Biography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 723

Best-selling author Gary Larson grew up in Tacoma, Washington, an environmentally lush region. His writing and cartooning show the effects of his interest in biology, though Larson fully acknowledges that he has been influenced by the cartoonists Don Martin of Mad magazine, George Booth of The New Yorker, and most...

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Best-selling author Gary Larson grew up in Tacoma, Washington, an environmentally lush region. His writing and cartooning show the effects of his interest in biology, though Larson fully acknowledges that he has been influenced by the cartoonists Don Martin of Mad magazine, George Booth of The New Yorker, and most particularly by B. Kliban. A careful reading of Larson's popular cartoons suggests that Gahan Wilson and Edward Gorey might also be credited as influences on Larson's sense of humor, which is sometimes grim or morbid but always odd and offbeat.

Born in Tacoma in 1950, Larson was fascinated by animals. With his older brother Dan's help, he would create swamps in the backyard for pet lizards, frogs, and salamanders. The brothers once built a huge sandy model of the Mojave Desert in the basement, complete with horned toads. The Larson parents, who worked as a Chrysler car dealer and a secretary, were remarkably tolerant of this animal-collecting habit. According to Doris Larson, Gary's mother, the menagerie included at various times snakes, iguanas, pigeons, a monitor lizard, a small alligator, tarantulas, and a praying mantis. She can laugh now about catching a garter snake as it vanished into the sofa, or even about the day Mr. Larson found his son's eight-foot boa constrictor curled up in the sewing machine. For Mrs. Larson, her youngest son was a nice boy whose drawings of dinosaurs and gorillas were admirable—even when Gary drew so hard that he permanently outlined one dinosaur on the dining-room table.

Larson liked to draw as a child, but never formally studied art. Instead, he became a communications major at Washington State University in Pullman. He was a good student and took every college elective in science: ornithology, entomology, vertebrate zoology, invertebrate zoology, as well as anthropology and archaeology.

After graduation in 1972, Larson played banjo in a musical duo—though he was so shy that he faced away from the audience. He worked in a music store but found the job so depressing that he quit in 1976 to try drawing. A local magazine did buy half a dozen of his cartoons for ninety dollars. Larson went to work as an animal cruelty investigator with the Seattle Humane Society. On his way to the job interview, he ran over a dog. While investigating an animal rescue in 1978, he met a reporter for the Seattle Times, who suggested that he try selling his cartoons to the newspaper. "Nature's Way" was the result—a weekly cartoon that Larson drew for the Times. After a year, reader complaints about the subject matter led to the cancellation of his contract. While visiting San Francisco a few months later, in 1980, he brought cartoon samples to the San Francisco Chronicle. When he left, he had a five-year contract for "The Far Side," which became one of the most popular syndicated cartoons in the world.

For fourteen years, Gary Larson produced one-panel cartoons that were syndicated in up to 1,900 newspapers worldwide and collected in best-selling books. Readers would come to his signings and bring his cartoons, cut out from the newspaper, and ask him what they meant. He did not pretend always to have an answer for them; sometimes a cartoon had no higher agenda than being an outlet for doodling when he was bored.

Public appearances are no longer scheduled for Larson since the time he was hit with a pie by a woman in a bunny suit, but his anonymous, nondescript looks allow him to walk into Seattle neighborhood coffee shops without being recognized. He dresses casually in T-shirt, jeans, and running shoes and carries a sketchbook for doodling when he is not working at his drawing table. Sometimes deadlines have kept him working until 3:00 a.m., and other times he stops to play guitar or banjo. "Maybe it's my blue-collar background, but work meant to me that you come home covered with sweat," he said to one interviewer. "Now I just have to brush away the eraser shavings."

Larson retired his popular cartoon strip on January 1, 1995, citing fatigue and concern that if he continued for many more years, he would "ease into the Graveyard of Mediocre Cartoons." Now he plays jazz guitar and works on writing and cartooning projects. Larson and his wife Toni live in suburban Seattle with their dogs and an assortment of weird collectible objects.

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