“Only the Cow Knows”: The Fall and Rise of Cow Tools

by thethreepennyguignol

On Thursday, 28th October, 1982, Cow Tools was published for the first time.

Cartoonist Gary Larson first began his professional cartooning career three years earlier, when, sick of his job at a music store, he took a few days off and put together a small collection of cartoons to pitch to a local Seattle magazine, Pacific Search. In 1979, and much to his surprise, Pacific Search picked up his cartoons for publication, releasing them under the series title Nature’s Way, right next to the Junior Jumble, every week.

Within a year, Larson had pitched the series to other newspapers, and Nature’s Way was picked up the San Francisco Chronicle for syndication; renamed The Far Side, the series launched in the Chronicle on the 1st January, 1980, fresh and early at the start of the new decade.

The Far Side became Larson’s most popular and recognizable work, his series spanning more than fifteen years until his retirement in 1995. His dark, surreal sense of humour, distinctive depiction of anthropomorphized animals, and downright sense of gleeful silliness rightfully earned him a dedicated fanbase (including my dad, who was the one to introduce me to the series through stacks of his collections in the early 2000s). While his releases brought in a somewhat steady trickle of bemused letters, as people tried to decipher Larson’s odd, offbeat cartoons, it wasn’t until 1982, two years into his official Far Side tenure, that his work would really make a stir.

Cow Tools was published across more than seventy newspapers and magazines on that fateful Thursday in 1982.

Cow Tools depicts a slightly bemused-looking cow standing in front of a wooden table of indistinct, bizarre objects, a barn in the background, Larson’s loopy signature in the top right corner. The caption, the only hint to the cartoon’s meaning, simply reads “Cow Tools”.

Within hours of its publication, Chronicle Features, the syndication arm of the San Francisco Chronicle, was inundated with calls. People were baffled by the image, the caption serving as little answer to the questions plaguing them after they laid eyes on it. What are cow tools? Why does one of them look like a hacksaw? What is the cow doing with those tools? For all of Larson’s oddness and surreality, this, this “Cow Tools”, was a step too far for many. There had to be something to this – puzzling out the specifics of what the tools were, what they represented, and just how they related to the cow in question drove many people to search for an answer, whether by contacting the distributor directly or trying to parse it out in their own lives. Larson later remarked on a letter received from a reader in Texas, claiming that the cartoon had been shown to more than forty professionals with doctorate degrees, and none of them could come up with a satisfying explanation for it’s meaning. Nobody wanted to be left out of the joke, and, in the pursuit of ensuring they were in on it, dissected this simple cartoon beyond all meaning.

According to Stuart Dodds, general manager of Chronicle Features at the time, “A lot of people were not getting it. And, in not getting it, they were casting around for really farfetched explanations”. Such was the frenzy over Cow Tools, Larson had to release a public statement about it’s meaning, assuring readers it was just “an exercise in silliness”, nothing more than an amusing ponderence on what tools a cow would make if cow could make tools. While this satisfied some readers, others still viewed the cartoon as a frustrating, foolish failure, and it soon became Larson’s most divisive work. It’s easy to see why – after a frantic search for meaning, people were told, by the creator itself, that there was none, at least not at the level they had believed.

“The first mistake I made was in thinking this was funny,” Larson reflected years later, in The Prehistory of the Far Side collection. “The second was making one of the tools resemble a crude handsaw — which made already confused people decide that their only hope in understanding the cartoon meant deciphering what the other tools were as well. Of course, they didn’t have a chance in hell.”

When asked about the cartoon by the Chronicle, and the specific usage of the tools in question, Larson replied “Only the cow knows”. But, perhaps that’s not quite true. Perhaps, Cow Tools was just ahead of it’s time. Because, more than forty years later, the divisive cartoon has come back into current modern internet lexicon – and earned a whole new cult following as a result. Cow Tools might have baffled audiences in the eighties, but for Gen Z, it makes perfect sense.

Much has been made of Gen Z’s sense of “anti-humour”, the “post-ironic” approach to wit and meme-ry that leaves millenials like me looking foolish and feeling old. And while it might feel decidedly new, it didn’t take long for internet communities to go looking for previous examples of this surreal, evasive, and decidedly strange wit – and they found Cow Tools. With it’s curiously compelling mix of seemingly-complex imagery matched with a completely silly intent, it fit beautifully with this new breed of comedy (as explored in this excellent article from Annie Rauwerda).

Cow Tools found a new home on social media, with thousands-strong Facebook groups dedicated to re-interpreting and celebrating it as a meme, to subreddits dedicated to the cartoon with dozens of posts labelled “Cow Tools”. People have tattoos of the cartoon, have written parody Rupi Kaur poetry about it, even re-creating it in real life as cosplay. It’s found a new home in the 2020s, with it’s deliberate oddness and apparent lack of deeper meaning a selling point instead of a frustrating failure on Larson’s part.

Cow Tools may have started life as an infuriating example of humour missing the mark, but there’s something heart-warming about seeing it find it’s place in pop culture several decades later. Even if we still don’t know what the hell those tools are for.

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(header image via Tumbr)