Born August 24, 1946 (San Francisco, California)
American author, illustrator
Many school textbooks read like a slow stroll through a musty museum, a tour led by a graying scholar determined not to miss the complexities of the topic, but not those by author/illustrator Larry Gonick. Gonick's treatments of history and science take readers on a madcap dash through a funhouse of ideas, a whirlwind tour led by a merry band of characters offering essential insights and funny asides along the way. In books like The Cartoon History of the Universe, Larry Gonick breathes new life into those topics that you have to study in school—history, chemistry, physics—by joining fast-paced narrative with sometimes crude but always humorous drawings. In a dozen books written over a span of thirty years, Gonick has proven that the graphic novel form is uniquely suited to nonfiction.
"Larry Gonick's cartoon history…is one of the most amusing, provocative surveys of the planet's progress ever made.…"
BOOKLIST REVIEW, SEPTEMBER 15, 1990.
Gonick does more than put historical facts into graphic novel form, however. In addition to providing "the facts"—something reviewers regularly praise Gonick for getting right—Gonick and his co-authors pack competing interpretations and insights into tightly structured explanations of the events, conflicts, and policies that make history and science so fascinating. In his explanation of America's westward expansion in the nineteenth century in The Cartoon History of the United States, for example, he notes that while the U.S. government created the Monroe Doctrine to keep European nations from meddling in the Western hemisphere, other Western nations "took this to mean that all future pillaging would be done by the U.S.A. alone." A caricature of President James Monroe protests: "Oh, nothing could be further from the truth," but his fingers are crossed (meaning that he is, in fact, not telling the truth). This complex portrayal of American foreign policy—showing official U.S. policy, the reaction of Western
(With Steve Atlas) Blood from a Stone: A Cartoon Guide to Tax Reform (1972).
The Cartoon Guide to Computer Science (1983).
The Cartoon History of the Universe vols. 1–7. (1990).
The Cartoon History of the United States (1991).
(With Art Huffman) The Cartoon Guide to Physics (1991).
(With Mark Wheelis) The Cartoon Guide to Genetics (1991).
The Cartoon History of the Universe II (1994).
(With Christine DeVault) The Cartoon Guide to Sex (1999).
The Cartoon History of the Universe III (2002).
(With Craig Criddle) The Cartoon Guide to Chemistry (2005).
Kokopelli and Company in Attack of the Smart Pies (2005).
Boston Comix (weekly political commentary) (1971–74).
Yankee Almanack (weekly cartoon series on colonial Massachusetts and the American Revolution) (1975–76).
Flashbacks (weekly historical panel) (1990–94).
Science Classics (bimonthly two-page cartoon feature on science) (1990–97).
Kokopelli and Company (monthly one-page strip) (1996–).
Dr. Sulfur's Night Lab (simulated chemistry set with games and experiments) (1998).
The Cartoon Guide to Physics (1995).
The Cartoon History of the Universe (1994).
opponents, and the author's own opinion—is all accomplished in half a page.
Gonick's childhood prepared him to understand that human history is riddled with conflicting motives and interests. He was born in San Francisco, California, on August 24, 1946, and he grew up in Phoenix, Arizona. His parents were both teachers: his father, Emanuel, taught chemistry at a junior college while his mother, Mollie, taught fifth grade in a public school. Gonick's parents' politics put them at odds with their local community: Phoenix was a politically conservative town, and both parents had been associated with progressive political causes. According to Tommy Cragg's profile of Gonick in the SF Weekly, Emanuel Gonick had come under Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) scrutiny when it was discovered that he had lived for a time in the Soviet Union, a Communist nation considered an enemy of the United States after World War II (1939–45). And Mollie Gonick was chastised by some parents for displaying a United Nations flag in her classroom, at a time when conservatives in the area rallied behind a call to "Get the U.S. out of the U.N." Like his parents, Gonick developed the sense that he was an outsider, someone prone to question the dominant values of his culture.
