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Entering the Far Side

 

To many, the single-panel cartoon is synonymous with Gary Larson and his Far Side creations. Combining surreal images and witty taglines, Larson’s cartoons have delighted the readers of newspapers and magazines the world over. His distinctive style was developed in the 1970s when he ran a small series for Seattle’s Pacific Search magazine entitled Nature’s Way. It is here that we first observe the characteristic profiles of his unwitting subjects: overweight, bespectacled and confused by the world around them. Larson’s characters are ants in a jar and we, as readers, are invited to peer through the glass.

School for the Gifted

In 1980, after the success of Nature’s Way, Larson embarked on his Far Side project, one that would occupy him for fifteen years and result in the publication of over four thousand single-panel cartoons. Despite his prolific output, each cartoon is not only wonderfully drawn but also devastatingly funny. The setup of his single-panel works, which is refined and mastered as Larson matures as a cartoonist, requires a double-take on the part of the reader. Indeed, it is only through the combination of image and words that the humour is unlocked. As such, when approaching one of Larson’s creations, the reader looks first at the cartoon and, confused, down at the caption. It is only when the caption has been read that one hurriedly returns to the image and the joke plays out. This re-vision of the image is what makes the works such a delight to read; the surreal illustration falls into place with the addition of the words, and the words are given context by the visual display of the image.

The Double-Take

The nature of the single-panel cartoon is that that the cartoonist is give only a single visual punch with which to make his point. There can be no sense of progression; it is a moment caught in time. It is because of, rather than in spite of, these constraints the Larson’s characters inhabit a world beyond our own. Indeed, a more conventional comic strip, that moves in a diachronic progression through its narrative, creates for itself the bounds of its reality. By contrast, we are forced to imagine the lead up to and the fall out from Larson’s absurd scenarios; the humour is as much in imagining the calculated setup of the joke as the punch line itself. Perhaps this point requires illustration. In one panel, we see a feudal knight being stretchered down from a castle wall with four arrows ignominiously lodged into his naked bottom, behind him two other knights appear to be discussing his predicament. The illustration confuses at first, defamiliarising the reader from their perceptions of medieval conflict. Our eye then scans down to the caption and we read the words of his two companions: ‘So then I says to Borg, ‘You know, as long as we’re under siege, one of us oughta moon these Saxon dogs.’’. The connection made, we enter into the world of the cartoon, operating under the same warped, though internally consistent, logic.

Smoking Dinosaurs

The pleasure of Larson’s cartoons is that he does not feel the need to politicize his work. There are no damning satires or witty remarks on the political elite; the Far Side is a strange combination of Middle-American boredom and extraterrestrial absurdity. There are several forms of panel in Larson’s work but all require the combination of words and image; the humour is derived from either their successful union or their apparent discontinuity. In one cartoon, we see three shifty looking dinosaurs as they each light up a cigarette; beneath, we read: ‘The real reason dinosaurs became extinct’. It is playful, designed to amuse rather than educate – a welcome relief in an ever-increasingly didactic world. Indeed, by placing contemporary idioms and clichéd phrases, that have begun to lose their meaning through over-repetition, alongside anthropomorphic images, Larson compels us to re-evaluate our own, often too casual, use of language by humorous turns. That he can achieve this and make us laugh consistently is a laudable achievement. For those more used to the progressive narratives displayed in the majority of comic strips, Larson’s world will seem, at first, unfamiliar; however, having entered the Far Side, you will never want to leave.

 

W. J. Humphries

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