While we were traveling America last year, we came across Vol 3 of Larry Gonick’s fantastic ‘Cartoon History of the Universe’ series. Endorsed by everyone from Doonesbury’s Garry Trudeau to the late Carl Sagan, the series more than lived up to the hype. This led us to his website whose work spans topics ranging from history to physics to pure math.
That’s how we found out that since the very beginning, Larry has seen comics as a way not only to entertain and inform, but to change the world we live in. Once we’d seen that, we knew we had to interview him. Thankfully, he obliged.
1) How did you get into reading comics? What was the first comic you ever owned?
My father used to read me the comic strips from the Sunday Denver Post when I was four years old. I’ve been reading comics ever since. I couldn’t possibly remember my first. I’m pretty sure I Go Pogo entered the house by the time I was six. Kelly was surely my strongest stylistic influence.
2) On your website, it says you dropped out of math in 1972. What’s the story there?
3) You also say that “My crazy hope is that this crazy medium will somehow improve this crazy world.” That describes our work pretty well, too. But you’ve been doing this since the 70s. What made you think comics were a good medium for social change?
4) Your background is in math, but your bibliography covers an incredible diversity of topics from history to chemistry to sex! Did you have co-authors for some of those titles, or did you research it all as you went along?
5) Something that really stood out to me when I was reading the first three volumes of ‘Cartoon History of the Universe’ was how deliberately you avoided falling into a Eurocentric narrative of history. The Islamic world, the Indian subcontinent and China all feature prominently in your account of world history, with attention paid to the Eurasian steppe and sub-Saharan Africa as well.
But in Vol 4 (rebranded by the publisher as Cartoon History of the Modern World, Vol 1) the focus shifts dramatically to Europeans, apart from a good account of Meso-American civilization and some coverage of the Inca. There’s still some coverage, but it isn’t at the level of the previous books. Why was that?
6) I know you’ve just finished a book, and there’s a question about that coming up. But do you have plans for any future ‘Cartoon History’ or ‘Cartoon Guide’ titles, or anything else?
I’m in the middle of The Cartoon Guide to Biology with Dave Wessner, a biology professor at Davidson College (Steph Curry’s alma mater. Go Warriors!). It will surely be the longest of all the science books. I’m also working on my first project explicitly meant for the classroom: a large series of quiz questions for beginning physics.
7) Looking at your website led me to the ‘Commoners’ series, which I read as short comics about the enclosure of different commons by transnational corporations. What led you to produce those?
An old friend and associate, the late Jonathan Rowe, who spent his life in activist writing, put me on to the idea and found some funding to support the strip.
8) Do you still make time to read comics? Have you read anything good lately?
I have the time to do it but little inclination. I mostly read novels, with a little non-fiction on the side. My problem with graphic novels is that they’re quick to read and you rarely want to go back. In this, they’re different from the great comic tradition of work like Pogo, which I re-read until all the pages fell out. I’m proud to say that the Cartoon Histories are books that people return to again and again. I realize this sounds dismissive, and in fact I still read comics. I love Kate Beaton’s Hark! A Vagrant and check in with Randy Monroe’s xkcd pretty often. Of more-or-less recent book-length pieces, my favorite by was Roz Chast’s Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?
9) You’ve got a new book coming out in the winter: “Hypercapitalism?” Can you tell us a little bit about it? What moved you to write it?
Tim Kasser, a psychology professor at Knox College, approached me about doing a book on capitalism and responses to it. I thought, Hm, why not go back to my political roots? The time was right. I especially liked approaching the subject from an unconventional direction: the psychology of money-chasing and material gain and what it does to more humane values and pursuits like community feeling and care for the planet’s future. Tim insisted that we finish the book with a long section on what people are actually doing to address our out-of-whack values, and I’m hoping that the book will stimulate some productive discussion out there in the discussion-sphere.
10) Inevitably, interviewers miss an important question. If there’s a question you wish I’d asked but didn’t, feel free to pose it yourself and answer it here.
The Left was baffled in 2016 to learn that Trump was taking a stance against the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP. As the new administration fires up for trade wars, perhaps it’s time to review what we know about the role of the American state in international trade.
I’m on tour at the moment and am moving like molasses, but I’ve finally gathered myself up from drawing my own comic that takes place in Alberta, to talk about my *favourite* comic that takes place in Alberta. Michael Comeau’s ‘Hellberta’ has been described elsewhere on the internet as “one of the most meaningful and interesting” variations of a Wolverine comic, and I must agree. It explores the Canadian home of one of comic fandom’s most celebrated characters, against a background that is at once both more realistic and more surreal than your garden-variety Marvel title.
My conversation with Michael is below. For a better run-down on the plot and cultural significance of ‘Hellberta’, I recommend reading the Barbed Comics review linked above. To pick up a copy for yourself, you can do so here.
N: What was your relationship to comics growing up? To X-men and Wolverine in particular?