Gonick was an only child, and in an interview with Graphic Novelists (GN) he remembered: "I had both lots of attention and plenty of time alone. I do remember at one point that my folks took me to a therapist because they thought I was spending too much time lying around reading!" He was a lover of comics from the time his father introduced him to the Sunday funnies in the Denver Post at the age of three or four; his favorites, he told GN, were Li'l Abner—"back when Capp was a liberal"—and Gordo. "My parents were pretty open-minded and had no particular bias against comics—except the kind that freaks kids out." Gonick avoided the gruesome comics like Tales of the Crypt, recalling that the illustrated version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was scary enough to keep him awake at night.
As a teenager, Gonick hung out with a group of friends he characterized as "proto-hippies," referring to the long-haired drop-outs who would become a cultural symbol of youthful revolution in the late 1960s. Gonick listened to jazz and rhythm-and-blues music at a time when that music was still considered "far out," but he was a good student, earning his way into Harvard University following his graduation from high school. He graduated summa cum laude (Latin for "with highest distinction") with a bachelor's degree in math from Harvard in 1967, the same year that he married Francine Prose (they separated in 1972 and later divorced).
As a boy, Gonick had begun to draw cartoons, but he didn't keep up with his hobby while an undergraduate at Harvard, noting to Craggs that his time there "was poisonous to my creativity. I didn't do much creative in those four years." His creativity and his political consciousness were recharged in the coming years, however. Gonick stayed at Harvard to pursue graduate studies in math, and he received his master's degree in 1969. Over time, politics captured more of his attention. "The political turmoil was really, really getting out of hand" in the late 1960s and early 1970s, he told Craggs, referring to the protests against the Vietnam War (1954–75), the civil rights movement, and the youth movement. At the same time, his cartooning was getting better. He had a friend, "a natural-born cartoonist" named Kim Stapley, who wrote him long letters illustrated with cartoons; Gonick began to reply in kind. Gonick was also inspired by a book called Cuba for Beginners, written by Rius (1934–), a Mexican cartoonist who used humor to criticize his government and promote his radical politics. "When I saw this particular use of the medium, it was like a great light going off in my head," Gonick told GN.
Charged up about politics, and devoting more and more of his time to cartooning, Gonick dropped out of graduate school in 1971. "I quit math as soon as I had my first regular paycheck," Gonick told GN. He began earning $50 a week drawing the Boston Comix strip, published in Boston After Dark (also called Boston Phoenix). From the early 1970s on, Gonick has made a living through his cartooning. It wasn't always a good living, Gonick relates, but at first he kept his costs low, living in a commune and paying just $33 a month for rent. He soon acquired more cartooning work: in 1972, he paired with Steve Atlas to produce his first book, Blood from a Stone: A Cartoon Guide to Tax Reform, and in 1975 and 1976 he drew the Yankee Almanack series for the Boston Globe newspapers. (Gonick joked to Craggs that the book was on tax reform "because it was the dullest subject [his co-author] could think of.")
In 1977, Gonick moved to San Francisco, the city of his birth and the home of a thriving new style of cartooning known as underground comix. Unlike mainstream comic books that were created by teams of writers and artists and focused on superheroes, underground comix were usually created by individual author/artists and focused on political, social, or personal issues. Noted comix artists included R. Crumb, author of Zap and Mr. Natural, and Gilbert Shelton, author of The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers. Gonick became immersed in the underground comix scene at the Rip Off Press in San Francisco, and it was during this time that he began to work on his cartoon history of the universe. He published the first volume of the series in 1978 and released additional volumes in comic-book versions in the years that followed. In 1978, Gonick married his second wife, Lisa Goldschmid; the couple has two daughters.
