Graphic Lit: An interview with Larry Gonick
For more than thirty years, Larry Gonick has been drawing comics about such unusual topics as math, science and history.
It’s history that Gonick is probably best known for, as his ongoing and acclaimed “Cartoon History of The Universe” has attempted to document in irreverent and informative fashion the entire story of mankind.
The fourth and latest volume, “The Cartoon History of the Modern World, Part One,” is out now. It’s a fascinating and freewheeling tour of the period from 1492-1781, pinballing from the Aztecs and Age of the Explorers to the Protestant Reformation and American revolution, with stops along the way for the Sikhs, Galileo, John Locke, Shakespeare and much more.
I talked with Gonick from his home in San Francisco about his new book and the challenges of telling the history of the world in comics:
Q: Why the name change? Why not do History of the Universe Part IV?
A: That was the publisher’s decision, not mine. They wanted to rebrand it slightly. These concepts are mysterious to me.
Q: Is that why the format changed too? It seems a little smaller to me.
A: It’s a little smaller, yes. I’ve done a series of science books with Harper, which is the publisher here, and they’re all in this format, so they’re just making it uniform with everything else of mine they’ve done.
Q: How do you put together a book like this? Do you do all the research first and then draw it out? Do you take a chapter at a time?
A: I wish it was that simple. I do most of the research first. I guess I do it a chapter at a time.
Q: Can you break down for me in particular how this book worked out?
A: I do enough [research] to have a grasp on the whole book. And then I outline the book in some detail so I don’t find myself having half of it done and realizing that I left something crucial out. So I do try to work out what’s going to be in it in some detail well ahead. But I do keep reading while I’m working on it and finding out new details and sometimes I do have to take it apart and put it back together again at least in sections.
So that’s sort of the big picture. Then in more detail what I do is write it first, usually one section, one 48-page volume at a time. I write the text and then rewrite it and rewrite it, shrinking it down and by the third draft I’m thinking of exactly how it’s going to be paginated. In a comic you have to think of it in terms of pages unlike an ordinary book. So every double-page spread has information assigned to it let’s say. I know I’m going to cover this here, this there. Then I write it fully and then I pencil it on boards and ink it.
Q: How much research in general do you do? I have this image of your entire house being surrounded by books and you at a drawing table.
A: You’ve been here! Well, first of all I don’t work at home. While we do have a lot of books at home I’ve got a wall of books at my studio.
But a lot of the books I use I don’t own. I find the good ones, I spent a lot of time at the public library in my day. That amount of time is dropping more recently for two reasons.
One is that with inter-library loan all I have to do is go online and look through their catalog and they’ll send stuff over to my branch. That makes life easier. Especially since it costs $2.50 an hour in the meter at the San Francisco Public Library.
The other reason is the Internet, which is just phenomenal now. I can remember when it was just coming on as a research tool it wasn’t too good. But now it’s amazing. The number of old books that are online in full text is staggering. If you want to find out about the Enlightenment you can go read David Hume. I don’t know how many people want to do that but you can if you want to. I’m working on the next one now and I’m finding all kinds of great stuff. John Stewart Mill’s father wrote a history of the East India Company, where he looked at their account books year by year. He’s a really good writer and it’s a wonderful book.
So that’s another great resource and of course, it’s also a great resource for graphics, for images and things. It used to be you had to have a collection of images on hand that you could draw on and you’d have to flip around.
Q: What do you look for in a history book? Are there particular things that make you say “This isn’t of any use to me” or “This is the bible on this subject”?
A: That’s a really, really good question. You absolutely put your finger on something that happens but I’m not exactly sure I know how to say what it is. It’s like I know it when I see it.
But that definitely happens. I’ll look at something, sometimes it’s a part of the book that’s useful. I’m reading a book on the French Revolution written by a Canadian historian and once he gets to the revolution itself its really pedestrian, but his discussion of what France was like beforehand is much more extensive than many. So I can tell it’s good for that. He clearly knows what he’s talking about. Sometimes you read things and you see special pleading or just sloppy writing and you put it aside. You can tell when they know what they’re talking about.
Q: So to a degree it’s intuitive?
A: Well it feels like intuition. Obviously to some degree there’s something going on that involves comparison with other things you’ve read. Something analytical is happening. It’s not just a feeling. It’s like love at first sight.
Q: How long did this particular book take you?
A: Probably about three years I would say. It’s kind of what they take if I don’t do anything else. I usually have other things to do but there’s about three years work in it.
Q: What are the benefits of comics as a teaching tool? What can comics do education wise that a textbook can’t?
A: The first thing you realize about comics once you’ve lived with them for many years is that it’s the only medium that you can read over and over and over again. I’ve got a collection of "Pogo," I’ve read those books a hundred times. I have no other book I’ve read more than twice. I think my maximum with a movie is six, that being the Beatles’ “Help!”
