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Gary Larson returns with 'A Worm's Story'

Web posted on: Friday, July 10, 1998 12:37:24 PM EDT

By CNN Interactive Writer
Jamie Allen

ATLANTA (CNN) -- Truth be told, Gary Larson never quit cartooning. He didn't even consider it. In fact, the award-winning creator of "The Far Side" who walked away from the strip in 1995 -- much to the chagrin of its cult-like following -- might be exercising his unique talents now more than ever.

No longer satisfied with weekly deadlines and one-frame limitations, Larson, 48, has sought out more spacious formats to spread his imagination, the latest being his first non-"Far Side" book, titled "There's A Hair In My Dirt: A Worm's Story."

What's this children's book -- written for adults -- about?

  Getting to know...
   Gary Larson

Is the creation of humorous works something that you must do in order to remain sane (or insane)?

My first reaction was to say "No"; I'm definitely not walking around the house going, "I need to create! I must create!" But on the other hand, I do spend time each day exploring jazz on the guitar, so maybe there is some need there that I wasn't aware of.

Is "A Worm's Story" the first step in a series of books, perhaps the beginning of a demented Dr. Seuss?

You mean something like, "Green Babies and Spam?" I wouldn't mind doing another little writing project of some kind, but I doubt a "series" would ever develop. If the idea is there, it's there -- otherwise, I just work on my guitar lessons.

What will Gary Larson have scratched on his tombstone?

Gary Larson, born 1950, erased _______.

'Even the lowly worm'

When asked to reveal the impetus for his book, the cartoonist tempered his famous sense of humor -- and waxed biological.

"A long time ago, I became aware that many of us have a tendency to lump nature into simplistic categories, such as what we consider beautiful or ugly, important or unimportant," Larson explains. "As human a thing as that is to do, I think it often leads us to misunderstand the respective roles of life forms and their interconnectedness."

So, Larson created this environmental tale involving the "lowest of the low," the dirt-eating worm. In the end, in true Larson style, a human ends up worm food, just a small role in the theater of nature.

"The message is not so much that the worms will inherit the Earth, but that all things play a role in nature, even the lowly worm," Larson says. "But this book doesn't hit anyone over the head with a Biology 101 lesson; it's mostly for laughs."

Dementia galore!

While "Worm's Story" is much more detailed and factual than the classic "Far Side" stories (it took Larson a year to write, much of that time involving fact-checking with biologists), the existence of that mad-cap "Far Side" land is still evident in Larson's style: talking animals, dim-witted humans, deranged humor, all drawn in that trademark Larson scrawl that seems to put each character's credibility through a meat-grinder.

In one scene in the book, bears sit around a human-flavored picnic, one thumbing through a copy of "Field Guide to Humans." In another, one deer frightens another with the mask of a hunter. Another scene: a bully squirrel wears a t-shirt that says, "I kicked Thumper's ass."

This is not bedtime reading for kids, although Larson says, "I am confident my mom would have read this to me, but that's my mom."

"Worm's Story" is also running thick with the altered-perspective theme that's common in Larson's work: Shown from another creature's point of view, the moral of the story is that we humans should learn to respect our planet, worms and all. It was here long before we were, and it will be here long after we turn out the lights. But rather than preaching, Larson filters the message through macabre humor.

"I think, and hope, that anyone who enjoyed my cartoons in the past will find the same dementia at work here," Larson says.

The 15-year run

Any Larson dementia is enjoyable for "Far Side" fans, many who feel they've been suffering through desert-like conditions in the comics page ever since January 2, 1995.

That's when Larson ended "The Far Side"'s astounding 15-year run, and fans around the world lamented that nothing could replace his brand of humor.

Depicting Man vs. Nature scenes that included chain-smoking dinosaurs, dogs with guns, and cows that yelled "Car!," the strip was appearing in more than 1,900 newspapers in 17 languages at its peak, with 21 collections of "Far Side" books selling 31 million copies worldwide. The 'toon was voted No. 1 in United States newspapers for 10 consecutive years and is still syndicated in 40 countries.

Perhaps most indicative of the strip's popularity: It achieved office water cooler status. Conversations between co-workers across the country often started with the question, "See 'Far Side' this morning?"

So why did Larson walk away from it?

He began to dread the pace of creating a strip per day -- five every week, and so on. What had started as something fun had turned into a pressure-filled job. So he quit, solving his problems but leaving millions of fans without a way to confirm their own unhinged contemplations.

New dimensions

That's not to say Larson quit working. While he has said he loves his hobbies -- which include a daily obsession with jazz guitar and casual walks with his two bull mastiffs -- the time immediately following the "Far Side" retirement was filled with work.

"I was soon up to my eyeballs with my second animation project," Larson says. The project, an animated film now completed under the title "Tales of the Far Side II," is a sequel to a Larson work that aired on CBS in 1994. There's no word whether it will air on TV, or in theaters.

"The film's short stories are very much akin to the sense of humor in 'The Far Side,' only now the characters are moving, like in my dreams," Larson says.

Then there's "A Worm's Story." Each page is chock-full of Larson humor. He no longer has to squeeze his hysterical mind into a single frame, instead enjoying the vast landscape of 30-pages of text and illustrations.

'See you soon'

And while his schedule is filled, Larson no longer answers to an immediate deadline.

"I really don't ever foresee going back to those weekly deadlines," Larson says. "I always enjoyed cartooning, however, and will continue to be involved with it in one way or another."

The final page of "A Worm's Tale" says it best. A cartoon picture features a tangle of worms smiling at the reader, and if fans look close, they can see a written message from Larson in the curves of slimy worm bodies.

"See you soon," it reads.


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