Mexican Cartoonist Rius
The single greatest influence on Larry Gonick's work was a Mexican cartoonist known as Rius (1934–; his full name is Eduardo del Rio). Rius is a prolific author/artist who has published more than one hundred works since he began drawing cartoons for the Mexican magazine Ja-Ja in 1955. He first came to the attention of the world in 1965 when he published the work Cuba para principiantes, translated into English as Cuba for Beginners. The work tried to explain the socialist revolution that had recently placed Fidel Castro (1926–) at the head of the Cuban government. It was the first of many works in which Rius would try to explain the political principles of socialism and communism, political philosophies that were widely attacked in the United States for their challenges to capitalism and big business. Rius later published Marx for Beginners (his biggest seller) on the famous political philosopher Karl Marx (1818–1883).
Rius's subjects have ventured well beyond radical politics. He has used his distinctive combination of words and pictures to write about women's rights, vegetarianism, and atheism, among other subjects. In 2002, Rius told School Library Journal interviewer Ernesto Priego, "I like knowing that I have changed my readers' minds, that I have turned them into vegetarians, or that I have interested them in leftist politics." Among Rius's favorite cartoonists is American Matt Groening (1954–). "I think The Simpsons is the greatest novelty. I love its ferocious critique of everything."
The history of the universe books wouldn't be collected within one cover for several years, but in the meantime, Gonick produced several book-length treatments of scientific subjects. In the Cartoon Guide to Computer Science and the Cartoon Guide to Genetics (written with microbiologist Mark Wheelis), Gonick unpacked complicated, serious topics for general readers. In the Genetics book, for example, the authors explain how scientists James Watson and Francis Crick used scale models of atoms to, quite literally, construct a model for DNA, one of the basic building blocks of life. Gonick's drawings—one shows Watson and Crick ascending a spiral helix staircase—pair with the text to allow readers to visualize this complicated chemical discovery. Reviewer Tabitha M. Powledge, reviewing the 1991 revised edition for the Genome News Network Web site, wrote that "the drawings by Larry Gonick are close to brilliant at presenting the physical events of the cell and the gene." These and Gonick's other scientific works have been well accepted by scientists and teachers, who often use them to help open the difficult subjects to students challenged by more conventional material.
A big break from Jackie O
Gonick made a living with his early cartoon guides but, as he told GN, "It was all pretty close to the edge until well into the 1980s." He got his big break when Jackie Onassis bought The Cartoon History ofthe Universe: Volumes 1–7 for the publisher for whom she worked, Doubleday. (Jackie Onassis was the widow of assassinated U.S. president John F. Kennedy; she later married a Greek shipping tycoon and then went into publishing.) The book begins with the big bang and follows the development of life on Earth up until the reign of Alexander the Great in 323 bce. According to the frazzled-looking narrator who stands in for the author, the history covered "13 billion years of time travel in 350 pages." Gonick explores reputable theories about the origins of life and discounts the dis-reputable theories in wicked asides. He depicts early humans facing problems—How do we deal with cold? Where do we store this grain that we have grown? How do we divide up food among people?—and shows that the solutions they came up with defined social organization. Gonick takes a humorous approach to explaining the myths and sometimes brutal customs of early Egyptian, Greek, and Persian empires. Throughout the book he pairs the narrative offered by his frazzled professor of history with caustic comments from a vast cast of characters and interesting footnotes giving background information—and indicated by a foot drawing an asterisk.
The book was an immediate success. Gossip columnist Ann Landers mentioned the book in her popular column, and sales took off; before long, it had sold more than 100,000 copies. Entertainment Weekly reviewer Ken Tucker called it "a work of scholarship and looniness," and a wide range of reviewers praised both its history and its humor. One of the most striking features of Gonick's historical books is the way that he uses the various speakers in his work to tell multiple stories at once. The narrator might explain how slavery came to exist in ancient Greece in the same frame that a Greek warrior tells a slave to wash his socks and a chained slave sarcastically comments "I've always wanted to travel." The multiple perspectives allow Gonick to present and criticize past actions all within one comic frame. In Gonick's works, history is not told just by the winners, but by all the participants.
