While The Far Side is a beloved institution today, there were moments where creator Gary Larson though it would fail – none more than during the response to the strip’s ‘Tethercat’ comic, which Larson has said he thought might end his career as a cartoonist. Larson received hate mail over the strip, which sees two dogs playing tetherball, but with a feline captive instead of the ball.
Many, including Larson, do not find any fault in the strip. The not-too-profound idea of the unending hatred between dogs and cats is a common theme in The Far Side – and many, many other cartoons. However, despite properties like Tom and Jerry and Pixie and Dixie and Mr. Jinks using the same kind of humor, many were genuinely outraged by Larson’s comic in what seemed to be a unique way. In The Prehistory of the Far Side, the cartoonist gives his theory on why the strip he thought was harmless garnered the ire of letters-to-the-editor writers across his readership:
What I think I’ve figured out is, in animation, a cat might be flattened by a steamroller or get blown up by dynamite, but a few seconds later we see him back in business – chasing something or being chased until he’s “killed” again. There’s never a suggestion that the cat’s suffering is anything but transitory. In a single-panel cartoon, however, no resolution is possible. The dogs play “tethercat” forever. You put the cartoon down, come back to it a few hours later, and, yep – those dogs are still playing ‘tethercat.’
Far Side’s Use of Single Panels Makes It More Potent
Gary Larson points out one of the hurdles that comic cartoonists must overcome that animation cartoonists can just walk right through. The passage of time is difficult to portray using static images, such as comic panels. Larson added more constraint on himself by making The Far Side single-panel comics. By his theory, he could have assuaged his cat-loving readers’ anger by simply adding another panel showing the cat walking away from the cruel game. Many nationally syndicated comics get a few panels in which to tell their joke, while with The Far Side, Larson shows his mastery of using one panel for both setup and punchline. However, in doing so, he freezes a single moment in time – something which often makes surreal jokes even funnier, but which can seemingly also fan the flames of outrage.
Far Side’s Tethercat Theory Could Have Larger Relevance
It’s a fascinating insight that shows Larson’s typically considered approach. While he still thinks the comic works, he has considered where the unexpected anger came from. In fact, ‘Tethercat’ is a great case study for this concept because of how ubiquitous the dog vs cat trope is, and how easy it is to compare even to other comics. Garfield kicks Odie off the table in Garfield so often that it has become an expected gag, but fans of Jim Davis’ Garfield know Odie is unharmed because he will be standing at the edge of that table in a future strip, unknowingly waiting to be kicked again. If anything, Garfield features an even more varied cycle of violence, and yet Larson’s theory suggests nothing beats a single unchanging comic panel.
With banned graphic novels still popping up frequently in the news, it’s certainly worth exploring how the medium interacts with outrage and controversy. Stephen King wrote in his introduction to, The Far Side Gallery 2, that, “There’s no way to explain humor,” and while that’s partly true, when someone as successful as The Far Side‘s creator has a hypothesis on the matter, it’s worth paying attention.