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December 16, 2009

Larry Gonick on Embracing a New Medium

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Cartoonist Larry Gonick --- creator of FROM THE BASTILLE TO BAGHDAD, the latest installment in the bestselling The Cartoon History of the Modern World series --- reflects on the slow emergence of comics onto the mainstream literary scene, and revels in how his holiday memories, along with his choice in reading material, have vastly improved as a result of the increasing acceptance of this "new" medium.

Funny, but the most memorable Christmas present of my childhood was a bicycle, not a book. In my family, books were so much a part of life that I don't associate them with any particular holiday. Books were simply there, all the time, in heaps. But that bicycle…

I can still remember my parents' chuckles as I failed to notice the massive, shiny red Schwinn leaning against the wall. Focused on the small stuff under the tree, I had no eye for anything so far beyond my expectations. Conspiratorial laughter broke my trance, and when I finally saw the Big Present, my thrill was tinged with humiliation, which no doubt accounts for the memory’s indelibility. It was my first awareness of looking without seeing, of the cognitive constriction that comes with age.

The same perceptual narrowness explains why a parent in those days would never give a child a comic book. To grownups, comics were cheap and cheesy, things to be confiscated, never bestowed. My parents at least tolerated my accumulation of Donald Duck, Uncle Scrooge, Little Lulu, and Classics Illustrated, but they surely failed to see them as part of a rich and cherished medium. Buying one was emphatically not an adult activity.

The publishing industry felt the same way. When I first proposed The Cartoon History of the Universe to a certain New York publishing house in the late 1980s, a friendly editor had to force her blindly skeptical marketing department to review it twice before giving it a grudging nod. The book sold well; a few other daring companies had similar conceptual breakthroughs; more successes from other authors followed; and mainstream publishing embraced a new medium.

“Graphic novels,” or fat comic books as they ought to be called, made comics respectable, or at least not completely disreputable. My recent holiday memories are sweet and acute: Alison Bechdel’s FUN HOME, Craig Thompson’s BLANKETS, Marjane Satrapi’s PERSOPOLIS, Quino’s MAFALDA --- a book the size of a small refrigerator that makes you laugh, teaches you Spanish, and builds your triceps all at the same time --- and this year (it came early and I read it --- sorry) Doxiadis’ and Papadimitriou’s spectacular LOGICOMIX. And because comics are the one medium besides music that we return to again and again and again, my reading pleasure has multiplied many times in recent years.

A mind is a wonderful thing to open.

-- Larry Gonick

This afternoon, Steve Luxenberg discusses a Christmas tradition his Hanukkah-celebrating family has taken part in for nearly two decades.