Tuesday, December 2, 2003

'Far Side' corrals the mirthful beasts

Larson compiles anthology of popular, but truly weird and witty, cartoons

By Rebecca Cook
The Associated Press

Crafty cows, restless chickens, talking insects and dorky scientists are invading bookstores across the nation. This can mean only one thing: Gary Larson is back.

"The Far Side" creator broke the hearts of twisted-humor fans everywhere when he retired at the height of his popularity in 1994 to pursue his love of jazz guitar.

But Larson has returned to the monster-filled closet of his past to release a massive anthology, two volumes containing more than 4,000 cartoons that tell the complete story of "The Far Side."

In person, the 53-year-old Larson looks as normal as his cartoon creations are weird. Soft-spoken, with white hair curling just past his ears, wearing black-rimmed glasses and New Balance sneakers, he could be everyone's favorite college professor - laid-back yet geekily passionate about his interests, modest yet smart enough that his punch lines sometimes prompt trips to the dictionary.

He never relished the role of celebrity cartoonist, preferring instead to live quietly in Seattle with his wife of 15 years, Toni, and their bull mastiff, Vivian. He agreed to only a few interviews as his 20-pound anthology landed in bookstores with a thud.

He walked away from "The Far Side" and cartooning in 1994. A perfectionist who could spend hours drawing one pair of eyeballs to achieve the precise goofy effect, Larson wanted to retire before his quality started slipping.

"You have to retain a little dose of fear with it, to keep your edge, to feel like every day is show time," he says. "You can just start coasting a little bit. I didn't want that to happen. I wanted to bring it to an elegant conclusion."

In the essays included in the anthology, Larson explores the twisted roots of his fertile imagination. Special credit goes to older brother Dan, a maestro at manipulating Larson's fear of closet monsters.

Larson grew up in Tacoma, and spent many happy moments of his childhood mucking through swamps in search of snakes and bugs to collect. Dinosaurs, whales and other beasts dominated his early drawings.

But while his passion for collecting critters continued into adulthood, he stopped drawing.

"Actually," he said about his simple style, "you can kind of see it hasn't evolved since grade school."

He first published a single-panel cartoon called "Nature's Way" in a Seattle-based magazine called Pacific Search. That evolved into "The Far Side," which was eventually syndicated and published in more than 1,900 newspapers worldwide. Larson's work has been translated into more than a dozen languages, and he has published about 30 books.

The Complete Far Side includes letters from readers, ranging from puzzled to hostile:

• "The Minneapolis Tribune should drop 'The Far Side' until Gary Larson completes psychotherapy to overcome his problem."

• "Dear Sir, I have seen some rude, nasty cartoons in my life, but this is the worst."

• "Why don't you get rid of that garbage? We don't need it on the family funny page, and I want to keep my subscription. Whatever happened to 'Annie'?"

The complaints took Larson by surprise.

Larson's new anthology published by Andrews McMeel is the first collection of all his "Far Side" cartoons. It has a list price of $135, though it was recently selling for $94.50 on Amazon.com. The first print run was 150,000 two-volume sets.

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'Far Side' corrals the mirthful beasts
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