By Michelle Ann Abate
The closing decades of the twentieth century were a golden era for comics in the United States in many ways. In the 1970s, landmark newspaper strips such as Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury (1970 – present) and Jim Davis’s Garfield (1978 – present) made their debut. Meanwhile, the decade that followed saw the release of an array of equally influential titles outside of the Sunday funny pages, including Art Spiegelman’s Maus (1980), Alan Moore’s The Watchman (1986), and Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman series (1989 – 1996). The flourishing of comics in the United States continued through the 1990s, amidst the release of newspaper strips like Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman’s Zits (1997 – present) as well as graphic novels such as Daniel Clowe’s Ghost World (1997). As even this brief overview demonstrates, in platforms ranging from serialized comic books and graphic novels to mainstream newspaper strips and underground alternative comix, the closing decades of the twentieth century were a heyday for sequential art in the United States.
Among the many influential cartoonists from this period, two individuals stand out: Gary Larson and Lynda Barry. Barry first emerged in the underground comix scene in 1979 when her college friend and fellow cartoonist Matt Groening, along with his pal John Keister, published some of her comics in a university newspaper without her knowledge (Powers). Although Barry’s professional cartooning debut was unintentional, the impact of her work was unmistakable: her strip Ernie Pook’s Comeek was an immediate hit and quickly enjoyed a cult following. The weekly series appeared in alternative newspapers around the United States until 2008, when declining circulation for print media—rather than declining readerly interest in the comic—necessitated that Barry bring it to a close. Throughout its nearly thirty-year run, Ernie Pook strips were collected in nearly a dozen books. The public popularity and cultural impact of the series prompted The Village Voice to deem Barry “one of the greatest cartoonists in the world”(de Jesús 219). They were not alone in this assessment. Over the years, Barry has received a myriad of accolades. In 2016, for example, she was recognized by the Comics Alliance for her lifetime achievement. Similarly, and just as impressively, Barry was inducted into the Eisner Hall of Fame that same year. Finally, and most recently, in September 2019, Barry was named a recipient of a MacArthur “Genius” Grant.
The cartooning career of Gary Larson has been equally successful and significant. His strip The Far Side was one of the most beloved newspaper comics of its era. Making its debut in the San Francisco Chronicle on January 1st, 1980, the daily series ran for fifteen years, appearing in over 1,900 newspapers. During this period, The Far Side was reprinted in more than twenty books, all of which made the New York Times bestseller list (Soper 10). Additionally, Larson’s comics adorned a plethora of consumer items, ranging from coffee cups and calendars to t-shirts and greeting cards. Larson enjoyed just as much critical acclaim as he did commercial success. He received the Newspaper Panel Cartoon Award from the National Cartoonist Society not once but twice, in 1985 and then again in 1988. Likewise, he was also the recipient of their highest honor, the Rueben Award for Outstanding Cartoonist of the Year, on two occasions, in 1990 and 1994. Larson ended The Far Side on January 1st, 1995 when he retired from cartooning to pursue other interests. By this point, as Kate Streit observed, his series had secured “a special place in pop culture history.”
This essay brings together Gary Larson and Lynda Barry, two of the greatest cartoonists of their generation. At first glance, the work of Barry and Larson seem to have little in common. After all, The Far Side appeared in mainstream national newspapers, while Ernie Pook’s Comeek populated the alternative press. Likewise, Larson’s series took the form of a single-panel comic; by contrast, Ernie Pook utilizes a multi-frame sequence, usually comprised of four panels. Additionally, Lynda Barry’s series follows core protagonists Marlys, her sister Maybonne, and her pal Freddie; meanwhile, The Far Side does not contain a recurring cast of named characters. Furthermore, Barry is known for being verbose, with exposition boxes and speech balloons that routinely occupy half the panel—or more. Gary Larson, however, uses text far more sparingly; his comics usually contain only a few words and rarely more than one short sentence. Finally, and equally significantly, Ernie Pook focuses largely on girls and girlhood. As Susan Kirtley has written, one of Barry’s recurring themes is “to dismantle ‘sugar and spice’ notions of what it is to be a girl” (Kirtley xi). The Far Side does not share this interest. While Larson does routinely depict children in his comic, white adolescent boys far outnumber girls.
