"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Topics: Entertainment News
When Gary Larson started out as a cartoonist, he didn’t know what
white-out was. Any time he made a mistake, he threw the drawing out
and began again.
This is like a film director not knowing about yelling “Cut!” or like
a painter not knowing about turpentine or like a road crew not knowing about jackhammers. There must have been a Great Moment when someone happened to mention the uses of white-out in Larson’s presence, a moment so great that only Larson could draw it.
This inspiring revelation comes from “The Prehistory of the Far
Side,” a splendid 1989 compendium of Larson works from early to
late. One section purports to consist of long-lost Very Early works
Larson drew as a child. These delineate a hideous childhood
with young Gary spending the family dinner hour under the table
snapping at scraps, vacationing in the trunk of the family car and
being sent out to play on the freeway. Which leads one to suspect
that his childhood was in truth idyllic.
While Larson has griped about his brother Dan’s teasing –
especially the part about being locked in the darkened basement –
the two did spend many pleasurable hours together, amassing reptiles,
flooding the backyard to create a swamp (which they attempted to
populate with kidnapped frogs and bugs) or hauling sand into the
basement to make a desert.
Around this time, Larson seems to have acquired an Igor complex. His
father, perpetually working on projects in his home workshop, would
ask him to fetch various tools, and Gary would often bring him the
wrong ones — an experience that’s been transmuted into the memory
of “stormy lightning-filled nights when my dad, with his own little
Igor, tried to bring life to a dead lawnmower.”
More recently, in a tribute to Stephen Jay Gould in Natural
History, Larson described a fantasy of being Gould’s hunchbacked
assistant, in a lab coat (even if Gould doesn’t wear one, “I would
require it for myself”) and with an enormous hump (“If you’re going
to have a hump, don’t screw around”), fumbling with crania and
enraging Gould by mixing up the Homo habilis and Homo robustus
skulls. (He has also portrayed himself as the one soldier in the
band storming the castle to glance into the moat and holler, “Oo!
Goldfish, everyone! Goldfish!”)
Larson, who was born in 1950, grew up in a blue-collar household in
Tacoma, Wash. As a kid he liked to draw. He admired his
junior high school classmates who could draw cool tanks and
airplanes, but preferred to draw dinosaurs, whales and giraffes
himself. He never took art lessons and it doesn’t seem to have
occurred to him to become a cartoonist. “On Career Day in high
school, you don’t walk around looking for the cartoon guy,” Larson
says. Too bad. Had there been a Career Day booth staffed by cartoonists, they might have clued him in about the white-out. (Or they might have hit him with a rubber chicken. You never know.)
In high school, Larson abandoned drawing and concentrated on music,
principally playing jazz guitar, though there are sinister hints of
an affair with the banjo. In college — Washington State University — he majored in communication, thinking he’d get a job writing ad copy for television and “save the world from inane advertising,” as he told interviewer Al Young. He also crammed every biology and natural history course possible into his schedule.
After graduating in 1972, Larson inexplicably delayed his plunge
into advertising reform, forming a jazz duo and then working in a music store. “I’ve always considered music stores to be the graveyards of musicians,” he told Robert Cross of the Chicago Tribune. Out of the blue, the fed-up Larson sat down one day in 1976
and drew six cartoons, which he submitted to a local magazine,
Pacific Search. They bought them for $90, and Larson was thrilled by
the easy money. Next, a weekly paper, the Sumner News Review, paid
him a lavish $3 a pop for a weekly cartoon. It wasn’t until 1979
that he persuaded the Seattle Times to give him a weekly panel,
In the meantime he worked as an investigator for the Humane
Society. Driving to the interview for the Humane Society job,
Larson reports, a dog pack ran across the road and he hit one of
them — perhaps a sign that this was not fated to be his right
livelihood, either. (The dog not only survived, it walked away from
The Times placed “Nature’s Way” next to its “Junior Jumble,” which
may have increased the number of readers who complained that the
humor was sick and twisted and not in a nice way.
Some of these early cartoons, while Larson’s style was still
developing, show that he can draw conventionally attractive
people if he wants to. Fortunately he abandoned this dull practice
and turned to a world entirely populated by the lumpy, the big-nosed, the bespectacled, the bug-eyed and the foofy-haired. And
animals. But Larson is no species-ist — his animals are also
lumpy, big-nosed and foofy-haired.
In 1979 Larson got the idea of doubling his cartooning income (he
was back up to $15 each) by getting a second newspaper to publish his panels. He fixed his sights on the San Francisco Chronicle and
drove down to San Francisco. After a week of waiting to be seen, of
turning over his portfolio, calling in twice a day to ask
if anyone had looked at it and being openly pitied by receptionists, Larson was told, to his astonishment, that the Chronicle wanted to syndicate his cartoon, retitled “The Far Side,”
and offer it to about 30 newspapers across the country. And forget this weekly business — they wanted one a day.
