Cartooning our way through history – Larry Gonick talks to FPI

Published On February 20, 2007 | By Joe Gordon | Comics, Interviews

Today I’ve been lucky enough to talk to an artist who is not only a damned fine cartoonist but someone I’ve been reading and enjoying for many years, Larry Gonick. Larry has not only been creating some excellent satirical and informative comics over the years with his Cartoon History of the Universe, he’s used the medium of comics to make learning more palatable (not to mention fun) to many who might not have picked up a history book, while for those of us who do read history he always finds new elements and events we hadn’t heard of before, or offers different angles for viewing the events and the people who shaped them, using a comic book approach which has appealed to readers of all ages and knowledge levels (no mean feat in and of itself).

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Over the years he’s also applied a similar format to other subjects, creating comics reference books like the Cartoon Guide to Physics, created cartoons for Discover magazine (seriously, if there was a Nobel Prize for Encouraging People to Read and Learn Through Comics Larry would be up there) and also has the comic strip Commoners, which first appeared in the free Bay Area publication Common Ground and which now has an online presence where Larry can comment on the relentless drive to privatise pretty much everything in existence and apply a monetary value to it. Now with a new publisher, Collins, Larry has a fourth Cartoon History book just published; the title, Cartoon History of the Modern World Part I (‘From Columbus to the U.S. Constitution’), may be slightly different but worry ye not, because this is a continuation from the third volume of the Cartoon History of the Universe, taking the reader from just after the renaissance through the religious and political upheaval of Luther, empire building (and demolishing – the two often go together) to the signing of the American constitution. It’s a huge canvas, crossing oceans and continents like the explorers and conquistadors described within the pages and taking in fiery religious zealots preaching to the birth of modern scientific systems and the age of discovery.

And if that sounds like too much to take in, relax, because it is all delivered with Larry’s trademark humour and satirical (and yet always humane, sometimes affectionate) eye on those events and the people who took part in them, linking them to what came before and showing how they shaped – and continue to shape – what came after them; the world and society we live in today. It’s also a damned enjoyable bit of cartooning!

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FPI: Hi, Larry and thanks for taking some time to talk to us. Perhaps we should start by asking you a little about how you got into creating comics; you were actually there in the heyday of the Underground Comics (or Comix, if you prefer) with now legendary creators like Gilbert Shelton – what was the atmosphere like then, or is it all bit of a blur? Were there any creators or works from that period which inspired you?

LG: I actually arrived in San Francisco in 1977, a bit after the heyday. The Undergrounds were in decline, and there were a lot of unhappy cartoonists wondering what to do next. I was lucky to fall in with Rip Off Press, which was one of the few thriving concerns, thanks to the Freak Brothers’ perennial good sales, as well as some movie option money that Gilbert generously invested in the company (he was part owner.) This allowed me to start The Cartoon History of the Universe in late 1978 and stay with Rip Off for some time afterward.

Before that I’d lived in the Boston area, Cambridge specifically, and while the Underground was clearly the most vital part of comics at the time, I also loved the Marvel stuff and a lot of other kinds of comics as well: Mad Magazine, Donald Duck, Little Lulu, Pogo (especially Pogo), The Spirit. But I think my style really only gelled when I hit San Francisco and worked alongside Shelton and Ted Richards.

FPI: Despite being ‘part 1’ this is really a part of an ongoing series which you have been working on for a long number of years with Cartoon History of the Universe – what actually prompted you to start the series and did you have any inkling in the early days that it would become such a long-running project and perhaps the work you would become best known for? Is it true that the Cartoon History series began as self-published comics?

LG: Modern World, Part 1, is really Cartoon History of the Universe IV in disguise. The title change is a result of a change of publisher. Collins, the new publisher wanted a “re-branding,” I guess. Plus it really is true that the modern world is different from previous eras, in that ideas play a much larger role in social and political organization. Part 1, by the way, is the first of only two. Part 2 will carry the story to the present, and I’ll be done!

I originally conceived it as a lifetime project, in the form of an ongoing weekly strip for the Sunday funnies. I had just finished a 16-month Sunday page strip in the Boston Globe about colonial Massachusetts and the Revolutionary War. It didn’t take a genius to figure out that a history of a limited subject would self-destruct, so I thought of doing the whole world. But someone convinced me that was impossible in newspapers, so when Shelton offered to publish it in comic-book form, I went that way, and I’m glad I did. These 48-page units offer a perfect combination of flexibility and narrative discipline.

