What writers can learn from The Far Side

Welcome to the final in our collection of writing lessons from cartoonists. At least for now. I might well realize suddenly that Baby Blues taught me a lot and do another in this series. Or, perhaps you out there will have a suggestion I never even thought of.

But for today, we’re ending on a high note with The Far Side.

Written by Gary Larson, The Far Side comic strip ran from 1980 to 1995. Even though the strip technically ended, The Far Side still has fans all over the world. A wide variety of fans, too. Kids love it, of course. But scientists love it. Almost any scientific discipline has a Far Side comic they can claim as their own.

I personally love Far Side. Like Calvin and Hobbs, it’s another strip I was introduced to from my grandmother’s bookshelf. Here are the lessons I’ve learned from it. 

Your style doesn’t have to be everyone else’s.

When you look at a Far Side strip, you’ll notice that not a single character is cute. Or aesthetically appealing. Everyone is fat, everyone has hairs sticking out of weird places. Even if it’s someone who shouldn’t have hair, like a fish. Everyone in the Far Side world is, well, kind of ugly. And it’s kind of the only strip that is ugly the whole way through. Most strips will at least have a cute cat, a pretty girl, or a guy with a rugged chin.

But that’s just not Gary Larson’s style. In the Far Side world, that’s what things look like. And it works out pretty great for him. 

For starters, it’s recognizable. You see a Far Side strip from across the room, you know what it is. Among a flood of comics that can sometimes look very much the same, you can point Far Side out.

More importantly, though, it’s Gary Larson’s style of writing. He didn’t try to mimic anyone else. He didn’t compare his dogs to Snoopy and lament that they didn’t look as good. He just drew in his style. And that’s great. 

Now, I’m not saying you shouldn’t try to improve your art and get better. But maybe the best way to do that isn’t by trying to write like someone else. Maybe it’s by finding your style or voice and making it as good as it can be.

Write above people’s heads and they’ll reach for it

I bet you’ve read a Far Side strip that you didn’t get. I know I have. Hell, there’s even a joke about that in an episode of The Simpsons. The reason for this is simple. Larson frequently talks about scientific theories and facts that I don’t know or understand.

Here’s the cool thing, though. I’ve been reading Far Side since I was a little kid. Growing up, I’d go back to the collections on my grandmother’s bookshelves over and over again. And every time I read them, I got more of the jokes. I am not the only person who’s described this very thing.

And isn’t that cool? Isn’t it a great feeling to look at something and realize you understand it now? It’s a mental version of a mark on the wall to see how much you’ve grown since your last birthday. 

Don’t try to dumb yourself down. Talk about the topics that you want to talk about. If it’s not for some people, that’s fine. The people that it’s for will find it. 

Never stop having fun

Every strip of Far Side has one thing in common. They feel like the creator laughed when he came up with them. Larson is a fan of his own work.

And that’s awesome! You’ve got to be a fan of your work. You’ve got to have fun when you’re writing, at least when you’re coming up with an idea. (Not all the writing is going to be fun. I say this as someone about to start the fourth draft of her latest book. Not all the writing is fun.)

But you should be having fun with your art. It should be feeding your soul. Otherwise, why do it at all? Why not go get a real job? There’s lots more money to be made elsewhere. 

Being a likable person goes a long way

I have heard a lot of things about Garly Larson. He’s met some amazing people, like Jane Goodall and Robin Williams. What I’ve never heard from anyone is an unkind word about the man. Because Gary Larson is a likable guy. He’s not a pushover, as several legal issues will attest to. But he’s a good guy. 

Being a decent person, and treating other people well will get you places in this world, even when it doesn’t always feel like it will. Especially in the writing field, acting like a professional and a decent human being is a good idea. It might not open doors for you, but it will sure as hell not shut them like being an unprofessional dick will. 

Notice here that I’m not saying to be a pushover. I’m also not saying to not call out people who are being abusive or toxic. But there are ways to do that in a classy manner and ways to do that that will make people not want to work with you.

So be like Gary Larson. Stand up for yourself, but be professional about it. And be kind to people. It does more for you than you think.

I would love to know what your favorite Gary Larson comic strip is. Let us know in the comments. 

