Like my subject line says. I’ve seen this particular Far Side now and then for thirty-plus years. It was only today, when I saw it bundled with other historical strips under the History Shmistory label, that I realized Gary Larson’s joke. This now takes, by far, the record between me seeing and me getting the joke. It was previously held by another Far Side strip, the famous “I think you misunderstood … I’m Al Tilly, the bum” incident.
In my defense — and this applies to the Al Tilly the bum incident too — part of my slowness was that it wasn’t obvious I was missing a joke. Imagine if the caption read, “Well, Mr Smith, … ” instead. It’s a fine enough non-sequitur joke that someone might be good in sales or market research or buffalo-slaughtering. Larson played fair, of course. If the identity of the person seeking a career didn’t matter, he’d have been named Smith or Jones or even not addressed by name. The beard and ten-gallon hat were also cues, although it’s not like comic strip characters won’t have long beards or quirky fashion choices either.
I suppose it’s all a reminder that you can tell any joke you like, but you can’t control what joke the audience hears.
Generally, terrible. They’re all on some kind of hyperfire where every part of the fire is exactly the same vastness of fire. But that is a general matter. Specific things may be less awful. Let’s review some of them .
Weather. It’s now at the right temperature where you can dress so you’re too hot, or are too cool. There’s no combination of clothes you have that will let things feel all right. This awkwardness will continue through Saturday, and over Sunday will give way to modest embarrassment with scattered clumsiness and afternoon to evening thundermeekness.
Yellow things. Yellow things need no attention and are fine as they are.
Vocabulary. The use of the word ‘coruscate’ around you has been steadily increasing. Consult the masses of people lined up outside your door to say it. Yes, this action is doing nothing to convince you it is an actual word. Why they’re doing this is a mystery. It’s not like we think you’re responsible for the word, so don’t go worrying about that We apologize for the inconvenience but can’t think of anything to do about it.
The Capital of Montana. The capital of Montana remains missing. It was last seen approximately five months ago, when it was photographed during a school trip. Now the capital is nowhere to be found and the schools are a bit wobbly too. The school thought the trip was successful and the capital was showing an interest in kickball. Those with leads are asked to call the governor anonymously. The capital was an ‘M’.
Green things. Green things need to be less yellow-y so as to not need attention.
Haunting Odd Behavior By Co-workers. Yes, your co-worker has responded to how you end the late-morning chat by saying “hope you enjoy your lunch” with the answer, “isn’t that the truth!”. It seems like that thing where you give the correct response for the wrong prompt, but they have done it three times in the past two weeks. Their hearty laugh shows they’re enjoying it, at least. Maybe they have wicked plans for lunch? Maybe they eat ironically? Maybe they’ve transcended meals wholly, and exists on giving co-workers a vague despair? But then why are they doing it in these times?
USB. We are still doing that thing where there are about 48 different shapes of USB plugs. We’ve stopped that thing where some of them are called mini USB and others are mini-B USB and some are micro and some are -C and some are -A and all that. Now they are all simply USB 3.0, except those that are 3.1. Some of them are called Thunderbolt or Firewire or Lightning Loops or Superdooperlooper or Batman: The Ride. We have no idea why anyone puts up with this.
Purple things. They’re just overdoing it because they want the attention. Pay them no heed.
Spelling (Non-Vocabulary Division). In the past week alone I have created by typo the words “touside” and “lightnight”. Both words deserve to be things and I will leave it to you to complete the rest of the work. I feel like “touside” should be a chipper sort of slang said in a slightly dangerous part of town, but will leave that up to other parties. It’s important no one person do everything. “Thundermeekness” is a fun word too, but its uses have obvious limits. I also composed “trea”, but that one could use some work.
General Cleanliness. Somehow the keyboard keeps getting fragmentary Cheez-Its lodged between letters, most often in the bit between the ‘f’ and ‘g’ which stare out accusingly at your housekeeping. There haven’t been any Cheez-Its near the keyboard ever. Logical explanations are needed, and there are none.
Heeding things. Earning two and a quarter percent; some restrictions apply.
Comic strips. That one Far Side from 1987 that you weren’t getting? The joke is that ‘Al Tilley, the bum’ sounds a lot like ‘Atilla the hun’. Now nights when you really need to sleep you can lie awake wondering about this Calvin and Hobbes from 1992, and whether it is ‘lie’ or ‘lay’.
Your Blogging Site. Is still encouraging you to try their new post editor, as if you were a big enough fool to try that. The only good version of anything computer-based is the second design they published after you started using the thing, and everything since then has been this somehow water-y thing where you can’t do the one simple task you always do.
I hope this has relieved some of your anxieties, but know it has not.
Since then? Nothing, although there’s speculation. Gary Larson retired his comic in early 1995. And then stayed off the Internet. He’d be famous for having disappeared had Bill Watterson not upstaged him at the end of 1995. He didn’t want The Far Side put on the web, and remarkably, the web mostly respected that. Or his attorneys were quite good with their copyright-takedown notices. I don’t remember hearing stories of clumsy cease-and-desist notices messing up online communities.