But people do read comics over and over again. It has to do with the graphics obviously. The storytelling rhythm and the way the graphics come at you, pop up all at once and you can stare at it for as long as you want.
Of course, the other thing is compared with a textbook you’ve got the graphics and it’s a form that’s well suited to opinion. You have the option of being more irreverent. Not always to the delight of real historians.
Q: What drew you to this particular niche, doing these cartoon histories?
A: Because it’s a niche. There wasn’t a lot of competition in that particular ecology. My career track was determined, I was in graduate school in math a long time ago and I had been drawing a little bit but I never thought I could make a career at it because I couldn’t see how anyone could sustain a lifetime of ideas for comics. And then someone showed me these nonfiction comics and I realized that was a way.
Q: What were those books?
A: Those were books by a Mexican cartoonist who draws under the pen name of Rius. He used to do a weekly comic book in color that were nonfiction. He had a little nonfiction essay in the middle of it actually. He had characters and there would be an eight-page section in the middle that told some political story. And he also did some longer pieces. He’s the founder of this series of books called “The Beginners” books. He did the first ones and they’re very beautifully done in a light and funny style.
So this friend of mine had seen these and wanted to do something like this and so we did a project together on tax reform, which was the dullest subject he could think of and therefore needed it the most. It was a real eye-opener. It was an epiphany for me. I started doing these comics. This was back in '71 I think. And I’ve been doing them ever since. History just happens to be a subject that works really well.
Q: Why is that do you think?
A: It’s got a lot of good stories. Better stories than you can make up. And very complicated ones too. So you can do extended pieces. That can be a problem sometimes if you have limited space.
Q: Was there a particular era or historical figure you enjoyed writing about in this book?
A: I tend to like looking at beginnings of things, so the section on the beginning of the Aztec Empire, which isn’t very much known about anyway, that was a lot of fun to write. They were really bizarre. That’s not just me saying it, the other Native Americans living in Mexico thought they were pretty strange too.
The whole story of the Netherlands and William of Orange is a great story that also doesn’t get told enough. He’s kind of a personal hero because he was like the unassuming founder of a nation who commemorated his victories by founding universities rather than statues of himself. In fact, it’s almost impossible to find a picture of him. He’s very scarce.
Q: Was there something you wanted to tackle but didn’t feel you had enough room to get to?
A: There’s always stuff like that. The medium is very rigorous in terms of what it will allow. You can get less in 250 pages than you might think. I can’t think of anything right off the top. Of course I did this book a while ago.
One thing is the witchcraft trials and what that was all about. The real height of witch burning was during the later part of this book. And I probably could have said more about the Incas. The stuff that usually has to go unfortunately are all these colorful, really crazy stories that a lot of times are sidelines and don’t really contribute to the main plot.
Q: You touched on this a little, but I was wondering if your books attract any sort of controversy within academic circles. Do you get hate mail from historians?
A: No, there are the ones who really like it and the ones who are sort of indifferent. No, I don’t get hate mail. What a concept. Historians tend to be very measured people. They’re not haters. Political scientists, they’re haters.
Q: Well part of the reason I ask is that you do take some pot shots at modern historians. What bothers you the most about the way history is taught these days?
A: Well that’s a very interesting question, because when I started history was not taught the same as it is now. There’s been quite an evolution over the last thirty years. When I got in, I felt much more strongly about the kind of problems that historians were having then than I do now. When I started it was done in a much more traditional way. Since that time we have oral histories and people’s histories and multicultural histories and now what’s called global history. It’s sort of come in vogue.
The one thing you can say for sure, the one held constant is, most of the time they teach in a way that makes it dull. The history textbooks just don’t have the life they ought to. So that for some reason doesn’t change.
Q: Why do you think that is?
A: Well I think the reasons are different at different times. There’s something going on now that I worry about a little bit which is that the conflict has been written out of history to some extent. And history is conflict. History is the story of conflict and how civilizations put themselves together and how they contend with each other.
I’ve seen the world history book that my younger daughter used in high school three years ago and it was dreadful. It doesn’t have an active verb. It was astonishing. It doesn’t have any interesting verbs, no visual does anything. ... Civilizations “spread,” they don’t ever fight with each other. And so a lot of this stuff is totally swept under the rug.
I suspect I know the reason for this and that is conflict resolution is a big deal now in schools and I intuitively sense that people want to play down the role of violence in the world. Particularly since we seem to be more violent than ever. People hope that if they pretend it doesn’t exist that kids will stop doing it.
Q: Moving on from there, do you have an overriding theme or idea behind the books? In other words, is there something in particular you’d like readers to take away from the book?
A: There again, that’s evolved over time. When I started I wanted people to understand how much of history is driven by material needs and desires. That oftentimes slogans and ideals and such are the expression of need. I still believe that. A lot of so-called rational thought is really rationalization.
