cow tools

Gary Larson Hesitantly Logs on to an Internet Whose Culture He Helped Create

Photo: Denver Post/Getty Images

Yesterday morning, the website of Gary Larson’s famed comic, The Far Side, started displaying strips from the series. This may seem like a baseline expectation for a beloved comic strip, but for Larson, it’s a big deal. With respect to Calvin and Hobbes and the one Garfield where Jon Arbuckle maybe drinks dog semen, The Far Side is, in my (and many others’) opinions, the greatest comic strip of all time. Yet it has never been made available online in any official capacity. It’s even more surprising when you consider that The Far Side has been helping to shape the culture of the internet since the very start.

Beginning this week, will offer an assorted collection of rotating daily strips, as well as strips grouped by themes. Before it was updated earlier this year with a “coming soon” graphic, The Far Side’s website had not changed in more than 18 years. It looked the same a few months ago as it did in 2001. In the absence of an official archive, fans took to posting and hosting the comics themselves. Larson rarely speaks to the press (prior to an email interview in today’s New York Times, I believe his last one was in 2003), but in 2007, he published an open letter online. “On the one hand, I confess to finding it quite flattering that some of my fans have created web sites displaying and/or distributing my work on the Internet,” he wrote. “And, on the other, I’m struggling to find the words that convincingly but sensitively persuade these Far Side enthusiasts to ‘cease and desist’ before they have to read these words from some lawyer.”

He wrote that he was less interested in the financial hit he might take if the comics were made available for free, and more in the emotional toll:

These cartoons are my “children,” of sorts, and like a parent, I’m concerned about where they go at night without telling me. And, seeing them at someone’s web site is like getting the call at 2:00 a.m. that goes, “Uh, Dad, you’re not going to like this much, but guess where I am.”

Larson’s letter seemed like it might become a classic case of the Streisand effect, which results in drawing more attention to something by asking people to pay less attention to it. Yet against all odds — especially given how blatant copyright infringement is on the internet — people mostly adhered to the request. It became difficult to find a central repository of Far Side comics, though they still showed up here or there.

That absence over the past two decades is sort of a shame, given the particularly internet-y, meme-like brand of humor apparent in many of Larson’s single-panel comic strips, which require absolutely no context other than what’s in front of you. (Sure, other strips like Family Circus are in a single-panel format, but they practice a much less eccentric brand of humor.)

Despite Larson’s 2007 edict, at least one of his comic strips has grown famous online: 1982’s “Cow Tools,” which is among the very first group of strips republished online today. “Cow Tools” (I don’t think I can post it here, but here’s a link) shows a cow standing in front of some misshapen “tools.” The caption reads, “Cow tools.” You can see them below in this Tumblr meme.

In 1982, the strip provoked nationwide controversy that mirrored the controversy around 2015’s viral sensation The Dress. Readers puzzled over the strip, trying to decipher what the tools were supposed to be. Readers called editors to inquire. Eventually, Larson had to issue a statement on the matter. “The cartoon was intended to be an exercise in silliness,” he wrote (based on considerable reporting experience, this is also what people who make viral memes without much thought often say). He added, “I regret that my fondness for cows, combined with an overactive imagination, may have carried me beyond what is comprehensible to the average ‘Far Side’ reader.”

The answer is, just like nonsensical internet jokes, that the tools were not supposed to be anything at all. Reflecting on the incident years later, Larson wrote, “The first mistake I made was in thinking this was funny. The second was making one of the tools resemble a crude handsaw — which made already confused people decide that their only hope in understanding the cartoon meant deciphering what the other tools were as well. Of course, they didn’t have a chance in hell.”

He summarized the whole “Cow Tools” debacle like so: “I drew a really weird, obtuse cartoon that no one understood and wasn’t funny and therefore I went on to even greater success and recognition.” A classic pre-online online success story. Gary Larson’s work was made for the internet, even if he is reluctant to admit it.

This morning, he effectively threw in the towel, acknowledging that since his first open letter, technological advancements have made it possible for him to present his comics in adequately high resolution. In another open letter, he acknowledged, “Trying to exert some control over my cartoons has always been an uphill slog, and I’ve sometimes wondered if my absence from the web may have inadvertently fueled someone’s belief my cartoons were up for grabs. They’re not.”

Even if it’s not the whole collection, and even if the participation is done with much reluctance, getting something is certainly way better than nothing to long-time fans. To Larson, the world wide web is no longer a Cow Tool.

Gary Larson Hesitantly Logs On