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.

By Tommy Craggs

published: August 20, 2003

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.

Gonick left for Harvard in 1963 with a vague notion that he wanted to be a scientist or a writer. He didn't do any real cartooning over his four years as an undergrad, and he wound up studying math. "In retrospect, it looks like Harvard fosters critical thinking," he says. "But it was poisonous to my creativity. I didn't do much creative in those four years." Soon, the protest movements found their voice, and the comics discovered their id. Gonick gravitated to labor causes; he did posters for the United Farm Workers and for a group of Harvard teaching fellows trying to unionize. "I didn't join SDS [Students for a Democratic Society], and I wasn't really a member of the anti-war movement," he says. "My impression of the New Left -- the ones that I saw -- was that they seemed like the children of the rich."

He stayed on at Harvard for graduate study after his first marriage, to Francine Prose, the novelist. (They spent seven difficult years together, then divorced. "I blame Germaine Greer," says Gonick, who remarried in 1978.) In this period, his cartooning picked up. "That was sort of a turning point," he says. "The political turmoil was really, really getting out of hand. My drawing was getting much better." He developed "this springy line that looked like Walt Kelly's."

In 1969, Gonick and Prose went to India, where Gonick studied at Bombay's Tata Institute of Fundamental Research. Soon after returning to the States, he found a format to go along with his new, more cartoony look: the books of Rius. Even today, Gonick keeps an old copy of Cuba for Beginners on his shelf. "It's the Bible, as far I'm concerned," he says. The influence is clear, especially in Gonick's history of the United States and in his cartoon guides. Rius zips through almost 500 years of Cuban history in about 150 pages, marshaling an assortment of clip art and hastily sketched figures toward a conclusion that the country "is creating the possibility of a new man."

In 1971, inspired by Rius, Gonick and a collaborator produced Blood From a Stone: A Cartoon Guide to Tax Reform. "It was on tax reform," Gonick says, "because it was the dullest subject [his co-author] could think of." He spent the rest of the decade searching for the right forum for his brand of cartooning, which in various forms had spread by way of the underground comix scene.

For a while, he drew political comics at the alternative weekly Boston After Dark (which became the Boston Phoenix), but his stint there ended when he and some of the staffers tried, and failed, to unionize. Gonick spent a year and a half at the Boston Globe, drawing a weekly comic to commemorate the Bicentennial. "I found that history was a good way of doing political comics," he says.

He moved to San Francisco in 1977, and soon he was in the Potrero office of Rip Off Press, the midwife of underground comix, pitching an ambitious idea for a world history. "I looked at the talent, saw he could actually draw figures that weren't offensive to look at and construct English sentences that were interesting," says Fred Todd, who, along with three other Texans including Gilbert Shelton, founded Rip Off in 1969. "All those are fairly rare things. He had them." Gonick showed his history comics to Shelton, whose Freak Brothers had become icons in the past decade, and the two kicked around ideas for a title. Universal History? The Outlines of History? Only when Gonick offered The Cartoon History of the Universe did Shelton chuckle. "It's so overreaching," Gonick says. "We went with it."

The Cartoon Art Museum on Mission Street is one big, gray room, modern and spare, with partitions between the displays. Gonick and I meet there on a recent Sunday, and after edging around the central exhibit ("Alternative to What? Comic Art of the Free Weeklies") we move into another, called "Great Comic Cats." A placard provides an introduction: "[T]hey mirror our lives -- our follies, our dreams, our frustrations -- while they charm us with gleeful escapades, upbeat humor, and offbeat wisdom."

At the back, beyond a series of drawings from Tom and Jerry, Winnie the Pooh, and Fritz the Cat, are two works by Gilbert Shelton, whose Fat Freddy's Cat was a spinoff from the Freak Brothers. In one, Fat Freddy finds that his stash is missing ("AAARRG!!"). He blames the cat and punts it out the door ("BOOT"), sending it crashing to the floor several flights below ("SPLATT!"). There, the flattened cat sees a mouse hole ("?"), peers inside, and trains an eye on a hash pipe ("!"). Follies, dreams, frustrations.

