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Summary

  • Far Side
    creator Gary Larson’s twisted spin on the “Little Engine That Could” tale is intended to evoke uncomfortable laughter from the reader, by mixing familiar story elements and tropes in a surprising, and dark, way.
  • The juxtaposition of the “Little Engine’s” familiar wholesomeness with the signature darkness of Larson’s comics is a perfect example of
    The Far Side’s
    memorable and evocative humor.
  • The “Little Engine’s” familiar ”
    I think I can…
    ” line takes on a dark twist in Larson’s panel, forever changing how readers view the children’s story and its message of perseverance.
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The Far Side often put a dark spin on classic popular culture, and it often featured anthropomorphized inanimate objects – two tendencies that converged in one dark comic, in which The Little Engine That Could’s iconic “I think I can, I think I can…” moment of triumph is turned into tragedy for one unfortunate woman, who has been tied down to the train tracks in front of the approaching train.

Far Side creator Gary Larson relentlessly displayed a keen ability to turn the familiar into the unexpected throughout his strip’s run. One of his regular moves was to rely on the reader’s pre-existing familiarity with something as the basis for his joke; the humor would then usually come from the dissonance of Larson’s portrayal and the reader’s expectations.

Far Side, The Little Engine That Could's climactic moment is bad news for woman tied to railroad tracks

His “Little Engine That Could” panel is a perfect example of this technique. The wholesomeness of the “Little Engine” story and the grim context Larson puts it in are intended to evoke laughter, however uncomfortable.

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Aliens were integral to Gary Larson’s syndicated comic strip The Far Side, as often menacing the people of Earth as mirroring their familiar foibles.

Gary Larson Turns A Folk Hero Into An Unwitting Accessory

The Little Engine That Could – But Shouldn’t

Larson’s humor derives from giving the Little Engine an unexpected, and ghastly, consequence for cresting the top of the hill. By jarring the familiar story out of its originally wholesome context, Larson’s goal seems to be to make the reader smile in spite of themselves.

In Far Side’s twisted spin on “Little Engine That Could”, Larson in fact employs several well-known cultural elements to construct his joke, making it among his most layered panels. At the same time, it stands among his darkest comics, and correspondingly, one of the most memorable. Larson’s joke fuses the “Little Engine” folk tale and the trope of a nefarious villain tying a female victim to train tracks. Here, the Little Engine’s climactic moment of perseverance is unwittingly about to become the gruesome scene of the woman in the polka dot dress’s demise.

The “Little Engine That Could,” of course, centers on a train that struggles to ascend a hill, overcoming the challenge while repeating the refrain of “I think I can, I think I can…” The story is rich in metaphor, and has motivated generations of readers to push through challenges and adversity, and to carry tasks through to their completion. Larson’s humor derives from giving the Little Engine an unexpected, and ghastly, consequence for cresting the top of the hill. By jarring the familiar story out of its originally wholesome context, Larson’s goal seems to be to make the reader smile in spite of themselves.

The Far Side’s Strange Humor Relied On The Familiar

Gary Larson Employed Tropes In Novel Fashion

The peril of the illustration is somehow made all the more potent by the reader’s familiarity with the ”
I think I can…”
line, meaning
The Far Side
readers will never think of the children’s story the same.

Gary Larson’s humor often relied on juxtapositions, or clashing elements. Some Far Side panels employed two different styles of art, with the punchline hinging on the distinctions. Others, like the “Little Engine” panel, relied on the discrepancy between silliness and darkness. Larson’s signature absurdity contained on both in equal measure, but often one or the other would be predominate in a panel. His best work came when the two elements were evenly calibrated, as like in this case, when the strip communicated its absurdist worldview in a panel just as likely to provoke outrage as outrageous laughter.

Dark as it may be, it may not rank among his most controversial strips, though Gary Larson’s version of the “Little Engine That Could” is certainly among his most evocative. Among the many seemingly doomed characters throughout The Far Side, the woman in polka dots is among the most sympathetic. The look of outrage on her face is vivid, in contrast to the unknowing smile on the Little Engine’s, and the peril of the illustration is somehow made all the more potent by the reader’s familiarity with the “I think I can…” line, meaning The Far Side readers will never think of the children’s story the same.

The Far Side Comic Poster
The Far Side

The Far Side is a humorous comic series developed by Gary Larson. The series has been in production since 1979 and features a wide array of comic collections, calendars, art, and other miscellaneous items.



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