By Joseph Collins, Staff Writer
Mention the name of Gary Larson, the celebrated cartoonist, and the first reaction you’ll most likely get is a big smile. Known the world over as the creator of the comic strip “The Far Side,” Larson has brought laughter to millions of fans around the world. His unique and idiosyncratic series was syndicated in more than 1,900 newspapers for fifteen years. Although he retired in 1995, and is somewhat publicity shy, fans have been able to continue enjoying his work through a series of twenty-three books published that feature collections of his bizarre, creative, and laugh-out-loud cartoons. His books have sold more than 45 million copies, and have earned him $70 million in revenue. Gary Larson is, without doubt, an American comic icon.
Despite his unique gift for humor, there is a side to Larson that most people do not know about. He is a philanthropist who is deeply committed to two important issues of our time: conservation and animal rights. In fact, in 2006 Larson donated all the profits from sales of his Far Side calendar to Conservation International, an American environmental organization . He frequently speaks out in favor of animal rights, as well, using his fame to bring attention to the cause. Expressing his views with passion, Larson once said, “I don’t believe in the concept of hell, but if I did, I would think of it as filled with people who were cruel to animals.” Although Larson’s commitment to these causes is not widely known, he has dedicated enormous amounts of money and time behind the scenes to help support efforts to protect animals and the environment.
With his talent, his distinctive vision, and his dedication to protecting the Earth, Larson is an asset to his community and a man of big heart and moral character.
ART, MUSIC, AND ANIMALS
Raised in the northwestern state of Washington, Gary Larson came from humble middle-class roots. He was born on August 14th 1950, in University Place – located in the suburbs of Tacoma, a mid-sized urban port city. His father, Verner, was a car salesman, and his mother, Doris, was a secretary. After graduating from Curtis Senior High School, he attended Washington State University in Pullman, where he graduated in 1972 with a degree in communications.
Larson has always had an interest in art, but his first love when he was younger was science and wildlife. He and his older brother, Dan, would catch small animals at Puget Sound and keep them in terrariums in their basement. They even built small, home-made, desert eco-system to keep some of them in.
One of his artistic interests was music. And after he finished school, the first thing Larson did was form a jazz band, with him playing guitar and banjo, and a friend of his on trombone. However, his band folded after three years, and he wound up getting a regular job at a music store. But Larson wasn’t happy there. Realizing, one day, that he hated the job, he decided to try his hand at cartooning. He drew six cartoons and submitted them to Pacific Search, a Seattle based magazine. The editor loved them, and Larson quit his job and began his career as a professional cartoonist by the mid-1970s, when he was just in his twenties.
A CARTOONIST IS BORN
Larson started his career with a comic strip called “Nature’s Way,” which he calls an early pre-cursor to The Far Side strip. Drawing, however, didn’t earn him much money at first, and he got an additional job as an investigator of animal cruelty for the local humane society to supplement his income and to help fight against animal abuse – a cause dear to his heart. In 1979, a reporter that Larson had met showed some of his work to an editor at the Seattle Times, and he, too, loved Larson’s style and humor. The Seattle Times started publishing Larson’s work in their Saturday paper edition in the children’s section. Larson’s reputation was growing, and he was starting to make a name for himself as a cartoonist.
While on vacation later that year, Larson took a trip down to San Francisco to show off some of his work at the San Francisco Chronicles, hoping to increase his income. The editorial staff was so impressed with his work that they drew up a contract right away to have the strip put into syndication. Although Larson had intended to stick with his original title, Nature’s Way, the paper decided to change it to The Far Side. And on January 1st, 1980, the comic strip everyone would soon be talking about made its debut.
SUCCESS AND SOME CONTROVERSY
At the same time the San Francisco Chronicles had started publishing Larson’s strip, the Seattle Times decided to drop his other one, Nature’s Way. But this didn’t bother him too much, because The Far Side, was slowly, but surely finding its audience. Within a few years, it was being picked up by newspapers across the country. During the 1980s, the comic strip became hugely popular and was even syndicated in international publications. For more than 15 years, The Far Side was a fan favorite, appearing in nearly 2,000 newspapers worldwide as a black and white panel from Monday to Saturday and in color on Sundays.
The surreal themes in Larson’s cartoons caught the world by storm, making people think in new ways about how we live, how we interact with nature, and how we treat animals. Sometimes it even caused a bit of controversy. One of his most well-known cartoons depicts two chimpanzees, a male and his female mate, grooming each other. When the female finds a strand of blonde hair on the male, she complains: “Conducting a little more ‘research’ again with that Jane Goodall tramp?” Although most people found it funny, a representative of the Jane Goodall Institute was not amused and wrote a letter to Larson, criticizing him. As a fan of Goodall’s work, Larson immediately called the Institute to offer an apology. Dr. Goodall herself found it amusing when she finally heard about it years later, praising Larson for the way he compared human and animal behavior in such humorous ways.
