The return of Gary Larson

Who needs absurdist cows with headlines like ours?

By Morf Morford

Tacoma Daily Index

I never knew Gary Larson, the author of Far SIde cartoons, but like Gary, I too, at about the same time, grew up on the outskirts of Tacoma. He grew up in University Place, I grew up in Parkland.

His environment was the ideal petri dish for his convoluted view of reality where human beings, far from being in control, were instead misshapen blobs of respirating stupidity vulnerable to forces of nature far beyond their control or understanding.

We, in the land of Sasquatch, the first UFO sightings, Tsunamis, volcanoes and weather that seems relentless, or at least we who were paying attention, knew that “nature” – even aliens, were not on our side, that they treated us, perhaps as we deserved, like dim creatures eager to fight ourselves for any (or no) reason.

Life, as Gary, and many of us saw it, was not a struggle between civilization and wilderness, or right or wrong or even good versus evil – it was survival of some shred of decency and hope against an unending assault of chaos and absurdity within and without.

Consider our political atmosphere and cast of characters. Or our national budgets; we agree on billions, if not kajillions for fellow human threat and destruction, but argue over pennies for food or local potholes.

Gary Larson saw a world true in its distortions while too many of us see distortions and imagine, or claim them to be “true”.

He also portrayed a dangerous world – but, as always, not dangerous in the usual sense.

The dangers Larson’s characters faced were not of crime or even death, but of over-sized insects or once-thought passive animals (or forces of nature) getting their just revenge.

UP vs Parkland

University Place and Parkland are worlds away from each other.

The Parkland I grew up in did not have human-threatening insects, but we did have far more cows than UP.

We also had more open space, and military surplus stores where a kid could buy all manner of used and under-the-counter weapons and explosive materials.

Death and missing appendages were not abstractions among people I grew up with – they were immediate and near constant possibilities.

Brutish bullies in human form were common back then – fellow students, teachers, even policemen were often thugs with impunity.

Cow gangs or impervious venomous insects were only a few of the threats a young person might face back then.

Even now, the most Sasquatch sightings in the country are in rural Pierce County.

UP was a semi-sanitized suburban version of human aspiration.

But, from both places, we looked at Tacoma as the center of power, money, achievement and influence: the apex of human civilization of the time.

And perhaps that explains the driving force behind The Far Side.

The Big One

In most regions, talk of “The Big One” might refer to a giant fish, a major employer or even a prominent celebrity or political figure.

Not here.

As we all know, all too well, “The Big One” refers to an earthquake – but not just any earthquake. The would be, ahem “The Big One” – an earthquake that would demolish every aspect of life here in the Pacific Northwest from transportation systems to utilities to housing and much more – and that’s not all.

An earthquake on that scale would trigger – or be triggered by – the eruption of at least one (and probably more than one) of our active, but relatively quiet volcanoes.

In other words, in a cosmic Gary Larson way, not only death, but entire regional destruction hovers over each and every one of us on a constant basis.

And like a Gary Larson cartoon, there is no escape from this menacing, absurdist and incomprehensible universe.

But this absurd, contrarian world is not limited to natural systems. Our economy and political (in other words our humanly constructed) systems are just as, if not more, preposterous.

I have a co-worker from a previous company who, as he puts it, is convinced that it is 50/50 whether Donald J. Trump is our nation’s (and the world’s) savior or the anti-Christ.

Whatever else he may be, Mr. Trump is “The Big One” – with thousands who have staked their livelihoods, their values systems and their core beliefs on his every word.

Gary Larson could not have come up with a more surreal character than our former president.

With his proclivity for porn stars, his eagerness to buy Greenland and of course his near evangelistic campaign based on, what else, “The Big Lie”, Mr. Trump is, one way or another, a living personification of a dynamic strand of human expression.

From headlines, to public policies to daily life, we need little proof that this is Gary Larson’s world and we only (attempt to) live in it.

The “Other Big One”

As you may know, Gary Larson withdrew, retired or went into seclusion for many years.

It might have been because we didn’t need his cartoons any more.

His one panel strips were rarely outrageously funny, at least in the usual sense; they captured or presented all too familiar, or even all too possible scenarios where human wit, will and aspirations met a (sometimes potential) end in the face of unexpected and unforeseeable reality.

Doesn’t that sound like almost every day’s news?

Maybe we don’t need Gary Larson’s cartoons now because we have embraced the absurd, quasi-possible unknowable world he portrayed on the page.

In 2020-21 we have been experiencing a plague, a pandemic that has claimed the lives of millions around the world, rapidly approaching a million here in the USA and has flooded our hospitals, damaged the lungs and health of many more than that, crippled our economy, shut down our schools and closed our borders and – in perfect Gary Larson style, of course we would have those refusing to take the vaccine (that would save their own lives) and we even have those who, even in their hospital beds, with their last gasping breath, insist that it is all a hoax.

If any day’s headlines aren’t crazy enough for you, you can get a daily dose of Gary Larson’s classic cartoons here:

And yes, Gary Larson has returned.

Sort of.

You can see his most recent presentations here: