That was the first step in a 20-year journey that ended last week.
Now, for those of you that are beginning to smirk at the idea of me reading "comic books" as a teenager and grown adult, I will kindly ask you to kiss my Scots-Irish ass. The first book in this series was edited by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis (she saved it from the reject pile at Doubleday) and the work was praised by Carl Sagan among others. In a college World History course, I recognized the inferior quality of the assigned texts, and used TCHOTU I & II as my source material for exams. I was one of two people to get an A; the other being a girl that I was courting and with whom I was sharing a lot of that great cartoon history. (Young gents out there: the right kind of lady loves a literate man.)
Who is the genius behind all of this? None other than Larry Gonick, a Harvard mathematician who decided to draw cartoons about science and history. I'm going to focus entirely on his historical contributions here, but he's written similar guides to statistics, genetics, and many other topics. Pictured at right you can see my first editions as I collected them over the past two decades:
The Cartoon History of the Universe I, Vol. 1-7: From the Big Bang to Alexander the Great (1990)
The Cartoon History of the Universe II, Vol. 8-13: From the Springtime of China to the Fall of Rome (1994)
The Cartoon History of the Universe III, Vol. 14-19: From the Rise of Arabia to the Renaissance (2002)
The Cartoon History of the Modern World, Part 1: From Columbus to the U.S. Constitution (2006)
The Cartoon History of the Modern World, Part 2: From the Bastille to Baghdad (2009)
I hate that the books got smaller over time, but cost becomes an issue and these aren't exactly Spider-Man comics we're talking about. The quality and style has been consistent over the twenty years, and I've savored every minute that I've spent reading each of the five books. Things I love about these:
- Beautiful black and white pen and brush work reminiscent of Pogo and Asterix. Examples here, here, here, here, and here. These little images don't do the work justice.
- The books are heavily footnoted (with an amusing icon of a foot drawing an asterisk or a musical note). They also contain extensive bibliographies at the end, referencing both established works in the field as well as primary sources when applicable.
- While it's not possible to list every historical figure and the detail of every society on earth in a space that takes up less than 20 linear centimeters on the bookshelf, Gonick does a great job of covering histories that are frequently ignored in modern western life unless you choose to specialize. Namely the histories of China, India, the Middle East, and north Africa.
- There are big gaps. Only the briefest mentions are given to Russia, Korea, Thailand and the rest of southeast Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, and Australia. South America drops off the radar around 1900. Antarctica also gets short shrift, but not much of significance has happened there. For my part, those gaps encourage me to do the research on my own.
- Because a truly comprehensive history of the world would have required a book for every modern nation, there are points at which Gonick draws a map of the world and gives a quick synopsis as to what is happening where. It's an easy way to get the "big picture" of a specific decade.
- If it's not already obvious, the whole endeavor was produced with a lot of love and humor. When was the last time you laughed while reading history? And for those of you who have reached the bottom of this post, desperate for food or wine content... He did a great series of cartoon recipes for Serious Eats.