Interview with Larry Gonick, author of The Cartoon History of the Modern World, Volume II

Larry GonickLarry Gonick is a pioneer of non-fiction cartooning; starting with Blood From A Stone: A Cartoon Guide to Tax Reform in 1971, he has made a career out of explaining complicated topics in comic format. In 1978 he published the first issue of The Cartoon History of the Universe as a comic book, starting with the Big Bang and ending with the evolution of humanity. Issues of that series were collected first in 1982 and again in 1990; later two sequels appeared, The Cartoon History of the Universe II and III, and in 2007 the series continued as The Cartoon History of the Modern World. With the second volume of that series, published this fall, Gonick brings his history up to late 2008. Throughout the series Gonick has consistently made history entertaining and approachable as well as accurate (each volume ends with an annotated bibliography) and has shed light on the history of often-neglected parts of the world such as China, India and pre-Columbian America. Among his other works are The Cartoon History of the United States and the Cartoon Guide series, which provide grounding in topics ranging from physics to communication theory to sex; his works have been among the most influential in bringing comics into the classroom.

MNet. Why do you say the Cartoon History series is "history as it really happened -- in cartoon format"? What makes cartoons a good medium to write about history?

Gonick. When I first said that, I was probably being half glib, but over time I've come to see how much truth there is in that tossed-off line. Cartoons can put badly-needed life back into history. There's no getting around it: historical figures are mostly dead. And traditional textbooks mostly leave them that way. It's hard to sympathize with these historical zombies, to really feel all the passion, thought, conviction, bravery, fear, and, yes, confusion and uncertainty that they experienced. Comics can restore our identification with past actors as living, feeling beings like ourselves, who were as ignorant of their own future as we are of our own. (I say "can" restore, because the comics medium can be misused in the service of history, too. I'm thinking of various history comics where all the characters are idealized jut-jawed types, and everything is rendered in sepia tones. I don't think the past was really sepia!)

In addition, the immense number of drawings in a cartoon history provides an opportunity to deliver a wealth of historical graphic detail such as costumes, landscape, and architecture that isn't readily conveyed in text or even a normal illustrated book. The scene becomes part of the narrative in comics.

How did the cartoon medium influence the content of the series? What aspects of history were easier or more difficult to portray in cartoons?

Generally speaking, it's easier to tell stories than to render descriptions or (especially) to explain abstract ideas. But the medium is flexible. The balance of words and images can be adjusted, and they can play off against each other in unexpected ways. In my account of Mecca in Muhammad's day, for example, I wrote a series of narrative blocks that gave an account of its social structure and development—not easy to convey graphically—and superimposed them on images of its empty streets—empty because at the moment the story opens, the town had been evacuated in response to an Ethiopian invasion. Abstract ideas can also be particularized and conveyed through story. And when it comes to story, it's easier to do them when the number of characters is small. Those crowd scenes take a long time to draw! Maybe that's why I've always been more attracted to beginnings, to origins: they are less complicated, provide more degrees of freedom, and fewer actors.

Why do you think cartoons have remained such a popular art form and medium throughout history?

It's a bit mysterious, isn't it? My old Pogo collections have fallen apart from repeated reading. As far as I know, comics is the only medium that brings a reader back again and again to the same piece, 20, 50, 100 times. There's just something seductive about that rhythmic combination of words and images. I don't know what it is exactly. Something can strike you funny again and again. Music is the only other art I can think of that repays repetition to this extent.

cartoonYou were one of the first people to work with nonfiction subjects in cartoons. What led you to go into nonfiction cartoons?

When I started doing this—as a grad student in math, many years ago—I had no faith in the staying power of my own imagination. I would never have become a cartoonist if I had to rely on it. At the time, nonfiction appeared to guarantee an unending supply of material. And this has proved to be true.

How has your approach to cartooning changed since the beginning of your career? What made it change?

Very little. Not enough, maybe. I've worked hard to improve the composition of my images and pages, and to tighten up my drawing a bit. But I'm afraid the strain of overstated vulgarity that I started with is still in evidence.

