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Far Side, where are you? He haunts us still.


Larson, I'm talking about. Gary Larson. The most hilarious cartoonist ever to pick up a Sharpie and skewer the world around him It's been 12 long, deeply unfunny years since his quirky, warped, one-panel cartoons appeared in your newspaper and mine. At its peak, The Far Side was translated into 17 languages and appeared in newspapers from Seattle to Singapore; from Montreal to Manchester. Far Side cartoons were like no newspaper cartoons before or since. They were not only off the wall, they were out the door, down the street and out in the ozone.

Larson, I'm talking about. Gary Larson. The most hilarious cartoonist ever to pick up a Sharpie and skewer the world around him It's been 12 long, deeply unfunny years since his quirky, warped, one-panel cartoons appeared in your newspaper and mine. At its peak, The Far Side was translated into 17 languages and appeared in newspapers from Seattle to Singapore; from Montreal to Manchester.

Far Side cartoons were like no newspaper cartoons before or since. They were not only off the wall, they were out the door, down the street and out in the ozone.

Two polar bears hunched over an igloo, the top crunched in. One says, "Oh, hey! I just love these things! Crunchy on the outside and a soft, chewy centre!"

A family of squid driving in a sedan. A talking, cross-dressing snake who answers to Frank. A gaggle of grizzlies huddled around one of their confreres who sports a series of concentric circles, like a bulls-eye, on his chest.

"Bummer of a birthmark, Hal," another grizzly mutters.

Gary Larson didn't hail from an artistic background. Back in the late 1960s, he was a biology major at Washington State University. One day it dawned on him that he had no idea what he would do with a biology degree, so he switched to communications, found that equally unfruitful, and wound up working as a clerk in a music store and spending his summers strumming banjo in a going-nowhere garage band duo called Tom and Gary. In 1976 he realized he basically hated the so-called professional side of his life.

Unaccountably and apropos of nothing, he drew a series of six single-pane cartoons featuring weird animals and geeky guys in lab coats. He submitted them to a local science magazine which bought them on the spot. On the strength of the double-digit cheque he received, Larson quit his day job and started drawing cartoons full-time.

His timing couldn't have been better. Our newspapers were full of vapid, insipid cartoon strips like Mary Worth, Hi and Lois, and that most execrable of newspaper staples, The Family Circus. Into this world of vacuity and brain death came The Far Side - cartoons about talking cows, licentious apes...and a caveman conducting a PowerPoint seminar for his colleagues. The screen shows a close-up of the spiked tail of a Stegosaurus dinosaur. The presenter, dressed only in a leopard skin, points to the tail and says, "Now, this end is called the Thagomizer....after the late Thag Simmons."

Oh, hell. It's impossible to convey the intrinsic goofiness and breath-catching delight of a Far Side cartoon in words. You have to see them in all their black and white, one-panel glory.

And alas, we can't. Larson hit his peak in the mid-90s with nearly 2,000 newspapers carrying his strip around the world.

So what does a world-famous, impossibly successful cartoonist do when he's got the world by the gonads?

If he's Gary Larson, he quits, of course. In 1995, at the height of his fame, Larson announced that he was done.

Not for a couple of months. Not for a 'sabbatical'. Not for a rest, to recharge the batteries.

For good.

He was only 44 but he could sense impending burnout. "I didn't want to wind up in the Graveyard of Mediocre Cartoons," he told a reporter.

So what's Larson up to now? Mostly travelling the world with his sweetie (an anthropologist, fittingly enough) and studying jazz guitar. He hasn't left us completely Farsideless. Every few years it seems, another collection of old Far Side cartoons comes out. They keep us laughing - and remind us how hopelessly bland and toothless most other newspaper cartoons have become. When's the last time you laughed out loud at the moribund antics of Dagwood? Or Dennis the Menace? Or Canada's own once-brilliant, now soap-opera-mediocre For Better or Worse?

Far Side cartoons - even recycled ones - are infinitely better than that.

And even if the random collections stop coming out, Larson will be remembered - at least in the annals of science - for all time. He has been immortalized by the Committee on Evolutionary Biology at the University of Chicago. They've named a newly discovered species - the Strigiphilus garylarsoni - in his honour.

It's a louse found only on certain species of owls.

That's good enough to be a Far Side cartoon on its own.

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