When the dazed Larson returned home, he found a letter from the
Seattle Times — it was dropping the cartoon. Too many
complaints. Too offensive. If he hadn’t already lined up the
Chronicle job, Larson says, he would have given up cartooning then.
As he told Rolling Stone, “I’m certain I would have bagged it all.”
When “The Far Side” went national, it continued to get complaints. It
caught on slowly, with editors saying that they loved it, but they weren’t sure readers could handle it. Sometimes newspapers tried to
discontinue it, but then got so many more complaints that they
reinstated it. By 1983 “The Far Side” was in 80 papers, and by 1985 in
200. Comics page readers regularly voted “The Far Side” both their
favorite cartoon and their most disliked cartoon.
Sometimes the disgruntled readers were confused — as by the “cow
tools” drawing, in which no one, including Larson, has ever been
able to figure out what the cow tools are for. Others were outraged
at the idea of deriving humor from the suffering of animals — even
if imaginary — as in the cartoon of two dogs playing tethercat, or
the one showing a pet owner encouraging her little Fifi to dash
full speed through a (boarded-up) dog door. A few disliked the
idea of deriving humor from the suffering of humans, even if
imaginary: Larson reports that Amnesty International wrote to
complain every time a cartoon about dungeons and torturing
appeared. “Does ‘Wizard of Id’ get these letters?” he wonders
One of the most common reactions Larson has gotten to his work over
the years is “I get it — I love it — but I can’t believe anybody
else gets it.” This is one of “The Far Side’s” charms. Larson trusts us to know things. He trusts us to know what a microscope cover slip is, feels confident we will not be thrown by references to spitting cobras
and assumes we understand why young Bobby Snake has to jiggle
Grandpa Snake’s rat so that it looks alive. He figures we’ve heard
about spiders that disperse by ballooning on pieces of silk, and
will be amused by the idea of bison doing the same thing. Of
course, Larson’s drawings are so enticing that even if we have no
idea what’s going on with the ballooning bison, there’s still a
goofy pleasure to be gotten from the picture.
“The Far Side” is uniquely candid about nature’s being red in tooth and
claw, with battle scenes bloodier than anything in “Prince Valiant.”
Lions kill and eat zebras, praying mantises eat their young and
people who drive too slow in the fast lane burn in eternal flames. Many “Far Side” jokes also feature fire hydrants, outhouses and
startled spiders who lose control of their silk spinnerets.
Interestingly, explicit as he is about life, death and bodily
fluids, Larson is somewhat restrained about sex. There are snakes
in glasses, snakes in aprons and snakes with beehive hairdos, but
there are no snakes in bustiers. Even when he draws two bulls
exulting over the delivery of an inflatable cow doll, there’s
nothing really lascivious about her.
There are no cows in bustiers, either, though Larson has drawn cows
with almost every other imaginable accouterment. In May 1980,
he drew a physically ungifted cow practicing for a moon jump
under the eyes of a discouraged cat-with-fiddle, looked at what he
had done and saw that it was good. “This was more than just a
cow — this was an entire career I was looking at,” he wrote. From then on, cows poured from his pen, plotting uprisings, seeking
therapy, joy riding on tractors and generally stampeding into the
hearts of readers.
“The Far Side” was eventually picked up by 1,900 newspapers and
translated into 17 languages. Twice the Dayton Daily News
inadvertently translated it into “Dennis the Menace,” by switching
the captions on the side-by-side panels. (It didn’t do much for “The
Far Side,” but greatly improved “Dennis the Menace,” as in the cartoon
in which Dennis tells his doting mother, “I see your little,
petrified skull … labeled and resting on a shelf somewhere,” a line
that had been intended for a Neolithic fortune-teller.)
The scientific community adored “The Far Side,” all but wallpapering
laboratories with photocopies of their favorites. Inaccuracies
didn’t alienate them: They’d write to remind Larson that polar
bears and penguins are not found in the same hemisphere; that
humans and dinosaurs didn’t coexist; or that it should be the
female mosquito coming home tired after a hard day spreading
malaria, not the male — but they didn’t really mind. “He
illustrates principles in a twisted way,” one scientist/admirer
wrote to nature columnist Gerry Rising. The California Academy of Sciences
created an exhibit that traveled to natural history museums around the country, showcasing 400 Larson cartoons. Entomologists have named a louse and a butterfly after Larson.
One “Far Side” cartoon features some sort of caveman seminar with a
lecturer explaining that the spiked tail-tip on a stegosaurus is
called the “thagomizer,” after the late Thag Simmons. Even though
this exemplifies a misconception that usually drives
paleontologists mad — the idea that humans and dinosaurs coexisted –
Larson gets away with it. It is reported that as of 1994 the museum at Dinosaur National Monument had a stegosaurus tail spike on display simply labeled “Thagomizer.”
(I have no problem with the thagomizer, though I am a little
worried by the unscrupulous cow in the life raft who is detected by
the other passenger in the act of sipping from a glass. “Hey!
