09 November 2009

Larry Gonick's Cartoon History

In the fall of 1990 a 14-year old Benito read about something called The Cartoon History of the Universe in the science magazine Discover. He asked for it for Christmas, and received it. He read it over and over again.

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.
Why do I bring all of this up now? These books will make great Christmas gifts for the curious youngster in your family. If you prefer a geocentric universe that began 6,000 years ago you probably won't like it, but if you want a kid to be able to intelligently argue about the ostracism of Themistocles or the politics of Byzantium at any point from sixth grade to grad school, these books are for you--or more appropriately, for that weird little relative that obsesses over dinosaurs, space, math, and eventually, wine. Though I'd prefer that you give it to the child with a few cracks in the spine and some dogeared pages. We could all use a refresher course in world history.


fredric koeppel said...

omiggod! when i was a kid, I devoured Roy Chapman Andrews' books about digging for dinosaurs in Mongolia, and after that i wanted to be an aeronautical engineer, and my father and i made solid fuel in our utility room and set off rockets in the backyard. i took four years of math in high school, but it was all beyond my comprehension, so that's not a factor. when i got my first library card (this was at the old main library on McLean) I promptly started with the Greeks and went through all the greek drama and history and then went on to the Romans. I also read all the Classic Comics. that's when I started writing poems, like at 13 or 14. I came late to wine, but we all know that history. & there's the story of my life.

Benito said...


Thanks for sharing... much of that sounds familiar, and my brother and I dabbled in model rocketry for a while. Although I think making solid fuel at home would get you on a DHS watchlist today.

My first library card was issued at the Whitehaven branch back in 1983. I carried it around for years until it disintegrated inside my wallet. I spent a good bit of time at the McLean library as well, and could while away an entire Saturday nosing through the stacks. The new main library is definitely cleaner and more modern, but I miss the old one's confusing layout of rooms, wings, and additions, as well as fun things like going upstairs to listen to records on those giant headphones.


Allen said...

Well said and reminds all of us the power of books. In the words of your Great Grand Father, E. J. Langdon, "The day you quit learning is the day you die."

Benito said...


You and Mom did a great job of keeping the house packed full of books and magazines, particularly some 30 years' worth of National Geographic. That freedom of self-discovery was great, as I go to bounce around from geography to history to aviation to whatever else was on my mind.