"That's alternative," Gonick says. "I love Shelton. It's got story, it's got action, he does slapstick -- he does everything." Gonick looks at the accompanying card on the wall. "Funny," he says, nonplussed. "It says it's by Dave Sheridan. That's obnoxious." Sheridan was a collaborator, but by no means the lone author, Gonick explains. "It's Shelton -- c'mon. That's very strange." Worse, the other strip on display is credited to Gilbert "Sheldon." AAARRG!!

Gonick marches up to the front desk, where a pretty twentysomething woman is drawing a picture of a crab. She looks up.

"There are a couple mistakes on the signage," Gonick says with a nervous smile.


"Oh, yeah."

"Well," she says, picking up a legal pad. "The curator is going to be upset when she finds out. Can you come point them out to me?"

"Yeah," Gonick says. "Right next to each other."

They walk back to the two Sheltons. Gonick gestures at one of the offending cards. "Gilbert's name is misspelled. It should be S-H-E-L-T-O-N." He points at the other one. "Here, Gilbert -- he's the author of the thing, right? Dave Sheridan is his assistant. It should say, 'By Gilbert Shelton and Dave Sheridan.'"

"OK. So ..."

"Both of the Fat Freddy's Cats," Gonick says, "misattributed."

"So," she says, writing on the pad, "misspelled. With a 'T,' right? ... It's really odd that we made that mistake when it was right in front of us."

Gonick smiles. "It's prejudice against the underground, what can I say?"

Gonick works in a pale-gray stucco building on a steep stretch of Mississippi Street, where he shares an office with several graphic designers and the headquarters of the African-American Shakespeare Company. Books fill most of his corner, and the collection of titles is eclectic: Jesus and the Zealots, The Lucifer Principle, Medieval Women Writers, Conquest by Man, Human Sexuality, Pogo. Next to his computer, there's a cluster of small lead dinosaurs, which he's had since he was 4 or 5 years old. Nearby is his drawing board, and on the floor below is a constellation of ink drops.

On a weekday afternoon in July, several stacks of manila folders teeter on top of his long, low bookshelf. The folder Gonick is holding contains the notes for his fourth and final cartoon history (which his agent says will come out in 2006 or 2007). He finds a printed sheet of paper and reads from it: "America and Spain, conquest of Mexico, various religious conflicts like the Portuguese against the Muslims in the Arabian Sea, the Mogul conquest of India, Protestants and Catholics, beginning of the Dutch War of Independence, which in my opinion is where the Enlightenment begins ...."

It's a flowchart he's drawn up of major events from the late 15th century to the present. This is the spine of his next book, Volumes 20 through 26, and it's an important step in the creation of his histories. The books are divided into 50-page volumes -- a vestige of their days as a single-volume comic -- which forces Gonick to strip down his material to its nub. The result is a catalog of wars, sieges, plagues, assassinations, invasions, and ideas, with an emphasis on cause and effect and the interplay of civilizations. The weakness of this approach -- a ceaseless panorama -- is clear. "Your head can kind of spin," says Alane Mason, Gonick's editor at W.W. Norton. "It's hard to take it all in when it's moving so fast through so many characters, countries, periods of time."

The work that goes into even a single page seems staggering. In the third cartoon history, Gonick devotes a section, called "Flower Power," to the artistic community that flourished in Florence in the 1300s and 1400s. The five panels of Page 277 move from Dante ("Turmoil makes good material!"); to the painters Cimabue and Giotto ("You're a squat, ugly little mug, Jo, but you have a beautiful brush!"); to the plague's effect on art (a painting class in which the students have keeled over at their easels); to a workers' revolt in the city; and finally to the revival of Florence and its artistic tradition.

It's a good example of Gonick's technique -- a quick riff on a wide-ranging subject, with a joke in every panel and a clear sympathy for the overlooked or half-forgotten (Cimabue and Giotto, in this case). For this, he used a variety of sources: Guicciardini's History of Italy and History of Florence for the overview; Will and Ariel Durant's The Renaissance for the era's politics; Barbara Tuchman's A Distant Mirror for peripheral information about the plague; Giorgio Vasari's The Lives of the Artists for the panel on Cimabue and Giotto; the Web, or maybe Durant, for the portrait of Dante; and a time line of artists, sent to him by a scholar he met at a dinner party, for the painting-class gag.

