superiority to nature, he also reminds us that the master/inferior relation between adults and kids is anything but assured: adults act like careless children and children act like scheming adults.
10. “Is it ‘Us, the People?’”
Ultimately, Larson’s central principal is really pretty simple: no one is as smart as they think they are. And, that, dear reader, includes you. (Man, I love and miss The Far Side.)
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