Paper Beats World is a labor of love. If you love what we do, please consider supporting us on Ko-fi. 

What writers can learn from Garfield

Yes, that’s right. We’ve talked about Calvin and Hobbs. We’ve talked about Peanuts. We’ve talked about Cathy. Now, I’m back from Nebula Con, and I’m fighting allergies for every breath that goes in or out of my body. So I’m pissy and ready to talk about Garfield. 

 A cautionary tale for writers if there ever was one. 

Unlike the other comic strips in this series, Garfield is a lesson in what not to do. As in, what not to do with a franchise that is smart, edgy, and popular.

Launching in 1976, then titled Jon (The name didn’t change to Garfield until the strip was syndicated in 1978) the Garfield comic strip is probably as well known as Mickey Mouse.

In the beginning, it was way darker than most people realize. Jon once had a roommate named Lyman. He was Odie’s original person, and he vanished without a trace. He’ll make the occasional appearance, but for the most part, he’s not around. When questioned, Jim Davis would for the longest time say that no one should look in Jon’s basement. 

Man, I loved that. I also loved the series of comics that seemed to suggest that Garfield was left alone at home, without food or family, to starve to death. There’s a fan theory that nothing after that strip is real, it’s just a fever dream of Garfield’s to comfort him as his life ends, lonely and starving. 

Lots of people have dark fan theories about Garfield. And they’re fun. At least to a twisted person like me. 

The strip itself used to be fun. You had Jon, a successful cartoonist who isn’t successful at anything else. He strikes out constantly with Dr. Liz. He has no friends, except Lyman. His pets don’t respect him, and his neighbors hate him.

That’s funny. 

Then, there’s Garfield. He’s smart-mouthed, violent, and self-indulgent. He eats too much and doesn’t work out enough. He hates Mondays (even though he doesn’t work) and loves lasagna, his bear Pookie and his grandma. (Jon’s Grandma, who is exactly who I want to grow up to be.)

Add Odie into the mix as the idiot with all the luck, and it’s a cute mix. 

Then, things got stagnant. The stories came to a standstill. Then, like everything else that stops moving, it started to rot. 

Now, to my dismay, Garfield is a joke. It’s a strip that tells the same five jokes over and over. It’s a cartoon that has the laziest artwork I’ve ever seen. It’s a cringe-inducing movie. It is, in short, a disappointment.

So today, let’s discuss how we can learn from this. How can we avoid being Garfield? 

Don’t stop growing

Some of you reading this are going to be stars. It’s just a numbers game. Someone reading this is going to make it big. You’re going to be a household name, a Stephen King or a Toni Morrison. 

Many of you reading this will achieve at least some success so long as you keep writing and keep submitting. Again, it’s just a numbers game. To succeed in writing you need talent, persistence, and luck. And talent means the least of those three.

When you succeed, do not stop growing. Do not stop learning and becoming a better writer. 

That’s what, I think, happened to Jim Davis. He had success. Like, a lot of it. His characters are well-known and loved all over the planet. 

So he stopped getting better. 

Do you know who hasn’t stopped getting better? Stephen King. I know, me praising the King? Big surprise. But it’s true. His books keep on getting better. The Outsider was better than anything he’d written to that point. Then he wrote If It Bleeds, and that was even better still.

I would like to think that the same can be said of my work. I think Quiet Apocalypse is the best book I’ve ever written. I think the book I’m working on right now is even better. (It damn well better be. It’s the last Station 86 book. It had better blow your minds.) 

That’s how art should be. Every story should build on the talent and strength of the last one. The dialog can always get better. The story can be more creative. The characters can feel more real. You are probably already a pretty good writer, my friend. But don’t ever stop getting better.

Don’t give up your edge

Garfield is at its best when it’s a little edgy. When it’s a little dark. When Garfield is trying to send Nermal to Abu Dhabi without air holes in the box. When he’s smoking a pipe. When he’s shredding the neighbor’s dog within an inch of his life.

Garfield is at his best when he’s at his worst. When he is the hedonistic, unmotivated rage ball that we all kind of want to be at times. And because he is that so much of the time, it’s all the more endearing when he is kind. When he lets slip how much he cares about Odie. When he’s cuddly with Pooky or sensitive with Arlene. He is in that way a mini version of an anti-hero. We love Loki and Magnito for the same basic reasons. They do horrible things we would never think to do but might secretly want to. At the same time, they have kindness in them that only a precious few ever see.

