Life Beyond The Far Side

  • The ones who go back to work after they've won the lottery — those people are crazy. Gary Larson, who abruptly quit producing the Far Side cartoon nearly nine years ago, has no intention of ever picking up a drawing pencil again. This is the first time in months he has seen his downtown Seattle office, which his business-manager wife and assistant use to filter the paperwork needed to pump out Far Side greeting cards. Larson, whose surreal, pothead-meets-scientist take on humans' overestimation of their species made cartoons cool, prefers his nondrawing, noncelebrated existence. "Life is good," he says, sitting at a wooden conference table, holding an antique specimen jar of chattering-teeth hand puppets, momentarily optimistic before reverting to his trademark deadpan form. "I probably have cancer."

    The closest Larson, 53, has come to working lately — and he didn't much like it, or stick to his planned fall 2002 deadline — was to compile every cartoon he ever syndicated into the giant, two-volume hardcover boxed set The Complete Far Side: 1980-1994 (Andrews McMeel; 1,245 pages). He spent three years perfecting it, redoing many of the eyeballs, unhappy with the way they were digitally transferred. Picking up the collection with pride, Larson says, "I just like to feel the weight. It's a 20-pounder, Mom! It can alternate as a murder weapon." He says there's not much profit in it for him, despite the fact that, as he says, at $135, it costs about one car payment. "It's just a very cool thing for a cartoonist to have. It's my death book. I can die now."

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    Publicly Larson has been as good as dead for a while. He refuses to have his picture taken and avoids being on TV. "My name on a credit card is the one thing that would evoke a question. Sometimes I'd lie." Plus, Larson says, cartoonists are expected to be anonymous. "I don't think I'd know if I were sitting next to Charles Schulz on an airplane," he says, before being informed that the Peanuts creator is no longer with us. "Well, I'd smell him," he says with an easy laugh. "I don't get out much."

    There's a certain lack of ego necessary to quit at the height of your career, to willingly get back in line with the public. Larson, who looks like a Seattle version of Dick Cheney dressed for a hike, with black-frame glasses and a ring of white hair slightly long in the back, has not been tempted to unretire because he feels a sense of completion. "We all have an innate desire to push a rock up a hill, and I felt I had pushed the rock up to the top of the hill, to beat that analogy to death."

    And, Larson says, he never grew up dreaming of being a cartoonist. He just tried it one afternoon, after deciding his music-store job was too awful to go to anymore. He sold the six panels he drew that day to a local magazine, then others to the Seattle Times and later got a syndication deal through the San Francisco Chronicle . Though he liked the gig — and knew he was good at it — his love has always been jazz guitar, which he plays for several hours a day, occasionally sneaking into a band with friends to play at local weddings.

    But the real trick to going out on top, the way no one is able to — not Michael Jordan, not Willie Mays, not Elvis, not Woody Allen — is Larson's yin-yang combination of a slight ego and a massive self-awareness. He doesn't need to be idolized, but he doesn't want to be thought of as lame. After 2002, Larson stopped making his No. 1-selling boxed calendar, which was, essentially, a legal way to print money. "I couldn't understand why it was still doing well. I think it's one of those things that would dissolve into a joke itself: it's back!"

    Larson's biggest fear was jumping the shark — in his case, literally. The thing that horrified him most when putting the collection together wasn't the amateurishness of the early panels or the subpar eyeballs, but the slew of shark-frenzy jokes, which were a little too close to one another. That fear of becoming a hack, in the end, is what made him determined never to draw again. The one exception might be a possible cover for the upcoming New Yorker cartoon issue, which his publisher has bullied him into. It's a better fit for him than family newspapers, which sometimes wouldn't run his gallows humor, although he recently let his New Yorker subscription lapse. "I'm not into cartoons," he says. "That's the irony of it."