Over its run, Cartoon History has gone from being an underground comic to being carried by a major international publisher. How has the field of non-fiction cartooning changed since you began doing the Cartoon History,both in terms of the art and the business?

Obviously, the long-form comic book, or "graphic novel," has gained some measure of respectability over the past couple of decades. My entry into aboveground publishing came in the 1980s, before the recent boom, and I suppose I'm one of the first to do this kind of work and see it distributed through bookstores as much as, if not more than, through the old comics distribution channel. Since then the business has increased immensely in aggregate.

I'm not sure how much this has affected my reception, though. I seem to be chugging along steadily, regardless. By and large, I feel as if I occupy a parallel or maybe orthogonal universe to most modern comics publishing. All of us serial graphicists clearly inhabit the same medium; we share the same narrative and graphic conventions, we cut the page into panels, etc. But so much that comes out now is just grim: so many stories of unhappy childhoods in dysfunctional families. It's as if someone decided that comics had to be deadly serious to be respectable. This may be true, but give me humour any day!

What are some of the biggest challenges in non-fiction cartooning? What are the parts you most enjoy?

By far the biggest challenge is fitting the material into the space. First drafts are never less than twice too long. I do repeated, relentless winnowing to find the essentials in the midst of all the extraneous chaff. This is not fun, especially writing the first draft, when you just know you're going on and on but can't help yourself. The fun parts are in the research; finding wonderful stories and original ideas; in the writing, the final draft, when so much becomes clear; in the drawing, making a really good one, or a good sequence that tells the story well.

Who were your favourite characters over the course of the Cartoon History?Who was the most fun to draw, and why?

So many... starting with the reptiles. Yes, reptiles are definitely the most fun. They lack that strain of complex deviousness you see in people, and they're not always making things with a lot of right-angled edges that are so hard to draw. Among humans, I've always been attracted to those with an enlightened outlook in one form or another. The Buddha. Moses. Jesus. Gandhi. I'd say Muhammad, but I never drew him—he stayed off-camera the whole book. Political figures of that ilk included Liu Pang, founder of the Chinese Han Dynasty, and William of Orange, the Silent, who led the revolt of the Netherlands against Spain and established a country where you could think and write what you liked. Also the great scientists. And speaking of complex deviousness, I suppose the villainous ones can be fun, too. The most recent major player of that lot was Philip II of Spain, who bankrupted his country by battling "evil," i.e., Protestants. I also like the ambivalent ones, who combine idealism with impossible ambition, like Bolívar.

What part of Cartoon History are you most proud of? What were you most interested to learn in your research?

I've always felt that the very first volume, The Evolution of Everything, was a high point. Many of its attitudes and modes of presentation have found their way into the standard curriculum since it first came out. As for what I was most interested to learn... oh, boy, there's so much. I wouldn't know where to start. One major item would be the central role of that strait between Europe and Asia known as the Hellespont. It never ceases to amaze me that Medieval European history is taught with only minimal reference to the Byzantine Empire, or that early modern history gives so little coverage to the Turks.

Who were some of your influences, both as a cartoonist and a historian? What other cartoonists and writers do you enjoy reading today?

Cartoonists: [George] Herriman (Krazy Kat), [Walt] Kelly (Pogo), [Harvey] Kurtzman/[Will] Elder/[Wally] Wood (Mad), [Carl] Barks (Donald Duck, Uncle Scrooge), [John] Stanley (Little Lulu), Rius [pen name of Eduardo del Rio] (the Mexican cartoonist who founded the genre I work in), Lat [pen name of Mohd Nor bin Khalid] (a Malay cartoonist who has done an extraordinary 2-volume autobiography, among other things), [Gilbert] Shelton (Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers), [Robert] Crumb. Today I mostly read newspaper comics like Dilbert and For Better or For Worse, and a number of webcomics, which I think is an especially exciting area right now.