Though he began his cartooning career writing brief comic strips, Gonick told GN that he prefers the expanded opportunities offered to him by his longer history and science projects. "The longer form allows for big-time, complicated story-telling," he explained. The first step in preparing to write one of his works is a "big reading binge" (the traces of which show up in the bibliographies that conclude his books). Then he writes the entire text of the books. Though Gonick may use more words than many graphic novelists, he still has to leave a great deal out. "The number of sentences has to be pared to a minimum; lots of stuff gets thrown out. But when that happens, hidden connections can magically appear, so I'm not complaining." Once he has his first draft done, he starts to figure out the pagination (the way the story fits on the page). Parts of the story must fit onto one page or one double page, and the text must be trimmed to fit. As he cuts, he pencils in the text on the pages; from there he fills in the characters and "snide comments." Finally, he inks the pages. It's a long, arduous process that has been made only slightly easier over the years by computers. "The very hardest part is starting the first draft," says Gonick, "and the most fun is thinking up jokes and ideas that make me laugh out loud."
Gonick has drawn several follow-ups to his breakthrough history work, adding the Cartoon History of the United States and taking the Cartoon History of the Universe up to the fifteenth century ce. Plans for the future include two additional volumes of his cartoon history, to be called The Cartoon History of the Modern World, Book I and Book II, which will bring him up to the present. In addition to his historical works, Gonick has written or co-written several books related to the sciences, including The Cartoon Guide to Physics (1991) and The Cartoon Guide to Chemistry (2005). Gonick told GN that the science books are a bit easier to write, because he always has some diagram or other graphic in mind as he writes, rather than thinking "what the %$#@ am I going to draw in this panel?" In addition to his nonfiction work, Gonick has worked since 1996 on a lighthearted monthly strip for Muse magazine called Kokopelli and Company; in 2005, he published a short novel featuring these characters, called Kokopelli and Company in Attack of the Smart Pies.
Though he has been cartooning for more than thirty years, Gonick constantly aims to improve his art. He insists that page composition and backgrounds remain a challenge, though observers can chart real development in his work over the years. On a deeper level, Gonick professes to grander goals: he writes in order to change the world. Readers of his works can imagine that if Gonick succeeds in reaching that goal, the world will be altogether more equitable, just, and color-blind than the history he has so ably portrayed.
For More Information
Booklist (September 15, 1990).
Entertainment Weekly (November 11, 1994): 11.
New York Times Book Review (December 18, 1994): 15.
Priego, Ernesto. "The History of Mankind for Beginners." School Library Journal (April 2002): S25.
The Cartoon Guide to Genetics: A Soft Approach to Hard Science. http://bancroft.berkeley.edu/Exhibits/Biotech/cartoon.html (accessed on May 3, 2006).
Craggs, Tommy. "Gonick's Comic Creation." SF Weekly. http://www.sfweekly.com/issues/2003-08-20/news/feature.html (accessed on May 3, 2006).
Larry Gonick: History, Science and Nonsense. http://www.larrygonick.com/index.html (accessed on May 3, 2006).
The Mathematical Cartoons of Larry Gonick. http://www.msri.org/ext/larryg/ (accessed on May 3, 2006).
Powledge, Tabitha M. "The Cartoon Guide to Genetics." Genome News Network. http://www.genomenewsnetwork.org/articles/08_00/cartoon_genetics.php (accessed on May 3, 2006).
Sallis, James. "Larry Gonick: Arabia to Columbus, a Cartoon History Installment." The James Sallis Web Pages. http://www.grasslimb.com/sallis/GlobeColumns/globe.04.gonick.html (accessed May 3, 2006).
Surridge, Matthew. "Trimmings: Larry Gonick." The Comics Journal. http://www.tcj.com/3_online/t_gonick.html (accessed on May 3, 2006).
Additional information for this profile was obtained through direct correspondence with Larry Gonick in July 2005.