A particular look appears on the face of Gary Larson as he takes another bite of his steak in an intimate Seattle restaurant.
The expression, something akin to a baby catching sight of its first soap bubble, materializes as the creator of ``The Far Side' begins a tale about a type of catfish found in the Amazon, one of the spots he and his wife visited during his recent sabbatical.The 39-year-old cartoonist explains that this spiny-finned specimen swims into the privates of animals to plant its eggs. ``Humans, too,' he adds with delight. Once inside, the creature cannot be extracted without an excruciatingly painful operation. Here he stops transfixed, looking like his own drawing of Einstein before a blackboard filled with formulas proving that time actually is money.
Ah, yes. Nature.
``Ha,' he says with a satisfied smile. ``And they say there's no God.'
Of course, there's a God. It is the same omnipotent being who pulls a simmering Earth out of a cosmic oven in a Larson drawing while musing, ``Something tells me this thing's only half-baked.' And it is the same one who returned to his heaven New Year's Day, with the appearance of the first new Larson cartoon after a 14-month hiatus.
Refrigerator doors will be populated by fresh absurdities - cows that stand on hind legs, lions that attack tourists' car doors with coat hangers and dinosaur seminars (``The picture's pretty bleak, gentlemen ... The world's climates are changing, the mammals are taking over and we all have a brain about the size of a walnut.').
Once again, morning silence in offices across the nation will be disrupted with bursts of laughter and the refrain, ``Have you seen 'The Far Side' today?'
Larson's lifestyle only hints at the bizarre brilliance that has led to his cartoon's syndication in more than 900 newspapers.
His modest, Tudor-style home, in a neighborhood ringing Lake Washington, has a Persian rug, a fireplace, a comfortable couch.
Gone are the 20 pet king snakes and the 150-pound python he used to have around the house. But evidence of his creature fixation is still present. In one corner is a brass lamp in the shape of a giant cobra. On the wall is a petrified crocodile, a gift from Smithsonian friends trying out a new preservation process.
Upstairs in his study are charts of spiders, a stuffed hammerhead shark. Placed affectionately on his drawing board is a chillingly lifelike cast of a coiled rattlesnake.
In person, his manner is the jeans and T-shirt persona of relaxed anticipation. Wire-rimmed glasses and thinning, collar-length hair grant him grad student chic. Shy and soft-spoken (he rarely gives interviews), he seems the kind of guy who might discover cold fusion and, when you pointed out that he had altered the course of history, would reply, ``Hum, guess so.'
His wife, Toni, has gotten used to the glassy looks associated with his actively wandering mind. She has suggested a stencil for his forehead, ``Back in a Moment.'
His humor takes quantum leaps at odd moments, times when it seems as if someone has placed a crowbar at the edge of his mind and given it a sudden, sharp tilt.
Over dinner, he confides that he has always wanted to start a restaurant that serves only cereal. High concept; he loves it. ``You'd, like, have the special of the day be Rice Chex or something. And you'd offer a variety of milk from whole to 2 percent to skim.'
No wonder Joseph Boskin, author of ``Humor and Social Change in 20th Century America,' remarks that Larson has ``a peculiar view of life that most of us don't have.'
Boskin, a Boston University history professor, recalled, ``I was at a seminar with him one time where we both were speaking. He said to me beforehand he didn't know what he was going to talk about. I suggested he talk about where his ideas come from. He said, 'I don't know where my ideas come from.' '
Few cartoonists have made such an impact in a single decade. A man whose 14 cartoon collections have sold 15 million copies here and abroad, he is a publishing gold mine.
His creations are copied on T-shirts, cups, calendars and Christmas cards. Three of his publications have appeared simultaneously on the New York Times Paperback Best Seller list - ``The Pre-History of the Far Side' is there at present. He won the National Cartoonists Society's award for best syndicated panel of 1985 and 1988. A museum exhibit organized four years ago by the California Academy of Sciences, featuring more than 400 of his cartoons, just completed its tour of the nation.
What other cartoonist can claim an insect named in his honor? In this case, Strigiphilus garylarsoni.
``The biting louse,' Larson explains. ``I didn't figure they'd give me a swan.'
Newspaper polls regarding comics pages repeatedly show him among the top five in the country. But opinions vary. A South Carolina newspaper subscriber complained in a survey that Larson ``... is definitely demented.' A pair of Chicago Tribune readers in a poll countered, ``... we love the cows, the nerdy kids, the insects, everything. Whatever drugs Gary Larson is on, keep them coming.'
That he should be earning a living with a pencil is more the result of fate than calculation. Raised in Tacoma, Wash., he describes himself as a nondescript child who collected snakes, lizards, a monkey, a boa constrictor. He and his brother, Dan, created swamps in their backyard. Such pastimes were encouraged by Larson's father, a retired car salesman, and tolerated by his mother, a secretary.
At Washington State University in Pullman, he rejected a love of biology and studied communications, hoping eventually to go into advertising. He has also been a humane-society investigator, one-half of a banjo duo and a sales clerk in a music store. The last job so depressed him that in 1976 he took two days off, sketched a half-dozen cartoons and, to his surprise, sold them for $90 to a wilderness magazine.
Introduced to the world in a panel called ``Nature's Way' in the Seattle Times, he was dropped after one year because of subscriber complaints. Three days later, the strip was picked up by the San Francisco Chronicle, the result of a previous trip in which Larson threw all his work together and was given an interview with an intrigued editor.
Even he is sometimes rocked by the immensity of what his mind has spawned: ``I wanted it to be fun, but this whole thing has become such a little empire.'
Burnout from nine years of a cartoon-a-day deadline finally drove Larson away from the drawing board, he says. His new obligations will be restricted to turning out five originals a week; papers will also publish ``classic' (he blanches at the term) reruns.
The hiatus with his wife of two years, Toni, included a month-long trip to Africa, two weeks in the Amazon and a four-month stint studying jazz guitar in Greenwich Village, where he roamed unrecognized. Aside from an album cover for jazz guitarist Herb Ellis (jazz is a private passion), he didn't draw a thing. His creative batteries are restored, he says. But where does one find the electricity for an imagination that could conceive of ``Custer's Last View' - a ground's-eye shot of a half-dozen grinning Indians? Frankly, he doesn't want to know.
``Why go into therapy to try to understand something that's paying the bills?'