Many grow up with the presence of newspaper strips immediately within reach. These snippets of surreality appeal primarily to children, which is odd considering the intended audience of the “funnies” earlier in the 20th century. Leon Schlesinger’s Merry Melodies, which came out of Warner Bros. Cartoons, Inc. (transitioning to Warner Bros. Animation in the 1980s), ran in tandem with other Warner Brothers productions as advertisements for their subsidiaries in the music industry. Usually these cartoons were aimed at adults rather than children. The funnies shared a similar history, and featured bombastically drawn political satires on the talk of the day. These cartoons, while vibrant and bright, weren’t produced for children; at least that wasn’t the intention initially.
Since these strips persist today, why they still exist is a difficult question to answer. Whether they are meant to break the monotony of routine or function loosely as creative outlets for political satire is uncertain. Because they are colorful and “fun” to look at, it is likely they are still the lure for children, marketing to future readers that will stay loyal to syndicated journalism. Yet on the cusp of postmodernism, as other genres of literature break down and stagger under the weight of atrocity, absurdity, Samuel Beckett, and loss of spirituality, some comics likewise have taken the plunge into the black humor and cynicism that characterizes Gen X, Grunge, and Millennials. Chief of these comics is Gary Larson’s The Far Side, which was syndicated over the course of the eighties to mid-nineties.
Larson’s work is widely recognizable, celebrated and reprinted in a variety of mediums from books to table calendars, boasting projected sales of copies in the tens of millions. A top-notch satirist, commenting on the incongruities of everyday life, Larson’s signature brand of humor is accessible to all ages, but functions as an adult commentary on domesticity, gender, spirituality, and animal-human relations. Collected editions, anthologized under the label of “Galleries,” are like small museums of cartooning antiquity. Some conform to a general theme. Wiener Dog Art and Cows of Our Planet feature elaborately colored artwork in the centerfold, departing from the uncolored, black-and-white reproductions from the newspaper strips. Mostly, the Galleries are thematically unbound. Only one publication, The PreHistory of The Far Side, departs from the formulaic reprinting style and features a semi-serious autobiography of Larson and his doodles as a child (though even these arouse suspicion that Larson is putting on a ruse).
Larson’s signature style is often accentuated with the subtlety of motion. Whereas comics tend to emphasize sweeping movement, like Garfield pouncing on Odie or Charlie Brown missing a punted football, Larson employs gestures in his visual gags, which promote his trademark minimalism. (This aides his presentation, which predominantly focuses on a single panel.) In cartooning, many strips rely on formulaic approaches to storytelling, primarily emphasizing the beginning, middle, and end of a joke. Typically the first panel sets up the premise, followed by the joke’s content in the second. The third and final panel functions as the punchline, or “aha” moment that completes the sublimely geometric rendering of the comic’s framework. Larson’s methodology is a microcosm in strip making: employing the single panel as a means of focus on two parties, primarily protagonist and antagonist. Within each frame are the necessary components for a joke, without the cushion of a three panel setup. This makes Larson’s work doubly effective for initiating humor faster than traditional strips.
Unlike most strips, Larson’s work features a variety of characters that share no continuity with one another. Larson rarely falls back onto pop-culture references or current event satire, therefore deviating from comic strips that rely on general humor which is usually explored through a cast of protagonists. Among his stock characters are generic men and women, dressed in 50s attire and professional clothing. Like modern animated sitcoms that paint male characters as buffoons and women as stable, rational figures, Larson’s men and women are similar in design, usually employing a cunning, strong-willed housewife to confound her husband or a male predator. When men are depicted they tend to be complacent, presumptuous, childish, or innocent. Playing with this cultural inversion, Larson furthers his humor by using animals, relying on observational humor and absurdity. Much like the depiction of men and women, Larson captures a Darwinian struggle between species. Common jokes include hunters trying to shoot deer, and themselves being captured by aliens, or headhunters in stunned awe of an explorer with a massive head. The jokes are rendered with matter-of-fact presentation. If Superman’s wife finds herself progressively irritated with the Man of Steel, she stitches in small lettering “stupid” next to his “S” insignia. What is funny about the joke isn’t that she is insulting him, but that she is using something fundamental about him and his iconography to lampoon his alter ego.
Considering the nomenclature, the actual title of Larson’s work, “The Far Side,” is implicitly postmodern, using the Other as the butt of the joke. This is consistent with Larson’s use of interspecies and intergender antagonism. Much of what Larson endeavors to satirize is the communal understanding of one another by pitting two individuals against each other psychologically. Larson’s most infamous sight gag, “Trouble Brewing,” features a line of fiercely attentive dingoes perched and looking through the fence at two unsuspecting toddlers under the care of Doreen’s Nursery. The reader can appreciate each perspective in the panel: the hunger and wily aspect of the dingo, and the benign unawareness of the toddlers. Each perspective lets us ponder what it must be like to be the Other in a given circumstance, especially the numerous strips featuring an anthropomorphic Judeo-Christian god creating the world, and other assorted creatures.
First and foremost, one can peg Larson as an “American” comic strip artist beyond a doubt, presenting many tropes that are implicitly informed by the American experience. Cowboys and Indians, hicks and amazon cannibals, all are integrated with American culture, with the emphasis of civilized behavior being humorously placed upon those that we would least suspect. Larson paints the Indians with a modicum of intelligence over their Caucasian counterparts, playing dumb on purpose or leading their subjugators astray. Likewise, cannibals take on American traditions, like sitting around a campfire and telling stories. Often these stories are macabre, like many forms of American entertainment, in which we laugh at violence and suffering. Still, Larson’s emphasis on novelty allows his dark-tinted outlook to retain his bleak sense of humor. One such strip depicts a party of diamondback rattlesnakes basking on lawn chairs in the middle of a desert highway. The implication, of course, is that the snakes will soon be dead, but at least they got a good tan out of it.
Out in front, and present in the culture, Gary Larson is widely recognized by any unfortunate consumer entering a large book sales retailer. Many own his yearly wall calendars, his books, and maybe a few have seen his Halloween special. After retirement, Larson was recognized for his talent and was invited to draw the November 2003 cover of the New Yorker, eight years after he stopped drawing his 15 year long strip. Even post 9/11, Larson’s humor retains its awe, and many undoubtedly await his return from retirement.