Humanist Cartoonist is Home on the Hill
Ryder W. Miller
Cartoon historian Larry Gonick has lived on Potrero Hill since 1977, but is concerned about how long he’ll be able to stay in his 18th Street office space, and whether the community will retain its best qualities, as a wave of gentrification hits the Hill. There’s “great light in there,” Gonick said of his office. “That’s just one reason we’re concerned about 1601 Mariposa,” a proposed developed next to Live Oak School “which will loom over us and completely eliminate our view to the north, not to mention the effect it’ll have on parking and the already miserable traffic around the foot of the Hill.”
“I’ve seen waves of gentrification and decay and re-gentrification. Right now the Hill looks very posh. The rents are insane, and there seems to be little energy to push back,” he continued. “As the saying goes, those who are ignorant of history are condemned to repeat it. What I’ve learned is that if you know history, you may be condemned to repeat it anyway.”
Gonick was born in the Richmond District in 1946, though the actual event occurred at the California Pacific Medical Center Children’s Hospital, where both his daughters also arrived. When he was three years old his family moved to Colorado, and then to Phoenix, where he attended Central High School.
“As an artist, I’m mostly self-taught, which means I copied other cartoonists,” Gonick said. “I’ve been reading the comics since I was very small. For school-school, I went to Harvard after high school, majored in math, and stayed on there in grad school. I dropped out in 1972, my fifth year, when my first weekly comic strip, “Boston Comix,” began its run in Boston After Dark, one of two weeklies there at the time, a la The Bay Guardian here. Later BAD acquired the Boston Phoenix and took over its name. It ceased print publication last year.”
“In 1975-76, the year before I moved to San Francisco, I did my first history comics.
These were in the form of a weekly strip in the Boston Sunday Globe and covered — in lots of detail — the history of colonial Massachusetts and the American Revolution. The strip, which debuted on the 200th anniversary of Paul Revere’s ride, was a bicentennial feature, obviously.”
“In the summer of ‘76 I was in San Francisco on vacation and saw an article in the Bay Guardian about a new American Revolution comic by Gilbert Shelton, Ted Richards, and Willy Murphy, published by Rip Off Press. Shelton, creator of Wonder Wart-Hog and The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, was an idol of mine, so it took some courage to call him up, but he was friendly and invited me to his studio.”
“The studio was upstairs from Rip Off’s publishing operation and warehouse, at the corner of Missouri and 17th streets, where Arch is now. Illustrator, Wendy McNaughton has the old studio space, and Arch occupies the Rip Off warehouse, but not for long. Shelton, a pony-tailed “old” hippie — maybe 35 at the time — took one look at my stuff and said, “this is the way to do history comics.” Naturally, my estimation of him rose considerably from its already high station. He said if I ever wanted to do more, they would publish me.”
“When I came out here in February of the next year, they were ready for me, but I wasn’t ready for them. The money sounded too pathetic, so I looked for other work, but meanwhile I spent lots of time at Rip Off Press doing what hippies do and playing a lot of ping pong. After a few months, Ted, who had a desk up there, told me he was ready to move and asked if I wanted to share studio space. Together with a friend of his named J. Michael Leonard we formed Fast Draw Studios, upstairs from the Tea Lautrec printing company on Sheridan Alley between Ninth and Tenth streets. Tea Lautrec did all the Bill Graham posters and was run by a great guy named Levon Mosgofian.
“After about a year of finding no real publishing prospects for my comic in the Bay Area, I came back to Rip Off, took their offer, and that’s how The Cartoon History of the Universe was born. The first 48-page comic book, Volume 1, came out in September of 1978. It’s a collector’s item now. The first few installments were drawn in that Sheridan Street space, with plenty of visits to Missouri and 17th streets for ping pong and whatever hippies do. Eventually the underground comics market withered, and Rip Off had to downsize. They moved to a much smaller space on San Jose Avenue, and then left town completely, to Auburn.”
According to Gonick, history needs to be entertaining to attract people’s interest. Some books put the “juice” into past events, while others say “gloriously stupid things...any blowhard can be a historian!” he said. “It helps to be a blowhard with a point of view, though. Otherwise it can be boring. Maybe I’m naïve, but I think it’s a good thing if we have some idea about what leads to what.”
Of his work, Gonick said “You might call it political cartooning about the past. And by people, I don’t just mean kings and generals, but ordinary people. My motto has always been: History as it really happened, in cartoon format.” He tries to present historical figures as flesh and blood human beings, “very much like living people, passionate, conniving, confused, idealistic.”
When Gonick arrived on the Hill the community was a hotbed of activism. “Now, not so much,” he remarked. He bought his Missouri Street house in 1978, married painter Lisa Goldschmid, and raised two daughters, Sophie, now 31, and Anna, 27. He and his family have led “fairly uneventful lives,” something with which Gonick is comfortable.
Gonick originally shared a large Potrero Avenue office with resident Sharon Smith, a graphic designer living on the Hill. “Her Markets of Provence is still a classic,” he said. “After that went bust, I moved in with Kajun Design, which had a large space at Mariposa and Mississippi streets since the mid-1970s. I first met them doing flyers during the Good Life mess,” when the small grocery store was ejected from its original 18th Street location. “The space housed a miscellaneous group of graphics types. After some time, the former Chronicle illustrator Dan Hubig, one of my first friends here in SF, joined us. In 2010, half a dozen of us—Dan, Laurie Smith and Pat Koren of Kajun, Laurie Wigham, and Alison Wood—left that space for our sunny little office on 18th Street, and its excellent owners, the Brondellos, who are also originally from the Hill. I’ve been enormously fortunate to have been able to walk to work all these years.”
But their lease ends this fall. “I’m a little nervous about our prospects, especially since I’m not ready to retire,” said Gonick, who is waiting for word back from his publishers on some proposed projects. He bemoans the loss of small businesses that have contributed to the neighborhood’s character. “I’m completely disgusted to hear that Arch has to go and the building will probably be demolished.”
Over the years, Gonick’s writing interests have shifted from history and science to mathematics. “Mathematics is beautiful, surprising, and eternal. Unlike scientific theories, religious doctrines, or philosophical systems, mathematic results are universally accepted and understood by people of all cultures in the same way, forever,” said Gonick, who is now working on The Cartoon Guide to Algebra for eighth and ninth graders.
Gonick was raised on Pogo, read Marvel and underground comics; some of his Pogo anthologies have fallen apart from re-reading. He also likes Dilbert, Calvin and Hobbes, and Roz Chast. “My truly favorite books are book-books,” Gonick said, listing Proust, This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff, and Middlemarch.
“One thing about comics, though, that makes them especially dear to my heart, is that you can read a good comic book ten, twenty, even fifty times and still get its kick,” he said.
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