'Far Side' fans snap up comic compendium
"The Complete Far Side" is one of the best-selling books of this holiday season.
LOS ANGELES, California (Reuters) -- It costs more than $130 and weighs about 18 pounds, and its cover features a pair of chefs hiding in the reeds and hunting for flying cows.
It is also one of the best-selling books of the season -- "The Complete Far Side," a two-volume, 1,250-page collection of 14 years of the iconic comic panels drawn by artist Gary Larson.
From the first panel on January 1, 1980 -- a pair of crabs marveling at the odd appearance of human babies -- to the last -- a January 1, 1995, double panel in which the cartoonist wakes up to find it was all a dream -- the "Far Side" ranks as one of the most popular comics ever.
Syndicated at its peak in 1,900 newspapers and translated into 17 languages according to media reports, "Far Side" was almost a traditional comic strip until Larson convinced his editors of the merits of a panel instead.
"I had a single-image brain; I drew single-image cartoons," Larson wrote in an introduction in the book.
But summing up those 4,300 cartoons was not as easy as it might seem because once Larson agreed to do help compile the retrospective, the process took three years.
"He had been away from it long enough that I guess he felt like it was time he could deal with it," said Michael Reagan, chief executive of Lionheart Books. Reagan, who is based in Atlanta, worked with Larson to design the collection.
"I think in his mind he always knew he would do what we came to term 'the legacy book,"' Reagan said.
Bound in two volumes (1980-1986 and 1987-1994), the collection features a foreword by comedian Steve Martin, who rather than writing one essay instead offers a number of different potential introductions.
'He is an insect'
"Gary Larson came to my house last weekend, and I was surprised to find that he is an insect," Martin wrote. "All this time I figured him for a bear or a little fat kid, but when he walked across my ceiling and hid in the drapes, I knew ..."
Despite the relatively steep price of $135 (though it can be found for under $100 online), the book made the New York Times best-seller lists and it has garnered rave reviews.
Many fans find the appeal of the "Far Side" in its intelligence and the wry way it made people think about what Larson was trying to say. He drew a world populated by quirky, goofy people and animals, especially cows, and his drawings sometimes perplexed readers.
"It's a sense of the bizarre, a sense of the absurd," said M. Thomas Inge, a professor of English and humanities at Randolph-Macon College in Virginia and an expert on culture and comics. "Many times you really couldn't figure out what in the world the humor was really about until it settled in on you."
Much of the original work was retained in the compilation, though Reagan said some captions were redone and some panels redrawn. In doing the retrospective work, Reagan said, there were even some that Larson came to regret drawing.
"Absolutely, but never did he say we couldn't put it in a book," he said. "He would absolutely cringe at some of them."
Although there were a few more panels after 1994, including six done for the New York Times in 1998 and 1999, and although Inge said "we probably need him even more" now than when he stopped working regularly, Lionheart's Reagan said fans should not keep their hopes up for a Larson comeback. Since he stopped drawing the comic, Larson has made two animated films and published a book.
"He's never going back into the newspapers on a daily basis," Reagan said.
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