Such differences aside, this essay demonstrates how Lynda Barry and Gary Larson form a productive pairing. Not only were Larson and Barry direct contemporaries—with Ernie Pook and The Far Side debuting just one year apart—but their comics also contain an array of compelling areas of cultural, aesthetic, and literary overlap. First and perhaps most prominently, both strips broke with convention by showcasing the bizarre, the unconventional, and even the oddball. The characters who populated The Far Side and Ernie Pook were eccentric and unusual, as was the source of humor in these strips. Larson’s comic featured everything from nerdy scientists, opinionated farm animals, and sardonic cave people to sarcastic insects, befuddled aliens, and individuals stranded on deserted islands. Meanwhile, the range of Lynda Barry’s series was not as wide-ranging, but it was just as iconoclastic. As Susan Kirtley has written, Ernie Pook re-imagined notions of American childhood in general and girlhood in particular, “subverting conventions of beauty, innocence, and maturation” (Kirtley xi). In so doing, both Larson and Barry helped to propel the sea change that occurred in U.S. comics during the closing decades of the twentieth century. As Roger Sabin observed, “The 1980s and 1990s were indeed a kind of golden age for nonconformist titles; among them were comics that tackled topics never covered before” (177). Kerry Soper, for example, has credited The Far Side with “helping to clear the path for other ‘alternatively mainstream’ comics texts, such as Bloom County, The Simpsons, South Park, Pearls Before Swine, Boondocks, Get Fuzzy, and Rick and Morty” (Soper 12). Similarly, the gritty girlhood presented in Ernie Pook’s Comeek can be seen as laying the foundation for representations of difficult childhoods in comics works ranging from David Small’s graphic memoir Stitches (2010) to Jared J. Krosoczka’s graphic novel Hey, Kiddo (2018). As Rob Rodi aptly noted, “If there’s a last word on childhood, it belongs to Lynda Barry” (qtd in Powers).
That said, the work of Larson and Barry overlap in an additional and arguably even more significant way: how they render human figures. Both cartoonists depict these characters in a crude, unflattering, and even unattractive manner. Their bodies are out of proportion, their limbs bend awkwardly, and their faces are gawky and pimply. The visual similarity between the child figures in Ernie Pook and The Far Side is so strong that it is often uncanny. [See Figures 1 and 2.]. One can envision the geeky kids who appear in The Far Side surfacing in the world of Ernie Pook. Likewise, it is just as easy to imagine Barry’s Marlys, Maybonne, or Freddie popping up in one of Larson’s panels.
The discussion that follows explores the creative, visual, and thematic connections between Gary Larson and Lynda Barry to uncover what might be called “The Far Side of Comeeks.” Viewing their work in tandem enriches our understanding of these important creators, along with their influential strips. More specifically, the way that these cartoonists consistently render human figures as unattractive, unappealing, and even unsightly is more than simply a striking link, it is both critically and culturally significant. The use of ugliness in The Far Side and Ernie Pook enriches the meaning, enhances the impact, and augments the resonance of these strips. Far from embodying an inconsequential detail or an artistic flaw, this detail is as central as it is powerful.
Bringing Lynda Barry and Gary Larson together has implications that extend beyond simply these two cartoonists and their creations. As examination of “The Far Side of Comeeks” also calls attention to a long-neglected aspect in discussions about the aesthetics of comics: namely, the role that ugliness plays in the genre. Much attention has been given over the decades to the gorgeous imagery of sequential art. Various books, essays, and articles have discussed the exquisite linework, finely-crafted compositions, and magnificent drawings that permeate comics and demonstrate that it is a serious form of art. The work of Larson and Barry add a new and contradictory facet to this ongoing conversation. The Far Side and Ernie Pook’s Comeek offer compelling case studies in the beauty of ugliness.
“Like a Mass of Boils with Pigtails”: The Hideousness of Lynda Barry’s Comeek
Of course, Ernie Pook’s Comeek is not Lynda Barry’s only creative endeavor—or literary success. Throughout the nearly thirty-year span of the series, the cartoonist has released a variety of other texts in various genres. These titles range from the novella The Good Times are Killing Me (1988) and the autofictionalbiography One! Hundred! Demons! (2002) to the novel Cruddy (1999) and the memoir/how-to book What It Is (2008). Regardless of the specific literary school or narrative style, Barry’s work always contains visual components: drawings, collages, and/or paintings. Furthermore, many of her titles are not simply commercially successful but critically acclaimed. Barry’s What It Is received the 2009 Eisner Award for best Reality-Based Work. Earlier, in 1991, her novella The Good Times are Killing Me was adapted into an off-Broadway play. The show ran for more than 130 performances and its lead actress Angela Goethels received an Obie Award for her performance in the starring role.
Although Lynda Barry is a multitalented writer and artist, she is most commonly associated with her work as a cartoonist. As Susan E. Kirtley has written, “Barry is perhaps best known for creating the cult favorite comic strip, Ernie Pook’s Comeek” (102). Indeed, Kirtley goes on to note, “Marlys, Maybonne, and Fred Milton and the many popular characters from the strip have over time become synonymous with Barry” (102). Given this situation, while the cartoonist gained both public popularity and even critical accolades for books like Cruddy and One! Hundred! Demons!, “Ernie Pook’s Comeek remains Barry’s most famous creation” (Kirtley 43).
