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The Fire Side: Still Funny, Still On Target

Publication Date: 2003-11-04

Good cartoons explain the world. And nobody was better at explaining things than Gary Larsen comes very very close. The good news is that even though he hasn't drawn any new cartoons for 10 years, his works stand up. The very very bad news is price of the whole thing.

The Complete Far Side: Volume One, 1980-1986; Volume Two 1987-1994 by Gary Larson

in The Washington Post
October 26, 2003

Volume One, 1980-1986; Volume Two 1987-1994
By Gary Larson. Andrews and McMeel. 644 pp.; 601 pp. $135

Sure it's a lot of money for a bunch of cartoons. But think of this two-volume set as the book equivalent to the sumptuous DVD treatment of a favorite television series. Of course, you could have recorded every episode of "The Family Guy" on videotape, just as you could have bought the various "Far Side" collections as they appeared in paperback, or even laboriously clipped the more than 4,300 panels from the newspaper. Still, for a true fan, why not the best?

The Complete Far Side arrives in a cloth box, each volume measures 9 ? by 13 ? inches, the paper is heavy coated cream stock (like that for Abrams art tomes), and there are a foreword by Steve Martin, an introduction by Jake Morrissey (who was Gary Larson's editor at Universal Press Syndicate) and autobiographical section notes by Gary Larson himself. The cartoons are presented in roughly chronological order (in color or black-and-white, as appropriate), along with occasional letters -- often of complaint -- from bewildered or angry readers. Together the two volumes weigh a little more than 17 pounds, but they do open flat: You might want to consider buying one of those library dictionary stands. A sturdy one. Made of oak.

Given the investment required of any purchaser of The Complete Far Side, even an irresponsible reviewer needs to answer one key question: As it's now been nearly 10 years since Gary Larson stopped producing his panels, do they still seem funny?

Given that weird register Larson perfected -- blending American gothic, baby boomer nostalgia and gallows humor, the marriage of "I Love Lucy" and "The Twilight Zone" -- the answer is yes, emphatically yes. "The Far Side" was seldom topical in the way of "Doonesbury," so you don't need to remember details of the political or social scene to "get" the jokes. In fact, like most of the great American humorists, Larson draws deeply on the anxieties and daydreams of childhood. For any kid who grew up anytime after World War II, we're talking about a world made up of superhero comic books, old Tarzan movies, TV shows about cowboys, '50s hobbies like bug collecting, crystal-set radios and pet snakes, hokey advertising clich?s and jingles (often on cereal boxes), worries about mad scientists, UFOs or experiments gone wrong, classic sitcoms -- all the visual and verbal detritus of daily life in these United States. This is territory made famous, in their different but related ways, by such writers and artists as Jean Shepherd, Daniel Pinkwater, William Joyce, Matt Groening and Garrison Keillor.

For the most part, one thinks of a "cartoonist" as somebody who draws funny pictures. But this isn't quite so. In vaudeville comedy teams the straight man often earned 60 percent of the pay -- apparently good comics were much easier to find than people who could set up the jokes with just the right tone, glance or double-take. Similarly, as Jake Morrissey explains, "the heart of a successful cartoon lies in the writing. Good writing can save bad art, but good art can never save bad writing. That is why Gary willingly reworked captions word by word to get them right. If you spend any time at all analyzing Far Side captions, you'll see that removing a word can ruin the rhythm and dilute the humor." Strip comics are able to set up mini-dramas and build to a punch line, but in single-panel cartoons like Larson's the diction must be perfect. Nearly all the drama and humor hinge on a single sentence carefully designed to be read twice: First we scan the caption, then we peer at the image above it, and then our mind quickly flashes back to the caption, as we realize its new meaning or its ludicrous incongruity. Sometimes we also recall the original template from which the humor derives -- a scene from a movie, a trite phrase, an urban legend -- each suddenly made funny by an unlikely new context.

So we read: "Andrew is hesitant, remembering his fiasco with the car of straw." As we smile, albeit wanly, at the surreal notion of a car of straw, we half-wonder about the nature of the fiasco. The picture enlarges the meaning: A stream of bunting over a lot full of cars with "Sale" signs on the windshields, a roly-poly dolt in glasses, standing next to a glad-handing salesman in a checked suit, who is holding out a pen. The poor sucker is looking down at what must be a contract, lying on the hood of a car, a car clearly made of . . . sticks. Our mind jumps back to the caption, then further back to the "Three Little Pigs."

