Just shy of 25 years since its last original installment, the offbeat comic strip “The Far Side” has returned. In a manner of speaking, but please don’t call it a comeback.
“I’m not ‘back,’ at least in the sense I think you’re asking,” said Gary Larson, the cartoonist who created it, via email last week ahead of a website revival. “Returning to the world of deadlines isn’t exactly on my to-do list.”
Beginning Tuesday, Dec. 17, the “Far Side” site will provide visitors with “The Daily Dose,” a random selection of past cartoons, along with a weekly set of strips arranged by theme. There will also be a look at doodles from the sketchbooks of Larson, who said: “I’m looking forward to slipping in some new things every so often.” (Previously, there was no content on the site.)
“The Far Side” became a cultural phenomenon after it appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle on Jan. 1, 1980. The single-panel comic, which ran until Larson, now 69, retired in 1995, featured men, women, children, animals and insects in often offbeat and sometimes inscrutable situations. One installment, “Cow Tools,” featured a bovine in front of a worktable with an odd assortment of implements. The image was described on Reddit as the comic’s most “notoriously confusing cartoon.” There were also occasional controversies: A chimp once described Jane Goodall as a tramp, though she later wrote the foreword for a collected edition of the series. One scientist even named an insect after Larson.
After stepping away from his daily deadline 24 years ago, Larson said he rarely drew, except for Christmas cards. But even that was not easy. It “had turned into an annual pain because I seemed to always be dealing with clogged pens, dried-up markers, or something else related to lack of use,” he said. That changed when he tried working on a digital tablet.
“Lo and behold, within moments I found myself having fun drawing again,” he said.
Here are edited excerpts from the email interview.
What was your inspiration for “The Far Side?”
It probably all started with “Alley Oop.” I had always liked to draw as a kid, and I remember being grabbed visually by that strip. I was especially fascinated with the dinosaurs, and that’s when I started drawing my own, along with other animals. No cows, though. Later came a major influence from Mad magazine, especially the style and humor of Don Martin. I think that’s the first time I actually laughed at a cartoon. Still later I was taken with the cartoons of Gahan Wilson, B. Kliban and George Booth. All these cartoonists seemed to attach a lot of importance to nuance and composition. There was something almost organic going on between the humor and the art that conveyed it.
Did any cartoons provoke controversy?
Man, controversy never seemed too far away from me, especially during my first year of syndication. I truly thought my career may have ended a number of times.
I remember one I did of a couple dogs that were playing this game, where they were smacking around a cat hanging from a long rope attached to a pole. I called it “Tethercat.” To me, and I assume my editor, it didn’t cross any line because this was just a game dogs might play. But that one got people stirred up. Especially cat people.
Doing something controversial was never my intention. This was just my sense of humor, and the kind of humor in my family. I never drew anything my mom wouldn’t have laughed at. Of course, my mom was insane. I’m kidding! Well, maybe a little.
I’ll forever be grateful to fans, who in those early days often rescued “The Far Side” from cancellation, or campaigned to get it reinstated.
Why did you avoid recurring characters?
I would have felt locked in. I just wanted to go anywhere my mind would take me, from bacteria to outer space.
When I first met the editor of my syndicate-to-be, he asked about developing recurring characters. The moment scared me. I didn’t have a clue on how to approach character-based cartooning. And then he dropped the idea just a few minutes after bringing it up. To me, characters were only in a cartoon to serve an idea, to play a supportive role just like any film actor might, but in a film so short it was only a single frame.
But my own version of central casting started taking shape. I could sometimes be asked by someone if I would draw “that nerdy kid” or “that woman with the beehive hairdo” and of course I knew who they meant. But I didn’t assign a specific name or persona to any of them. One of my characters could be teaching a class one day and get trampled by an elephant the next. You would never want to get too attached.
Was it initially tough to pitch “The Far Side” to newspapers or your agent?
I never really “pitched” my cartoons to anyone. Seems to me cartoons have to speak for themselves. My goal was to see if I could get editors to just look at my work. Other than that, I stayed out of it.
I did manage to sell a handful of cartoons to one very small weekly, for which I received $5 each. Aside from that, though, the few doors I knocked on were of the revolving kind. But the handful of times an editor actually did look at my work, not only did he or she not rain on my parade, they seemed to take a genuine interest in me, and ended up giving my self-confidence a boost.
Then a big shot in the arm was when The Seattle Times started running my cartoons on a weekly basis. It didn’t last forever — too many complaints, I was told — but it ultimately motivated me to head down to San Francisco, where I walked through the doors (again, unannounced) of The San Francisco Chronicle, and the rest, as they say …
At what point did you know the strip was a success?
My own benchmark for success was pretty basic — I just wanted to be able to pay my rent. Beyond reaching that goal I really didn’t care much. I was doing something I loved, getting by, and that’s what mattered. So, in my own eyes, I think I became successful somewhere in my second year. But I’m not sure I ever quite shook the sense that the whole thing might be a house of cards. I always felt like yesterday’s cartoon was yesterday’s cartoon, and I was only as funny as today’s.
And then there was “Cow Tools.”
“Cow Tools” is difficult to describe, so I don’t think I should attempt it here or it could turn into an essay. But the bottom line is that it was a massively confusing cartoon. When that came out, suddenly I found myself being called by reporters and doing interviews about a cartoon with the inane title, “Cow Tools.” I think one newspaper even held a contest to see if anyone could figure out what it meant. It got kind of wild.
But, in a weird way, this is how I first came to realize that there was something going on, and that there were other humans actually reading my cartoons. Cartooning is kind of a loner endeavor. You draw stuff, you mail it in, draw stuff, mail it in.
Which “Far Side” cartoons are your favorites?
I’ve always been more inclined to remember the ones I wish I hadn’t done. There was a time when I felt embarrassed about a fair number of them, mostly because I thought they were kind of stupid or corny. Or they flat-out tanked. But now when I look back at those cartoons, I think many of them have a kind of innocence to them, and they don’t bother me so much.
As for favorites, these days I’m actually having a harder time just remembering many of them. I don’t have cause to look at them very often, and when I do it feels sort of like bumping into an old friend you haven’t seen or thought about for years.
Are there any strips you wish you could take another stab at?
I retroactively tweaked some captions on a handful of cartoons after they were initially published, trying to dial them in just a little better, but I almost regret doing even that. I think it’s possible to keep refining something until you’ve managed to kill it. Even the warts probably play a role.
What is it like to have two species named after you?
Amazing. And truly flattering. Truthfully, I think it’s officially only one species, a chewing louse that lives exclusively on owls. I believe the other one, an Ecuadorean butterfly, hit some kind of taxonomic snag. But hey, I’m honored to get the louse! I can die now.