His latest history is dedicated to "all the skeptics who have ever lived," and Gonick indeed tries to take a fresh approach to old stories. He reads King Solomon's parable about the baby -- when two women claim him as a son, Solomon suggests they cut the child in half; the real mother is the one who backs out and spares the child -- as a veiled threat against the challengers to his throne. And in the first volume, Gonick devotes a few panels to ancient bestiality -- sheep-fucking. "First of all, it happens," he says. "Second of all, it has to do with the transmission of diseases from animal to people. And it's why animals kind of like people. They make them feel good." (At one comic-book event, a teenager approached Gonick and told him, "That part about the sheep was really random." Gonick dropped that quote in with the rest of the plugs on his Web site: Terry Jones of Monty Python, Garry Trudeau, Carl Sagan, Rita Dove, and "some teenager at a comics convention.")

"Larry certainly has a knack for looking at things in a slightly different way than most people," says Mark Wheelis, a microbiologist at UC Davis who collaborated with Gonick on The Cartoon Guide to Genetics, the first of the science guides. "He comes at a lot of his stuff as an outsider -- he doesn't instantly accept the insider's view of things, which can be quite illuminating."

The cartoon science guides, which act as primers, present a different challenge than Gonick's histories. It's the teacher's task of leavening heavy material, of finding a punch line in, say, an explication of chromosomes, without reducing it to empty caricature. Gonick's especially proud of his enzymes, which bite down on molecules (with a "SNOP"), then chew on them ("GRIND, SNAP, SQUEEZE"), and spit them out ("SPTOO") as new molecules. "The traditional textbook way is to draw the enzyme as something passive, a blob," he says. "So I'm emphasizing the action. That's where the life in life is."

Right now, Gonick is working on a guide to chemistry, which he hopes will be available next year. He picks up another folder and leafs through a few pages. "The Greeks, the alchemists, the modern study of gases, some pivotal experiments with gases that led up to the modern understanding, Priestley discovering oxygen, Lavoisier, discovery of the elements, and so on. The atomic theory, a long list of elements, a periodic table. That's the end of Chapter 1." In this guide, he says, he wants to stress that chemistry is an occult phenomenon, that chemical reactions can't be seen. The book begins with a fart joke.

The Cartoonist Handshake, according to Gonick, is a limp, cringing thing, offered across rented tables at such events as the annual San Diego comics convention. "They lean back," he says, "and they stick out their hand, and it's like there's no life in it." Once, at a convention for the American Booksellers Association, around the time William Morrow published four volumes of his cartoon history under one cover, Gonick went over to the Morrow booth and pointed out the comics distributors in the room. Those are the distribution channels to look at, he told them. Great, they said, why don't you have them come over and talk to us? Gonick walked over to the comics guys, explained his situation, pointed out the Morrow booth. Great, they said, why don't you have them come over and talk to us?

Drifting among cartoonists, historians, scientists, and journalists, he hasn't found a community quite like the one he belonged to in the late '70s, when he could wander over to the Rip Off studio and pass a few hours at the pingpong table. But even then, says Kathe Todd of Rip Off, Gonick didn't quite fit in. "Larry was always a cut above the usual dope-smoking hippies I hung out with," she says. "How many dope-smoking hippies have a Harvard education?"

"I'm certainly a loner," Gonick admits. He avoids most comics conventions, he says, because "they're superhero-dominated." A few weeks ago, Gonick learned from an e-mail that his latest cartoon history had won a Harvey Award (named after Mad founder Harvey Kurtzman) for Best Graphic Album of Original Work; he didn't even know he was up for an award. What's more, comics shops don't always carry his books, and Gonick occasionally drops off the radar because he doesn't serialize, says Milo George, managing editor of The Comics Journal, which placed The Cartoon History of the Universe at No. 73 on its list of the 100 best English-language comics of the 20th century. "Gonick's very much in his own boat," George says. "There are very few cartoonists like him. ... It's weird that most people wouldn't think of him as an underground cartoonist. In a lot of ways, he embodies that spirit, even today, with the stuff he's doing -- really, really smart education-minded comics, instead of My Last LSD Trip, or How to Beat a Speeding Ticket."

