Montgomery fellow Larry Gonick brings cartoons and science to campus

by Wally Joe Cook | 2/7/18 2:20pm

In 1972, Larry Gonick dropped out of his mathematic graduate program at Harvard University to become a professional cartoonist. This term, he comes to Dartmouth as a Montgomery Fellow to share insights related to his educational comics that cover everything from American history to genetics.

Since arriving at the College, Gonick has been visiting classes and interacting with students. He said he has been impressed by the quality of instruction at the College and particularly enjoyed the writing courses he visited.

“Dartmouth overwhelms Hanover and I didn’t realize that,” he said. “My experience has always been in urban colleges.”

Additionally, Gonick has enjoyed the Orozco murals and local restaurants and has been surprised by “how many people go around in this weather with no hat.”

“The Montgomery Fellowship has put me in some very distinguished company, not to mention a very pleasant house,” Gonick said. “The fellowship office has been generous, attentive and instrumental in helping me meet dozens of people here.”

He also said he was excited about how his visit may influence instruction at the College.

Gonick attended Harvard for his undergraduate education and stayed on at Harvard for four more years as a math graduate student before pursuing a career in cartooning. Gonick said that his career in cartooning began when, during his fourth year as a graduate student at Harvard, he illustrated a comic on tax reform.

“It was the dullest subject you could think of,” he said.

Because there weren’t many comics that combined fact, interpretation and teaching, Gonick’s first project combined education and art.

“It’s satirical and funny, but it’s also nonfiction, reporting and explaining,” Gonick explained. “It is a way of wedding fact and interpretation.”

Soon after, Gonick earned a job writing a comic strip for Boston After Dark, a weekly paper in Boston, which later became the now defunct Boston Phoenix.

“When I got my first weekly paying comic strip, I dropped out of graduate school,” he said.

After Boston Phoenix dropped his strip, Gonick thought about writing a comic book for the U.S. bicentennial that could be sold at tourist attractions. The idea materialized through the Boston Globe, where Gonick was hired to illustrate a Sunday comic on the American Revolution called “Yankee Almanack.”

From there, Gonick then moved to San Francisco to further pursue a career as a cartoonist. There he met artists involved with Underground Comix, which he said was an “immensely influential” group of small press or self-published comics that focused on edgy, satirical comics.

“It had two prongs,” Conick said of the San Francisco comics movement. “It started in the mid to late-sixties, so one prong was the sexual revolution and the other prong was the explosion of drug use.”

From there Gonick worked on a comic called “The Cartoon History of the Universe” and then his first science project, which was a genetics cartoon he collaborated on with a microbiologist that he knew.

“Science writing was taking off as a discipline in the 1980s, so I thought I should try doing something in science,” Gonick said.

Eventually, editors picked up Gonick’s comics and he began regularly publishing books in his “Cartoon Guide” series. He recently published “HyperCapitalism” and is currently working on “The Cartoon Guide to Biology.”

According to Montgomery Fellows program director Klaus Milich, this year marks the 40th anniversary of the Montgomery Fellowship. The College has hosted over 250 fellows since the program started in 1978.

Milich, who helped bring Gonick to campus, said that Gonick was an interesting candidate for a liberal arts college since he combines the humanities of the comic and the sciences.

“Cartoons, graphic novels and comics have become very prominent, particularly among students,” he said.

The core idea behind the fellowship is to give Dartmouth students the opportunity to interact with individuals who are renowned in their fields and to combine the humanities and sciences.

“We have had prominent people here from all walks of life,” he said.

Former Montgomery scholars have included figures such as novelists Salman Rushdie, Philip Roth and Toni Morrison. Musician Yo-Yo Ma will be joining the College as a Montgomery Fellow in the spring, Milich said.

Students have different opportunities to meet with Montgomery Fellows, Milich said. As an example, he said that students are invited to have lunch with fellows at the Montgomery House on Rope Ferry Road, where they are housed.

Gonick first heard about the fellowship opportunity through the associate dean for the sciences, Daniel Rockmore.

“[Rockmore] was in San Francisco for some reason and we had a conversation and he said, ‘We should find a way to get you out to Dartmouth,’” Gonick said. “And he did.”

Elizabeth Whiting ’21 was also drawn to Gonick because of this combination of art and science.

“I’m not familiar with other people who combine education and cartooning,” she said. “He’s targeting an audience that wouldn’t normally be interested in a book on calculus. I think that going forward art and education are going to be combined even more.”

Whiting, who has an interest in cartooning, said Gonick has an interesting style and his work is very detailed.

“If you like comics, read comics and make comics,” Gonick said. “It’s a legitimate art form, the world recognizes that now. If you’re drawn to it — no pun intended — do it.”

Correction Appended (Feb. 7, 2018): An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the publication that dropped Gonick's strip. Boston After Dark had already become the Boston Phoenix when it dropped his strip. The article has been updated to correct this error.

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