It is ten years now since cartoonist Gary Larson downed his pen forever and took up his jazz guitar. Great artists are prone to downing tools and walking off the job. The French poet Baudelaire and the reclusive American novelist J.D. Salinger spring to mind. Herman Melville spent his last three decades in brooding silence. Genius is a heavy burden.

Anyhow, to mark the sad anniversary, Larsen’s publisher has released The Complete Far Side. The two volumes cost US$135 and weigh about 10 kilos. You can also buy a leather-bound edition for $795. Even at this price, The Complete Far Side ranks about 191 on Amazon.com – a brisk seller, if not a best seller. From the continuing popularity of Far Side books, greeting cards, mugs and calendars, it’s what you would expect. Far Side fans don’t even need books. They can send each other into guffaws of paralysing laughter with narratives of favourite cartoons.

The word most often used to describe Larson’s style is “weird”, although “tasteless”, “demented” and “twisted” also spring to mind. He has a limited but instantly recognisable range of characters: bipedal Holsteins with bursting udders, slack-jawed Neanderthals, malicious and moronic schoolboys with Coke-bottle glasses, pear-shaped matrons with beehive hair-dos, dorky scientists, and lots and lots of bugs. Nearly everyone/thing is fat, selfish and nerdy.

Unlike cartoon strips such as Garfield, Calvin and Hobbes, or Doonesbury, you don’t read Far Side cartoons for whimsical wisdom or wry political commentary. Instead, it depicts scenes like prisoners hanging from the wall of a mediaeval prison under a placard which reads “Congratulations Bob, Torturer of the Month”. Or buzzards swarming over a carcass near a placard which reads, “Yes! We’re open!”

Why is this world of stupidity, cruelty and banality so popular and so funny? The reason, I think, is that it confirms our deep suspicions of technological progress. It presents a world of evolution without progress, science without culture and calamity without sadness. One of my favourite cartoons depicts two anglers in an outboard. In the distance four sinister mushroom clouds are rising into the sky. “I’ll tell you what this means, Norm,” one says, “no size restrictions and screw the limit.” In other words, technological mastery has failed to civilise us. We are still subject to the most primitive and debased forms of selfishness.

The Far Side presents a world of evolution without progress, science without culture and calamity without sadness.

At the beginning of the last century, the Czech novelist Franz Kafka wrote a famous short story about a salesman who wakes up as “a monstrous verminous bug”. The horror of the tale is not the man’s digusting transformation, but that he really doesn’t mind; his outlook on life isn’t much different from a cockroach’s anyway. The gloomy Kafka and the cheery Gary Larson have a lot in common. He is a sort of Kafka-lite for our times.

You might think that a literary appreciation of The Complete Far Side is more than a little loopy. But look at these cartoons closely. You’ll see a warning of a clear and present danger in his bizarre humour: that technology won’t make us better, happier, more sensitive or more caring. In fact, it can distort and dehumanise civilised values.

Consider, for instance, two recent articles on the world news page of my local newspaper. Tucked away in the briefs was a two-sentence story about 800,000 Rwandans clubbed to death in 1994. Below it, in the centre of the page, was a longer and much more prominent article about a furore over 350,000 fur seals being clubbed to death in Canada.

This journalistic gaffe mirrors the heartlessness of Gary Larson’s cartoons. Just like his characters in The Far Side, highly educated and technologically savvy people can fail to distinguish between humans and animals. And in this case failure may have cost thousand of lives. “You know, there are 320 silverback gorillas in northwest Rwanda, the gorillas Dian Fossey died for,” says Romeo Dalaire, the French-Canadian soldier who commanded a tiny unit of helpless United Nations troops during the horror of the genocide. “I often think that had some outfit threatened to kill the gorillas, the international response from the developed world would have been swifter and stronger…”

You needn’t look far for other areas where our feeble grip on the meaning of humanity seems to be slipping. Euthanasia, embryo research, genetic engineering and pornography are often painted as wowserish obsessions, for instance. In fact, they’re flash points in a hard-fought culture war to keep technology from dehumanising us. But even culture wars have their moments of comedy – as The Complete Far Side demonstrates time after time. Buy it and lift your spirits. If you don’t like it, at least you’ll have the world’s most expensive doorstop.

Michael Cook is the editor of Mercator. email: mcook(at)MercatorNet.com

Michael Cook

Michael Cook is the editor of MercatorNet.