Saturday, December 06, 2008

The cartoon that made science cool

Stephen King and Stephen Jay Gould each wrote a foreword to a Far Side gallery, and they had such opposite perspectives on a comic they both praised that it illustrated different approaches people can take toward humor.

King, in his foreword to The Far Side Gallery 2, refused to explain what made Larson's cartoons funny. He wrote that The Far Side was a "uniquely unique" comic that "will make you laugh your butt off," but "I can't tell you why," because "There's no way to explain humor any more than there is a way to explain horror."

Gould, introducing The Far Side Gallery 3, apparently disagreed. His essay, which was twice as long as King's, examined various Larson cartoons to give a sense of why The Far Side was especially popular among scientists. According to Gould, Larson (who never worked as a scientist) understands "the intimate details of our lives and practices." As an example, Gould points to a Far Side cartoon showing astronomers fighting over a telescope, and the caption says "All day long, a tough gang of astrophysicists would monopolize the telescope and intimidate other researchers." Gould claims that this cartoon resonates with scientists because "telescopes are in desperately short supply, and...scientists (particularly Ph.D. students low on the totem pole) often wait months for a few hours of evening viewing (tough darts, and back to 'go,' if it's cloudy)."

Another cartoon showed an "average size" American family consisting of two parents, a whole child, and, literally, a half-child sitting in front of a TV set (alluding to studies that say things like that the average American family has 1.5 children). To Gould this illustrates that "language is not a neutral medium of optimal communication, but also a reservoir of illogic, cultural chauvinism, and literally senseless cliché."

Gould also talks about how Larson "places animals into human situations--using the differences to show how less than logical or universal our unquestioned practices can be." One recurring theme he sees in Larson's cartoons is the idea that "Animals have intelligence different from ours; they are not just primitive models of our achievements."

I prefer Gould's perspective to King's. Of course King is right that you can't rationalize humor. Either you laugh, or you don't, and nobody can persuade you to laugh at something you don't find funny. But Larson's cartoons are more than silly diversions. They have a point of view that resonates with people.

Larson's own thoughts on the matter can be found in his 1989 book PreHistory of the Far Side, a behind-the-scenes look at the process he goes through as a cartoonist. Among other things, he shows the doodled cartoons in his sketchbook alongside the final published versions. For example, a sketch of "If dogs drove," in which dogs are seen driving cars while hanging their heads out the window, was made into a cartoon called "When dogs go to work," in which dogs are sitting on a bus hanging their heads out the window, and the driver is also a dog doing the same thing.

Larson claims that he doesn't know where he gets his ideas: "Some cartoons spring forth from just staring stupidly at a blank sheet of paper and thinking about aardvarks or toaster ovens or cemeteries or just about anything" (p. 42). But in the process of developing an idea, he can be pretty analytical. He deals at length with how the subtle features of his cartoons--a character's facial expression or clothing, or something in the background--can have an effect on the humor.

Unlike the slightly conceited Bill Watterson in his annotated Calvin and Hobbes book, Larson is charmingly self-effacing. He kids himself a lot and never seems fully aware that he rules the field when it comes to single-panel cartoons. If you think what he does is easy, I'd like you to name another nationally syndicated single-panel cartoonist who even begins to approach Larson's mastery of the genre. I've seen plenty of comics try, but come up short.

One such comic is Mother Goose and Grimm. What struck me about Larson's sketchbook was how many of his initial ideas were at about the level of published Grimm cartoons, then he'd improve them. In one of his doodles, for example, two spiders are standing by a web and one of them says, "Nice threads." That's the sort of dumb pun I've seen in Grimm many times. But the final version is almost unrecognizably different. Four spiders are sitting around a little table next to a web that appears to have flowers stitched into it. The caption goes, "You and Fred have such a lovely web, Edna--and I love what you've done with those fly wings."

