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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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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.

"Really?"

"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."

About The Author

Tommy Craggs

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