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The Fearless Side of Gary Larson : What’s a Quiet, Unassuming Cartoonist Doing on a Dive Like This?

<i> Tom Bates is a senior editor of Los Angeles Times Magazine. </i>

Gary Larson, creator of the immensely popular “Far Side” cartoon panel, has always played the patsy. When he was growing up in Tacoma, it was his big brother Dan who tormented him, locking him in the cellar or hiding in his bedroom closet at night. Now, on a steaming tropical night, it was his ichthyologist pal John McCosker, director of San Francisco’s Steinhart Aquarium. They had anchored their raft on a reef in the Lucipara Islands, about 300 miles east of Bali in the Banda Sea, and were struggling into their scuba gear in preparation for a night dive. The reef dropped straight off into a nearly bottomless pit called the Weber Deep. It was the biggest, darkest closet the 36-year-old Seattle cartoonist had ever seen, and McCosker was telling him to leave his waterproof flashlight turned off. “It’ll be a lot prettier without lights,” he promised. They cinched up their weight belts, held their masks tight and somersaulted backward out of the boat.

It was a moonless night, and the promised natural illumination turned out to be faint. Fan corals, hydroids and giant sponges gave off a ghostly light, and schools of bioluminescent fish formed swirling nebulae that looked like fairy godmothers on the verge of materializing. Larson stood on his head and plunged into the abyss, following the trail of phosphorescent sparks left by McCosker’s flippers. At 80 feet they found what they were looking for--a deep recess from which emanated a greenish glow. The scene reminded Larson of a “Star Trek” set. The walls were encrusted with strange tubes and scales, and these projections seemed to be moving as green lights went on and off in the crevices. He readied the net McCosker had given him and closed in on one of the light sources. Lurking in a fissure was a pair of crescent-shaped lanterns looking like some Marvel Comics vision of demon eyes. Larson stunned the creature with a blast of photons and swept it into his net. It was a flashlight fish, a minnow-size animal with symbiotic bacteria colonies under its eyes. The fish blinked, lowering flaps of skin over its colonies in an organic imitation of retractable headlights. It was, as Larson likes to say, “really neat.” Now all he had to do was get it to the boat.

Marine biologist met madcap cartoonist last winter when the California Academy of Sciences, of which the Steinhart is part, premiered the “Far Side of Science” exhibit of Larson originals, which is now at the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History (through Feb. 15). Then, in the fall, McCosker told Larson about an 18-day diving expedition to the Indonesian archipelago on a cruise ship called the Island Explorer, with McCosker himself serving as trip naturalist. For Larson, who loves water sports, this was not to be missed, though it meant getting three weeks ahead on his daily cartoon panel, now carried in 550 newspapers around the world.

Larson is your basic Northwest boy: modest, unassuming and easily impressed. He has pleasant Scandinavian features and wears thick, rimless glasses that give him his nerdish look. When he is thinking of something funny, which is often, he gets a twinkly Robin Williams expression. His favorite people are scientists, and his favorite pastime is immersing himself in nature with a brainy guy like McCosker to tell him what he’s looking at.

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Larson’s idea of fun has always been different, not to say abnormal. Other children brought home stray dogs; he traipsed in with reptiles and insects. “If it fit in a jar, I had it.” This passion for collecting creatures that most kids would just as soon step on didn’t go away when he reached adulthood. He raised king snakes in his bachelor apartment and trained himself to handle live tarantulas to overcome what he considered an irrational fear of spiders. In this latter effort, he never quite succeeded. “My mind tells me it’s ignorance, but I don’t think I’d like to find one down my sleeping bag.”

Larson learned to dive in the frigid, murky waters of the Pacific Northwest, and he found the tropical water temperatures hard to believe. “I can’t draw bathwater this warm in Seattle,” he said. His diving skills were a little rusty, though, and he skipped the first night dive. “I have only two phobias in life,” he explained. “One is the dark; the other is being in the water in a place like Puget Sound and having my brother yell, ‘Shark!’ ”

Indeed, he showed little sign of the phobias that afflict most people. He tramped about the reef tops at low tide, trying to bag slithering moray eels for the Steinhart. On a visit to the island of Komodo, home of the infamous Komodo dragon, he got too close to a couple of the large carnivores, and it took two guides with long sticks to prevent him from becoming an item in the island’s food chain. He was fascinated by sea snakes, the most venomous of God’s creatures, and when McCosker pondered how to get one through customs, Larson advised him to carry it under his shirt. “It won’t show on the radar scan,” he pointed out.

A panel in “The Far Side Gallery 2,” currently a best-selling paperback, shows a tuxedoed male shark struggling with its bow tie as its mate, appareled in pearls and evening gown, looks on. “Well, if you’re almost ready, I’m dressed to kill,” says she. In real life, too, the artist sees the world through animals’ eyes. One day McCosker pointed out that man-eating sharks arch their backs when they’re angry. “It’s a warning to back off,” he said.

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“But how do they know you’re backing off?” Larson asked.

Perhaps those who truly love animals, as Larson does, have less to fear from them. In the dead of night, 80 feet beneath the surface of the Banda Sea, he inspected the green-eyed demon he had trapped and turned to show it off to his companion. But McCosker had moved on in search of other quarry. Larson’s head was bumping against the ceiling of the cave. The floor fell away into nothingness. At his back was an ocean of blackness filled with all manner of predators. At that point, a sensible diver makes a beeline for the boat. Not the wicked penman of “The Far Side.” He switched on his flashlight and took out a plastic bag, thinking that if he could transfer the creature to the bag, he could go after more. Inevitably, the fish got away. Larson shrugged, extinguished his light and took off straight down the wall in pursuit of another specimen.

Larson had a regulator that gave off a wheezing sound of alarm when his tank was running out of air. McCosker could hear its faraway lament as he decompressed near the top of the wall. Finally, Larson appeared, a phantom of bubbles ascending the wall, his regulator ominously silent. As he passed by on his way to the boat, he formed a circle with thumb and forefinger. His net was in his other hand, and there was something glowing in it.


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