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Gonick's Comic Creation 

From his Potrero Hill studio, Larry Gonick is telling the history of the universe in a series of ... comic books. And behold, they were good.

Wednesday, Aug 20 2003
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Larry Gonick's right index finger bends unnaturally at the tip, sort of like a divining rod. This is what happens after 30 years of squeezing a Speedball pen and scritch-scritch-scritching out the story of the universe. Seated in his Potrero Hill studio, Gonick -- the 56-year-old author and illustrator of The Cartoon History of the Universe, The Cartoon History of the United States, The Cartoon Guide to the Computer, The Cartoon Guide to the Environment, The Cartoon Guide to Genetics, The Cartoon Guide to (non)Communication, The Cartoon Guide to Physics, The Cartoon Guide to Sex, and The Cartoon Guide to Statistics -- is pointing at an illustration in the initial volume of his first cartoon history, titled "The Evolution of Everything." The version Gonick's picked out of his crowded bookshelf happens to be a Spanish translation (Historia del Universo en Comic).

He likes this drawing a lot. In it, 10 hairy, naked, muscled figures cross from one edge of the page to the other. It's a dramatic moment in the book, coming at the very end of the volume, after 49 pages of colliding gametes ("GOOSH!"), land-bound fish ("SQUISH"), humping reptiles ("Oo, Herbert"), drooling therapsids, wilting triceratops, pissed-off rhinos ("SNORT"), and juggling monkeys. "I wanted to end," Gonick says, "with a real shock of recognition." He labored over the details, drew more realistically. He placed the young males in front, the females and kids in the middle, and the seniors at the back. He had one woman carry a plant and another cradle a baby; he drew the men with rocks in their hands. He took great care with the expressions, too: happy, amused, serious, devious. He cast half of each body in shadow, to suggest menace, a dark side. Lo, the first humans!

When he finished the page, a frisson ran up his spine -- "an incredible shiver," he says. And Gonick saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good.


Gonick is tall and angular, with a thinning network of gray hair covering his head. His smile is more like a grimace, and his laugh often sounds nervous. At times, he moves stiffly, probably because of a back condition -- "Spondylolisthesis," he explains -- that would've instantly exempted him from service in Vietnam had he known about it. (Instead, a sympathetic psychiatrist certified that he was "too nuts.") A little more than a year ago, around the time he finished The Cartoon History of the Universe III: From the Rise of Arabia to the Renaissance, he began to complain of chest pains. He became convinced he was going to have a heart attack and swore he needed an angioplasty, says his 20-year-old daughter, Sophie. "The doctors told him repeatedly that it was all in his head, that he was completely healthy," she says. "I think it might have been a pulled muscle."

For the past 30 years, Gonick has methodically gone about reconstituting our universe in his terms, six panels to a page and a gag in every frame. He has covered all but 500 years of world history and most of the hard sciences. His books are fast-moving and meticulously researched, anchored by fat bibliographies; the histories, especially, are analytical and contrarious. In the first book, he inveighs against monotheism, environmental destruction, fusty academics, intractable scientists -- and we're only 40 pages into the story of the universe, somewhere in the Mesozoic Era.

A cartoon history of the universe: It's an audacious conceit, and very much in the spirit -- if not always the style -- of the underground comix scene that Gonick sprang from in the 1980s. Cartoonists offer their influences like business cards; they lay them bare in their drawings, so that one can begin to construct a genealogy by looking at the shape of a nose or the rhythm of a joke. In Gonick's books, for instance, there's the brushwork of Walt Kelly, the format of Rius (a Mexican who drew leftist educational comics), the style of Gilbert Shelton (creator of The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers). The result is that Gonick looks at history not just through a prism of his time, but through the comics of his time, which in many ways is more personal. He makes the universe his own big cartoon.

And so in the second half of The Cartoon History of the Universe II: From the Springtime of Rome to the Fall of China, we get our first glimpse of Jesus -- or Jeshua ben Joseph, as Gonick refers to him -- and he looks very Jewish, very neurotic, and, from a certain angle, very much like a Freak Brother.


Gonick grew up in Phoenix, the son of communists in the heart of Goldwater country and the teeth of the McCarthy era. His mother once caught hell for displaying a small U.N. flag in her fifth-grade classroom. His father, a chemist who taught at a local junior college, drew the attention of the FBI when he left a few years blank on his résumé, covering the time he lived in the Soviet Union. Agents called the college department head and suggested he look into it; he declined. It was, Gonick says, a paranoid household.

As a kid, he read Donald Duck, Little Lulu, Superman, sometimes copying the comics in the Sunday paper. One early influence was a thin orange volume his father had fished out of a remainder bin, Almanac for Thirty-Niners, compiled by the Federal Writers' Project for the 1939 World's Fair in San Francisco. "He saw it and his eyes lit up," Gonick says of his father. Sharply written and adorned with cartoons, the book offered Gonick an early model; in fact, the idea of using footnotes for digressions, arcana, and bits of trivia came from the almanac. "This is what got me going in the first place," he says. "I read and reread it."

In high school, he and his friends -- among them two "proto-hippies," the late Kim Stapley, a cartoonist, and Howard Rheingold, now an author and futurologist -- pulled pranks at fast-food joints, silk-screened Thelonious Monk and Ray Charles onto sweat shirts, and caught R&B acts at South Phoenix clubs. "Pretty unusual for Phoenix," Rheingold says.

About The Author

Tommy Craggs

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