THE BLOG
07/07/2011 02:10 pm ET Updated Sep 06, 2011

The Far Side of Religion: Notes on the Prophet Gary Larson

"This was a psalter in whose margins was delineated a world reversed with respect to the one to which our senses have accustomed us. As if at the border of a discourse that is by definition the discourse of truth, there proceeded, closely linked to it ... a topsy-turvy universe, in which dogs flee before the hare, and deer hunt the lion."

The speaker is a Benedictine novice named Adso of Melk, narrator of Umberto Eco's 1980 novel "The Name of the Rose," who, in 1327, accompanied the Sherlock Holmes-like monk William of Baskerville to a wealthy Italian abbey. They are in the scriptorium, visiting the workstation of the recently deceased illuminator, Adelmo of Otranto, and Adso describes the strange drawings Adelmo placed alongside the biblical Psalms. He reports a long list of bizarre images: bird-feet heads, animals with human hands on their back, zebra-striped dragons, quadrupeds with serpentine necks and so on. What is startling about the scene Adso describes, especially in the context of a 14th-century monastery, is the location of these pictures, appearing as they do alongside the sacred Scriptures. This inverted world "where houses stand on the tip of a steeple and the earth is above the sky" intrigues Adso, who finds himself "torn between silent admiration and laughter, because the illustrations naturally inspired merriment, though they were commenting on holy pages." Some are not so impressed, particularly Jorge of Burgos who finds such indulgences in the fantastic an evil (one even justifying murder). Jesus, he argues, "did not have to employ such foolish things to point out the strait and narrow path," and "Nothing in his parables arouses laughter." William of Baskerville is far less severe, suggesting, "Marginal images often provoke smiles, but to edifying ends." Furthermore, "to touch the imagination of devout throngs it is necessary to introduce exempla, not infrequently jocular."

Allow me to be the first (I think it safe to say), to describe the great cartoonist Gary Larson as an illuminator not unlike Adelmo of Otranto who could take "known things" and from them "compose unknown and surprising things, as one might join a human body to an equine neck." Like this medieval illuminator, who "worked only on marginalia," Gary Larson also writes alongside other texts, including the Scriptures. He does not do so literally, doodling in the margins of actual Bibles (as far as I know), but figuratively, taking familiar ideas, characters and stories, and repeating, retelling, "re-drawing" those scenes in order to "provoke smiles." The extent of this biblical and religious-themed content in Larson's work might surprise casual readers of the cartoon, and as a widely disseminated pop-culture art form, engagement with sacred subject matter warrants consideration. As a starting point, the observations of academics in another field suggest a way forward.

The American biologist and naturalist Edward O. Wilson describes Larson as "the madcap sage of the biological sciences" and credits the cartoonist with an important insight: "Nature is part of us and we are part of Nature" (Foreword to Larson's "There's a Hair in My Dirt: A Worm's Story"). Primatologist Jane Goodall agrees, suggesting, "Gary's cartoons help us to see things with a new perspective, above all to realize that we humans, after all, are just one species among many, just one small part of the wondrous animal kingdom" (Foreword to Larson's "The Far Side Gallery 5"). Here we have a constructive way to think about the theological content of these cartoons. Just as Larson bridges the gap and blurs the boundaries between the biological species, so too he allows the distance between the spiritual and the mundane to melt away. There is an odd proximity between the everyday and commonplace on the one hand, the mysterious and extraordinary, on the other. God and gods, Satan and devils, angels and biblical characters mingle with regular flesh-and-blood folk in this topsy-turvy cartoon universe, along with aliens, zombies and talking gorillas.

Ask anyone who read newspapers during the 1980s and '90s and they can recall at least one Far Side cartoon, or, if I might be permitted a neologism for the sake of convenience, Lartoon. The series remains a fixture in popular culture long after Larson's retirement. By his count there are 4,337 Far Side cartoons, the first published on Dec. 31, 1979, the last on Jan. 1, 1995 ("The Complete Far Side"). What is surprising is the extent of the religious material found in these pages. How does his engagement with rather sobering subject matter function on a comedic level?

For humor to be effective, cartoonists, like other comedians, must deal with cultural commonplaces. Jokes only work to the extent that audiences recognize a twist on what is otherwise normal. Everyone knows "nervous little dogs" do not make espresso to prepare for their day, which is what makes this particular Lartoon funny. Such departures from normalcy permit a momentary escape from realism and grant permission to indulge in the absurd. Because most readers bring basic knowledge of the "religion script" to their reading of The Far Side (angels are good, devils are bad, God is all-powerful, hell involves suffering and heaven bliss, etc.), the unanticipated turns of phrase and shifts away from the usual rhythms of religious narrative surprise and entertain.