Historians: I don't know who's an influence in terms of narrative style, but I'm partial to several: Herodotus (maybe my closest model), Ssu-ma Chien (the "Herodotus of China"), [Edward] Gibbon, [Joseph] Needham (Science and Civilization in China), [Barbara] Tuchman, [John Julius] Norwich, and several others who have written magisterial books on one subject or another. Names are escaping me at the moment. Most recently, I've loved Simon Schama's Rough Crossings, about the slaves freed by the British during the American Revolution and what became of them.

You were one of the first cartoonists to experiment with interactive comics with the Cartoon History CD-ROM. How have interactive media changed how you work, either from a creative or a business perspective? What do you think about the emergence of webcomics?

Unfortunately, interactive media haven't changed my work nearly enough. The CD-ROM (thanks for remembering!) is pretty much dead. The web is a great publishing platform, but the comics are still a one-way preachment from the creator to the audience. I'm quite taken with several of them, as well as with the fact that so many are done in black and white. I'd love to take advantage of the computer's potential, but we're still in the infancy of the medium. Maybe I ought to spend more time on Second Life, but my First Life seems to eat up the day.

How much take-up has there been of Cartoon History in classrooms? What do you know about how teachers are using it? How would you hope it would be used in schools?

I don't have statistics on this. Teachers do use it. Here in the US, textbooks are adopted on a state-wide basis, and I can't see that happening to the Cartoon History. It's not, em, what's the word, restrained enough. I suppose that sympathetic teachers keep a few copies around and lend them out to students. I've heard from teachers who use them to motivate students to like history; and also from teachers who share them with students who are already motivated and want some extra perspective. And I've heard from plenty of teachers—had an email just this morning—who say that the Cartoon Histories steered them into history in the first place. Today's quote was typical: "thanks to you, I got a 5 on my AP exam in high school."

Teachers are increasingly bringing comics into schools, both for students to read and to create. What do you think comics can bring to the classroom that other media can't? How would you want to use comics if you were a classroom educator? Are there any mistakes you think teachers might be making in using comics?

Complicated question, and I probably can't give a coherent answer in a short space. Let's just say that I regard comics as a medium among other media and not as the illegitimate child of "real" books and illustration. One question we might ask ourselves is, how come it's OK for a teacher to be funny, but it's not OK for a textbook to be funny?

Regarding comics created by students, I always offer the same advice: leave room for the words! Don't try to squeeze them in around the drawing. The blocks of text are separate graphic elements on their own.

How do you choose topics for your Cartoon Guide series,and how do you pick collaborators? How does the cartoon format influence how you communicate the content of each subject and how does the subject influence how you tell the "story"?

Topics for the Cartoon Guides, which are all science books, were chosen with an eye to maximum course enrolment. Rather than do The Cartoon Guide to Relativity (which my coauthor, Art Huffman, originally proposed), the publisher, Harper & Row (now HarperCollins), asked for The Cartoon Guide to Physics. Collaborators have come from several directions: some with unsolicited proposals, others through recommendation, etc. In every case, the collaborator has had two essential qualities: expertise and almost always an academic appointment in the field, and the willingness to spew out text on demand.

The cartoon format very much influences the presentation. The unit of information in comics is the page, or the double-page spread. No paragraphs running past the bottom for us! Within each page, information is organized, to the extent possible, as a story that comes to a climax (or sometimes a quiet denouement) when it reaches the lower right-hand corner. I think this is one of the hidden strengths of the medium: graphics aside, it demands a story-like narrative, which, in my opinion, is how we learn most readily.

But of course, we don't really put the graphics aside. Designing pages and information structure is an art that requires the creator to consider weight, texture, pacing, and clarity of illustration. The comics medium affords the artist tremendous flexibility. I can "waste" a page with a single panel, either to emphasize something powerfully (it might even be a small illustration surrounded by a lot of white space), or to show a complicated illustration requiring much explanation. I could cite many other patterns of images and words. The choice is governed by the fundamental question: is this the most effective way to convey the information? In the end, that's the overriding consideration.