This is the first part of a two-part interview. The second part will be published in one week.
I first met Larry Gonick in a private online community and when I heard mention of his Cartoon Guide series I resolved to check them out. I read one of his books on early world history and found it fascinating that he can write and draw something so educational and informative yet funny at the same time.
About 18 months ago when struggling to pass a chemistry class I bought his book, the Cartoon Guide to Chemistry and it helped me pass the class. Sure, it felt a bit weird to alternate between a textbook, a cartoon book and class notes, especially when cramming for a test or writing up a lab experiment, but if it works, it works.
And, yes, I read his hilarious yet quite educational Cartoon Guide to Sex. I made a point of asking him about each of those books during this delightful interview about The Cartoon History of the Modern World, Part 1: From Columbus to the U.S. Constitution.
One other thought to give you an idea of the kind of guy Gonick is: I have two friends, one adult and one a student, who are fans of his work. I thought it might give one or both of them a thrill if they had an autograph from him.
So I emailed him out of the blue telling him he may not remember me but it would be great if he could send an autographs to his fans. Sure enough, he sends a piece of his artwork with an autograph and was very gracious about the whole experience.
Here now is part one of the interview
Scott Butki: Why write — let alone read — a cartoon history? Did you ever think when you started your first cartoon book that you’d be writing them 20 years later?
Larry Gonick: When I started cartooning “seriously,” in 1971, I already knew I’d be concentrating on nonfiction. This was an uninhabited niche at the time, and one that promised an endless supply of material. In the course of doing political strips and books, I found that history was a natural subject: characters, complicated stories, action, politics, irony, humor, conflict, you name it!
Why read it? Ask my sales director… The answer might be anything from a) so you can ace your history class to z) comics bring history to life and dispel the idea that the past was staffed by stiffs. One reviewer said that comics are a perfect medium for "wedding fact to interpretation." What more can I say? Did I ever think…? Yes. I'm much too cautious to leave a potential tenure-track academic environment for a limbo depending on my own creativity. It was the idea that comics could do nonfiction that convinced me to take it up. Less creativity required!
Are those complimentary quotes on your book legitimate? I assume they are but they are quite impressive. What’s it like to have Terry Jones of Monty Python, Steve Martin and Garry Trudeau praise your work?
Book quotes are real. Feels like, "it's about time!" Feels like a constant stream of extravagant ego-pumping is the only thing standing between me and the Black Dog of Gloom.
Is there any subject you think you couldn’t illustrate through a cartoon book?
Geology. Astronomy. Or at least I wouldn't want to. Of course, I had my doubts about chemistry too, because I was afraid I might have to draw 200 pages of nothing but spheres. But the Cartoon Guide to Chemistry (2005, coauthored with Craig Criddle) turned out to have all kinds of pictures.
What subjects have you written about so far?
Almost entirely history and science. You can see the list of titles at my site.
Am I alone in passing a class – chemistry – partially by using your book as a study guide?
At one point in the book you criticize a school of thought and seem to single out specifically Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel – writing in the book, “Historians like the idea that disease caused most native deaths.” What prompted you to make that comment? Can you elaborate on it?
You're not quite right here. I liked Diamond's book and think he's essentially 100% correct. The comment you cite is meant to twit other historians They — we — don’t want to feel like murderers, do we? Naturally, we're relieved to think that something as impersonal as a germ did most of the damage.
What else do historians do wrong in your opinion? You said you’ve read textbooks and found them varying from “pathetic to infuriating.” What’s the problem?
Just think of your favorite high-school history textbook. Oh, you didn't have a favorite high-school history textbook? Well, there you are.
Besides yourself, who do you suggest people read to get a better review of history? Are you a fan of Howard Zinn’s People’s History?
I am not a fan of Zinn. He writes indictments. Inconceivable as it sounds, he seems blind to the fact that all societies inevitably have power hierarchies, and he "wastes" no time investigating how and why leaders make decisions. To say, "they're nothing but greedy hypocrites, and you got screwed!" isn't history. Catalogs of injustices may inspire some satisfying feelings of moral superiority, but we all know what happens when people who feel morally superior take charge.
There are lots of good history books. Some current, or almost current, historians I like are Barbara Tuchman, Simon Schama, and Linda Colley, and we can go backward in time to Fawn Brodie, Joseph Needham, de Tocqueville, Ammianus Marcelinus, Ssuma Chien, Polybius, Herodotus, and on and on. I also like to read biographies. For more details, see my bibliographies.