One of the elements that makes Ernie Pook so memorable is its distinctive aesthetic. In the words of Kirtley once again, Barry’s “art style changes from project to project,” a detail that makes “it difficult to state generalizations about her work” (Kirtley xiii, 5). Nonetheless, one approach stands out: “Barry’s childlike comic art style from Ernie Pook has become something of a trademark” (Kirtley 5). Whenever the cartoonist is profiled in books, essays, or articles, images from Ernie Pook or drawings of the cartoonist rendered in the style of the comic strip—rather than from any of her other illustrated works—routinely accompany the discussion. As this situation demonstrates, it is “[t]he drawing style of Ernie Pook. . . for which Barry is particularly known” (Kirtley 119).
Barry’s cartooning style throughout the series has been described in ways ranging from “rough” and “unfinished” (Kirtley 42) to “anarchic” and “primitive” (Rodi 56). As Jeanne Cooper has written, panels are comprised of “scrawls, stick figures, [and] doodlings” (G1). With crowded compositions and details that seem entirely superfluous, many strips look more like preliminary sketches than finished work. Adding to this sense of visual chaos, Barry “also intentionally avoids using a proper linear perspective” (Samanci 186). The focalization in many Ernie Pook comics shifts not simply from panel to panel, but often within individual panels, as elements in the foreground are rendered from one angle whilst objects in the middle or background are drawn from an entirely different point of view. Furthermore, “Barry draws excessive hatch lines in an undisciplined way” (Samanci 186). Rather than providing texture to a surface, shading an individual, or giving an object a sense of volume, the lines are indiscriminate and even arbitrary. They appear haphazardly scratched across the drawing with no discernable aesthetic intent. The cumulative effect is that her comics look “sloppy.” In many respects, they do not seem like the work of an adult artist. Instead, as Özge Samanci has written, many strips look more indicative of the “childish inability to hold the pen properly and draw a straight line with an appropriate thickness of contour” (186).
Even Barry’s inclusion of written text is crude and, thus, jarring. As Jeanne Cooper notes, “Dialogue in the cartoons is barely punctuated and brazenly misspelled” (G1). Additionally, the exposition boxes and speech balloons in strips reflect “Barry’s trademark loquatiousness” (Kirtley 22). As Susan Kirtley has written, it is not uncommon for the written text to occupy one-third to one-half of a panel, crowding out the drawing and making the frame seem cramped. Many Ernie Pook comics are compositionally busy and visually overwhelming. Not only do they contain what both professional critics and fellow cartoonists alike would say is too much text, but the drawings are also overly busy, with little or even no negative space to frame key elements and also allow the viewer’s eyes to rest.
Of all the signature traits and hallmark qualities of Barry’s drawing style, however, perhaps the most iconic is the way that she renders human figures. As Samanci notes, the cartoonist “does not attempt to establish rigid human or animal anatomy. Her characters have no joints. Their arms and legs can bend from any point and with any angle” (Samanci 187). The resulting effect of these features is that her figures look distorted. The way that Marlys, Maybonne, and Freddie move, bend, and generally comport themselves is awkward at best and unwieldy at worst. More than simply being inelegant and uncoordinated, they appear misshapen and even malformed.
The personal appearance of Barry’s characters is as unsightly as their physical proportions. The cartoonist’s “depictions intentionally accentuate flaws and imperfections” (Kirtley 120). As Kirtley has noted, “Barry takes great pains to depict the freckles and blemishes, the funny hair, and bad teeth” (120). Protagonist Marlys forms an excellent case in point. As Rob Rodi has written, the young woman’s “face is like a mass of boils with pigtails” (60). When these features are combined with her buck teeth, large lumpy nose, and “cat-eyeglasses [that] look like they belong to a much older person, perhaps a menacing old lady down the street,” the overall effect is—in the words of Susan Kirtley—“gruesome” (117). Barry’s depiction of Marlys is not atypical. All of the other individuals—adult and child, primary and secondary, protagonist and antagonist—who populate Ernie Pook’s Comeek are presented in a similar manner. Possessing features ranging from pimply faces, bulging eyes, and protruding ears to bulbous noses, unkept hair, and bad teeth, they can be described as “unattractive” and even “unsightly” (Kirtley 135, 120).
Barry has never challenged such assessments, nor has she attempt to make her characters more physically attractive or aesthetically appealing. As Jeanne Cooper reported, the cartoonist often remarked that “she actually can draw in a representational style, but decided in college to draw ‘like when I was a kid, when I was real happy. Not that her childhood was happy, she amends, but ‘the actual act of drawing made me very happy’” (G1). That said, Barry’s aesthetic style arises from more than simply her desire to recapture the joy that she experienced from making art when she young. After all, while most children draw, few would describe the resulting artwork that they create as “gruesome.”