Cartoonists typically refer to the mainstream as "aboveground" or "overground," and maybe there's a kind of judgment in the almost willful awkwardness of the words. By these standards, Gonick went way aboveground in the late '80s, when a friend put him in touch with Jacqueline Onassis, who was working as an editor at Doubleday. Gonick's histories hadn't sold well with Rip Off or with Morrow. But with Onassis as his editor, he had someone who could get him a plug in Ann Landers a month before Christmas ("an ideal Christmas or Hanukkah gift"). "She was a great ally, as you can imagine," Gonick says of Onassis, an otherwise hands-off editor on his first two books. Since its Doubleday release, Gonick's first cartoon history has sold about 135,000 copies, most of that in the first year.

In academia, as in cartooning, Gonick operates along the fringes. Five years ago, he gave a presentation at Berkeley's Mathematical Sciences Research Institute, where he would later serve as a journalist in residence, and confessed: "I have one foot in mathematics and one foot in science journalism, and unfortunately ... it also seems to mean that I have one foot out of mathematics and one foot out of science journalism." His books have met with varied response. Scientists generally admire his cartoon guides, in part because Gonick solves a problem many of them face daily: snoring freshmen. But historians haven't settled on an opinion. Some shrug and call Gonick's conclusions "pat"; some smile at the effort but dismiss it as another sendup; and some praise it, as Yale professor Jonathan Spence did in the New York Times Book Review, calling the histories "a curious hybrid, at once flippant and scholarly, witty and politically correct, zany and traditionalist. Mr. Gonick's approach to the past is personal, free-wheeling and immensely ambitious."

One recent afternoon, Gonick summarizes his approach to history in a long soliloquy.

"Let's not call it chaos theory," he begins. "Let's just say nonlinear dynamics." Nearby, someone is at the studio's paper cutter, interrupting with an occasional THWACK!

"Nonlinear systems are systems with any kind of physical system that has feedback loops, where an output in the system can come back and affect the system. Well, obviously, human society is such a system. Our brains are such a system."


"There's this great chemist, a Russian-Belgian chemist" -- THWACK! -- "who died a few weeks ago, named Ilya Prigogine, who figured a lot of this stuff out. A Nobel Prize winner. The idea is this: Dynamical systems in general have a certain quality as follows -- much of the time, they flow along with tremendous momentum, and small perturbations have small consequences. Small causes have small effects." THWACK! "But it happens periodically that systems become chaotic and they enter states in which small perturbations can have large effects. Human history is no different. So this has some implication, for example, on the impact of the individual on history." THWACK!

"Tolstoy thought the individual just rides the waves of history. But when you think of history as a wave, you're thinking of it in terms of" -- THWACK! -- "these periods when there's a lot of momentum and the thing is definitely going in a certain direction. But you also enter periods when it's not going in any definite direction. Things are very mixed up and nobody knows what's going on. [You] can't necessarily say whether you're in such a period -- but they exist, and when they do, small actions can have big effects.

"You imagine the system is a single point moving through a very high-dimensional space. So from seven-billion-dimensional space, you've got a point following a path through that space." THWACK! "That's the evolution of the system. And it comes to a point, and no matter how close you get to that point, you can't tell whether that thing is gonna go this way or that way, right?" THWACK! "The tiniest, the tiniest, little ball -- no matter how tiny a little ball you draw around that point, there will be points in there that cause the thing to go this way, and there will be other points in there that cause it to go that way. They're all mixed up. So at that point, the future of the thing is indeterminate." THWACK! "Tiny effects, you know?

"So, for instance, if you think about that in terms of the individual's impact on history ... a single person who's on the knife's edge of deciding one way or another could determine the entire course of history." THWACK! "Or he decides and a safe falls on his head, right?" THWACK!

Gonick pauses. He has sunk deep into his chair, a pillow at his back. It's a peculiar picture: a cartoonist with an advanced degree in math, discussing history by way of non-equilibrium chemistry, high physics, War and Peace, and cartoon slapstick. The world according to Gonick. All it needs, it seems, is Mother Goose.

"'For want of a nail,'" he concludes. "Right?"