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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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Page 3 of 5

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."

About The Author

Tommy Craggs

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