This is a typical Larson maneuver -- to take up the familiar and set it down in new surroundings. A bespectacled, middle-aged woman with a beehive hairdo walks down a forest path at night while pushing a Hoover upright. The caption builds slowly to its punning punch line: "The woods were dark and foreboding, and Alice sensed that sinister eyes were watching her every step. Worst of all, she knew that Nature abhorred a vacuum." Okay, groan if you must. At other times Larson opts for sheer lovely absurdity, as in a picture of forest rodents on Harley choppers: Hell's Chipmunks.

Such relatively easy humor shows Larson at his simplest. More typically complex is this celebrated panel: A cook lifts up a lobster, whose pathetic bug-eyes stare straight out at the viewer. In the background, steam rises from a cauldron of boiling water. Beneath the image one reads: "Auntie Em, Auntie Em! . . . There's no place like home! . . . There's no place like home!" What makes this funny? Essentially, two vastly different realms of experience are suddenly seen to be somehow fundamentally the same. As so often, the humor relies on perspective by incongruity. In this case, the drawing is also of fundamental importance, especially the mix of desperation and pathetic hopefulness in the lobster's eyes.

Generally, Larson's preferred tone is that of mock-sententiousness or of put-upon, tired weariness, a kind of stoic acceptance of one straw after another. Three purple aliens stand at the top of the exit ramp of their flying saucer. At the bottom of the steps lies a fourth alien, flat on its face, clearly having tripped on the way down. Earthlings are looking on as the UFO's captain says, "Wonderful! Just wonderful! . . . So much for inspiring awe in them." In another cartoon, a pair of determined hunters peer down at a third who is elaborately tied up in the middle of the woods. One says to the other: "It's Jim Wilkins, Dave. Same as the others. Trussed up like a Christmas present with his hunting license stuffed in his mouth. . . . I want this bear, Dave. I want him bad." In still one more, a wolf sporting a polka dot dress lies on a psychiatrist's couch and confesses to his beak-nosed therapist: "You know, it was just supposed to be a way to trick this little girl . . . but off and on, I've been dressing up as a grandmother ever since."

That allusion to transvestitism, interestingly, underscores how rarely Larson suggests anything risqu?, partly no doubt because his material appeared in family newspapers. His cartoons really are fundamentally boyish rather than what the Brits call laddish. Yet how much comic richness he unearths without being naughty. Usually sexual innuendo or double entendre proves irresistible to those with a flair for wordplay.

As one turns the many pages of these two volumes, happily lost in a surreal and witty world, it's all too easy to overdose on the Larsonian sensibility. But resistance is futile. In the newspaper the wackiness could be spaced out to a panel a day. Here, after gorging for an hour or so, the reader may end up feeling a bit like one of the cartoonist's overstuffed anacondas.

After finishing volume two of The Complete Far Side, I boldly decided to pick my favorite "Far Side" panel of all time. A thankless task, as every admirer will want to suggest some other candidate. And ultimately I was torn between two: In one a nondescript man in a long coat is opening his mailbox in the lobby or basement of a dark apartment building. There's a set of stairs in the middle distance, and in its shadowy corner looms a huge long-nosed animal in a gigantic gray trench coat. "Remember me, Mr. Schneider? Kenya, 1947. If you're going to shoot at an elephant, Mr. Schneider, you'd better be prepared to finish the job." I love the phrasing here, so reminiscent of '30s tough-guy movies, with that quiet menace behind the courtesy -- the repeated "Mr. Schneider" -- and the use of the one fact we all know about elephants: They never forget.

My other favorite panel pictures a huge fat mama bear, plopped on a pile of bones in a cave. Her paws hold, like hand puppets, a pair of human skulls, each grotesquely decked out with a red hunter's cap. Two young cubs gaze up hopefully, with that pleading look parents know so well. "Okay, one more time and it's off to bed for the both of you . . . 'Hey, Bob, Think there are any bears in this old cave?' . . . 'I dunno, Jim. Let's take a look.' "

None of my descriptions, alas, goes very far toward capturing the loving bizarreness of Larson. Perhaps one needs the pictorial more than Morrisey suggests -- all the dumpy housewives with rhinestone eyeglasses, the clueless mathematicians and mad scientists, the Holstein cows, ducks and deer looking confused or strangely conspiratorial. "The Far Side" remains a magnificent contribution to popular culture, and Gary Larson stands -- with Charles Addams on one side and James Thurber on the other -- among the great masters of macabre whimsy, an artist who manages to blend, perfectly, funny ha-ha and funny peculiar. ?

Michael Dirda's email address is dirdam@washpost.com. His online discussions of books take place each Thursday at 2 p.m. on washingtonpost.com.

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