Larson’s strips frequently called attention to human-animal interactions, finding humor in imagining what animals might be thinking of us. He often compared human behavior to that of animals, demonstrating how we weren’t really all that different from them after all. Most of the time his work was less controversial, but it was always unexpected and thought-provoking in some way, often making us think twice about commonly held beliefs.
Larson largely credits his family and his older brother, Dan, for the success of his strip. The family had a “morbid sense of humor,” says Larson. And his brother Dan spent a lot of time pulling pranks and sometimes frightening Gary when he was younger. All of which had an impact on Larson and stayed with him well into his adulthood, finally finding an outlet in The Far Side.
After one and a half decades of daily cartoons and incredible success, Larson retired the strip on January 1st, 1995, saying he felt he had achieved what he wanted, and didn’t want to start repeating himself. As he put it, he did not want to enter the “graveyard of mediocre cartoons.” Nevertheless, more than 20 years after his retirement, many newspapers continue to reprint his work today. And his cartoons continue to be popular, with published collections of his work still selling well.
FIGHTING FOR CONSERVATION
Over the years that followed, Larson’s cartoons were printed on greetings cards, t-shirts, calendars and more. Two animated specials were also produced, “Tales from the Far Side (1994),” and “Tales from the Far Side 2 (1997).” Since his retirement, Larson has only occasionally created new art work, including a cover for the New Yorker magazine. For the most part, however, he he has stayed away from drawing. In his retirement, Larson has pursued other hobbies like traveling and scuba diving, and has returned to playing jazz. In addition, he’s also pursued his other passion: saving wildlife. “Protecting wildlife,” he once said, “is at the top of my list.”
Although Larson is notorious for avoiding the spotlight, interviews and photo sessions, he will make exceptions when it comes to defending animals and the environment. In 2006 he agreed to sit down for an interview with USA Today to discuss conservation. He talked about his decision to put together another day-to-day calendar and use the profits to help fight the illegal trade in wild animal parts, especially in Asia, where the trade is especially wide spread. The profits helped to fund an awareness campaign in China aimed at reducing the purchase of threatened species for exotic dishes, traditional medicine and for pets. Some of the funds also went toward projects in Indonesia and other southeast Asian countries to protect iconic animals like tigers, Asiatic black bears, elephants, and pangolins.
“I can’t imagine how we’ll be remembered by future generations if we allow this to happen.”
Larson is adamant about curtailing the widespread destruction caused by human encroachment into the natural world, which is driving a wide range of species towards extinction. “I can’t imagine how we’ll be remembered by future generations if we allow this to happen,” says Larson. “It’s a holocaust,” he says, “only instead of killing off people, we’ll be the flora and fauna Nazis.”
Larson talked about his grandparent’s home back on Fox Island in Puget Sound just off the Tacoma Washington Shore. As a boy, he and his brother would spend hours there, looking for (and finding) lizards and all kinds of small, wild creatures. Today, it’s all been paved over and there are few, if any, wild animals left behind.
“And that’s the problem,” he says. “Everything is getting filled in, dug up, overrun and generally made uninhabitable for everything but humans. Places where animals can live in peace, or at least live, are being destroyed at an increasing rate. Our species is rife with greed, war and destruction. But this is new. It’s all happening on our watch. It creeps me out, the rate at which we’re pushing species to extinction,” he says bleakly. This is why he, he says, he created the calendar in 2006, to help push back and fight for the protection of endangered species.
Although Larson has stepped away from the drawing table, he has been dubbed “the unofficial cartoonist laureate of the scientific community” by Natural History magazine. And of course, he continues to advocate for conservation and protecting wildlife, as well as animal rights and ending animal abuse.
LEGACY AND AWARDS
Larson says he doesn’t miss the weekly deadlines doing The Far Side. Nonetheless, he is fondly remembered by fans, many of whom are scientists (often depicted in his cartoons) and other cartoonists. He is considered one of the most original and greatest Sunday Comic artists of all time. And he has won many awards to prove it, including the National Cartoonist Award in 1985 and again in 1988, 1989, and 1990 straight on through until 1995. He has also won the Rueben Award twice, and even had a newly discovered insect named after him.
Despite years of success and accolades, Larson remains a generally shy person, and he and his wife, Toni Carmichael (an anthropologist), prefer to keep it that way. Only the issue of defending the natural world will get him to step back into the spotlight.
Some days, Larson says, he finds himself staring at the walls, wondering how things could have gone so terribly wrong for our planet. His continuing concern is what motivates him to donate whatever time and money he can to help out. His hope is that somehow, with all of us working together, we can bring an end to the widespread destruction before it is too late.