Of course, the unattractive figures who populate Ernie Pook’s Comeek do more than simply give Barry’s series a memorable appearance. This distinctive style also accentuates the strip’s subject matter. In the same way that characters like Marlys, Maybonne, and Freddie are not cute, neither are the topics addressed in Ernie Pook. As Rob Rodi once commented, “The panels looked as though they’d been scratched out by a particularly vicious six-year-old, which, again, suited the strip perfectly” (59). While many previous comic strips have featured characters who are misfits and plotlines that are largely comprised of their mistakes, slights, and disappointments—Charles M. Schulz’s Peanuts comes to mind—Ernie Pook’s Comeek takes this subject to a different level. Barry’s strip goes beyond what might be called the Charlie Brown-style laments of being picked last in gym class or not having a date to the school dance. Instead, it tackles much harsher topics and more brutal personal experiences such as “the cruelty of other children, the stupidity and apathy of adults, and the great anxiety of straddling the divide between adult and child” (Kirtley 29).
The comic titled “No Big Deal” from 1986 forms an early as well as representative example of this phenomenon. The strip recounts the time when Marlys was the only girl in her entire class who was not invited to a peer’s birthday party. “How come? How come you didn’t invite me?,” the young girl asks the classmate in a speech balloon in the opening panel (Barry Greatest 14). Even to a young child, the response that she receives is obviously a lie. “Uh… my mom said I could only have 13 girls come,” Marissa tells her (Barry Greatest 14). An unexpected turn of events, however, foils the young girl’s plan to exclude Marlys. As Barry’s narrator explains in an exposition box that appears at the top of the third panel, “It turns out the day before the party I got the flu. Marlys was jumping up and down” (Barry Greatest 14). Marlys might be excited that she can now go to the social event, but Barry’s narrator-protagonist knows better. “I knew for a fact Marissa didn’t want no Marlys at her party,” she explains, “but I had to give her my invitation because my mom wouldn’t listen to me when I tried to explain it. She said I was just trying to be mean” (Barry Greatest 14). The fourth and final panel of the comic affirms this observation. “But not giving her that invitation wouldn’t have been half as mean as what Marissa did to her” (Barry Greatest 14). “She wouldn’t even take my present,” Marlys reveals in a speech balloon while sitting on the edge of the narrator’s bed. Again, this event goes far beyond simply the setbacks and letdowns that commonly occur during youth. Instead, it showcases childhood meanness and even outright cruelty. After all, what young person dislikes another girl so much that she refuses to accept their birthday gift? The social exclusion that Marlys experiences is exceedingly harsh, and the aesthetic style of Barry’s drawing accentuates its brutality. [See Figure 3.]. The crude style and unattractive manner in which the figures are rendered reinforces the message of the comic. The line hatching on the blanket, mattress, and back wall is aggressive, irregular, and heavy; moreover, it does not add depth or perspective to the composition. Instead, the hatching gives the image a crowded, intense, and even menacing look. Finally, the appearance of both Marlys and the narrator is equally jarring. The faces of both girls are covered pimples or perhaps even pock marks. Additionally, big tears are not only streaming down Marly’s checks; they are also shooting out from the sides of her head. Finally, her pigtails are sticking up at odd angles. Taken collectively, the style of the comic greatly accentuates its subject matter. The crude drawing, harsh line hatching, and unattractive visages, mirrors and even amplifies the equally harsh and even brutal experience that is being conveyed.
Numerous other strips from Ernie Pook’s Comeek follow this pattern. Not only does Barry frequently feature events that are painful and even ugly, but she renders them in a manner that could be described in a similar way. The comic titled “Found a Peanut” from 1987, for example, showcases a common childhood experience: imitating a favorite performer. However, this event takes an exceedingly tragic turn. The opening few panels explain through a combination of speech balloons and lengthy exposition boxes how Marlys not only loved to sing the song “Found a Peanut,” but loved even more to do it in the style that mirrored her favorite television star: Miss Doris and her magic hand. After the other kids grow tired of being her audience, Marlys retreats to the bathroom, where she does “the whole Miss Doris show by standing on the toilet and watching herself in the mirror” (Barry Greatest 40). Marlys enjoys performing and Freddie and his pals enjoy secretly watching her through a crack in the door. The fun soon comes to an abrupt end, however. As Barry’s narrator relays, Marlys “tried to do that go-go song and fell off the toilet and the seat came flying off and she sprained her magic arm and got some magic bruises” (Greatest 40). While it might be tempting to see this turn of events as simply a Charlie Brown-esque instance of ill-fortune, what happens next is decidedly not something that would happen in Peanuts. As the exposition box in the final panel reveals, Marlys’s “mom came running in and spanked every one of us and wanted to know why we had to learn everything the hard way? Especially Marlys” (Barry Greatest 40). The image that accompanies these lines underscores the point. [See Figure 4.]. The drawing features Marlys sitting on the floor of the bathroom with tears shooting out of her eyes. She is holding her left arm, which has stars drawn beside it to indicate that it has been injured. In addition, a lump is protruding from top of the young girl’s head. It has both motion lines next to it—to suggest that it is throbbing—and a star above it, to convey that how much it hurts. Adding to the unsightliness of this portrait, Marlys’s face appears covered in pimples, while her arms and legs have stubbly hair.