So what does this mean? The easiest thing — and one I’d be delighted with — would be just a good official online archive for Larson’s comic strip. I have worried some that The Far Side was just going to be forgotten, since it hasn’t been in newspapers in a quarter-century and its online presence is almost nil. It’s great to imagine having something that’s my Gen-X cohort’s secret, other than that the Gen-X cohort exists. But that seemed unfair to the comic strip.
It’s hard to explain the importance of The Far Side. It was weird and surreal and happy to be obscure if Gary Larson thought the joke was good enough. Or if he didn’t realize it was obscure. The influence was amazing. Everybody who drew a comic strip for their college paper in the 90s was imitating either The Far Side or Bloom County. I’m not sure there’s a panel comic launched the past quarter-century that hasn’t followed Gary Larson’s style. One of the first web comics, Doctor Fun, was a Larson imitator. Many web cartoonists give a try to its bizarre-concept panel style, even if they develop a different comic.
So just being able to read the comic strips again, easily, and to share them would be fantastic.
Could there be new comics? Well, sure. I don’t know any reason Gary Larson couldn’t still draw, or write. I assume he did the image that’s on https://www.thefarside.com right now, too. Would I want him to?
I’m curious to see, sure. Larson was a great talent and why wouldn’t we want to see more of that? Well, we can imagine things, which amount to discovering that Gary Larson isn’t the person we imagine him to be, which is this transcendent genius able to combine elements of our culture and our natural world in ways into a harmonious and silly image. If we got, like, the Cow sneering at some non-binary people and “cancelling” their acceptance of human-caused climate change, well, I know I’d feel betrayed. It could go innocently wrong too. Mocking the preposterous entity in the White House is as difficult as he is terrible; a misfired joke and fumbled apology could leave anyone looking bad.
More likely, and more subtly wrong, would be something like the return of Berkeley Breathed to drawing Bloom County. There, the revived comic strip isn’t doing anything wrong, at least not anything that the original didn’t do wrong. It’s just that the revival went out into a culture filled with imitators and extenders of the original comic. And it’s presented to people who are not who we were in 1986. Greatness is part talent, yes, but also part luck, and some of that luck is catching the right audience at the right time.
This is all gloom, but it is 2019, so what is not gloom?
So let’s hope. If Gary Larson has decided that he has some funny drawings of cows, perhaps he knows his business. I’ll share news when I have it.
[ Edited 29 April 2017 to add: ] Thanks for coming here in search of catching up on what’s going on in Jack Bender and Carole Bender’s Alley Oop. The essay here was right and so far as I know just fine when I wrote it in late January 2017. If you’re looking for what’s gone on since then try this link; the most recent posts I’ve had about the comic strip should be at the top of its results.
I know, I bet you all thought I was going to go from The Amazing Spider-Man over to The Phantom, as that’s the other newspaper-syndicated superhero comic strip. I admit I’m not sure when’s the last time I saw Alley Oop in a newspaper. It might have been decades ago at my grandparent’s house, when I also saw The Amazing Spider-Man there on the cover of the New York Daily News comics section and nowhere else. (People with records of the Daily News comics page offerings, please write in to let me know if that’s possible!) Big deal. It certainly used to run in newspapers, and for all I know it still does. It looks like one. Plus it’s easier to explain than The Phantom and I had a week far to distracted to deal with complicated strips.
So, Alley Oop started in 1932 by V T Hamlin as essentially a sitcom/adventure strip. It was about Alley Oop and his prehistoric land of Moo. He’d do caveman-type stuff, like adopting a pet dinosaur Dinny and being alternately indispensable to or on the run from Moo’s King Guz. Sometimes they’d be in the sort of low-scale war with Tunk’s neighboring kingdom of Lem that you got in those days when the world had maybe twenty people in it. Hey, caveman comics and cartoons were a viable thing back then, and if the whole genre’s been taken over by The Flintstones that’s not the fault of the properties working a generation before them.
And surely Alley Oop would have gone wherever rambling story comics go if not for a 1939 tale (recently reprinted by Dark Horse, so you can read it in book form). In that, the brilliant 20th-century scientist Dr Elbert Wonmug, testing out his time machine, plucked Alley Oop into the present day and suddenly the strip had that touch of madness that allows for greatness. A mildly humorous adventure strip about cavemen is fine enough. But a mildly humorous adventure strip about time-travelling cavemen? That’s brilliant. I don’t know how the thing has resisted adaptation into a goofy 70s live-action show or a modern movie.
So it’ll say something about the strip that the 20th, now 21st, century scientist is Dr Elbert Wonmug. Do you get it? Because I had been reading the strip reasonably faithfully for like six years before someone, I think an essay at the front of a collection, explained it to me. How would you translate won (one) mug into German?
