Cow Tools: Revisiting a Comic Masterpiece

Gary Larsen was one of the funniest cartoonists in American history, but to this day some people don’t know why, and that troubles me.

Recently, while searching for a different Larsen cartoon, I happened upon the title “Cow Tools” and was intrigued. It actually took awhile to find it, for Larsen apparently is rather possessive about his work, which is understandable. So was Picasso.

"Cow Tools" by Gary Larsen
What do you make of “Cow Tools?” Questions beckon.

The cow itself is very zen, very much in the moment. This is an in-your-face, right now cow. He looks at you directly, confronting you straight on with his own goofy existence as if to say, “Here I am, a being that makes no sense, yet here I am. Deal with it.”

The flat line for eyes is absolutely essential, symbolizing both the mental density and the bland inscrutability of a cow. One is tempted to wonder, why does a cow even have a brain? Yet it does. Go figure.

Before the cow we see a table, upon which have been placed four objects for our consideration. The observer naturally wishes their significance to be explained.

Request denied. These are “Cow Tools.” You tell me.

Item 1: A kind of saw. For a cow??
Larsen reflected later that the first tool was a mistake, because it looked too much like a saw. I think he’s being too humble. The cow-saw is a wonderful start to a progression of increasingly vague and ambiguous objects. What would a cow need with a saw? Note that a cow’s ability to hold onto any of these objects is the least-emphasized factor.

Item 2: Back scratcher? Grass hoe?
The saw was fairly obvious, a bit of symbolic hand-holding. Now we enter the next level in this Twilight Zone. It’s some kind of pole ending with a couple curved tips, and a smaller one pointing the other way. Looks a little like a garden fork, possibly a cow back scratcher…Doesn’t this require, um, fingers?

Item 3: Practice Udder?
Or maybe cows play curling? The guesses necessarily become wilder, because the object is more ambiguous. A kind of cylindrical protrusion sticks out, but we’re not sure we even want to know what it’s supposed to be. Shame on you for even thinking that. Troubling, thus hilarious.

Item 4: WTF??
Larsen finishes off the collection with the utterly vague kind of proto-tool that bedevils archaeologists. We’ve seen this before on science shows – a barely-altered lump of something that we are confidently told was used by primitive man for some exceedingly clever purpose, while we sit back and say, “Oh, really?” Meanwhile, we stumble over similar objects in our back yard, and there’s not a cow for miles.

What Larsen did with a few apparently crude lines was to confront us with the sadly difficult job of interpreting artifacts. The cow represents the ultimately unknowable nature of whoever might have used the little objects we find strewn about at dusty digs around the world. Could Picasso have said it with more economy? Would it be funny?

Now I apologize, for having explained the joke, I have systematically drained all the blood from its ability to elicit spontaneous laughter. However, having approached this singular masterpiece, it is my sincerest hope that Larsen’s other cartoons will be at least a bit more accessible. Sometimes it is not the answer that is funny, but the question.

Update: I completely forgot to mention the unexpected public reaction to “Cow tools” when it was published in 1982. Larsen received literally thousands of responses, some of them quite angry. People wondered what he was trying to say. Was he even TRYING to be funny? Was he challenging man’s status as the only tool-making creature on earth? The furor served to launch Larsen’s Far Side comic into high gear, eventually syndicated in hundreds of newspapers. Then, at the pinnacle of his fame and fortune, Larsen quit publishing his drawings and took up a career as a jazz musician, one of the very few with money in the bank. Happy ending!

Salon article on Larsen:

Another essay on Cow Tools:

Why Aren’t Philosopher’s Funny?

Larsen cartoons for free email postcards!

Larsen’s collections on Amazon


This post was read 6398 times.

About author View all posts


12 CommentsLeave a comment

  • Jimbo, thank you! Ms 9 and I were looking at a huge slab of granite in a local park, yesterday which had been hewn into three chunks. One chunk had a cross cut into it, the next piece was highly polished so that it was mirror like, and the third bit had a spiral carved into the surface.

    Fortunately a small plaque was attached which explained that the cross symbolised the church that used to be on the grounds of the park, the three chunks represented the splitting up of the land 100 years ago, the mirror reflected the present, and the spiral indicated that time passes…

    I was reading earlier today how on Karfreitag, in Bermuda, kites will be flown today, all of them using wooden frames in the shape of a cross. As the kites soar into the sky, they symbolize the crucified one who has now ascended into heaven.

    NOW how about deconstructing the shape of the shed in the background of the cartoon! please 😉

  • great stuff. im a huge fan of larsen, this makes me want to go back and check out all of the far side again. now to just find one of those huge hardcover anthologies they published with every single comic.

  • To this day he has a cult following among scientists, especially biologists and anthropologists.

    Turn back to the Constitution – and
    READ it.

  • Watterson had an unfair advantage – he’s a really talented artist. His sense of dynamic perspective could put you inside Calvin’s spaceship as he dive-bombed the planet and zoomed between a Tyrannosaur’s legs.

    Larsen never claimed to be that graphically sophisticated, and in fact his style was deliberately primitive.

    What’s interesting to me is that both men had artistic talents and ambitions that went beyond their cartooning. In fact, both of them used their cartooning to finance artistic pursuits later on.

    I miss them both, and neither is replaceable.
    Good times for Smiley! 😀

  • Larsen was so far outside the box that we won’t see his like for generations.

    Watterson’s genius lay in his complete immersion in the fantasy world of childhood, complete with angst. And he draws better, but so what? (By the way, I am a big fan of Jef Mallett’s Frazz because I think he works neighboring territory to Watterson. Mallett doesn’t try the amazing feats of imagination that Watterson did, but he’s just as dialed in to the 10-year-old mind and also to that of the twenty something who hasn’t lost that connection either.)

    Their commonality is that each walked away when they figured they had nothing fresh to say. I’d appreciate it if more cartoonists knew when to hang ’em up.

    Turn back to the Constitution – and
    READ it.

Leave a Reply