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(Larry shows that turning to chocolate for comfort in times of strife is nothing new)

FPI: Your new book, Cartoon History of the Modern World part 1 covers from Columbus to the US Revolution, effectively going from the Renaissance to Enlightenment eras – care to tell our readers a bit about it? How did you choose the period to cover?

LG: Hmm… in reverse order: I chose the period because, after making a careful outline, the American Revolution seemed like a natural place to break. “Renaissance to Enlightenment” is a bit of a mischaracterization. The Renaissance really started earlier and was covered in CHU III. The new book is really about how Spain’s domination of the Americas – and let’s not forget Portugal’s conquests in Africa and Asia – revolutionized Europe’s outlook on the world. Suddenly all European countries with an Atlantic coast could reorient their commerce away from the Mediterranean. This was fatal, for example, to Italy, which up till then had been a central conduit to North Africa and the east. And the consequences were totally global.

Just as the Renaissance was in the last book, the Enlightenment will really be in the next one. (Its working subtitle at the moment is From Enlightenment to Confusion.) CHMW 1, the current book, is mostly about the exhausting religious conflicts that convinced people that the Enlightenment might be a good idea in the first place. The foundation of the United States forms a natural break because it was the first country to be founded on explicitly secular, Lockean principles, on paper at least.

FPI: Although comics have gained a bit of respectability with mainstream critics over recent years humorous comics are still often (mistakenly) perceived by some critics as lightweight, as if comedy and humour can’t be used to deal with serious issues (a belief which ignores centuries of political cartooning and satires). Do you ever think you’ve given yourself another cross to bear by taking the Serious Topic of History and putting it not just into comic form, but into a funny comic form? How important is the humour aspect to you? I recall the comedian Spike Milligan reacting to criticism of humour in his war memoirs by a few historians, saying, look, some of what happened to us was so absurd you had to laugh.

LG: Boy, did you say a mouthful here. By which I mean something very intelligent, by which I mean you agree with me. Now that comics have gone literary, they’re always expected to be SERIOUS. DARK. BROODING. Had I known when I started… but of course I started before the medium went legit, so I just did what I liked. Besides, I can’t draw the other way.

Of course the humour’s important. It’s central. It’s the point. It’s where the opinion is expressed, and, if you want to get, um, serious, it’s also where a certain amount of the pedagogy lives. To put it baldly, building an episode to a punch line helps the reader remember it, dunnit?

By the way, the bias against humour runs throughout literature, not just comics. Very few classic novels are comic, though those that are must be counted among the greatest: Don Quixote, Gulliver’s Travels, and much of Dickens. Can anyone say, Portnoy’s Complaint? A number of (prose) historians show their wit as well.

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(Spain meets the New World – the expression on the Spaniard’s faces at the gold is just priceless)

FPI: Do you think that some historians can be more than a little overbearing (and sometimes rather dull), which puts off a lot of potential readers before they have really had a chance to explore the subject? Is that something you think you’ve perhaps addressed over the years with these comics? Do you hear from readers who previously didn’t pick up history books acquiring an interest thanks to your comics?

LG: Not sure what you mean by overbearing, but dull without a doubt. Most history textbooks I’ve had the misfortune to encounter are just ghastly. Their sins are so familiar, let’s not bother listing them. The main problem I suppose is that they drain the blood from their actors, so we all grow up thinking of “historical figures” and “taxidermy” as synonyms. I certainly hope the comics dispel that impression!!

FPI: Well as someone who reads a lot of history and a lot of comics I think I can safely say you do! Can I ask if you know what sort of range your readership encompasses? I know adults enjoy the books, but I’d recommend them to younger readers too, especially those who are often reluctant readers. Do you hear from younger readers too, or from parents who have used your books to encourage their children to read more? I’d imagine that would be a very satisfying feeling.

LG: I know for a fact that I have readers – literally – from 8 to 85.

FPI: That’s what I liked to hear. Speaking as a bookseller who has read – and sold – a lot of history books over the years, I’ve really enjoyed the Cartoon History series, not just as amusingly told tales but because there is genuine history in there and I’ve picked up on events or persons I’d never heard of (which is always a delight to me), so I am guessing readers who hardly pick up history works at all will often find it quite an eye-opener (our ancestors did what? When? Why wasn’t I told about this??!). How do you approach your research for the books?

