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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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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."

THWACK!

"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!

About The Author

Tommy Craggs

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