And so we find the caption "Acts of God" beneath a picture of God juggling, a flying saucer with a fish symbol on the back bumper and caterpillars offering a beautiful butterfly to an entomologist with a net. In each instance, the cartoonist takes something broadly familiar to a mass audience and swerves from the accustomed sense. The expression "Acts of God" usually indicates something other than a divine song-and-dance man. Similarly, though there are no words accompanying the picture of extraterrestrials flying through space, the joke still works because most North American drivers know a fish bumper sticker is a religious symbol. Apparently, aliens identify their religious beliefs in the same way (though their ichthus, or fish, has four eyes!). The image of pagans offering a sacrificial human to some god or monster (like Fay Wray to King Kong) comes to mind as we look at caterpillars summoning Professor Crutchfeld with a gong. We see him approaching the terrified, tied-up butterfly and the caption reads, "The little caterpillars had done well this time in their offering." All such scenes are part of our collective cultural capital. We recognize the norms behind the cartoons, and enjoy the deviations from them. Larson's genius lies in his ability to manipulate our expectations.

I think we can say more about the religious content in Lartoons, however. Trying to explain the attraction of the natural world, indeed the allure known to biologists, zoologists, entomologists and everyone else looking under rocks, up trees, down holes and under water to find some specimen to observe, Larson offers this explanation:

Very simply, it's the obsession to capture and to hold, if only for a few moments, some living, natural wonder, to observe it, examine it, have it touch your skin, feel its heartbeat against your hand -- to "drink it in" before it once again slips back over that invisible wall that separates Us from Them ("The Complete Far Side").

By the natural world, Larson has in mind insects, birds and animals, and, in fact, he makes this comment after an account of chasing a three-foot-long lizard while in Indonesia. This remark offers a useful insight into Gary Larson's comical world that extends well beyond human curiosity about non-human species. So often in these cartoons we find ourselves looking at and reading about - and then despite ourselves, imagining - things that are either unreal or impossible or inaccessible to us in some sense. We are privy to the private thoughts of plants and animals, the emotional states of inanimate objects, or conversations between extraterrestrials and vampires. Fictitious literary characters and long-dead historical figures also come to life, speaking and acting accessible to Far Side readers, if only for a brief moment before slipping back over that invisible dividing wall.

My concern here is the religious content of The Far Side. Spiritual beings, those experiencing the afterlife (for better or worse), and biblical characters are all beyond the reach of our senses. They too are over that invisible wall, as it were, as unfamiliar to our everyday lives as vampires, cave dwellers and the private thoughts of Leonardo da Vinci's dog ("So where's my dinner? ... One of the Great Masters indeed"). Here too we also deal with something analogous to Larson's longing to take hold of that three-foot lizard. Religions attempt to bring near a "wonder" that is otherwise beyond our grasp; to bridge the mundane and the supernatural. The New Testament refers to belief in "things not seen" (Hebrews 11:1). Larson's dialogues with religion also explore "things not seen," though he chooses to remove that invisible wall, giving devils and angels faces.

The terms anthropomorphism (thinking of animals as we would people), and zoomorphism (thinking of people as we would animals) involve, among other things, uses of language that attempt to remove the gap between species. Anthropomorphism and zoomorphism are commonplace in these comic panels, with animals acting and speaking like humans, and humans behaving like animals. As Jane Goodall puts it, "Larson blithely reverses the roles of human and nonhuman so that, as you browse through a collection you find on one page a Gary Larson human carelessly squishing a foolish dog (yapping when the man of the house is trying to watch the World Cup), and on another, a Gary Larson elephant carelessly squishing a foolish human." These role reversals provide much of the humor, of course, as species do the most unexpected things. In this world, spiders commit suicide; snakes attend movies; elephants sit around campfires; and worms attend parties and flirt with other guests. At the same time, humans are bestial/insectival/birdlike in all kinds of ways. A similar pattern emerges in The Far Side's religious content with the humanizing of otherwise-out-reach spiritual beings and phenomena, thus casting them in recognizable forms. A few examples of this "humanizing" and "familiarizing" pattern in Lartoons illustrate the point.