I mean how else can you explain that two people who describe themselves as completely rational can come to completely opposite conclusions? That are for some reason in accord with their self-interest? Happens all the time.
As I get older, and it all seems more complicated to me, my goal is much amorphous. I just want people to appreciate history and realize that if you want to understand what people are about, it helps to see what people have always been about.
Just to take one example, without naming any names, you can see many examples of history where people were leaders of nations, had agendas that they kept absolutely to themselves, and put out all kinds of cover slogans to mask their behavior and those slogans were taken seriously.
A good one from the past is in the next book. King Leopold of Belgium when he took over the Congo, not only didn’t he say anything about economic gain, but he explicitly denied he had any interest in economic gain. He talked only about spreading Western civilization to the benighted heathen and claimed he was going after the slave traders who operated from East Africa. Once the story came out, which it did thanks to a public relations campaign, he had his administrators burn all the documents. Took days. And they did it in the middle of summer and all the radiators in the Congo administration building were steaming hot.
Q: Tying into that, I did notice that you took a few pot shots at the Bush Administration.
A: That was just a reflex.
Q: Do you think there’s something that Americans could learn from the past that’s relevant to today’s political situation?
A: Yes and the answer is to have your eyes open and try and understand what the facts are instead of believing what people tell you. The wonderful thing about the modern age is you can get access to pretty good information. Not complete, obviously there’s a lot of stuff buried, but you can find out a lot and it doesn’t take that much effort. Just cruising around the Internet will get you lots of news.
Q: One of the things I enjoyed about the book the most is how you show how events are linked to events that don’t even occur to you at the time.
A: I appreciate that because that’s also one of my narrative goals is to do exactly that.
Q: It’s not something I picked up in your other books, but definitely in this one. I really appreciated, just to give an example, when you talk about Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation and you talk about why didn’t the Pope beat them down and suddenly I was like, “Well yeah, why didn’t the Pope beat them down?” It’s something I had never, ever asked in my own history class. And you point out how it’s in direct relation to the Turks and if the Turks hadn’t been there then it would have been a completely different story.
A: The Turks of Eastern Europe are completely written out of history as we learn it. I don’t know why. That’s another thing. A lot of things are written out of history as we learn it.
Q: Why do you think that is? Why don’t we learn about these links? Another example is you talk about Henry VIII and how the Pope was being held prisoner is why he wouldn’t annul the marriage, which was something I never learned.
A: Well Spanish history is pretty written out of our history books.
Q: Well why is that? Is it because you only have two years to learn all these events and there’s only so much you can learn?
A: That’s part of it but the other question is how do the teachers choose what to cover and the answer is that ... history is many things. We’re talking as if world history should be a comprehensive record of the past and give you a global perspective on things. But that’s not what history is always. Sometimes history is learning the traditions of your culture. And that’s absolutely something that’s taught in school, because school is all about enculturating you.
So our history until fairly recently has centered on the Anglo-Saxon tradition. We don’t even learn that much about France, which is weird because you always learn about feudalism in Europe, but feudalism only existed in that pure form in France. And to some extent in England when the Normans got in. But we don’t learn much about France either.
Our history is really English-centered and Spain is the traditional enemy of England. And it’s also Protestant-biased for that matter. Those who teach it that way want to say that Protestantism triumphed because it contained a more advanced truth. It spoke to some cultural need that existed then. But of course if you say that, if you think about it other heresies that were fairly successful earlier than that, they must have satisfied some kind of need because a lot of people subscribed to them and yet they were crushed.
Q: How many more Modern World volumes will there be? Is the next one the last one?
Q: And that takes us up to modern times?
A: As close to the present as I can get.
Q: Are you going to include things like 9/11?
A: I’m planning on taking it right up to the present as I write, so yeah. I may retreat from that. The narrative scope in these story arcs sort of needs that in a way because I see the last couple of hundred years as being the spread of enlightenment ideas all over the world. It is euro-centric to some extent. Europe has colonized and also convinced people that our models of society and ways of making government are good ones. These are the ways people think about government up until very recently. And I would say up until about Vietnam or maybe a little later there’s been a lot of re-evaluation of this. I think Islamist movement is an expression of some kind of deep discontent with Western models. I’m not in sympathy with it, but I’m not in sympathy with any kind of totalitarian impulses and I don’t think they have a monopoly on them unfortunately.
Q: What else are you working on? Once the Cartoon History is done are you going to go back and focus on a particular era?
A: I’m probably done with the history books for now. I’ve done a series of science books and I may have a math project in mind, since that’s kind of where I started, but I’m kind of ... I don’t know exactly what I’m going to do. I’d like to see some kind of animation project done with the history. Once I’m done I’ll have time to devote to that. I can’t work on it now because the books take so much energy.
Q: What’s your timeline for the next book?
A: Another couple of years and it will be done. I’m writing the first 48 pages now and some of it actually seems to be getting into final draft mode.