Even an Ernie Pook comic about buying candy at the two different confectionary stores in town is anything but sweet—or even appetizing. Titled “If You Want to Buy Candy” and published in 1987, the strip begins by describing the climate at Bluma’s shop. “His store smells like Lysol,” Barry’s narrator-protagonist relays (Barry Greatest 39). Additionally, if your bike wheel touches any portion of the front of his shop, “He’ll hit you with the fly swatter” (Barry Greatest 39). The image of Bluma that appears in the second panel is not simply frightening, it is grotesque. [See Figure 5.] The store owner is depicted as a hulking figure who has pointy teeth, a face covered in stubble, bushy angry eyebrows, and multiple chins. Furthermore, he is shown shouting at the kids:. “You think I’m joking you? Out! Out! Out!,” he yells in one speech balloon, and “You want me to bockle your head!?” he threatens in another. Motion lines that appear around his head and fist show the vigor with which he utters these threats. The owner of the other candy store in town isn’t depicted in any more flattering of a light. “Fred just sits there smoking,” Barry’s narrator-protagonist relays. Whereas Bluma is animated and agitated—chasing kids out of his store and hollering at them—Fred is sullen and sedentary. As the exposition box in the final panel explains about Fred, “it can make you sort of sad because of the way he never talks. . . Our mom says he don’t talk because of his wife left him [sic]” (Barry Greatest 39). Once again, the aesthetic style of Barry’s drawings accentuates this morose message. [Se Figure 6.]. Fred is shown sitting blankly behind the counter, his arm folded in front of him and a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. In spite of Barry’s character repeatedly saying “Hi Fred” and “How are you Fred,” he does not respond.
Susan Kirtley, discussing the child figures who populate Ernie Pook’s Comeek, noted, “They are not cuddly and cute” (Kirtley 135). With their pimply skin, unkempt hair, and awkward proportions, they defy common cultural constructions of children and childhood. In the same way that Barry’s characters appear coarse and crude, so too is the world that they inhabit.
“His People are Grotesque”: Gary Larson’s Geeks, Dorks, and Nerds
Gary Larson’s The Far Side is equally iconic. Regardless of the specific type of human figure being depicted in the strip—scientists, cowboys, cave people, etc.—the cartoonist renders them in a similar manner. As Kerry Soper matter-of-factly noted about Larson, “his people are grotesque” (109). This remark is far from hyperbole. As Soper went on to elaborate, the bodies of the strip’s human figures “are shaped like giant, lumpy pears” (109). Whether male or female, old or young, scientists or survivalists, they have narrow shoulders and thick elephantine legs.
The proportion of Larson’s characters are not the only feature that causes them to stand out. Nearly every other facet of their anatomy is misshapen, distorted, or even seemingly malformed. In the words of Soper once again, their “backs are hunched, with heads attached directly to the front of chests” (Soper 109). Larson’s figures—even young children—look as if they’ve been stooped over a desk for fifty years, with their shoulders sharply sloping, their spine curved, and the muscle tone in their upper body seemingly nonexistent. Indeed, in sharp contrast to the bulkiness of their torsos, the arms of Larson’s human characters are pencil-thin: they have no visible biceps, triceps, or deltoids. Moreover, in a feature that is especially evocative of Ernie Pook’s Comeek, “the structure of the arms is all wrong, with bones bending at odd angles” (Soper 109). While Larson’s characters do contain a discernible skeletal structure—unlike the rubbery nature of Barry’s Marlys, Maybonne, and Freddie—the bones don’t function as they should: long bones seems too short and short bones are too long. Additionally, joints flex in odd, unexpected, and unnatural ways, suggesting that they have healed poorly from a break or might even be broken right now. Not surprisingly, the hands of Larson’s human characters are equally strange. Their “fingers look like broken sausages, dangling from hands in random directions” (Soper 109).