That doesn’t work when the balance gets tipped. When the bad sides of a character are blunted. 

If you want to write a compelling anti-hero, let them be sharp. Let them do terrible things for their warped reasons. Let them do the things that you would never do, but secretly want to. Like, I would never stab a guy at a bar for touching me without my consent. But it feels so good when a character does it. I would never eat a whole lasagna, kick someone I don’t like over a fence, or cause an uprising in a vet’s waiting room. But I kind of want to.

And Garfield stopped doing those things. Maybe it’s because he was expected to be a good example for children. Or maybe it’s just because Jim Davis got soft. Either way, the strip doesn’t really without it. 

Don’t say yes to everyone who wants to play in your sandbox

Finally let’s talk about Garfield, the movie. Released in 2004 and almost universally despised, this could have been good. It wasn’t, but it could have been. 

If it wasn’t so cheap.

If it wasn’t so lazy.

If the characters didn’t suck and have little to nothing to do with the originals.

Here’s the thing. The Garfield movie was not done by people who loved the source material. It was written by people who wanted to make some quick money off a popular name. And it worked, sadly. 

This wouldn’t have happened if Jim Davis had been protective over his intellectual property. And it shouldn’t have happened. 

I’m all for shared worlds. Star Wars has been such an astounding success because so many diverse authors have been permitted to write in it. But not everyone who wants to write with you wants to do so with good intentions. Some people do not care about your characters in the same way you do. Some don’t care at all, except for what they can get out of it.

Remember, your story belongs to you. Your characters belong to you until you agree to let someone else play with them.

You always have the right to say no.

So that’s it. I hope you’ve been enjoying this series. If there’s a cartoonist I’ve missed, please let me know in the comments. 

Paper Beats World is a labor of love. Please consider supporting us on Ko-fi. 

The Man In The Woods is available now on Amazon.

What writers can learn from Cathy

Paper Beats World is a labor of love. If you love what we do here, please consider supporting us on Ko-fi. 

The comic strip Cathy has gotten a lot of shit over the years. It’s seen as kind of sexist. Written by Cathy Guisewite and running from 1976 to 2010, it’s a strip that follows a ‘modern’ woman struggling to balance her career and social life. And yes, there are some arguments to be made there. Cathy is obsessed with shoes, chocolate, makeup, and home decor. She is annoyed by her long-term partner’s obsession with sports. She lavishes attention on her dog, Electra.

So, why am I, a modern feminist, talking about Cathy? 

Well, for one thing, Cathy was a modern feminist in her time. By that I mean both the character and the creator. For another thing, I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with liking shoes, chocolate, and putting effort into your appearance. I like all of those things. Lots of men also like those things. I also like the Penguins, the Steelers, Star Trek, dragons, and things that drip blood in the night. And for a third thing, the comic strip never said that all women like those things. Cathy likes those things. Cathy has an unhealthy relationship with food. Cathy spends too much on clothes and shoes. Cathy has a difficult relationship with her mother. And again, I’m talking about the creator and the character here. 

So yes, we’re going to talk about what writers can learn from the comic strip Cathy. Rather than disregard it as a ‘fluffy’ or ‘girly’ comic. I want to do this because women’s interests are often treated as silly and frivolous as a way to condemn female-leaning people as also being those things and I’m sick of that. I also want to do this because the strip is, ack, good. And yes, there’s plenty that writers can learn from Cathy.

Write realistic romances

Cathy has a long-term partner in the strip named Irving. They dated, broke up, and got back together more times than Ross and Rachel.

Unlike Ross and Rachel, they had a realistic relationship. Cathy was kind of a mess, and so was Irving. He was never a knight in shining armor. Never drop-dead gorgeous. They didn’t have a meet-cute. They had a million reasons for everything not to work out.

They did work out because they made it work. Because they put in the work with each other. They put in the work on themselves. Sometimes they were both childish, selfish, and stupid. They grew up together.

