Crafty cows, restless chickens, talking insects and dorky scientists are invading bookstores across the nation. This can mean only one thing: Gary Larson is back.
The "Far Side" creator broke the hearts of twisted-humor fans everywhere when he retired at the height of his popularity in 1994 to pursue his love of jazz guitar.
But Larson has returned to the monster-filled closet of his past to release a massive anthology, two volumes containing more than 4,000 cartoons that tell the complete story of "The Far Side."
In person, the 53-year-old Larson looks as normal as his cartoon creations are weird. Soft-spoken, with white hair curling just past his ears, wearing black-rimmed glasses and New Balance sneakers, he could be everyone's favorite college professor -- laid-back yet geekily passionate about his interests, modest yet smart enough that his punch lines sometimes prompt trips to the dictionary.
He never relished the role of celebrity cartoonist, preferring instead to live quietly in Seattle with his wife of 15 years, Toni, and their bull mastiff, Vivian. He agreed to only a few interviews as his 20-pound anthology landed in bookstores with a thud.
A perfectionist who could spend hours drawing one pair of eyeballs to achieve the precise goofy effect, Larson says that back in '94 he decided to retire before his quality started slipping.
"You have to retain a little dose of fear with it, to keep your edge, to feel like every day is show time," he explains. "You can just start coasting a little bit. I didn't want that to happen. I wanted to bring it to an elegant conclusion."
Fear is a recurring motif in Larson's work. He is, after all, the inventor of the Monster Snorkel. One of his cartoons depicts a device that allows children to breathe in a monster-infested room while remaining securely under the covers.
In the essays included in the anthology, Larson explores the twisted roots of his imagination. Special credit goes to older brother Dan, a maestro at manipulating Larson's fear of closet monsters.
Even Larson's current passion, jazz guitar, leads him back to the importance of fear. He plays daily, takes lessons and jams with friends. In classic Larsonian language, the music is "a demon that keeps chasing me."
This new calling doesn't seem that different to Larson from creating "The Far Side."
"It has some parallels to cartooning, because it's improvisational -- you never know exactly how something is going to turn out," Larson says. "Taking a solo on a tune is always a little bit scary. Yet it has structure, there are certain rules to follow and you try to create something within those rules."
Larson's penchant for improvisation blossomed as a child, when he first started drawing on the scraps of paper his mother brought home from work.
He grew up in Tacoma, and spent many happy moments of his childhood mucking through swamps in search of snakes and bugs to collect. Dinosaurs, whales and other beasts dominated his early drawings, reflecting a fascination with animals that would inspire many panels of "The Far Side."
But while his passion for collecting critters continued into adulthood, he stopped drawing.
"Actually," he said about his simple style, "you can kind of see it hasn't evolved since grade school."
He studied biology and majored in communications at Washington State University. After graduating in 1972, he formed a jazz duo with a friend, with himself on guitar and banjo. When musical fame and fortune eluded him, Larson worked in a music store and later as an investigator for the Seattle Humane Society -- and he decided to try drawing again.
He first published a single-panel cartoon called "Nature's Way" in a Seattle-based magazine called Pacific Search. That evolved into "The Far Side," which was eventually syndicated and published in more than 1,900 newspapers worldwide. Larson's work has been translated into more than a dozen languages, and he has published about 30 books.
It's easy to forget how new and strange "The Far Side" was when it debuted in 1980. Those who got it, loved it. Many readers didn't. "The Complete Far Side" includes letters from readers, ranging from puzzled to hostile:
* "The Minneapolis Tribune should drop 'The Far Side' until Gary Larson completes psychotherapy to overcome his problem."
* "Dear Sir, I have seen some rude, nasty cartoons in my life, but this is the worst."
* "Why don't you get rid of that garbage? We don't need it on the family funny page, and I want to keep my subscription. Whatever happened to 'Annie'?"
The complaints took Larson by surprise.
"You start off thinking that everyone in the world has the same sense of humor as your six friends," he says. "I was surprised at just how upset some people could be."
Besides the hate mail, he also got many fan letters. Scientists named two species after him -- a butterfly and a biting louse. Larson still sounds touched by the honor: "It was just extremely, extremely flattering."
Even the louse?
"Oh, yeah." He laughs. "Maybe especially the louse."
Larson's new anthology, published by Andrews McMeel, is the first collection of all his "Far Side" cartoons. "The Complete Far Side" has a list price of $135, though it was recently selling for $94.50 on Amazon.com. The first print run of 150,000 two-volume sets hit bookstores last month, supported by a marketing campaign that includes a three-month return of some of the greatest hits of "The Far Side" to newspapers across the country.
Nine years have passed since Larson quit cartooning. He designs a yearly Christmas card -- part of the still-profitable empire of "Far Side" merchandise. He recently drew a cover for the New Yorker magazine, a prestigious offer he said he couldn't refuse. But mostly, he has moved on.
Still, fan letters continue to arrive at his Seattle home. People say how they miss "The Far Side," and how much they loved their daily glimpses into the bizarre, funny world of Larson's imagination.
"That was very wonderful to hear -- that for some people, it actually had some meaning," Larson says. He pauses as if savoring one last, sweet jazz note lingering in the air.
Then he smiles and shakes his head. "But I'm outta here!"