M: I collected the “Uncanny X-men” from the Mutant Massacre story arc to when Jim Lee branch off to the merely “X-men” title approximately 1986 to 1991. Wolverine emerged as an intriguing character for me and many others. The Chris Claremont, Frank Miller mini series is the quintessential statement on the character. I bought an old “Inferno” issue of Uncanny X-men in Drumheller Alberta and began drawing Wolverine. I didn’t pay attention to super hero comics for around a decade and was mildly annoyed to find out they filled out Wolverine’s back story to be that his name was no longer Logan but James Howlet and he was originally British. I can usually recognize when a writer can’t grasp the Canadian hoser Logan archetype so it poses the question what would I do with the character. The reclamation of Wolverine opened up notions of Canadian identity like collaging the archetypes of Neil Young and Logan.
I often find myself fantasizing about the ability of the supernatural (and by extension, superheroes) solving the world’s social and political problems, beyond what I would see in your standard comic book. So I’ve found that Hellberta has been really satisfying for me and other activist folks I’ve shown it to. Would you describe Hellberta as a kind of political revenge porn, like Inglorious Bestards is to nazism or Django Unchained to slavery and racism?
I am a straight/cis/white man from Ontario who learned about Albertan activist culture among the oil sands boom while living and traveling with queer and trans people from Calgary. I was unsure how to depict the queer flight from Calgary or the environmental impact of the tar sands so I took a popular myth from the area and supplanted it onto the situation. What would Wolverine do? Superheroes are extensions and exaggerations of our hopes and fears I don’t really see them as rising above anything. I’d rather see them struggle with our same mundane problems in spite them being so exceptional.
I would hate it if someone compared anything I’d done to a Tarantino film, so in your own words – what were you going for with Hellberta? What would you say were your influences or sources of inspiration?
A: Initially it was a cahier de voyage with rough drawings that were somewhat related to our adventures on the road. Then I included the Wolverine vs. the tar sands as a way to learn how to make a comic. It had direct X-men references like how Wolverine would “hunt” deer by creeping up and touching them or the Phoenix as an arbitrary global catastrophe and an Osamu Tezuka style time lapse of total destruction to gradual renewal. The photo comic section was based on the relationships Logan has with young women. He is a good archetype for intergenerational friendships with women. The “Sackville Slapper” section is more about trajectories across provinces. It is inspired by Donald Shebib’s “Going Down The Road” movie and the SCTV spoof of it. Both of my parents are from New Brunswick and i wanted to reference the east coast. The idea was Logan as Popeye and Puck as Wimpy in an east coast Tijuana Bibles style book which is a paradigm shift away from the photo comic.
There’s a lot of Christian iconography in this book that can’t go unnoticed. Harper and his harlots fly around on a cross, but it is Wolverine who is martyred and rises again. How did you decide to incorporate this imagery?
Christianity is a conquering ideology used in colonization. It severs a localized spiritual connection to the land. I often think of what therapists call the “reversal of desire” regarding someone feeling repressed and ostracized by images of Christ and finding comfort in Satan etc. Like a metalhead teenager. In processing my own catholic repression I enjoyed drawing from medieval christian imagery. Wolverine is a classic christ figure. Sacrificing himself to be resurrected through his homo-superiority ie. healing factor. He regularly gets crucified onto X’s in comics. The Right Wing wields notions of God as a weapon and I wanted to counter that with what is essentially the same human impulse to create heroes/gods but from a far more transparent place as pop culture.
One question for the printing nerds: take us through the printing process of this book, because the dual tone is enough to make your brain want to explode. It kind of feels like a throw-back to those cheap 3D graphics with the red & blue ink that you could dig out of the bottom of a cereal box. How did you decide on this technique?
I’ve created and printed many 2 colour screen printed posters. The first issue was printed on Jesjit Gill of Colour Code Printing’s very first risograph machine which only printed one colour at a time so the registration had to be very loose. I was doing the dot tone with a photocopier. Copying over top the lines or turning the breakdown into a negative, copying over a negative dot tone and reversing back to positive and then copy over top the line work. I am fascinated by the timbre of an image and use of tone. It is constantly evolving through out my work.
Do you see yourself making anything in this vein again?
There is an Alpha Flight story in my head that has haunted me for years. I have done my own riff on Son of Satan but now for the most part I am working on original stories with only some sketchbook strips that might be bootleg. Lately when I don’t know what to draw I do without reference Superman, Wonder Woman and Batman. No matter how crud the drawing is you still project the characters onto them. So naturally I have thought of dumb, petty dialogue for them to exchange.
Since this comic was created, pipeline projects (and their messes) continue to dot the North American landscape.We’re also entering a “Trump era”, which shares a fair bit of common ground with the Harper Government. Do you think Wolverine is an important hero to have in an age like this?