LG: Thanks. My research is kind of omnivorous. I just swallow as much as I can and then try to figure it out. Free-ranging as it may be, though, it isn’t aimless or unguided. I’m always looking for the overlooked, for surprising but often crucial connections, for “underlying causes,” for economic influences that underlie rhetorical sleight-of-hand. Like, why *don’t* Bush or Blair ever say anything about oil in connection with Iraq? And of course, always for irony.

The closer one comes to primary sources or contemporary secondary sources, the more of these things there are to be found. People usually describe what’s going on around them in a pretty unvarnished way. It’s later historians who smooth on the glossy veneer. Once upon a time, I relied on the library for sources, but now, using the worldwide web, I can find all sorts of documents the library lacks. Do a Google search for Cabeza de Vaca’s Journal or James Mill’s History of the East India Company and you’ll see what I mean.

FPI: Given the enormous range of the new book, from the Huguenots in France to Spanish treasure ships in the Philippines and power struggles in India (the only other modern work I can think of which has similar scope is Neal Stephenson’s novels like the Baroque Cycle) you must end up with a lot of raw information from your research. How on Earth do you organise the work into sections and how do you decide what goes in and what there simply isn’t room for?

LG: Simple: I throw out everything that doesn’t absolutely have to be there. This can be quite tedious and disappointing in practice, since lots of cherished bizarre bits end up in the dustbin. But it has to be done. The medium demands such a rigorous pruning that I have room only for the story and nothing more. The risk is that too much is thrown out and an episode becomes hard or impossible to follow; I’m sure that’s happened more than once.

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FPI: Were there any particular events or characters who especially appealed to you? I have a soft spot for your depiction of Tycho Brahe for example; I knew about his nose from my own reading, but seeing him in this cartoon form was a different experience. Cromwell’s “I’m not as bad as King Charles” rant also had me in fits of laughter; for me it captured the enormous contradictions in his nature and actions in one panel.

LG: Of course, the whole history of Aztec Mexico is just mind-blowing. On the Asia side, there’s Babur, founder of the Mughal dynasty in India; we’re lucky enough to have his autobiography. In European history, I suppose the most ominous presence of the book is Philip II of Spain. His portrait (at age 20 or so) by Titian that hangs in the Prado says it all: pouty, soft, devious without being deep, fanatical, blah blah blah. On the plus side are the guys who cut through the crap and invented modern science: Galileo, Kepler, Newton, Boyle. My political hero is William I of Orange “the Silent”, who led the creation of the Netherlands as we know them: the first tolerant country with a free press. It provided a haven for Descartes, Locke, and plenty of others who saw it as evidence that such a country was possible. The name “United States of America” is a conscious echo of “United Provinces of the Netherlands.”

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(‘And liberty for all’… er, well, for some… Larry shows that some truths may no be as ‘self-evident’ as we were lead to believe)

FPI: As a reader I’m always delighted when I find out about something interesting which I’d never heard of previously – did you come across anything when researching for your books that you just thought, wow, I had no idea this event had ever taken place, why isn’t this better known?

LG: Many! The biggest example in this book must be the foundation of the Portuguese empire. In the history books in my schools, Vasco da Gama reached India in 1498, and that was about it. In reality, what happened next is the most amazing story of long-distance reality-alteration you can imagine.

FPI: I noticed that you always try to show that few events happen in isolation – for instance in the Modern History events in India, South America and Europe may be in different sections but those events are all linked in a chain of cause and effect. Is this an important aspect you think readers should be learning? You often link the events to modern day occurrences, even if just by using a phrase, such as ‘liberating’ a country; is this your way of saying to readers, look, history isn’t just old monuments and dry documents, it shapes everything we do today, from our laws to many personal beliefs?

LG: Yes, and yes. Once the connections become apparent, you realize that whatever story you’d been told before actually didn’t make any sense at all! How can those textbook writers get away with telling stories that don’t make any sense at all? On the second point, it’s not just that history isn’t just monuments and papers, but also that it was the action, and I do mean action, of flesh-and-blood human beings. It affects us – just as our own actions affect those who come after us. Global warming, anyone?