I mention that not for it being the record-holder in me only belatedly getting the joke, as it’s not. There’s a Far Side cartoon that holds that record at something like 15 years before I got it. I mention it to calibrate the sort of humor the strip has. It’s never a thoroughly serious comic, and a lot of silly business does go on, especially slapstick. But it’s not primarily a joke strip. If something’s funny it’s because there’s an absurd situation, such as (last year) Guz deciding that the fantastically unqualified Alley Oop should be the kingdom’s doctor. Alley Oop didn’t do very well. But I think that’s because the whole storyline was (in-universe) done in a couple of days, and nobody’s at their best their first week on the job. He’s pretty good at picking up stuff; anyone who can go from primitive Moo to 1939 Long Island with only a few missteps has got solid resources.
The current storyline started around October of 2016. (There wasn’t a clean break from the previous story, a common feature of Jack Bender and Carole Bender’s writing.) And it’s built on a premise designed to shake seven-year-old me out of watching In Search Of and reading the paranormal-events section of The People’s Almanac 2. Aliens have come to invade Moo.
Oh, they didn’t talk about invading at first. Volzon, of the planet Jantulle, spent some time showing off his superior technology and negging on Alley Oop’s sensor readings. Volzon then declared ancient Earth to be just about perfect for their needs: the Jantulle population’s exploding and their plant-frog-men need colonies. Earth will do nicely. Alley Oop pointed out that their superior technology was no match for his big stick. And it must be said, he’s quite good with sticks. And punching. Alley Oop does pretty well satisfying the gap left by Popeye not really being a comic strip anymore. And then Volzon went and spoiled things by whipping out his mind-control device. That’s about where things stand just now.
Of course the Jantulle invasion is going to be foiled. For one, comic strips like this just don’t end in aliens conquering Earth. Not permanently, anyway. For another, we know that since Earth isn’t a colony world of alien plant-frog-men the invasion does come to nought. And it’ll be up to Alley Oop and his team to do something about that. The comic strip, as best I can determine, doesn’t try to pull any nonsense about time travel resulting in alterante timelines or histories or anything like that. There’s the history of how things worked out, and it works out that way because the protagonists of our stories did something about it.
For a premise that’s got time travel baked into it there’s refreshingly little talk about paradoxes, or fixing up a solution by planting the stuff you needed to escape it afterwards. It’s rather like (most of) the old-school Doctor Who serials that way. The time travel is a way of getting to interesting settings. Mostly, of late, they’ve been ancient Moo, or the present day. There was recently a curious story where Alley Oop and his partner Oola travelled to 1941 and left a message with then-contemporary Dr Wonmug. This didn’t threaten the stability of the spacetime continuum or threaten paradoxes or anything; it’s just, history worked out like that.
And yeah, somehow, 1941 Wonmug wasn’t impossibly young nor 2016 Wonmug impossibly old. All the characters are holding at about the same age and if you don’t want to accept that maybe you should read some other comic strip about time-travelling cavemen and their dinosaurs.
Oh yeah, the dinosaurs. Dinosaurs and cavemen never lived together, never even got close to together. To my delight the comic strip acknowledged this back in 1939 or 1940, when Hamlin was discovering he had a new premise taking over his comic. They explained how there could possibly be dinosaurs in Moo: they don’t know. Obviously things are more complicated than they realize. So far as I’m aware Hamlin and his successors writing the strip haven’t gone back and filled in some explanation for how this impossibility came about. It’s just part of how this fictional world works. I’m honestly impressed that they resist filling in some explanation. You could come up with any number of explanations that work as long as nobody thinks through their implications. “We don’t know; the world is more complicated than we realize,” though? That’s irrefutable. And it’s even what an actual scientist would say to an unanswerable mystery like that. (Oh, they’d work up hypotheses and start testing, yes, but it would start from an acknowledged ignorance.)
A last note. I’d mentioned with The Amazing Spider-Man the problem story strips have with Sundays. All the soap opera comics adopted a Sundays-as-recap-days policy. The Sunday strip would repeat the action of the Monday through Saturday preceding, a mercy for people who get only the Sunday comics but killing the pacing. Amazing Spider-Man just barrels through Sundays as though nothing weird were going on and trusts people to fill in the blanks. Alley Oop works closer to the soap opera model. Sunday strips largely recapitulate what happened the previous week, but in a clipped, notes-for-class version. The daily strips have more texture, more of the fun little asides filling in plot points. If you were to adapt Alley Oop to another medium, you’d use the Sunday strips to guide the plot and the daily strips to write the scenes.
And the Sunday strips don’t recap the previous Monday-to-Saturday. They recap, roughly, the previous Tuesday to the coming Tuesday. That is, the Sunday strip tells you what’s going to happen the coming Monday and Tuesday. (More or less.) Of course a comic strip about time travelling cavemen would be a little out of synch with the weeks. That just makes sense, surely.
Another Blog, Meanwhile Index
The index dropped five points overnight. No one really knows why but the leading hypothesis is that it’s related to the neap tides because everybody agrees “neap tides” are the best tides. Neap.