Story last updated at 2:39 p.m. Thursday, April 18, 2002

Troll spells out sharks in his whimsical book
by Carey James
Staff Writer

photo: entertainment
Author and T-Shirt artist Ray Troll hams it up with a copy of his book "Sharkabet."  
Ketchikan's Ray Troll is known by many Alaskans for his signature T-shirts featuring fish-flavored puns like "Bass Ackwards," in colorful detail.

But as his visit to Homer this week will likely illuminate, there's much more below Troll's surface than a vivid sense of humor and a crafty paintbrush. Troll is touring with his recently released book, "Sharkabet," an alphabet book featuring 26 oddly interesting sharks from both present day and the prehistoric past.

Troll will visit Chapman and McNeil Canyon elementary schools on Tuesday and Wednesday and will present a slide show of shark facts at the Pratt Museum on Tuesday at 6:30 p.m.

Troll said the idea for a shark alphabet book came from his son, who was learning the alphabet around the same time Troll was bitten by the shark bug. It started during a tour of the musty back rooms of the Los Angeles Country Museum of Natural History. A guide showed Troll a mysterious whorl of teeth embedded in a rock.

"He wryly said, 'It's blown paleontologist's minds for years, no one has ever quite figured it out. It's called helicoprion,'" Troll said in a news release. "That's about all it took for me to be hooked. Nine years later, I'm still working on reconstructing this bizarre shark."

The helicoprion, the feature shark for the letter "H," is one of dozens of odd and interesting sharks introduced to readers of "Sharkabet." Others include the cookie-cutter shark, who lures in prey with its glowing belly and eyes and then clamps on to its victim, taking small, circular bites out of their flanks.

"It's also one of the only sharks with big lips," Troll said. "Scientists have only recently figured how this 'sneaky' 18-inch-long, glow-in-the-dark shark hunts."

While sharks are inherently interesting to young and old alike, Troll said he wanted to go much farther than the standard shark book.

"I wanted to do something different and to feature some lesser-known sharks like goblin sharks and some of the weirder prehistoric ones," Troll said.

But how do you paint a prehistoric shark? Troll put on his scientist hat and began recreating these creatures much like a forensic artist.

"I tracked down obscure scientific papers and struck up relationships with scientists all over the world," Troll said. "Often times they are sharing a lifetime's worth of work with me and I feel extremely privileged to have access to it. My learning curve has been pretty intense over the last decade."

To recreate the aforementioned cookie-cutter shark, for example, Troll actually checked out a pickled version of the shark from the University of Washington's fish collection.

"They mailed it to me in a nice little plastic bag. I kept it in a jar in my studio for months and I'd take it out to do detailed drawings," Troll said.

In addition to drawings and recreations scientists worldwide have applauded, the book includes a plethora of information on these complex and often feared creatures. For example, did you know that dogfish have the longest gestation period of any back-boned creature? At two years, it's even longer than an elephant. These common sharks also live to be as old as 70.

Reviewers have praised the book's combination of exciting art and wow-producing factoids.

"Ray Troll's illustrated universe offers the world one of the most demonstrative examples of how science can be fun; he mixes research, puns and craftsmanship into something that's a cross between an underground comic and a paleontology manual," said an article in Westword.

Far from stopping at "Sharkabet," Troll is now working on a shark card game for kids that should be out this summer, and a "Sharkabet" exhibit has been shown at the Anchorage Museum of History and Art and the Science Museum of Minnesota and will travel to the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, Pa., as well as other museums nationwide. Next up, Troll will be working on a fossil guide to the western United States with the Denver Museum of Science and Nature.

"Sharkabet" sells for $8.95 soft cover and $16.95 hard cover and is published in association with the American Museum of Natural History by WestWinds Press. The first 25 people at the Tuesday night slide show will receive a free "Sharkabet" poster, limit one per family. For more information, call 235-8635.