Just in case you’ve never been in a real relationship, that’s how they look. Real relationships are built on mutual respect and care. Cathy tries her damndest to get into golf so they have something to do together. Irving goes shopping with her. The two of them struggle with each other’s families. They bond with each other’s dogs. They sit down and talk about money, even though it ends in a fight. They go from two rabidly independent, career-oriented individuals to being a family. That’s not something you’ll find in a Hallmark movie. But it’s honest.

Write realistic families and friends

Cathy has a difficult relationship with her mom. An even worse one with her mother-in-law. She is her daddy’s girl. She has friends who push all her buttons, but she still loves like sisters. She has a boss who’s kind of an idiot, but a well-meaning one. She has relationships that make sense.

One thing in particular that I like is that the other characters make sense in their little world. They are not only side characters in Cathy’s life. They are the main characters in their mind. Which is something I am still learning the trick of myself.

As a side note here, Cathy doesn’t have a relatable life, aside from her relationships. I will point out here that Cathy is a Boomer. She was a young, independent career woman in a time when a single person working a full-time job could buy a house and still have money for things like food, expensive shoes, and really good chocolate. Yes, she is incredibly entitled. I think it’s important that we accept this, and keep it in mind as we keep talking.

Start where you are, and get better. But start!

Looking back at the start of Cathy, way back in 1976, you might be a bit surprised. The artwork is not great. It’s pretty damn bad. If by some chance this blog post ends up in front of the eyes of Cathy Guisewite, I’m sorry. But girl, you know it’s true. The artwork and storytelling in Cathy were kind of shitty.

But by God, it was there. It was published and went out into the world. And it got better. Over the years, the comic strip got so much better.

Some people might say Guisewite should have worked at her art harder before she published. It might have killed her career to put out a subpar product.

Let me be as clear about this as I can be. Thinking like this will lead your creative career into a never-ending holding pattern. Because you will never, ever think your work is good enough. 

We learn best by doing. I certainly did, and so did Cathy. When I started this blog I didn’t have any idea how to add graphics. I’d never published a book hadn’t published anything except for some poems in high school. I started this blog to provide some structure and a reason to build a writing practice.

Lines improved. Color and detail improved. Stories, characters, descriptions. All of these things got better as Cathy grew as a creator. The same can be said of me. 

And the same can be said of you if you can give yourself that opportunity to grow. 

Write honestly about who you are, and people will find that relatable. 

Cathy is not relatable because all women love shoes and chocolate. Cathy is relatable because she’s written by a real person about her reality. And that is what makes her relatable. 

Of course, we’re not all writing semi-autobiographical comic strips. I write about ghosts, dragons, and spaceships. But into each one, I place a part of myself. It’s not on purpose, it happens. I write about my experiences, and in doing so breathe a part of myself into my characters. I hope that people can relate to that. And if I come off as a bit of a cliche, I guess that’s alright. I am a broke, bisexual Millennial with a side hustle, trying to fulfill a creative dream while not starving I treat my dog and cat like children. I suffer from depression and a coffee addiction. And yes, ack, I like chocolate and shoes. I am none of these things because they’re trendy or popular. I am those things because, well because I am. Cathy was all of the things that she was because she was.

Write from who you are. You’ll be amazed how many people can relate to that. 

As an aside, there will not be a post next week. I’m attending Nebula Con, and taking a long-needed staycation with my family. I’ll see you back here on May 19th.

Get Man in The Woods now on Amazon

Man in The Woods launches today

Hey everyone! I just wanted to pop in during a very busy week and let you know that my lovely dark short story, Man in The Woods, is available now on Amazon. If you’re in the mood for a story about an old man trying to protect his granddaughter from a horrific entity that haunts the woods behind their home, then it’s your lucky day.

Click here to get it right now on Amazon!

Don’t ignore people who have lived in a land for generations when they tell you something is wrong. They know the land, and they know the dangers that live there. They know where the poison ivy grows and can’t be cut back fast enough. They know where the old wells are. The ones with the rotting covers. And they know about the dark, creeping things that share the land with them.

I hope that you love Man in The Woods. And if you do, leave a review on Amazon, Goodreads, Bookstagram, really anywhere. You have no idea how much that helps. And thank you all, so much, for all of your support.

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