For 15 years, Gary Larson took millions of readers over to the “Far Side.” Using anamorphic animals, chubby teenagers, universal emotions, a simple drawing style and a really bizarre, morbid sense of humor, The Far Side became one of the most successful – and praised – comic strips of all time. But like many cartoonists, Larson has remained rather elusive. In 1995 (about 11 months before the creator of Calvin and Hobbes did the same), he abruptly ended the comic strip – perhaps even a bit prematurely according to many of his fans. So, how did Larson get to the “Far Side?” And what was with his fascination with making aliens look stupid?
Larson was born in 1950 – in the midst of the baby boomer generation – in a blue-collar neighborhood of Tacoma, Washington. His father was a car mechanic, someone who didn’t mind getting a bit dirty, which was a trait he passed on to his two sons. Larson has often reminisced about how he and his brother would wade in the nearby Puget Sound looking for critters like octopi and salamanders, several of which would end up in his later comics.
As he explained to the New York Times in 1998, this love of wildlife has continued throughout his life. He originally was even a biology major at Washington State University before deciding that he wasn’t into all that schooling. “I didn’t want to go to school for more than four years, and I didn’t know what you did with a bachelor’s in biology,” Larson told the Times, ”so I switched over and got my degree in communications. I regret it now. It was one of the most idiotic things I ever did.”
Throughout his adult life, he was a keeper of exotic pets including tarantulas, African bullfrogs, Bermuda pythons, Mexican king snakes, and carnivorous South American ornate horned frogs. Also, through high school and college, he got really into jazz, both listening and playing. And he was pretty talented, especially on the guitar and banjo.
All of this is to say that being a cartoonist was not originally part of Larson’s career plan- he was never even terribly good at drawing. Unlike many cartoonists of his era, Larson says that he more or less fell into it.
In the mid-1970s, his jazz career was slowing getting better and better until he was passed over for a gig he thought he was going to get with an established band. Upset, loathing his job at a music store (establishments which are, as he put it, “graveyards of musicians”), and in need of money, Larson began to draw animals, poorly.
While at the aforementioned day job at a music shop in 1976, he drew one-panel cartoons featuring animals making pithy, weird jokes. Then, Larson sent them into local Seattle magazine Pacific Search and, much to his surprise, they purchased six of them for $90 (about $400 today).
He thought this was the easiest money he had ever made, so he kept doing it. Soon after, a small weekly Tacoma publication called the Sumner News Review purchased his cartoons – which he had now named Nature’s Way due to the fact that it was mostly about animals – for $3 a pop.
Looking at Nature’s Way today, one can spot many similarities to Far Side (which was still a few years away). The comic humanized animals, making them talk, banter, and act like we do. As for the humans, they were often chubby, goofy-looking and not particularly bright. In other words, it seems rather clear that Larson has always held animals in a higher regard than his fellow humans.
After a brief hiatus from publication, around 1978 or 1979, the Seattle Times gave Nature’s Way a weekly space next to the “Junior Jumble” puzzle, with Larson now earning five times as much per week- a whopping $15 per comic (about…
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