Young people in The Far Side are not rendered in any more flattering of a light. Other newspaper strips from the closing decades of the twentieth century that depicted kids—such as Peanuts (1950 – 2000), Marvin (1982 – present), and Calvin and Hobbes (1985 – 1995)—presented them as cute, with “oversized heads and inviting, innocent eyes” (Soper 133). By contrast, “the nerdy kids that populate Larson’s world all have narrow skulls accompanied with bad haircuts and thick glasses” (Soper 133). Given such images, among the various complaints lodged against The Far Side over the years was that the characters were “ugly” (Harnisch 137). In the words of Kerry Soper once again, “its aesthetics were intentionally awkward” (Soper 11).
Akin to Ernie Pook, the physical appearance of the human figures in Larson’s strip echo and even amplify its themes. The gawky, nerdy, and awkward appearance of the individuals who populate The Far Side mirrors the strip’s gawky, nerdy, and awkward subject matter. Although Larson’s comic appeared in mainstream national newspapers and enjoyed widespread commercial success, it did not draw on conventional sources for its humor. While the strip occasionally featured comedic standards like slapstick, the series more commonly gravitated toward esoteric subjects like nerdy puns, ironic improbabilities, and sardonic scenes from the natural sciences (Soper 12). The comic that appeared on October 19, 1983 forms a representative example. [See Figure 7.]. The panel features a bespeckled boy having a snack; the box on the table in front of him reads in large lettering “Animal Cookies.” This seemingly quintessential portrait of American childhood, however, has a Far Side twist. In typical Larson fashion, instead of the young boy munching on the animal crackers, they are munching on him. Playing with the premise “What if animal cookies were actual animals?,” two cookie creatures have clamped onto the fingers of the boy’s left hand. Larson’s panel captures the aftermath of this event: they boy’s arm is extended into the air, his eyebrows are raised, and sweat is emanating from his brow. The kid’s dorkiness—his big glasses, freckled face, and neckless torso—accentuates the humor of this scene. If Larson had depicted the young boy in a cute and adorable way, this scene would seem pitiable rather than comical.
The majority of other Far Side comics that feature young kids function in the same way. Boys and girls are presented in odd and nerdy ways—traits that accentuate the odd and nerdy subject matter. Comics such as “Roby works his ant farm” [See Figure 8], “Watch it, Randy! . . . She’s on your case!” [See Figure 9.], and “So, you still won’t talk, eh?” [See Figure 10.] are all made funnier by the fact that the young people are awkwardly proportioned and appear gangly. Their gawky appearance perfectly suits the equally the gawky subject matter.
Larson’s portrayal of adults follows a similar pattern. Whether its befuddled cavemen, sardonic cowboys, or dorky scientists, the unconventional appearance of the strip’s human figures mirrors its equally unconventional humor. Rather than being odd or even out of place, these men and women seem perfectly suited to this world. As the title of Larson’s strip announced, The Far Side is peculiar. Thus, it is only fitting that the men and women, as well as boys and girls, who populate the comic are peculiar as well.
The Beauty of Ugliness: When “Bad” Drawing is Good
The synergy that exists between the aesthetic appearance and thematic content of The Far Side and Ernie Pook’s Comeek does more than simply affirm the longstanding axiom about how style can accentuate substance. These features also call attention to the important, but long overlooked, role that “ugliness” plays in these strips—and, by extension, comics as a whole.
As Gretchen E. Henderson aptly observed, “from contemporary television to toys to literature to music, recent years have witnessed rising interest in ugliness” (9). Even a cursory examination of American print, visual, and material culture in the opening decades of the twenty-first century affirms the veracity of this claim. From the prevalence of the plush toys Ugly Dolls (debuted in 2001) and the popularity of the television show Ugly Betty (2006 – 2010) to the strong sales of Scott Westerfield’s young adult novel Uglies (2005) and the growth of “ugly sweater” parties, the unpretty, unattractive, and unappealing has—ironically—had a strong appeal in millennium American culture. The ascendency of ugliness over the past few decades, in fact, prompted Sarah Kernshaw to declare in an article from The New York Times in 2008: “Move Over, My Pretty, Ugly Is Here.”
While ugliness may have enjoyed unprecedented cultural traction in recent years, it has a long, rich, and complicated history. As long as there have been notions of beauty, there have been ones of ugliness. For centuries, these two concepts have functioned as opposites. Sara Halprin, for example, has written about “the polarity of beauty and ugliness” (9). While notions of beauty change across cultures and time periods, one truism remains: to be beautiful is, by definition, not to be ugly—and vice versa. Whether referring to art or appearances, objects or individuals, these concepts are mutually exclusive. More than simply constituting a binary, these ideas are antipodal.
