Reading the Comics, December 16, 2019: The Far Side Is Back Edition, Part I


As will sometimes happen I write this without having read Saturday’s comic strips. Press of time and all that. But it has been a week of only casual mentions of mathematics, not enough to need much detail. There were a lot of strips with this kind of casual mention. But one is of special interest.

So, yes. Gary Larson’s The Far Side has an official online home, and is reprinting strips from the classic 80s-to-early-90s comic strip. I’m glad for this, not just to reacquaint myself with an old friend. The strip was a pioneer in the good sort of nerd humor. Jokes about topics of narrow, specific interest, but — generally — not told in an exclusionary way. One might not understand why a particular joke should be funny, but only because you don’t happen to know something in the background. I’m thinking here of a desert-island strip that Larson, in one of his collections, said went over almost everybody’s head. The characters remarked on their good luck that the island was covered with mussels (or something), so at least they wouldn’t get hungry. The thing that makes this funny is that the mussels (or whatever) only grow places that get covered in water every day; that is, the island sinks with the tides.

Man at Heaven's Gate. An angel with a clipboard and pencil asks: 'OK, now listen up. Nobody gets in here without answering the following question: A train leaves Philadelphia at 1:00 pm. It's traveling at 65 miles per hour. Another train leaves Denver at 4:00 ... say, you need some paper?' Caption: 'Math phobic's nightmare.'
One of Gary Larson’s The Far Side reruns for the 19th of December, 2019. So this is not a new tag, to my own surprise. To see why it’s not, and to see this and any future essays mentioning topics raised by The Far Side please use this link. Also, I’m curious if the math phobic person here tries to hold to ‘You need some paper?’ being the question that must be answered.

Anyway, the first official online Far Side is, as you can see, your generic mathematics anxiety joke, using a story problem — with trains leaving stations, even — as the premise. And I admit this particular strip might not convince a young reader to today that The Far Side was anything special. This is the fate of many pioneers. If you look at it and think, well, that could run in Bizarro or The Argyle Sweater or Brevity or F Minus or Non Sequitur a dozen other comics, it’s because those are comic strips that want to be like this.

I’m sorry to say that, as best I can tell, there isn’t a lasting archive of strips on the new site. This particular rerun was one of the selection printed the 19th of December, but when I go to the link that should have shown that day’s strips I get bounced to the front page. This is vexing to someone who hopes to use the strips to lead conversations about mathematics topics. I’ll have to deal with that in one way or another.

Well, so be it. Later this week I’ll carry on with the roster of comic strips mentioning mathematical topics. For now I am still enjoying seeing the comics back in a mass media.

Author: Joseph Nebus

I was born 198 years to the day after Johnny Appleseed. The differences between us do not end there. He/him.

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