That’s milk! And you said you were all empty, you stinkin’ liar!”
shouts the indignant man. My problem is not the man and cow in the
lifeboat, the talking cow, nor the question of where the cow got the
glass, but — why does the cow have stubble?)
As early as 1987, Larson was telling interviewers that the pace of seven “Far Side” comics a week was getting to him. “I think I’m maintaining the quality, but internally I’m paying for it,” he told Rolling Stone.
In 1987 Larson married Toni Carmichael, an archeologist and environmental consultant. In 1988, to widespread dismay, he
took a break of 14 months from drawing “The Far Side.” He traveled to Africa and the Amazon, studied jazz guitar with Jim Hall, published “Prehistory” and negotiated an agreement under which, on his return, he would draw just five panels a week.
Fans were delighted and relieved when he returned to the drawing table in 1990, but five years later, in January 1995, Larson stopped drawing “The Far Side” altogether. He said he felt the quality of the work was going down, and wanted to avoid what he called “the Graveyard of Mediocre Cartoons.”
If he was burning out, it wasn’t surprising. He had drawn more than 4,000 brilliant cartoons since syndication in 1979, each one a self-contained setup and payoff. A strip cartoon lets a cartoonist get days if not weeks of material out of one or two premises, but single cartoons are far more demanding. Maybe if Larson had done a strip, he wouldn’t have tired of it as soon as he did, but maybe his vision just wasn’t built that way. (Maybe if he’d learned about white-out sooner, he would’ve lasted longer, too …)
Certainly, in the vast world of “The Far Side,” there is repetition. It’s true that the cartoon where the cows complain that they can’t answer the phone because they have no opposable thumbs and the one where the snake can’t answer the phone because he’s in the process of swallowing a pig whole are similar — but each has been
cited as an all-time “Far Side” favorite. One could argue that the repetitive panels are like jazz riffs on the same melody — but the fact remains that Larson was ready to stop.
There was widespread mourning at the news of “The Far Side’s” demise, including a long tribute in the Nation by Alexander Cockburn. Columnist Gerry Rising sent out an Internet appeal to scientists to name their favorite Larson cartoon as a way of honoring “The Far Side.” Hundreds wrote in and Rising compiled their tribute. The top three favorites were dinosaur cartoons. The classic “Real Reason for Dinosaur Extinction” shows dinosaurs smoking. Another shows dinosaurs mocking a primitive mammal, not noticing that it has
begun to snow. The third tells of the sad death of Professor
Higginbottom, who attempted to resolve the cold-blooded/warm-blooded dinosaur controversy with the aid of a large rectal thermometer and was never met with again.
But walk into any biology department — indeed almost any science department in the country — and you wouldn’t know “The Far Side” had ever stopped running. Panels are still taped and thumbtacked everywhere.
Since stopping drawing “The Far Side,” Larson hasn’t entirely abandoned cartooning. He’s made two animated films, “Tales From the Far Side” and “Tales From the Far Side II,” with music by the Bill Frisell Quartet.
And in 1998 Larson published “There’s a Hair in My Dirt: A Worm’s Story,” a book whose cheerfully colored illustrations repay close scrutiny, adorned as they are with satisfying detail — an eagle carrying off a poodle, a satellite dish on a thatched cottage, a songbird doing a Harvey Keitel imitation. Not only that, E.O. Wilson wrote the foreword.
The main character in the tale told by Father Worm to his little worm son is a beautiful (human) maiden named Harriet. We know she
is beautiful because Father Worm says so (additional clues: long golden hair and tiara), but she is a truly Larsonian beauty in her lumpy, big-nosed, foofy-haired glory. She’s also full of idiotic
human misconceptions about nature, which Larson, via Father Worm, fiercely debunks. Larson has said that his cartoons have “no conscious message,” but the same isn’t true of “There’s a Hair in My Dirt.”
The true “Far Side” spirit is less in the book’s explicit message, however, than in the peripheral dramas (Larson cites Mad magazine’s Sergio Arragones as an influence) — the fate of “ruggedly handsome” Lumberjack Bob, the pursed lips on the astounded caterpillar peering up the beautiful maiden’s dress, the raccoon raiding the garbage at the back of Harriet’s cottage.
So Larson hasn’t quit cartooning; he’s just quit delivering the daily hit. I resent that, of course, because I was used to it. Now that I think of it, it would have been handier still to have Larson curled up on top of my refrigerator turning out cartoons. I know I’m not the only one who’d happily have white-out delivered to his house in tanker cars if he’d just go back to the daily grind. But as surely as a cow joy-riding on a hijacked tractor, or the man due to be hanged whose hangman can’t make a good knot, or the primitive man in the outhouse caught completely off-guard by the Ice Age, Larson deserves his freedom.
Susan McCarthy is a San Francisco freelance writer and the author, with Jeffrey Masson, of "When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives of Animals."More Susan McCarthy.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)