FPI: Exactly – and a fine example too, considering it takes in major climactic changes triggered by the industrial revolution (which I’m sure we will see some of in book 2) through to the modern era and will continue long afterwards; history, present and the future all in one interconnected problem.

Can we talk politics for a moment? There is a school of thought that the history writer, like a journalist, is supposed to somehow give a dispassionate and objective view of the people and events they are describing, although I have to say I’ve never actually found any book that meets that criteria (and if it did it would probably be as dry as a lizard in the Sahara and much less interesting). You don’t get on a soapbox and preach in your work, but neither do you hide your own opinions or politics – was that a conscious decision? Have you ever had trouble from critics for perceived ‘bias’ (a relative term of course, since some people seem to be able to see bias in anything)? Then again I imagine there are some people who would be annoyed with you already just for suggesting the Earth might be older than 6, 000 years in your earlier books…

LG: Yes, a conscious decision to do it just as you say. Don’t preach. Show. Comment. I think reviewers and readers understand this and take it in stride, as if they were looking at an editorial cartoon. A few people have complained, but surprisingly few, and sometimes the complaints expand my thinking. Incidentally, I think some readers may project their own political ideas onto the comics; I’ve had friendly communications from people with opinions that diverge radically from my own.

FPI: That’s quite interesting, but I suppose it shouldn’t surprise us since the intended meaning of any text – comic, book, film – is not necessarily how it will be decoded by each reader. I’ve heard it mentioned that the second volume of this series, bringing us right up to the modern day, may be the last in the series, is that true? The format is quite flexible and lends itself to creating an accessible book on all sorts of topics apart from history. I know you have used it a number of times to promote learning in science – are you planning to keep using this format for similar projects? Are we likely to see related works dealing with other topics, perhaps a Cartoon History of literature for example?

LG: Yes, the next is last. After that, I have NO IDEA!!! Pretty scary, isn’t it?

FPI: It is! The thought of no more Cartoon Histories after that one is an awful thought, so let’s hope it is a form you will find new uses for. As I was saying the next book should bring us up to the modern day, I believe, which means that you will be covering some events in which people who are still alive participated in, such as the D-Day Landings or the Civil Rights movement – do you think this will affect the way you approach this volume?

LG: Undoubtedly. I’m one of those people, too, you know! I can even remember the fabled Sixties. Amazing. That I can remember, I mean. You can get some of the flavour of this in my Cartoon History of the United States.

FPI: Will the Underground Comix scene of the 60s and 70s feature in part two? Might we even see an appearance from Young Larry in there, since, as you say, you are one of those people!?

LG: Thanks for the idea! Late Twentieth Century Quasi-Literary Movements. Something like that? Nah. Sounds boring.

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FPI: Oh, I don’t know, I suspect a lot of us would rather enjoy reading about those times and people. What books or comics are you enjoying at the moment, if preparation for volume two allows you to pick them up? I know you always add a good bibliography at the end (again in your own inimitable style), but are there any historians or particular books you’d recommend for readers inspired now to actually go to their library or bookstore and pick up some (text) history books to explore some of the areas you touched on?

LG: It’s probably too soon to start making recommendations. I’m working on the French Revolution at the moment, and most of my sources there must be taken with a grain or two of salt. It’s amazing how many ways there are to slice the tricolor cake. The only unequivocally boffo review goes to de Tocqueville’s The Ancien Regime and the French Revolution.

On another subject entirely, I loved Simon Schama’s newest book, Rough Crossings, about the origin of the British anti-slavery movement and Britain’s dealings with the slaves freed during the American Revolution.

FPI: Larry, thank you very much for joining us – I’m looking forward to the next book already.

LG: It’s been my pleasure, and a good break from writing that book.

FPI: Larry’s Cartoon History of the Modern World Part 1 is available now (and highly recommended, I have to say); you can find out more via Larry’s own site here (with previews of the new book to view here) and his Commoner’s strip has an online archive at On the Commons.org here (go on, have a look!).

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About The Author

Joe Gordon

Joe Gordon is ForbiddenPlanet.co.uk’s chief blogger, which he set up in 2005. Previously, he was professional bookseller for over 12 years as well as a lifelong reader and reviewer, especially of comics and science fiction works.