In 1970 Larry Gonick, a self-described ''lifetime doodler,'' left Harvard's graduate math program to become a cartoonist. His first comic efforts were mostly political and historical, including a cartoon for the Sunday Boston Globe about colonial Massachusetts. ''But I kept running out of material,'' he says. ''So I decided to pick a project that would keep me busy for a long time.''
That project was the Cartoon History of the Universe, and Doubleday has just published the collected Vols. 1-7 ''from the Big Bang to Alexander the Great.'' As a cartooning historian, Gonick takes a few liberties: A brontosaurus refers affectionately to a fellow dinosaur as ''honey tons,'' Cro-Magnon artists slink through caves using their sticks like spray-paint cans, Pheidippides fantasizes about running shoes on his trek from Athens to Sparta. But don't mistake the book for fluff. It's a real history book some schools have even adopted it as a text. Gonick, who's just finished the Cartoon Guide to Physics, thinks his medium makes facts digestible. ''Cartoons are lifelike,'' he says. ''They have movement and narrative; people aren't intimidated by them.'' His next project, Vol. 8 of the Universe series, will cover ancient Indian history. At this rate it could take him decades to get up to the present, whatever that is by then.