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Loony 'Toonist Gary Larson Takes Millions for a Daily Walk on the Far Side

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The members of the Grateful Dead have never made a secret of their penchant for hallucinogenic drugs. But when cartoonist Gary Larson went backstage to meet the band after a concert in Seattle, he didn’t ask about the latest high. Instead, Larson recalls, “Phil Lesh’s girlfriend turned to me and said, ‘We want to know what you take.’ ”

It is a question the balding, bespectacled cartoonist has been asked before. After all, Larson daily shares with America the inner workings of his eerily unconventional mind. In his single-frame cartoon, The Far Side, Larson offers up such images as a movie theater full of insects watching Return of the Killer Windshield and a boy without a nose bragging about the quarter the nose fairy left him.

Larson’s cartoons are as popular as they are bizarre. Less than six years after it first appeared in print, The Far Side has become a regular feature of more than 200 newspapers. There are successful lines of Far Side greeting cards, posters and T-shirts, and Larson’s four books have all become hits. Last month The Far Side, The Far Side Gallery, Beyond the Far Side and In Search of the Far Side were simultaneous best-sellers, a feat previously accomplished only by the Garfield series. As if to symbolize the ascent of his quirky characters over Jim Davis’ cat, Larson’s newest book includes a drawing of a giant snake looking sated after having eaten Garfield.

Larson’s macabre cartoons, which he says he produces under the influence of nothing but coffee, are not for everyone. The editor of the Fort Wayne (Ind.) News-Sentinel tried to yank The Far Side, saying, “It too frequently played to the humor of violence.” The cartoon survived, however, thanks to reader protests. “Morbid humor,” Larson said, “is very valid, even healthy, as long as you don’t do it gratuitously. There’s more violence in Saturday morning [TV] cartoons.”

Larson, 34, prefers not to explain The Far Side. “People try to look for deep meanings in my work. I want to say, ‘They’re just cartoons, folks. You laugh or you don’t.’ Gee, I sound shallow. But I don’t react to current events or other stimuli. I don’t read or watch TV to get ideas. My work is basically sitting down at the drawing table and getting silly.”

Larson has no patience with people who complain that they don’t get his jokes. “If I didn’t understand a cartoon in a newspaper, I’d just turn the page,” he says. “I don’t get all of [my cartoons] myself.” If anything, the mystery only heightens reader interest. One panel showing a cow surrounded by crudely shaped implements brought thousands of inquiries, forcing Larson to provide a clarifying public statement. (It was, he said, a joke that “obviously did not work as I intended.”) One friend says, “I’ve been at book signings where it seems like every person thinks he’s the only one who really understands Gary’s work.”

As a child in Tacoma, Larson wanted to be a scientist. The son of a Chrysler dealer and a secretary, he was permitted to hunt for tadpoles and newts in drainage ditches and to raise snakes in his bedroom. (His brother, Dan, 37, went on to tamer pursuits and now works in a florist’s supply shop.)

Gary never studied art, but he always doodled—at first specializing in dinosaurs and whales. He drew his first cartoons while at Washington State University, where he took “every science course there was” before succumbing to “fear of physics.” In 1978 he took a job with the Seattle Humane Society. (In a scene right out of The Far Side, he ran over a dog on the way to the job interview.) Following up a case of “pony abuse,” he met a reporter for the Seattle Times, who showed an editor some of Larson’s cartoons. They ran for a year in that paper, under the heading Nature’s Way, before being dropped. Explains Larson: “They said that there had been too many complaints. I didn’t realize I was working in a family medium.”

In 1980 Larson’s then girlfriend, a student, encouraged him to call on the San Francisco Chronicle, where his cartoons were accepted almost immediately. The Chronicle soon began syndicating The Far Side. “If I had struck out with the Chronicle, I would have given the whole thing up,” says Gary. “My first month in syndication, I made about $100. I thought it would be exciting if I ever got up to the level where I could pay my rent.” Now that his income is well into six figures annually, Larson seems embarrassed by the ease with which he makes a living. “I mean, I can’t imagine drawing cartoons in a Third World country.”

Larson works in a second-floor studio in his Tudor-style home, surrounded by such artifacts as a stuffed warthog head and a fossilized mastodon tooth, given to him by his grandmother. His live pets include several snakes and a carnivorous frog from Argentina. Gary, who keeps the frog’s diet of mice in his freezer, jokes, “Let’s just say you don’t automatically reach for the vanilla ice cream at my house.”

When he isn’t drawing, Larson shoots baskets, plays one of his three guitars or drives his Toyota pickup to the Seattle zoo. His friends there include a herpetologist, with whom he has made several snake-hunting expeditions to Mexico. Despite the frequent expressions of interest from female fans, Larson is unattached. Says Brian Basset of the Seattle Times, the only cartoonist among Larson’s close friends: “Gary’s ideal woman would like snakes and be able to slam-dunk a basketball.”

For Larson, fame has brought problems as well as comforts. He is annoyed by fans who take pictures of his house and has stopped doing media appearances in Seattle to avoid having even more people recognize him. “It used to be simple,” he says. “Draw the panels and send them out. Now it’s too showbiz. I’m going to pull the plug, when necessary, to keep my sanity.”

Of course, in the world of The Far Side, the plug could be pulled for him. Says Larson: “I keep thinking someone’s gonna show up and say, ‘There’s been a big mistake. The guy next door is supposed to be drawing the cartoon. Here’s your shovel.’ ”