Heroes are as important as we make them. Each situation is gazed at through the lens of the hero prism. Be it Wolverine, Jesus, Tupac or Joni Mitchell. Logan is post-human, a homo-superior, so he points to the future but is from the far past.
We’re thrilled to announce the publication of our fourth title, Undocumented: The Architecture of Migrant Detention Centres’. First published in a very short run in 2014, Undocumented grew out of the research of architect and activist Tings Chak. Tings has been active in the Toronto chapter of No One is Illegal, a group dedicated to protecting the rights and freedoms of migrants.
This second, expanded edition of the book comes at a difficult time for migrants. With Trump talking about building a border wall, hiring hundreds of thousands of border guards and even discussing using 100,000 national guards to deport migrants, things are looking grim. The situation in Canada is not much better, as refugees flee over the US border only to be threatened and arrested when they arrived.
That’s why it’s so important to keep informed. Undocumented provides critical context for understanding how migrant detention works to strip people of their humanity and make them invisible to society at large. Forewarned is forearmed as they say and this book helps to explain what is shaping up to be one of the most important struggles of the 21st century.
What’s more, Tings is donating her royalties to the End Immigration Detention Network, so every sale will help fight the oppression of migrants.
Head on over to the crowdfunder page!
In January 2017, Ad Astra Comix is teaming up with Toronto-based artist and activist Tings Chak to produce a new and improved 2nd edition of their work, “UNDOCUMENTED: The Architecture of Migrant Detention”.
What is Undocumented?
This 120 page book of illustrations, diagrams, and comics journalism-style interviews with former detainees explores the world of migrant detention from the intersection of architecture and migrant justice. The result is a unique and eye-opening argument for an end to migrant detention as we know it –or, in many cases, as we have only begun to discover it exists.
Pre-orders for the book’s 2nd edition will begin with a crowdfunder in January, and we’d like to use the crowdfunder as an opportunity to celebrate all art against migrant detention.
– End Migrant Detention
– Refugees Welcome Here
– No One Is Illegal
– Stop the Deportations
– Migration is Not a Crime
If you are an artist and would like to “donate” a digital file as a promotional perk, we will promote your art through the crowdfunder and compensate you for your work to the tune of a 20% royalty on all items sold. Please e-mail email@example.com for details.
Requirements & Deadline
Deadline for art submissions will be January 1, 2017. We request that files be 300 dpi, black and white or colour, and between the size dimensions of 5″ x 7″ – 18″ x 24″ (irregular dimensions may also be accepted). Any questions or concerns, please e-mail Ad Astra Comix at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Looking for Inspiration?
Check out some beautiful migrant justice artwork through the JustSeeds print collective and their collection, “Migration Now!” Have any other inspiring suggestions? Msg us and we’ll share it!
Ad Astra Comix is pleased to announce the second edition of ‘Undocumented: The Architecture of Migrant Detention“. First published by an academic architecture publisher in 2014 in a limited run, we are excited to bring ‘Undocumented’ to a wider audience.
Creator: Tings Chak
Published: Sections (The Architecture Observer), 2014
Dimensions: 23.4 x 17.3 x 1.5 cm
Shipping weight: 340 g
1st Edition Print Run: 750 copies
Buy a 1st Edition: In the Ad Astra Online Store
As with previous Ad Astra projects, a pre-order campaign will be held to raise awareness and cover the costs of printing. Stay tuned for details!
Last January, we spent time in Atlanta Georgia with our friend. Specifically, we spent time in Dekalb County, Georgia, with Andrew, the co-founder of On Our Own Authority Books and his daughter, Olivia. This comic is about them.
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE – PLEASE SHARE WIDELY
After more than a decade out of print, readers around the world are getting ready for “War in the Neighborhood”.
War in the Neighborhood is 320 pages of largely unheard history. First published in 1999, WITN is a story about smashing cinderblocks, filling in the cracks and finding our future in the rubble. It tells the story of New York City’s Lower East Side in the late 1980s, when it came under attack by wealthy developers, cynical politicians and that special kind of daring yuppie who thinks that gunshots in the night are a sure sign of a hip ‘hood. The panels may be black and white, but the moral questions raised in the comic are anything but.
It may be hard to imagine that a story set at the end of the Cold War is relevant to struggle today. The history of social struggle, however, repeats itself. The lessons contained in ‘War in the Neighborhood’ have echoes in Occupy, Black Lives Matter and other 21st century social movements.
‘War in the Neighborhood’ is the longest book we’ve ever published. Our printer tells us that it will cost about $11,000 to print 3,000 copies. In order to ensure that our publishing projects are sustainable, we make sure that pre-order campaigns like this one cover the full cost of printing. Our funding levels reflect the cost of laying out, printing and shipping these titles. That’s why we’re asking for 15 big ones in order to cover costs.
But, there are some incredible perks in this crowdfunder: workshops, original poster art, super-rare political comics… even some special offers for retailers and distros! So check out the crowdfunder and spread the word!