The Far Side

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The Far Side

Debuting in 1980, The Far Side, a single-panel comic strip written and drawn by Gary Larson, was different from anything previously seen on a comics page. Its offbeat and obscure humor drew epithets such as "tasteless," "sick," or "demented," but the cartoon became immensely popular during its fifteen-year tenure, appearing in more than 1,900 daily and Sunday newspapers and being translated into seventeen languages. More than twenty Far Side collections and anthologies reached the bestseller lists and were available in bookstores long after Larson stopped producing the cartoon in 1995. The Far Side made its way to greeting cards, T-shirts, and calendars—including the especially popular desk calendars of 365 daily Far Side cartoons, which are produced and sold each holiday season.

Unlike other comics, The Far Side did not feature the same characters in each installment, although it did repeat types of characters. Farm animals, especially cows, chickens, and ducks, made frequent appearances. Among other animals featured were snakes and squids. Larson's love of biology showed itself in numerous insect jokes. (An entomologist even named a species of chewing lice after Larson for his contributions to biology. The insect was named strigiphilus garylarsoni. Larson considered it a great honor.) The people who appeared in The Far Side usually were similar in appearance: most of the children had big heads and glasses; the women had big hair and glasses; the men had long noses and often wore glasses. In fact, most of Larson's characters fit the stereotypical image of the nerd. Neanderthal men and aliens appeared as well.

The jokes found in The Far Side ranged from puns to the silly to the intellectual to the morbid. A cartoon about a sticky widget (a strange device covered in honey) could be followed by a joke referencing Mary and Louis Leakey and their discovery of Lucy. (That particular cartoon showed the Leakeys uncovering a cave painting of Lucy from the Peanuts cartoon strip.) On the morbid side, Larson often had animals or people meet their end in untimely and ironic ways. One panel showed a mother bear using the skulls of two young hunters to entertain her cubs. She had her hand inside each skull and mimicked the boys' last words about entering the cave. In fact, the panels that drew the most complaints usually depicted some cruelty done to an animal, usually by another animal. For example, one cartoon with the caption "Tethercat" showed a cat tied to a pole by its neck while two dogs batted it around. And as often as he got complaints, Larson got letters asking for him to explain the joke.

Larson also created an animated television special: Gary Larson's Tales from the Far Side (1994). Larson won the Reuben Award for Best Cartoonist in 1991 and 1994. The Far Side was awarded the Max & Moritz Prize for best international comic strip/panel in 1993 and best syndicated panel in 1985 and 1987.

After Larson's retirement from the comics page, other single-panel comics that took up his style included Off the Mark and Speed Bump. Larson went on to other projects such as a book titled There's a Hair in My Dirt: A Worm's Story in 1998.

—P. Andrew Miller

Further Reading:

Larson, Gary. The Far Side. Kansas City, Andrews and McMeel, 1982.

——. The PreHistory of The Far Side: A 10th Anniversary Exhibit. Kansas City, Andrews and McMeel, 1989.