Former Student Talks Cartoons

The work of a cartoonist is unique because “one graphic can tell a story,” said Lawrence R. “Larry” Gonick ’67, a Harvard mathematics student who went on to dedicate his career to depicting big ideas through comics.

Gonick, who has worked as a cartoonist since the 1970s, has published cartoon guides to teach concepts in disciplines as diverse as politics, history, mathematics, life science, sex, and tax reform.

His first major publication, “The Cartoon History of the Universe” describes billions of years in 380 pages of illustrations.

His newest work, “The Cartoon Guide to Calculus,” was released earlier this year.

“Comics can use different techniques to represent complicated information,” Gonick said as he showed slides of his own work and the work of cartoonists who influenced his style.

He continued that cartoons can make pages of dense information more enjoyable by allowing the reader to better connect with the material.

“Our neural circuitry wants [us] to see cartoons,” Gonick said, citing a MIT study which found that people recognized cartoon illustrations of famous faces more quickly than actual photographs.

The clarity and conceptual accuracy of Gonick’s work has aided students both young and old.

“In order to understand a unit in biology, my oldest son and his friend used Gonick’s book on genetics,” said community member Tadeck Gaj. “The book helped them clarify some points.”

Gaj’s 11-year-old son Cormac added that the comics are “very funny.”

Benjamin Y. Zhou ’15 said that he has greatly enjoyed Gonick’s cartoon guides for their clarity and wit since he was introduced to them by his sixth grade history teacher.

While Gonick acknowledged that his work has been criticized for having too much anthropomorphism, he stressed that the strategy is useful as long as readers understand that he is not being literal when he writes that something inanimate “wants” to do something.

Despite this criticism, Gonick’s work has been adopted by academics as an educational tool.

“At first I had professional skepticism towards Gonick’s [Cartoon Guide to Statistics],” said Statistics Department Chair Xiao-Li Meng.

“But now I have adopted it as the only reference book for Empirical and Mathematical Reasoning 16,” Meng said.


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