Do the Math: Larry Gonick on The Cartoon Guide to Calculus
For nearly 40 years, cartoonist and professor Larry Gonick has been using comics to educate. From history to science to mathematics to sex, there’s very little Gonick hasn’t covered, and even more, he’s shown that comics can be just as educational for adults as they are for children. His latest, The Cartoon Guide to Calculus, takes that ever-so-complicated math course we all loved in school and presents it with great depth and style. Here’s how Gonick approaches his works and using comics to reach and teach.
You've been doing comic works of nonfiction for years—long before comics were in vogue for doing this. Was it difficult to get people to take them seriously when you began?
Some people more than others. In the wake of the '60s, people were willing to experiment. You can see this from both sides. On the one hand, in 1978, Rip Off Press, an underground comics publisher, originally brought out The Cartoon History of the Universe comic books, so the hippies liked the idea of real information in comic books. A year later, an official of the National Science Teachers Association put a copy of the second Cartoon History comic book into every teacher's packet at the annual convention. So someone "legitimate" didn't mind distributing 1,500 comic books from the publisher of the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers.
These isolated enthusiasts made a difference. I sent samples to New York publishers in the early '80s without much luck. But a renegade unit of Harper and Row, which had made a lot of money with the Anatomy Coloring Book—a very effective anatomy teaching tool—decided to take a flier on me. This led to the Cartoon Guide science series.
Finally, a well-placed fan put the Cartoon History comics in the hands of Jacqueline Onassis at Doubleday. After she battered down the resistance of the sales force, Doubleday bought the book, a collection of the first seven comic books. It became a bestseller and changed my life forever.
What made you want to do nonfiction educational comics in the first place?
I was drawing cartoons for fun in grad school, with no professional plans beyond becoming a math professor. My technique was getting pretty good, so a friend asked me to collaborate on a nonfiction comic he had in mind. His model was the work of Rius, a great Mexican cartoonist (real name: Eduardo del Rio) who used humor, opinion, and a beautifully sketchy graphic style to convey information.
This seemed revolutionary to me: instead of merely satirizing, a comic could educate. I did the project, "Blood from a Stone: A Cartoon Guide to Tax Reform," with my friend, Steve Atlas, and it was a revelation. Here was a form of cartooning I could do. It was an "unoccupied niche," and, unlike regular cartooning, it relied on a never-ending supply of material. If I'd had to depend on my own imagination for cartoons, I'd have stayed in grad school!
When I got my first weekly strip, Boston Comix, at Boston After Dark (now the Boston Phoenix), I dropped out of graduate school, and I've been doing comics ever since.
How difficult is it to translate mathematics to a visual format like this? Did it make doing a book on calculus more challenging?
You're right that some subjects lend themselves to cartooning more easily than others. Abstract thought is a challenge. There are many places in The Cartoon Guide to Calculus where the visual explanations rely on diagrams or graphs rather than cartoons.
On the other hand, calculus is about motion, action, time, change. This makes it ideal for cartoon illustration. Cartoons are the only visual medium with dedicated symbols for motion. The challenge, then, wasn't so much that the subject was hard to illustrate. The problem was that all those formulas want to hog the page! Doing calculus requires familiarity with formulas, so I wanted to include plenty of them, plus problem sets. (This is the first Cartoon Guide with problem sets.) This created a certain competition for space that I tried to resolve as best I could.
Which age group do you see this book (as well as your other books) aimed at? Will adults who haven’t picked up a calculus book since high school be able to jump back in with this?
I've never worried too much about who my target audience is. I just try to keep everything clear. That said, my science books all follow the relevant curriculum, sometimes fairly deeply. This is a real calculus book. So if you're an adult who's been away from math for a while, I'd say yes, you can jump in here—if you're prepared to read carefully, and to do some work.
From calculus to world history to sex, you’ve covered a lot of ground in your books. Which one has been your favorite to work on so far, and why?
Ooh, tough one. This is like asking which of my children I most enjoyed raising. Next question!
Have you seen your books used in schools?
Yes. Many, many schools. Right now Harvard is using The Cartoon Guide to Statistics as the only textbook in its general statistics class for non-majors.
What, in your mind, makes the comics format work well for teaching these various topics?
Narrative approach, visuals, and humor. I put narrative first; to me, each of these books begins with a rigorous exercise in narrative construction. In every section, I have to identify who the "characters" are and what their story is. Every story has to work in a page or a double page. This imposes a kind of structure that most books don't have. Subjects have to come to a point in a certain dramatic way. This gives a Cartoon Guide considerably more rhythm than your normal textbook, to say the least.
Because the subjects (acids and bases, say, or enzymes) become characters in a story, the reader identifies with elements of the story instead of being alienated by Latinate jargon and science-y prose. It's like the difference between talking about salt and the concentration of salt. Everyone knows what salt is; concentration, not so much. But a scientist will always refer to concentration, because it's something measurable.
It's probably not necessary to say so much about visuals and humor, because their uses are more obvious.
When did you first get into comics and what made you a fan? What were the comics you loved growing up?
I've been into comics since my dad used to read me the Sunday funnies from the Denver Post when I was 3 or 4. In those days, it was Gordo and Li'l Abner. As a kid I loved Donald Duck, Uncle Scrooge, and Little Lulu. Then I got into Pogo and never got out! In college, I devoured the great Stan Lee/Jack Kirby comics from Marvel and then the undergrounds, Crumb and Shelton especially. Later it was Calvin and Hobbes and Dilbert.
Which graphic works are you a fan of now?
I haven't followed graphic novels closely for quite some time, but there are cartoonists I read. I love Ben Katchor's work for its quirky philosophy and magnificent drawing; I read the New Yorker cartoons faithfully, especially Roz Chast and Zach Kanin; and there is some very fine stuff published online now, like Randy Munroe's xkcd.com and my new favorite, Kate Beaton's Hark! A Vagrant!
There are also a couple of foreign cartoonists whose names may not be so familiar. The Malaysian who goes by the pen name Lat is one of the greats of all time. Luckily for us, he did a lot of work in English, and you can buy it on Amazon. His two-book memoir Kampung Boy and Town Boy should be in every comics library. Quino's Mafalda, an Argentine kid strip from the '60s and '70s, is sheer genius. Good way to learn some Spanish, too.
Which topics would you like to tackle next?
Next up is The Cartoon Guide to Algebra, and I'm thinking more long-term about cell biology. It's visual, complicated, and a clear alternative to the standard textbooks is sorely needed.