Life after death is a recurring subject in The Far Side universe and three general patterns deserve notice. First, Larson's cartoons often literalize popular religious ideas and metaphors. Here we find actual wolves wearing sheep's clothing/costumes to aid the hunt (cf. Matthew 7:15). Such concretizing of metaphor is widespread, particularly in depictions of post-mortem experience, which capitalize on popular, fanciful notions about the nature of heaven and hell -- clouds, wings, haloes, harps and white robes on the one side; fire, horned red devils with tails, heat, and grief on the other.

Second, death generally involves continuity, as one's habits, behaviors and interests in life follow them to a particularly well suited heaven or hell, as the case may be:

If a hippie goes to heaven, it only makes sense that he sits on a cloud with long hair, sunglasses and sandals, with his harp plugged into an enormous amp. For flies, now buzzing around with haloes, heaven is a big bowl of potato salad. A bowler in hell must naturally face a wider-than-usual lane with only two pins standing on the opposite corners, while the devil says mockingly, "Whoa! Another split? ... What a bummer!" Jazz great Charlie Parker must endure New Age music in his private torment, whereas those sent to "Scientist hell" face a room marked "Psychics, Astrologists & Mediums Eternal Discussion Group." Before learning his ultimate fate, Colonel Sanders approaches the pearly gates only to find statues of chickens gracing the entranceway: "Uh-oh."

This highly individualized underworld includes some surprises. Not only is there a customized room for homicidal maniacs and terrorists but also one for "people who drove too slow in the fast lane." Of course, the coffee in hell is cold; something only a coffee drinker would appreciate: "Oh, man! ... They thought of everything!" Third, Larson's presentations of post-mortem existence dull the terrors of hell, and make dull the pleasures of heaven. A man in glory with halo and wings sits by himself on a cloud wishing he brought a magazine. The fate of the damned involves little more than petty nuisances (cold coffee), monotony (blowing bubbles for all eternity), irritation (a maestro in a room full of banjo players), rich irony (dogs carrying mailbags and picking up after themselves) and, of course, heat ("Hot enough for ya?" says one of the damned to another, with the caption, "Nerds in hell"). It is not all fun and games for Satan either, forced as he is to put up with the invasive interviewing techniques of Mike Wallace; an incompetent painter ("999"); residents playing with the thermostat and ordering pizza; and various graffiti insults: "Satan is a warm and tender guy" and "Hey, you call this hot?"

The Far Side God is rather human -- an old man to be precise. He has a body, plays game shows, uses a phone and operates a computer complete with a "Smite" button. Since the divine creator of the universe is spirit -- remote, unimaginable and beyond day-to-day experience -- Larson washes away that invisible line and represents the deity in terms we can all recognize, which is to say anthropomorphic. His God is powerful yet limited in these cartoons, creating a world that is half-baked in one drawing, and losing his keys and a contact lens in others. After dropping a jar marked "Humans" into the newly created world, a voice from the clouds mutters "Uh-Oh" as people run merrily away. God has a sense of humor too, sprinkling in some "Jerks" to the new creation, "just to make it interesting."

The origin of the universe is a recurring theme in The Far Side, especially if we include both religious-themed Lartoons referring to creation, and various scenes inspired by evolution and related matters (dinosaurs, cave dwellers, continental drift/plate tectonics, Darwin and the like). Larson's version of divine creation expands on the rather succinct, unembellished account found in Genesis, suggesting more of a process. God practices his creative techniques as a child, even causing a minor explosion when trying to make a chicken, leaving feathers scattered all over his bedroom. He thinks on his feet when creating animals, pausing to consider, for instance, whether to put "a 'happy face' on the uvula" of the great white shark. After making pairs of zebra, giraffe, pigs, rabbits and other non-predatory species, he looks at his handiwork and muses, "Hmmmmm ... not bad, not bad at all ... Well, now I guess I'd better make some things to eat you guys."

Most religious content in The Far Side is biblical in origin. Noah is the most frequently represented biblical character, featuring in at least nine panels by my count. Others include the serpent and/or Adam and/or Eve in the Garden of Eden, Jonah, Jesus, Moses, Samson, the three wise men and, if we take the pyramid/Egypt/slave panels as a reflection of biblical stories, the Israelites. Still, other panels provide glimpses into religious life bearing little or no resemblance to the major religious traditions. These include, to name but a few, "Chicken cults," with robed birds gathered around a freshly roasted bird, their sacrificial victim; astral travelling water buffaloes; Cowintology ("just take one of our brochures"); witch doctors; rain dancing; reincarnation, with reference to Shirley MacLaine; and appliance healers ("I command the foul demons that have clogged this vacuum cleaner to come OUT!").

