The far side of Gary Larson

An audience with the world's most successful cartoonist
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The Independent Culture
Gary Larson doesn't like talking to journalists. He's afraid they expect him to be ebulliently witty and weird in that inimitable Far Side- ish sort of way. He's afraid they will be disappointed when he doesn't show up for the interview in a pick-up with a dead moose slopped over the bonnet and several empty beer cans lying crushed on the passenger seat.

Mostly, he's afraid he won't have anything to say. The few times he has subjected himself to the news media since the onset of his phenomenal success 19 years ago, the conversation has gone something like this:

Where do you get your ideas for all those sick cartoons? - I have no idea.

Do you watch television to get inspiration? - No. Flip through magazines? - No. Go to the zoo with a sketchpad? - Sorry, no.

Are you on drugs, and if so, where can I get some? - I drink coffee. Does that count?

The problem is not that Larson is obstreperous or reluctant to please. In fact, quite the opposite. He is mild and polite and almost painfully shy. His amiable but ordinary-looking head is filled with extraordinary leaps of imagination that do not easily find expression through casual speech (his wife once suggested a stencil for his forehead reading "back in a moment"). For him, subjecting himself to the grilling of some news hound on the prowl for soundbites is about as tempting as sticking his head into a circus-lion's mouth. Not only does he not have the temperament for it, he fully expects to have his head bitten off.

A few years ago, a television station in Ohio lured him into an interview, sat him down, and asked: "Mr Larson, can you tell us; where is the Far Side, and how difficult is it to get there?"

"I'd been having quite an amiable conversation with the interviewer before the cameras rolled, and then he threw me this stunningly difficult question," Larson recalled. "I couldn't think of anything to say. I was rooted to the spot, like the proverbial rabbit caught in the headlights."

The story, like all Larson stories, has a wonderful self-deprecating tinge to it. But, like all Larson stories, it also conjures up a deliciously perverse image of the hunter and the hunted, of a human being suddenly stripped down to his base animal vulnerability. In other words, it could be the premise for one of his cartoons. No wonder he laughs uproariously as he tells it.

A meeting with Gary Larson is full of such unexpected little apercus. Having stumbled upon cartooning more or less by accident, he doesn't consider himself a particularly accomplished draughtsman and admits a total inability to draw cats. Transportation devices of all kinds have always been a headache. ("Those pick-up trucks. Boy, that was a learning curve.") And he's always had trouble understanding why people find his work so off-the-wall - something to do, perhaps, with growing up in the wilds of the Pacific Northwest and perennially attempting to escape the torments of an older brother.

"As a kid I used to raise snakes. Obviously, my social life was a bit down at the time. But it took me a while to realise that with an interest like that people are going to think there's something wrong with you," he said. "It was the same with The Far Side. This was what my family thought was funny when I was growing up. It was others who started using words like `offbeat' and `wacky'."

Our appointment is at the offices of his company, FarWorks Inc, which (perhaps unsurprisingly) is not located in some log cabin in the foothills of the Cascade mountains, but (perhaps surprisingly) sits on the sixth floor of a chrome-and-marble-decked office building in the heart of downtown Seattle. The staff are friendly but attired in no-nonsense business suits. Despite the familiar adornments - Far Side postcards, mugs and other memorabilia in the foyer, and several dozen of Larson's trademark cows, deer, lumberjacks and pick-up trucks on the walls - the overall effect is of an accumulation of corporate trophies, not an easy-going artistic environment. This, after all, is the nerve centre of an industry that has produced more than 34 million books in 17 languages, churns out 35 million greetings cards per year and continues to produce the world's best-selling calendar.

It does not seem obvious Gary Larson territory, and the man himself is the first to agree. For a start, he is by far the most underdressed person in the place, contenting himself with a casual shirt and jeans. And he seems almost as intimidated by his surroundings as he is by encounters with the media, wandering in just after midday, his eyes blinking nervously as he clutches his first coffee of the morning. "I come in here about once a week and stay for an hour," he says nonchalantly. "This isn't my environment at all.

"The need for an office sort of crept up on me. My wife, Toni, took over as my business manager, then we realised we needed to hire an assistant, then two, then three. Luckily I have a short enough attention span that I don't think about it too much."

Larson's real work, the artistic side of his enterprise, mostly takes place at his house on the shores of Lake Washington, not far from Seattle's main university. But, as fans of his comic strip know all too painfully, there hasn't been too much of that recently.

He gave up The Far Side, his wildly successful syndicated strip, in 1995 and has been living in semi-retirement ever since. It's not that he's lost the taste for cartooning - although he is spending more and more time working on his other great passion, playing jazz guitar - it's just that he sees no need to keep plugging away at a formula he has long since mastered.

"I just had a sense of `been there, done that'," he explained. "My internal clock said it was time to move on and try something else. It's not that difficult to sit back and cruise. But I wanted to ensure that would never happen to me."

The something else - aside from the guitar-playing, which is strictly for his own pleasure and the occasional sortie at weddings - has so far consisted of a lavishly illustrated storybook about the worm's view of life, called There's a Hair in My Dirt!, and a couple of animated short features, Tales From The Far Side, that continue the spirit of his comic strip. Neither of these stray very far from Larson's familiar preoccupations - with animals who behave perilously like humans and humans who behave perilously like animals. Only the narrative format has changed.

Hair In My Dirt! reads a bit like a cautionary tale for children, except that it veers in directions far too dark and sick for most children to stomach: it shows how a nature-loving young maiden called Harriet completely fails to understand the natural environment around her, catches a deadly virus from a cute-looking mouse she saves from the clutches of a king snake, and dies in agony.

For complicated reasons of warped narrative logic, the story is told by an earthworm to his disgruntled son to make him feel better about eating dirt for dinner every night. It would be a shame to give away the provenance of the eponymous hair, but suffice to say the final revelation is truly grotesque.

"What I wanted to show was how arbitrary our judgements can be of what is beautiful and what is ugly in nature," Larson said. "There's a form of prejudice at work. People get very passionate about saving the whale, but when something like a Florida indigo snake is endangered there are not a lot of people out there holding up placards."

As for the animated films, produced in Vancouver and now released in Britain on a single videotape, they present a series of vignettes by turns perverse and absurd: a cow plays a video game called Stampede!; two eggs on a date are attacked by a crazed serial mom with an electric whisk; a bunch of amoebas get drunk and watch a sexy cell-division movie; Death takes a holiday, literally, by hopping on a plane to Hawaii and wreaking gleeful havoc in the Pacific sun.

What keeps this material buoyant at every turn is its irrepressible humour. "You can get away with a lot as long as it has a silly edge to it," Larson says. At the beginning of his career, he had to overcome accusations that he was perverting the minds of children; he had some of the same trouble when the first animated film was shown in the United States.

The egg-whisk scene was described by one critic as the most violent thing he had ever seen on the small screen. "That was a few years ago. Now, of course, it looks like absolute fluff."

Larson professes not to have much in the pipeline. "I'm working on a screenplay for a feature film project, but then who isn't?" he says. "At least it's keeping me off the streets for a while."

At the age of 49, he has reached a level of personal fulfilment that requires him to be in a hurry for absolutely nothing. If he looks alarmed by anything, it is simply by his own success. "If you don't have any more questions," he concludes nervously, gesturing towards his waiting office staff, "I'd better go and see if these people need me for anything."

He looks like a terrified patient being called in to the dentist; almost involuntarily, our eyes meet and we both collapse in a helpless fit of giggles.

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