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Cartoonist Larry Gonick Shares Drawing Secrets and Path to Fame

By Yaron Koren
Staff Reporter

Cartoonist and humorist Larry Gonick alternately amazed, regaled, and enlightened a crowd of about 40 at an hour-long talk at the MIT Museum last night.

Gonick, a San Francisco-based cartoonist is best known for his "Cartoon Guide to..." series-comic-book style books meant to bring complex issues in history and science to the masses with intelligence and humor. He also writes an illustrated column, "Science Classics," for Discover.

Gonick is currently at MIT as part of the Knight Science Journalism Fellowship Program, which brings noted science-based journalists to the Institute to teach and pursue independent study.

Last night's talk - entitled "How Many Words is a Picture Worth?" - concluded a week-long series of seminars on illustration. Gonick spent much of the hour discussing the differences between written and pictorial information, and the challenges in translating from one to the other.

Describing "a picture is worth 1,000 words" as inexact, Gonick used bit analysis and a knowledge of digital compression capabilities to hit on an estimate of anywhere from 36,000 to a million words needed to represent the information in one picture.

Ironically, for the in-depth, specialized topics Gonick said that the opposite is usually the case. "The cartoonist's job is to convey a lot of meaning into very, very few bits," he said.

He described his art as constantly taking advantage of the human instinct to read a great deal of emotion and body language into rudimentary illustrations. He got one of his biggest laughs from the audience explaining how he draws faces.

Gonick began with a large circle with two eyeballs inside and a curved line representing a mouth. "Just your typical smiling idiot," he said. He then added two long eyebrows, slanted inward to represent anger. Finally, he added a single horizontal line through the eyeballs to represent half-closed eyelids. "Now he's just gotten away with something," Gonick observed.

Gonick spoke disarmingly about his work, very in touch with his scientifically-oriented audience and giving little indication of his national prominence in cartooning.

He described his early career while a graduate student in mathematics at Harvard during the late '60s and early '70s. A friend introduced him to a series of comic books on complex political issues such as the Communist revolution in Cuba that were informative, yet funny and pointedly satirical.

Although only an amateur, Gonick approached the book's publisher about helping to write additional books in the series. He was accepted, and his first assignment was "the driest subject in the series: tax reform," Gonick said.

Gonick was proud of his effort, and showed the book to various local publishers in an attempt to begin a career in cartooning. He ended up getting a stint at the newspaper Boston After Dark, writing a comics-style column exploring the seamier side of Dorchester politics.

At the talk, Gonick reproduced on his easel one of the main characters from his column - a caricature of a corrupt judge named Jerome D. Troy, who under Gonick's satirical pen became the Roman emperor-like figure of Jerry D. Stroy.

Later in his career, another newspaper hired Gonick to draw a series of columns about the history of Boston for the nation's bicentennial.

In August of 1976, bereft of a job, Gonick decided he would create a full-scale non-fiction book written entirely in comic-book format. He explained his propensity for writing only informative content by saying that he "went into this career with the assumption that I would only draw about things."

"I never trusted myself to create drawings out of nothing," as most cartoonists do, he said. The crowd chuckled when Gonick recollected that after searching a considerable time for a large enough topic for his first book, he finally hit on "the world."

Gonick was, of course, talking about what eventually became "The Cartoon History of the Universe." His most famous work, it is a monumental eight-volume tome covering the dinosaur age to the end of the Roman Empire in 650 illustrated pages.

Gonick listed several upcoming projects, including a guide to environmental science to be released on Earth Day, and another one on sex. "This is the one that will make us all millionaires," he said wryly.

Gonick also took the occasion to reveal a few secrets of the trade. He confessed that he uses a computer program to mimic his handwriting. The program uses four slightly different versions of each letter to create an illusion of authenticity. He claimed that he has not actually handwritten any books since his "Cartoon Guide to Statistics"

"This is a picture of my best friend," near the end of a slide presentation. He was pointing to a photograph of his computer.