Notions of beauty and conceptions of ugliness might be oppositional, but they share a common set of determining factors: each is heavily connected to race, class, gender, age, sexuality, religion, ethnicity, and able-bodiedness. As Halprin explains, “White women are expected to follow a standard of white beauty that implies purity and chastity. Women of color are judged according to white standards of beauty” (7). Additionally, she goes on to elaborate, “Lesbians are judged according to white [heterosexual] standards of beauty. All women, as we age, must come to terms with a universal standard of youthful beauty, in a world that increasingly worships youth and denigrates age” (Halrpin 7). Furthermore, while cultural conceptions of beauty change over time, one feature remains constant: they remain firmly rooted in able-bodiedness. Individuals whose bodies differ from what is regarded as “normal” are excluded from notions of beauty and often even denigrated as ugly. Lennard J. Davis, Kim E. Nielsen, and Gretchen Henderson have discussed the passage of came to be known as “ ‘Ugly Laws’ (or ‘unsightly beggar ordinances,’ starting around the 1880s) that prohibited individuals with physical deformities from visiting public spaces, perpetuating historic conflations of deformity and ugliness” (Henderson 14). As Henderson reveals, “In some cities, this legislation remained on the books into the 1970s when challenged by the rise of the Disability Rights Movement” (14).
Of course, individuals who possess some type of impairment are not the only ones to have been viewed as “ugly” in the United States; so, too, have various races, ethnicities, nationalities, and religions over the centuries. From Irish and Italian immigrants with their “cultish” Catholicism during the nineteenth century to the longstanding portrayal of African Americans with grotesquely big lips, bulging eyes, and exaggerated grins, entire groups of people have been regarded as “unsavory” because of their identity. In these instances, beliefs that such figures are physically unattractive and socially unappealing arises from the fact that they are Other. In the words of Henderson once again, “Ugliness was not inherent to these groups but rather inscribed and imagined, arising when different cultures and ideologies collided, shifting curious and wondrous qualities to be feared as circumstances changed” (79). Their difference from—and, thus, challenge to—the status quo becomes the reason for their denigration. In so doing, ugliness shifts from being an aesthetic concept to being a cultural tool, political tactic, and even societal weapon.
Such phenomena notwithstanding, the etymology of the term “ugly” reveals a far different cultural origin of, along with socio-political function for, this concept. As the Oxford English Dictionary notes, “ugly” has its root in the Old Norse term ugglig-r, which means “to be feared or dreaded.” Accordingly, when the term made its initial appearance in the English language in the mid-thirteenth century, the adjective connoted “Having an appearance or aspect which caused dread or horror” (OED). It would be more than a century until this understanding shifted to its common usage today: denoting objects, individuals, or elements that are “Offensive or repulsive to the eye; unpleasing in appearance; of disagreeable or unsightly aspect” (OED).
The linguistic history of the term ugly is far from esoteric trivia. Instead, the etymology reveals a commonly overlooked or routinely forgotten aspect of this state: the power that it possesses. Discussions about ugliness commonly frame this condition as lamentable because it involves a loss of agency and autonomy. Ugly individuals, objects, or entities are not simply stigmatized and disparaged but outcaste and ostracized. They are regarded as losing societal power and socio-political influence. Being ugly means living on the margins or even hiding in the shadows. The etymological root of the term, from the Old Norse word meaning “to be feared or dreaded,” upends or at least complicates this conception. It allows us to recoup the way in which ugliness can be an asset rather than a liability.
While the benefits of ugliness can be viewed in an array of sites and sources, the punk movement in the 1970s forms an excellent example. As J. Jack Halberstam has written, punk “allowed for a different trajectory of rebellion” (“Bondage” 154). With music that was cacophonous, lead singers who were unattractive, and behavior that was rude and often even aggressive, the punk movement did not simply contain various forms of ugliness, it celebrated them. For many punk fans, this in-your-face commitment to the unconventional, iconoclastic, and unsightly and was as politically subversive as it was personally freeing. Instead of trying to adhere social conventions, they reveled in their refusal to do so. Moreover, this countercultural status gave them a distinct form of power. Echoing the etymological root of the word ugly, it caused them to be feared and dreaded by many members of mainstream society who either did not understand punk’s rebellion or did not approve of it.
