“Read a Damn Book – 170: The PreHistory of The Far Side”
It’s been a LOOOONG time since I reviewed a Gary Larson collection, (I could have sworn I wrote more than one review of his strip), but in times of stress and unpleasantness, few things are more therapeutic for me than a good laugh---therefore, I reached for a big, old Far Side book and cracked it open, hoping for some belly laughs. It didn’t disappoint!
[This is a photograph that I took of the actual book that I read. The image is included for review purposes only!]
Gary Larson – The PreHistory of The Far Side (1989/1990) [Third printing.]
As I mentioned in my first Far Side review, I’ve been a fan of this comic for DECADES. According to the intro to this book, the strip has technically been in syndication since 1980! And that’s a lot longer than I would have thought, but considering the subtitle of the book, A 10th Anniversary Exhibit, along with the fact that the book came out in 1989---I guess it all adds up. According to Wikipedia, Larson officially retired The Far Side in 1995, but he has produced the occasional book or magazine work since then. Regardless of all that stuff, let’s get into this text.
PreHistory, unlike the previous collection I looked at, is much more of a biographical book, instead of just a reprinting of a bunch of cartoons. Larson talks in humorous detail about how he came to cartooning, how BAD he thinks he is at it, how luck and poor planning played a major element in getting him into syndication, his strange take on perfectionism, and so on. He ALSO shares some of his thoughts on humor, technique, and finding a joke through multiple attempts; he even includes images of raw drawings with multiple captions, cross-outs, and alternate takes and sketches.
Another interesting section in this book is on cartoons that were rejected by the publisher (his revenge, of course, is that he can now stick them in THIS book!), in which he assures us, his readers, that the publication standards SAVED his career. He admits that he went too far on more than one occasion, and only kept his job thanks to the folks in charge! There is also a fun chapter where Larson reprints some of the complaint letters he and the publishers received from folks who felt his cartoons where in poor taste, offensive, or massively confusing. (This is the kind of thing that weirds me out… WHY, if folks don’t like a comic or a t.v. show or a book or a song, don’t they just think to themselves, “Must not be for me, but someone else might like it…” and leave it alone. Why do people feel that it’s necessary to COMPLAIN about a comic? If I don’t like something, I DON’T BUY IT. There. Done.) (Or, I suppose, I write a review about it and explain why I don’t like it---but I don’t force the original creator to READ my personal views, nor do I expect a publisher to fire somebody just because I didn’t like a joke, but I also don’t write very many negative reviews… If I’m really not liking a story or movie, I’ll put the book down or turn the DVD off and move on to something else. Simple and effective...)
One of my favorite sections of this book is called “The Fossil Record,” and it involves Larson sharing a number of crayon drawings that he (supposedly) drew when he was a little kid about his home life and growing up. This section includes lovely little drawings of the Larson family on a nice drive (with little Gary in the trunk of the car), amusing games he used to play with his brother (like being tied to a tree and set on fire), and fun times with his loving parents (like when his father amused a bunch of kids at the zoo by holding Gary over the open and waiting mouth of a crocodile.) It’s very dark stuff, but obviously satirical---and the drawings are masterpieces, almost on par with what you might see from Jean Michel Basquiat. (Not quite as complex as Basquiat, but similar in style---although Larson would NEVER compare himself or his work to a modern master. He is far too self-conscious.)
The book is very fun, very funny, and actually has some solid content for folks who are interested in art or drawing or storytelling. His breakdowns of various alternate versions of his gags, exploring framing, captioning, what to include and what to cut…these are great notes for people wondering about the process that an artist goes through trying to get just the right HIT from their joke. It’s a lot more complicated than one might expect.
As with many things that can veer towards dark humor, there are certainly comics and gags in this book that will offend folks. Death is a recurring motif, (Larson says he was originally interested in biology before he started cartooning, and the circle of life doesn’t often end with a “happily ever after.”) Larson also mentions that many of his works are MISINTERPRETED as being much worse than he intended them to be, (such as the comic where Larson assumed that dogs who chased cars would dream of finally catching and killing one, so he drew a dog howling over the upside-down carcass of a vehicle---but some folks assumed that the dog was on top of the car howling because it was having “adult time” with it. Larson writes that THAT interpretation seems much weirder to him than the one he thought he drew---and I agree…) So, whether because of correct or incorrect interpretation, there are some dubious cartoons in this collection, which Larson gleefully shares with us now that he’s not worrying about the newspaper sensors, who he claims wouldn't even let him draw an OUTHOUSE when he first started! Can you imaging The Far Side without an outhouse in it anywhere??? Me neither.
So there you go. If you want a laugh, don’t mind some cartoony violence, enjoy things that lean pretty heavily in the direction of WEIRD, and are also interested in artists' lives and how they put their work together, then this book is going to be a goldmine for you. I’ve read it a dozen times, and I still laughed aloud (like for real, out loud!) at several of the jokes. Even jokes that I remembered! To me, Larson is up there with the best cartoonists and comics creators of all time, and this book is some solid evidence for why I believe that assertion to be valid! You can probably find a copy of this collection in just about any used bookstore, and I would recommend grabbing it and giving it a read!
---Richard F. Yates
(Primitive Thoughtician and Holy Fool)
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