Shoot an elephant

If you’re going to shoot at an elephant…

Gary Larson’s One-panel Master Class in Narrative

Of those of us who came of age in the 80s, many are fans of Gary Larson’s The Far Side — the irreverent, nerdy, sadly extinct, single-panel cartoon that anthropomorphized cows (and their tools), brought beehive hair-dos back to national consciousness and gave us “Anatidaephobia: The fear that somewhere, somehow, a duck is watching you.”

And. So. Much. More.

The Far Side was an essential part of the Gen X experience that appeared locally in the San Francisco Chronicle and syndicated nationally by the newspaper’s Chronicle Features.

The comic ran daily for most of its 15-year run (a staggering 4337 panels), was translated into 17 languages, and ran in over 1900 newspapers. Despite its erstwhile ubiquity, Larson has frequently registered his displeasure with his work appearing unauthorized on the Internet. As he wrote a fan website owner in 2018, “I’m walking a fine line here. On the one hand, I confess to finding it quite flattering that some of my fans have created websites displaying and/or distributing my work on the Internet. And, on the other, I’m struggling to find the words that convincingly but sensitively persuade these Far Side enthusiasts to ‘cease and desist’ before they have to read these words from some lawyer.” 

I’m also “walking a fine line” as I invoke the U.S. Copyright Fair Use Index, a legal doctrine that promotes freedom of expression by permitting the unlicensed use of copyright-protected works in certain circumstances. One of these circumstances includes whether the use is of a “commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes.” To wit, I think this writing is already didactic enough to qualify as “educational” and, accordingly, is free to all (though I wish the scan I obtained online had fewer Moiré patterns).

Now that all the legal throat-clearing is out of the way let’s exhume the lede I buried.

Everyone familiar with the Far Side has a favorite. But mine — I submit to you — is among the few that contains an entire story arc but compressed, like an accordion, into a single, lucid moment. It loses nothing required by Aristotle’s dramatic theory as outlined in Poetics (three acts!), nor, indeed, the mechanics of time itself: past, present, and future are collapsed and captured in a single panel, the effect of which is — in a word — quantum.

The panel in question was initially published in 1984 and riffs on the old trope that “an elephant never forgets,” an adage recently substantiated, in a way, when an elephant trampled a suspected poacher to death in South Africa’s famed Kruger National Park in October 2021. Another killed a woman in India the following June, only to return to her funeral to stomp her lifeless corpse.

The cartoon goes like this:

A man is retrieving his mail from a cluster of mailboxes in the lobby of an apartment building. And an elephant, clad in a trench coat and fedora, emerges from the shadow of the stairwell. The scene is reminiscent of film noir with a whisper of Hemingway. The elephant’s hardboiled patois comprises the cartoon’s caption: 

“Remember me, Mr. Schneider? Kenya. 1947. If you’re going to shoot an elephant, Mr. Schneider, you better be prepared to finish the job.”

Instantly, we know what happened, what’s happening, and what’s about to happen. Three acts and three narrative moments were achieved in 23 words and a single indelible image. For my money, this cartoon represents the ne plus ultra of narrative art.

And, after 40 years, clearly unforgettable. All that’s left to say is, “Tusk, tusk, Mr. Schneider.”

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