So how should we react to all this, as readers who take religion seriously, as academics in the religious sciences and/or as practitioners of specific faith traditions? Allow me to address this in the negative, with a suggestion of how we should not respond.

I mentioned earlier that evolution is a recurring subject for Larson, appearing alongside various other indicators of the Earth's age. My favorite has the caption "Continental drift whiplash," and the picture shows two continents colliding, catching people standing on either side unawares, causing them to stumble! Larson's frequent references to biological evolution provide a hilarious backdrop for one letter of complaint included in "The Complete Far Side." The writer, representing the "Center for the Study of Secular Humanism," complains that Larson combines a brachiosaurus and Homo habilus in the same drawing -- sort of, since it represents the dinosaur's footprint with the flattened, club-holding hunter at its base. The writer criticizes the drawing, calling it ludicrous, "since Brachiosaurus existed 60,000,000 years before Homo Habilus or any form even remotely resembling the human form came on the scene." I suspect most reading this would find the complaint absurd, and marvel that the letter lacks even a hint of irony in its concern for "truth and historical accuracy" and the dissemination of "specific information to the public at large." What does this scientist expect from a cartoonist who blames cigarette smoking for the extinction of the dinosaurs? Here we have an obvious instance of genre confusion. The Far Side is not a university textbook so it does not matter that a brachiosaurus stepped on a homo habilus any more than that cows can fly in these pages.

This angry letter is not an isolated case. Larson's cartoons generated numerous negative reactions over the years, to both particular drawings and recurring themes. Some of the issues of concern are important, to be sure, like torture and violence against animals. Important concerns, yes, but again ... seriously? Is a letter to the editor about a cartoon the best place to voice one's views on such things?

Larson's religious content also generated angry responses, including threats to boycott particular newspapers carrying the panels. To react to these cartoons this way misses the point, which is, in my view, that there is no point. To take offense at any of these subjects is to commit Jorge of Burgos' error of equating humor with ridicule of the "target," levity with sacrilege. I think it is safe to say that Gary Larson would not actually condone torture in real life, so a cartoon referring to this subject is not an obvious window into the man's views on the subject. Similarly, religious-themed cartoons are playful, not theological statements with any agenda attached. Then again, maybe I am wrong? Perhaps we should we take the religious content in these cartoons more seriously. Maybe the comedian Steve Martin is on to something in remarks about the theological significance of The Far Side:

Many Larson scholars like to cite panel 108, caption 16, as proof of the existence of a deity. However, the exact nature of the deity is contradicted by several other panels. Scholars working at the Institute of Talking Dogs offer panel 247, with its image of two men standing on white clouds of heaven talking out of earshot of the deity, as proof of Larson's theory of semi-omniscience. In another panel depicting heaven, the newly deceased are issued harps, indicating a benevolent un-musical mover. However, the two men in the previous panel do not have harps, they have a gun. So how does a supreme being regarded as a benevolent un-musical mover fit into the theory of semi-omniscience, especially when the devil, who is handing out accordions, is revealed to be a blithe humorist (panel 42, caption 16)? (Foreword to "The Complete Far Side")

Clearly, we need more theological analysis of The Far Side. (Or is that less?) To return to Eco's "Name of the Rose" as I close, I take note again of William of Baskerville's views on humor and religion. Defending the margin illustrations of the biblical illuminator Adelmo, he reminds the humorless Jorges of Burgos that some ancient Christian authorities prized laughter and absurdity for what it might reveal. "God can be named only through the most distorted things," some argue, and "the more the simile becomes dissimilar, the more the truth is revealed to us under the guise of horrible and indecorous figures, the less the imagination is sated in carnal enjoyment, and is thus obliged to perceive the mysteries hidden under the turpitude of the images." This does not impress Jorges, who continues his murderous efforts to rid the monastery of laughter, nor will it resolve all the theological conundrums we grapple with, as Steve Martin makes clear, but it might just be enough to conclude that laughter is good and edifying, even when the subject matter is sacred.

An unabridged version of this article first appeared in the Fall 2010 issue of Direction: A Mennonite Brethren Forum. This abridged version appears with the permission of the copyright holder.