See you in the funny papers – “The Far Side” Part II

By Rudy Hemmann

The Surveyor

This month we will finish looking at what is arguably the most brilliant, trailblazing, and highly-evolved cartoon series of the past 40 years – Gary Larson’s “The Far Side.”

We will continue by looking at the influence Larson had in the field of paleontology and entomology.

Stegosaurus are famous dinosaurs, chiefly for the following – they had a brain about the size of a lime, they had two columns of bony plates on both sides of the vertebrae that ran the length of their bodies, and they were large, weighing in at about five tons. A lesser-known fact is their tails sported four long spikes or barbs, two on each side, that look to be fearsome in a fight.

In a 1982 cartoon Larson decided to have some dinosaur fun with one of his cartoons. It depicted a caveman giving a lecture to a group of other cavemen. He is pointing out the tail end of a stegosaurus diagram. The caption reads, “Now this end is called the Thagomizer … after the late Thag Simmons.”

With the publishing of this cartoon Larson had unwittingly stuck his finger in the dike of paleontology nomenclature. It seems those in charge of finding obscure Latin and Greek names for all things dinosaur had not named this particular portion of stegosaurus anatomy, at least not until Larson’s cartoon came along. Now many paleontologists use the term “thagomizer” when referring to the tail spikes of the stegosaurus, even when writing in scientific journals.

Larson’s influence on scientific nomenclature did not end there. In 1989 noted entomologist Dale Clayton discovered a species of biting louse that only afflicted owls. When it came time to name the louse, his first suggestion was “strigiphilus garylarsoni.” Clayton contacted Larson for the cartoonist’s approval in naming the louse. He explained to Larson this was his, and indeed many fellow entomologists’ way of recognizing Larson for his “enormous contribution my colleagues and I feel you have made to biology through your cartoons.” Larson gave immediate approval to Clayton’s proposal. “I considered this to be an enormous honor,” said Larson, “Besides, I knew that nobody was going to call and ask to name a new species of swan after me.”

The naming of insects after Larson did not stop there. A beetle species named “garylarsonus and a butterfly with the long handle of “serratoterga larsoni join “strigiphilus garylarsoni” as sharing names with Larson.

You may recall from last month Larson was quoted as saying had he stayed with his original major in college and graduated with a biology degree, he would have continued his studies and gotten a degree in entomology.

It cannot be said Larson does not have a sense of humor – even with regard to his cartoons. An Ohio newspaper, “The Dayton Daily News, committed the unthinkable by switching the captions beneath “The Far Side” with the caption below that day’s “Dennis the Menace” cartoon.

The newspaper placed “The Far Side” and “Dennis the Menace” side-by-side on the comic page, and on a day in August 1981 the following transpired: “The Far Side” showed a young snake complaining loudly at the dinner table “Lucky I learned to make peanut butter sandwiches or we would’a starved to death by now.” On the other hand, Dennis Mitchell was eating a sandwich and stating “Oh brother … not hamsters again!”

The rest of the story is this same mistake happened again – to the same newspaper. That’s right, about two years later the captions were again switched. This time the readers of the cartoon saw a cavewoman asking, “If I get as big as dad won’t my skin be too TIGHT?” while Dennis is looking into his mother’s eye and saying, “I can see your little petrified skull labeled and resting on a shelf someplace.”

Regarding the first instance Larson stated in his book “The Prehistory of ‘The Far Side,”

“What is most embarrassing about this is how immensely improved both cartoons turned out to be.” There is no mention of his reaction following the second mix-up.

An unofficial museum – more or less – of “Far Side” cartoons existed at the California Academy of Science, a research institute in San Francisco, Calif. People who worked at the institute began papering over the walls of hallways with “Far Side” cartoons. By the mid-1980s something needed to be done, so it was decided to collect the best of the lot, to that point, and paper a section of the institute. A total of 600 cartoons were placed with the “museum” lasting only a few years.

According to Wikipedia, by late-1994, Larson thought the series was getting repetitive. He did not want to enter into what he referred to as the “Graveyard of Mediocre Cartoons,” and decided to retire both himself and the cartoon series, with the last “Far Side” cartoon running Jan. 1, 1995. (Many newspapers ran the same cartoon a day earlier, Dec. 31, 1994.) He was 44 years old. Since his retirement he does the occasional cartoon for magazine illustrations and artwork to promote “Far Side” merchandise, but, for the most part, he also retired from public view. A 2003 “Time” magazine article about Larson states, “He refuses to have his picture taken and avoids being on TV.” As far as Larson is concerned, “Cartoonists are expected to be anonymous.

Larson published a post-“Far Side” book titled “There’s a Hair in My Dirt! A Worm’s Story. The book, which came out in 1998, is thematically based on “The Far Side” cartoon series. The book, which is by his own admission a short one, tells the story of a young earthworm who thinks its life is insignificant.

If you pick up this book and read it, just remember it was written and illustrated by the son of a family with “a morbid sense of humor.” It did, however, make the New York Times Best Seller List in May 1998 shortly after being published.

Larson fills in his spare time playing jazz guitar – something he has done since he was a teenager. He is also an environmentalist. “Protecting wildlife is at the top of my list,” he says.

I’ll see you in the funny papers.





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