Eye for an Eye

Eye for an Eye

22 May 2011

My favourite cartooning anecdote is about Gary Larson and his 'Cow Tools' cartoon.

 If you've never encountered this particular panel from this cartoon genius, it might be best to read this first. Otherwise, if you get a hold of his book "The PreHistory of the Far Side" you'll see the full story of the cartoon that wasn't funny and no-one understood.

Briefly, 'Cow Tools' depicted - in common Gary Larson iconography - a cow on a farm standing in front of a table strewn with some odd looking objects, and simply titled 'Cow Tools'. It was meant to be a twist on the outdated anthropological observation that  "man was the only animal that made and shaped tools." It was "weird and obtuse", as Larson puts it, and drew an unprecendented number of letters from readers who were perplexed at to its meaning.

I had my own 'cow tools' experience recently. I drew the above cartoon, riffing pretty clearly (I thought) on the 'eye for an eye' concept that's turned on its head by Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew, as I reflected on the recent killing of Osama bin Laden by US forces. I liked how it turned out as a drawing and thought it made an impactful statement with a bit of wry humour. Job done.

Then I showed it to three different people (two of whom are very trusted editors of mine - if they like the idea, I'm pretty sure most people will.)  All I got were blank looks. Nobody got it. Even with some explaining, there were still only vague acknowledgements of the point ... and I guessed those were just being generous.

What happened? Who knows. All I do know is that the maxim "It's not funny if you have to explain it" applies probably tenfold to cartoons. So it was (and still is) back to the drawing board.

Still, I seem to remember when I first read Larson's 'Cow Tools' cartoon, I did understand it. (I had seen enough David Attenborough documentaries to get the idea of animals that made tools.)

Maybe someone out there gets what I was aiming at with this cartoon without having to read my explanation. If so, please email me and stroke my pathetically fragile cartoonist ego with any reflections on the cartoon itself, or the whole concept it was trying to communicate. I value reader response very highly ... apart from that guy who keeps emailing me saying 'Dude, you suck'. (He's just jealous.)