In the dark, barbaric days (1980-1995) before a steady gush of anonymous memes soaked our brains, Gary Larson’s comic The Far Side was lord and master of the single-panel zinger. A quarter-century after inking his last strip in 1995, Larson may be coming out of retirement to show a new generation how it’s done.
The beloved cartoon was the original proto-meme: a bizarre mashup of science, dark humor and anthropomorphic animals that pointed out the absurdity of human behavior and life in general. Now The Far Side website is teasing new content with a cartoon of a man thawing out several iconic Far Side characters trapped in a glacier. The caption reads “uncommon, unreal, and (soon-to-be) unfrozen. A new online era of The Far Side is coming!”
I used to skip over the other crappy Sunday comics to read The Far Side. The compact, absurd punchlines delivered by simpleton characters offered a hilarious glimpse into a Gonzo world where cows stand on their back feet and only drop down to graze on all fours when there’s a car coming. One panel shows a Viking rowing ship with brawny Celts on the left, and scrawny ones on the right. “I’ve got it too, Omar,” says one ship commander to the other, “a strange feeling like we’ve just been going in circles.” In another, a karate class watches aliens made of bricks and wood blocks pile out of a spaceship: “The class abruptly stopped practicing. Here was an opportunity to not only employ their skills, but also to save the entire town.”
The buzz is loud for a comic that’s been out of the public eye for a quarter-century. Fred Armisen played the ultimate Far Side fanboy in “Searching for Mr. Larson,” the Documentary Now! Parody of “Dear Mr. Watterson.” Director Joel Schroeder’s 2013 passion project/road trip to explore the appeal of Calvin and Hobbes through fan interviews became more of a vanity project about Schroeder’s own personal journey. Armisen is only mocking the documentary trend of filmmakers wedging themselves narcissistically into their hero’s story, but it’s clear that Far Side fans are just as invested and expectant for Larson’s output.
But what exactly will the “new era” look like? It’s hazy and mysterious. The Far Side was successful for what it didn’t have: no recurring characters, no continuous plot, and, in the 20-minute short animated film “Tales from the Far Side” that aired as a Halloween special on CBS in 1997, (almost) no dialogue. The website buzz is louder since Larson is notoriously protective of reproducing his comics online, and urges followers not to post Far Side art. Fans on Twitter seem excited about the possibilities, but they’re holding their breath.
Will Larson offer a digital library of his old work, or will his hapless humans and bespectacled cows drop fresh puns and visual gags? Will we see more animated stuff? Might his fans continue to stalk him in fake documentaries? Can the 69-year old find a new and younger audience online, or does the ever-flowing, anonymous nature of the meme-verse work against his authorship? Will he stay on The Far Side of social commentary, or will snakes in ties trade digs about student loans and preferred pronouns?
Nostalgia is a harsh mistress.