It probably says something about me that I consider Gary Larson, the cartoonist who created the single-panel comic strip The Far Side, as one of the great American geniuses of the 20th Century, and the news that Larson plans to bring back his world of anthropomorphic cows, ladies in 50s sequin glasses, rotund children, and Weiner dog artists has me downright giddy.
Those of us who fell in love with the comics pages had no idea how good we had in the ’80s, or how quickly our favorites could disappear. The original run of Berkeley Breathed’s Bloom County ended in 1989, Larson’s The Far Side ended January 1995, and Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes ended in December of that year. (Bloom County eventually returned in different forms but never quite recaptured that old magic.) In our current era where no fictional character stays dead for long, every old beloved show, movie or game gets a sequel and a prequel and a reboot, it’s kind of tragically strange to remember a time when some beloved fictional offering could end with little warning. One day you’re laughing, and the next you’re told, “that’s it. No more. Yes, you thought this was the coolest thing ever and had all the paperback collections, but that’s it. We’re not making any more.” As Ryan Houlihan observes, it’s pretty amazing that Watterson “ended it, and then never did anything, or let anything be done with, the property. It’s a modern miracle that we’re not watching the 12th Disney Calvin and Hobbes reboot.”
Then again, we shouldn’t have been surprised about the inevitability of burnout. Comic books usually have separate pencillers, inkers, writers and letterers, but most comic strips are one-man operations. Despite the perception that these are simple drawings and simple gags, this is not easy. For most of their history, comic strips’ system of transmission required them to be reproduced on newsprint, with no more than a few panels a day telling the story. Readers expect one a day, every day, black and white six days a week, color on Sundays.
As newspapers started experiencing the challenges from the Internet era, editors set aside less and less space for the comic strips. I strongly suspect that newspaper editors and publishers didn’t like the thought that the comic strips — silly entertainment for children, they thought — could be one of the factors that made people subscribe or buy their morning paper. People fume at the columnists, check the horoscopes, do the crossword puzzle, nod or shake their head at the advice columns, but fans love their favorite comic strips. They cut them out and tape them up on their cubicle walls and office doors and bulletin boards and refrigerators.
On those 1980s newspaper comic pages, you had the joyful whimsy of Calvin and Hobbes, the madcap antics of Opus and friends in Bloom County, some political or cultural observations from Doonesbury, the reassuring melancholy of Charles Schulz’s Peanuts, and then this simple panel that was dark and weird and seemed to be delivered from another planet. There were no discernible recurring characters. The animals and people in the strip often had either suffered or were about to suffer a terrible fate. To get the joke, you might have to know what a microscope slide and coverslip were. But if you did get it — say, you were taking high school biology class around then — that morning’s panel was hilarious; now each time you placed down a coverslip, you pictured yourself suddenly crushing some refined amoeba dinner party.
In the world of The Far Side, life is not fair, and things were usually taking the worst possible turn. Hal has that bummer of a birthmark. Curiosity kills the cats, right at their research stations. William Tell’s other son Warren gets lost to history. Professor Jenkins survives the shipwreck, only to be stuck on a desert island with his old nemesis. Teenage dinosaurs’ youthful experimentation has dire consequences. If it’s Monday morning, then you know the butler committed the murder but still that doesn’t help you at all.
This lens is twisted, macabre, and absolutely hilarious — depicting scenarios that all of those comparatively nice and happy dog and cat cartoons would never dare imagine. The Far Side upset more than its share of animal-rights activists; it was politically incorrect long before the term caught on.
In The Prehistory of The Far Side, Larson revisited his most famous and infamous panels came the closest to explaining who he is and why he sees the world he does. To the extent Larson has a discernible ideology, he’s an environmentalist who understands that nature is not pretty. (His 1999 post Far-Side children’s book, There’s a Hair in My Dirt! A Worm’s Story, mocks those who claim to love nature without really understanding anything about nature.)
Welcome back, Gary Larson. You’ve been missed.