The empowering impact of punk was especially poignant for white, middle-class, heterosexual young women. As I have written elsewhere, “With its interest in shock and emphasis on ugliness, [punk] represented a radical new way for young women to reject femininity” (Tomboys 198). Indeed, with an aesthetic that included black lipstick, torn stockings, and ears pierced with oversized safety pins, the punk look was about shock value. Their attire was a clear public rejection of the expectations for white, middle-class, heterosexual women regarding appearance. By being openly, brazenly, and even aggressively “unpretty,” these young women tapped into a new kind of socio-cultural power (Halberstam “Bondage” 154). The rise of all-girl punk bands in the 1990s, such as Hole, Bikini Kill, and L7, offered a vivid demonstration of this phenomenon. As Kartina Eileaas has commented, “ugliness [was] a strategy of resistance among girl bands” (122). As the lyrics to Hole’s song “Pretty on the Inside” (1991) asserted, “There’s no power like my ugly” (qtd in Eileaas 122).
The work of Larson and Barry echoes while it extends the historical uses of ugliness. These cartoonists demonstrate how seemingly “bad” drawing can be good. Much attention has been given over the decades to the beauty of comics. Citing aspects ranging from the skillful use of line and the creation of complex compositions to the adroit use of color and the synergistic relationship between word and image, a bevy of past and present books, essays, and articles demonstrate how comics are a skilled art form. Indeed, many of the most critically important and culturally influentially discussions about comics, including Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics (1993), Will Eisner’s Comics and Sequential Art (2008), and Nick Sousanis’ Unflattening (2015), contain this argument at its core. These texts make a case that comics embody not simply a complex and compelling mode of narrative storytelling, but also as a complex and compelling form of visual art. Indeed, as McCloud proclaims in the opening pages to his landmark book, “the potential of comics is limitless and exciting!” (3).
The work of Lynda Barry and Gary Larson add a new facet to ongoing conversations about the aesthetics of comics. Rather than embodying examples of the beauty of sequential art, The Far Side and Ernie Pook’s Comeek invite us to consider the important but neglected role of ugliness in it. In the same way that physically attractive figures and visually appealing compositions contribute to seeing comics as an important and influential form, so too do unattractive characters and unappealing drawings. As the work of Barry and Larson demonstrate, ugliness can be just as thematically rich and visually compelling. It can add to both the aesthetic complexity and the narrative content of a comic. Consequently, rather than embodying a feature to overlook or excuse, ugliness is an aspect to spotlight and value.
Lynda Barry, in a discussion about early influences on her career, cited Ed “Big Daddy” Roth and his character Rat Fink. When asked specifically about the aspects of his work that inspired her, she recalled: “something about his embrace of ugliness… made me feel freedom” (qtd in Kitley 4). In sentiments that echo the punk movement, Barry found Roth’s aesthetic of the visually unappealing, physically unattractive, and even artistically unsightly liberating. Ugliness freed Roth from conventions, and thus from constraints. In short, it gave him the ability to create what he wanted, how he wanted, in the way that he wanted. As a result, his traffic in ugliness was not a drawback, it was an advantage.
The ugliness that permeates the work of Lynda Barry and Gary Larson functions in the same way. Far from being lessened by their depiction of unattractive, unappealing, and unsightly figures, these comics are enhanced by them. This feature not only gives these comics a distinctive visual look, but it also augments their thematic content. From the portrayal of dour childhood events in the work of Barry to the depiction of dorky nerdiness in that of Larson, ugliness suits both strips perfectly. This aesthetic is not a flaw, but an asset. In so doing, Ernie Pook’s Comeek and The Far Side demonstrate the overlooked cultural value and artistic importance of ugliness.
Umberto Eco, in his treatise On Ugliness (2007), reflected: “Beauty is, in some ways, boring. Even if its concept changes through the ages, nevertheless a beautiful object must always follow certain rules.” By contrast, Eco continues, “Ugliness is unpredictable and offers an infinite range of possibilities. Beauty is finite. Ugliness is infinite, like God.” While I wouldn’t go so far as to claim that beautiful comics are dull, I would assert that the ugliness of Gary Larson and Lynda Barry’s strips make them exceedingly interesting. The awkward, unsightly, and even unattractive figures who populate Ernie Pook’s Comeek and The Far Side make them more compelling and complex. Danish artist Asger Jorn once opined: “An era without ugliness would be an era without progress” (qtd in O’Donnell 100). Whereas beauty pleases viewers, “ugliness provokes a shift beyond comfort and stasis” (Henderson 12). The unattractive and unsightly requires us to question, challenge, and re-evaluate. In light of these qualities, ugliness is disruptive, dynamic, and often even transformative.
From the standpoint of both their aesthetic appearance and their thematic content, so too was Ernie Pook’s Comeek and The Far Side. At the heart of the subversive nature in these two strips was ugliness. This trait—whether manifest in the visual look of the drawings or in the content that they depicted—fueled the way in which Barry and Larson questioned, challenged, and disrupted the status quo. In the same way that comics studies has concerned itself with questions of aesthetic beauty, the time is long overdue for its to recognize the artistic value, symbolic importance, and socio-political power of ugliness.
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