While he often starts with a simple gag, the cartoons he develops are usually more complex. They typically tell a little story that we are expected to unravel. I think of the one in the pet shop, where we see a piranha on display, and at the far end of the shop is a cat with wooden forelegs. This cartoon has no caption; it doesn't need any. The picture speaks for itself.

As Gould discerned, Larson's most frequent conceit is putting animals into human situations in order to comment on human behavior. In one cartoon, we see a mother chicken feeding a bedridden chicken a bowl of soup and saying, "Quit complaining and eat it!... Number one, chicken soup is good for the flu--and number two, it's nobody we know." The absurdity of the situation is what creates the humor, but we also end up thinking a little about human morality.

Larson admits to being flattered by his popularity among scientists, but he says it has its downside: every time he makes a scientific error, he receives a flurry of letters correcting it. For example, in one cartoon a husband mosquito walks into his house and sighs that he has been "spreading malaria" across the country. Numerous readers pointed out to Larson that only female mosquitos bite. Larson's response: "Of course, it's perfectly acceptable that these creatures wear clothes, live in houses, speak English, etc." (p. 124).

One often overlooked point is that The Far Side appealed not just to scientists but to scientifically informed laymen. Gould's favorite Far Side features a group of Protozoa watching a slide show, when one says, "No, wait! That's not Uncle Floyd! Who is that? Criminy, I think it's just an air bubble!" Scientists get the joke, but so does anyone who has ever operated a microscope.

In many cases, Larson takes a familiar biological fact and mixes it up with a stereotypical human situation. In one cartoon, an insect couple are sitting on a sofa in their house. Dad is reading the newspaper, and Mom is yelling to their daughter, who is walking out the door: "Hold it right there, young lady! Before you go out, you take off some of that makeup and wash off that gallon of pheromones!"

Larson did for cartoons what Douglas Adams did for fiction: take scientific ideas and derive humor from them that general audiences could understand. Even nonscientists appreciate Larson's attention to detail. His drawing ability is underrated, perhaps because of the crude, broad style of his faces and bodies. But when he draws animals, even highly anthropomorphized ones, the details are far more authentic than you'd expect from a syndicated cartoonist.

Larson also explains how he came up with some of his worst cartoons. A notorious example is "Cow tools," which features a cow standing by a table on which rest four oddly shaped objects, one of which looks like a saw. He admits the cartoon simply didn't work, but he explains what he intended it to mean, and while his explanation doesn't make the cartoon funny, we do get a sense of his thought processes that usually lead to better cartoons.

I've never thought of The Far Side as subversive, but a few of his cartoons have provoked controversy. Some readers are put off when he shows animals being hurt. None of these cartoons ever bothered me in the least, and I'm an animal lover. I love cats, but I was always amused by the cartoon where two dogs are playing "tethercat." As Larson points out, dogs beating up on cats is just an old cartoon convention: "I could understand the problem if these were kids batting an animal around a pole, but the natural animosity between dogs and cats has always provided fodder for humor in various forms" (p. 158).

On the other hand, when he shows some cartoons of his that his editors refused to publish, I admit he did push the boundaries of good taste. In one of them, a snake is crawling through a baby's crib and has a lump in the middle of its body at exactly the place in the crib where the baby should be. According to Larson, "editors, I'm convinced, have saved my career many times by their decision not to publish certain cartoons" (p. 176).

Other aspects of the book include the somewhat inspirational story of how he got into cartooning; examples of his first comic, Nature's Way; cartoons he based on personal experiences or short stories he wrote; some of the embarrassing mistakes he and his publishers made; and a lengthy gallery of his own favorite Far Sides.

Lastly, I should mention my own personal favorite, which happens to appear in the book. A dinosaur is standing behind a podium, speaking before an audience of dinosaurs. He says, "The picture's pretty bleak, gentlemen.... The world's climates are changing, the mammals are taking over, and we all have a brain about the size of a walnut."

I won't try to analyze it for you.

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