New Far Side Impact?

By | Thursday, December 19, 2019 Leave a Comment
The Far Side comic
One of the big pieces of comic strip news in the past week or so has been the return of Gary Larson's The Far Side. Well, "return" might not be the best word per se. Larson has fired up a new website to host his comics, they will primarily be reruns of his older material. (Although Larson did note, “I’m looking forward to slipping in some new things every so often.”)

The strip initially ran for 15 years, and ended 24 years ago. There has not been a new Far Side cartoon in the entire time my college student niece has been alive. I daresay anyone under 35 probably has never read a new Far Side comic either. Not that the comic is unknown -- the book collections have been in constant publication since 1982, and I suspect there's still more than a few newspapers that are re-running old strips alongside Cul de Sac and Peanuts. I'm reminded of a Tweet from Iron Circus publisher Spike Trotman...
What I find particularly interesting in seeing The Far Side online, in light of Trotman's observation, is that Larson is deliberately running the site in order to "take control" of his comics online. They've been pirated for years, in part because there wasn't an "official" site hosting them. So fans would take scanned copies and post them themselves. What Larson is doing with his new site is, in effect, re-syndicating them. His comics used to go viral before the web was even a thing; people would clip them out of the newspaper, photocopy them, and post them up next to the water cooler at work or wherever. Now that they all have (or will have) a central home online, readers will be able to quickly and easily share them via social media.

And since there's at least a couple generations now that haven't grown up with The Far Side, Larson's comics will be introduced to a new audience. Online. Competing with other comics online. Like, potentially, webcomics.

Now, you may be thinking, "How is that competition? Aren't Garfield and Beetle Bailey already online? Those aren't really competition for webcomics, are they?"

True, but The Far Side almost bears more similarities to webcomics than to other newspaper comics. First, the strip is vertical, not horizontal. That means it's better suited to be read on smart phones. Second, as suggested earlier, the lack of characters or continuity aids in the potential for any given strip to go viral. Not only are the jokes self-contained, but so are the characters and situations and everything. There's never any external knowledge about the strip needed. Third, since the strip's text is almost always in the form of captions underneath the art (as opposed to dialogue balloons as part of the art itself) they can be automatically translated by browser software, giving the strips (potentially) a more global reach than most traditional strips. Perhaps most importantly, though, The Far Side was funny. Most newspaper strips are pretty bland, by necessity as they're trying to reach the broadest of broad audiences. Larson frequently turned in comics that were legitimately funny, even if only to a smaller audience who appreciated his absurdist humor.

Does that mean Larson is now a threat to other webcomikers? Well, probably not a huge threat -- after all, while there's a couple generations who haven't seen his cartoons, there's also a lot of folks like me: people old enough to have seen his comics in the newspaper, but young enough that we spend a fair amount of time online. In fact, as I'm sitting here typing this, I've got eleven Far Side collections (originally bought back when they were first published) on a bookshelf not five feet away from me. But there are a fair number of webcomikers out there whose style of humor is similar to Larson's and he has a 15-year catalog of solid material already.

I don't think this will create some seismic shift in the online landscape, by any means! But I do think that it could potentially chip away at some income streams, as people buy one of The Far Side collections instead of a book from some up-and-coming webcomiker. It probably won't be a huge amount and it almost certainly won't be directly attributable, but on the razor-thin margins some webcomikers live by, that could mean the difference between making a living off their comic and having to go back to working at Starbucks.
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