Gary Larson tries to remember what attracted editors to his newspaper comic panel "The Far Side."

"They just said it was . . . different." Larson's face lights up and he sort of cackles. "Different."

As in macabre, weird, zany, twisted, whimsical, fiendish, bizarre, odd, strange.

As in a cluster of furniture that enters an apartment and greets the human sitting on the floor with, "Well, we're back!"

Or piranhas massing around the legs of a hunting expedition: "Just nibble at first, but when you hear them yell Piranha, go for it!"

Or two cows in a field gazing toward burning Chicago: "It seems that agent 6363 had accomplished her mission."

"The Far Side" is a pen-and-ink twilight zone of ironic turnarounds, where animals--especially cows, ducks and pigs--are oddly human (one shark circling another: "Say, honey, didn't I met you last night at the feeding frenzy?") and where people are decidedly strange (Big bad cowboy at bar looming threateningly over meek cowpoke: "I asked you a question, buddy . . . what's the square root of 5,248?").

Whatever the confrontation, the situation, it's not quite . . . normal. It's a little like life.

Like the job Gary Larson had when he first started developing his panel in Seattle, where he lives now. "I was working for the Humane Society. It's something I just fell into--it paid the rent. I investigated complaints of cruelty. Strangely enough--and this is the only time in my life I've ever done this--on my way to the job interview, I ran over a dog. I recognize some irony in that."

Like being mistaken for lunch by a 14-foot pet python. "I don't want to sound like Frank Buck," Larson says, genuinely embarrassed. "I don't want it to sound like some exciting adventure I had in the tropics of my bedroom . . . but . . . I had a large python, and one day I was feeding it by myself and it confused me momentarily with the food and there we were. It was either she or I."

Eventually untangled, and sporting a freshly pressed pair of pants, Larson bid the python adieu.

"I sold her to another fool."

Now there are only a few pet snakes around the house. "I've cut back, I'm maturing. I'm down to four or five" from a high of 20.

"The Far Side" is the kind of comic that newspaper editors chortle over in the privacy of their offices and then don't buy in order to protect their readers. It is now in more than 90 papers, including The Washington Post, not a large number by syndication standards. One collection of Larson's cartoons has been published, with another due out in the fall.

Larson says readers tend to love the panel or hate it. And "quite frankly, some people don't quite know what to make of it." He smiles cherubically. "It's a continual surprise to me that it's done as well as it has because I do recognize that it's a little . . . different." (More laughter.)

Letters. Gary Larson gets letters. "Some people are offended, some baffled. I get requests for explanations, and I try, though sometimes I don't have them."

At 32, Larson is mild-mannered, friendly, courteous; he could easily pass for a young professional golfer. It is not surprising to learn he is in town to lecture at the Smithsonian. However, put a pen in his hand and an idea in his head, and he's transformed into someone "different" (again, the laugh).

"I've been drawing since I was a kid but I never had any idea I'd end up as a cartoonist," he says. Five years ago, while he was working in a music store, "I don't know why, but I drew half a dozen cartoons and took them down to a nature magazine called Pacific Search. They bought all six. I was shocked.

"That encouraged me to keep exploring it. A year before hooking up with Chronicle Features in 1980 , I ran a once-a-week cartoon somewhat akin to 'The Far Side' with The Seattle Times, called 'Nature's Way,' a kind of training ground. On that success, I was encouraged about a year later to drive down to San Francisco."

After dropping off his portfolio, Larson called in every once in a while. "They'd keep telling me, 'Sorry, we haven't looked at it yet but don't get your hopes up.' "

Then they did, and Larson got a five-year contract. "I didn't even know what syndication was, I was just there to see if they were interested in buying the same little weekly thing I was doing for the Times." Ironically, The Seattle Times canceled "Nature's Way" about the same time Larson was signing his Chronicle deal; now the Times carries "The Far Side" daily.

Larson is essentially self-taught as an artist. "In college (at Washington State) I took figure drawing but my motivations were not artistic."

Oddly, Larson insists he's never been a cartoon buff. "I did read comics when I was little. And, of course, I was influenced in my adolescence by Mad Magazine, and particularly Don Martin. But I didn't read newspaper comics until I became a cartoonist. I still don't do it very frequently. If I want to read cartoons, I'll usually look at a New Yorker."

The single-panel mode is one he's committed to. "I'm being encouraged a little bit," Larson says, then reconsiders the word, "or pushed a little bit by the syndicate, to do a Sunday strip, but I'm resisting it. I think very visually and I think a single panel lends itself to that one instant visual image. Strip cartoonists emphasize dialogue, so sometimes the drawing is rather static: the dialogue changes and there's a punch line at the end. I don't think like that. It all kind of comes to me at once, more or less simultaneous. Sometimes a caption will hit me first, but that's rare. Usually it's the image that will come first, this one hideous moment that just lands on me."

Larson, who must submit seven or eight cartoons each week, works alone.

At the start of his workday, he says, "I have two cups of coffee and wait until I become wired, then wait for the moments to come and capitalize on them."

In his three years of syndication, he's a developed an awareness of do's and don'ts, mostly when panels have been rejected by his editors.

"I don't quite understand why, but I can't use an outhouse. It doesn't matter how lightly it's treated--the old crescent moon in the door, that's off limits. And certain words, like 'munch.' "

The animals reflect a lifelong interest in biology.

"I've always liked reptiles," he says. He has made several expeditions to Mexico in search of king snakes with the curator of Seattle's Woodland Park Zoo. "I always considered myself a frustrated biologist."

"I particularly enjoy drawing cows," he says, slipping into another guiltless laugh. "I'm not exactly sure why. They seem to be some kind of absurd, almost non sequitur animal to put into certain situations. I even find humor in the name. When I think of a certain situation in my mind, and when I think of a cow being in the midst of it . . . " the laughter starts seeping out around the words, "something happens to me and I find myself drawing.

"I never intend any malice when I sit down and draw a cartoon, and that's a concern, that maybe someone is going to interpret it at face value, since I will sometimes explore black humor."

This is like saying that Jackson Pollock sometimes liked to drip paint.

"But I hope that it's always tongue-in-cheek and I hope people see that it's just silliness."

He laughs.