'Far Side' farewell no laughing matter to fanatic audience

October 04, 1994|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,Sun Staff Writer Howard Henry Chen also contributed to this story.

In Gary Larson's warped world, cows party on all twos, dinosaurs smoke themselves into extinction, and deer with unfortunate "bull's eye" birthmarks earn the sympathies of fellow deer.

But after 15 years, Gary Larson's "Far Side" gallery will close Jan. 1. Mr. Larson, whose cartoons appear in more than 1,500 newspapers, is calling it quits.

His reasons for retiring were "simple fatigue and a fear that if I continue for many more years my work will begin to suffer or at the very least ease into the Graveyard of Mediocre Cartoons," said Mr. Larson, 44, in a statement released yesterday.

For his fans, news of his retirement read like the obituary of a friend.

It was a day for grief in the entomology department at the University of Maryland. "I've been reading him almost forever," says professor Michael J. Raupp. "They are required reading for our students down here."

Insects -- and cows and bears -- have been recurring, whimsical and absurd characters in Mr. Larson's work, which is also seen on coffee mugs, desk calendars and T-shirts. "Did you see Far Side today?" became a household and office-wide question. The cartoon became a pop-culture phenomenon.

For many, "The Far Side" was a guaranteed quick smile every morning. The single-panel cartoons didn't require analysis or scholarship. If anything, it just took a second or two to "get it." The shame here is that we can't interview animals and insects for the story. We're stuck talking to humans.

"I think a lot of people will miss him," says Amy Dearborn, bookseller at Borders Books in Towson. "Younger kids may not get his dry sense of humor, but anyone that has had some experience with life will."

By his own admission, Gary Larson isn't a very good illustrator or writer. Dissect the elements of his cartoon and the thing falls apart. But together, his drawings and captions have created a remarkable and unique body of American cartooning.

"The sum is much better than the parts," says Jake Morrissey, an associate editor at Kansas City-based Universal Syndicate, which distributes "The Far Side" and which announced Mr. Larson's retirement yesterday. His work appeals to the 18- to 45-year-old set, particularly people whose sensibilities might be a bit more sophisticated, Mr. Morrissey says.

" 'The Far Side' has changed forever what we think is appropriate humor on the comic page," Mr. Morrissey says.

"He always strikes me as funny. I think it's as simple as that," says Don Martin, who was a cartoonist for Mad magazine for 30 years and served as an early role model for Mr. Larson.

Mr. Larson was unavailable for comment Monday. He's out of the country and working on an animation project, Mr. Morrissey says. In September 1988, Mr. Larson cited "genuine burnout" and took a 14-month break from drawing "The Far Side." He returned to work in January 1990 and cut back to producing five panels a week rather than seven. After new "Far Side" cartoons cease this January, Mr. Larson will continue to publish "The Far Side" books, calendars and greeting cards. But they will be drawn from existing cartoons.

"The Far Side" has been deceptively thoughtful and brilliant. It's a small and simple pleasure -- one that renews.

"My life has a lot of serious moments in it. I like to have at least one light moment," says Father Constantine Monios of the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Annunciation in Baltimore. A member of the congregation gives him a "Far Side" calendar each year. His secret is out now, he says.

"People relate to little incidents in life, both human and animal," he says. "And I understand why he stopped. If I had to preach a major sermon every day, well, I don't know if I could do that."

Father Monios' favorite "Far Side" is the classic panel of the dog listening to its owner scold him. It's the "what we say, what they hear" concept. The dog hears BLAH, BLAH, BLAH (insert dog's name here), BLAH, BLAH . . .

Mr. Larson collected pets in almost zoo-like proportions while growing up in Washington. As a child, he was scared of the dark, and those fears were often grist for "The Far Side."

In high school, he gobbled up science courses and at Washington State University, he studied zoology and entomology. Bugs.

"The Far Side" has always been infested with them.

"In the office we cut the ones out about insects and we put them up on our bulletin board. People love it," says Joanne Lewis, secretary for the Department of Entomology at the University of Maryland.

Mr. Larson has developed an eclectic following -- from entertainers to college kids to paleontologists. He's been called the unofficial cartoonist laureate of the scientific community. "Our national humorist of natural history," Harvard University educator Steven Jay Gould once observed.

"He has the ability to look at something and just see it the other way around," says Dr. William J. Higgins, associate dean for the College of Life Sciences at the University of Maryland.

"I think if more professionals in the field could do that, we'd be making discoveries at a faster rate. He captures the spirit of scientists. We get our joys in other ways than people in other occupations, and Gary Larson can reflect that."

It was, needless to say, a downer day yesterday at the American Dairy Association in Rosemont, Ill.

David Pelzer, who works in the public relations department, keeps his office billboarded with his favor ite "Far Side" cartoons. They always feature cows, of course.

His favorite is the one where cows are standing on two legs in a field, shooting the bull. Suddenly, a look-out cow yells "CAR." The cows assume their bovine position, dropping to all fours and eating grass. They wait until the car drives by, then the cows stand up again and resume their chat.

"The shame of it all," Mr. Pelzer says, "is who's left to speak for the cows of America?"

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