#CBR4 Maneuver #34-36 – The Cartoon History of the Universe 1-3

Target: Larry Gonick’s The Cartoon History of the Universe, Volumes 1-19

Profile: History, Nonfiction, Cartoons!

Summary: From Volume 1, “This cartoon history is the outcome of my nine years at Harvard, where I studies mathematics – yes…  Nine years the math department scoffed at my theories!  But what do they know about time travel?  Most mathematicians can’t tell a second hand from a second base!!  We parted ways in 1972

After I dropped out, I built this time machine!  Let’s hear ‘em scoff now!  You see?  Simple!  Just a pile of old history books!  Gad, but that musty smell is bracing!!

If I read the right books and concentrate hard enough, the machine transports me – in my imagination – anywhere in the past that I want!   For you it’s even easier – all you have to do is KEEP READING!  But hang on tight!  I’ve set the controls for the time before time began…”

 After Action Report:

If I were being honest, I wouldn’t be able to include the first omnibus edition of Larry Gonick’s Cartoon History in this Cannonball, as I’ve read it enough to have dog ended every other page.  If I were being really honest, I’d have to admit that the book was the only reason I passed my Western Civ classes in high school and college.  But upon reading the second and third omnibuses, I felt it wouldn’t be fair to the series as a whole to leave out the first one that did such a good job of capturing my imagination as a child and a teenager, and instilled in me a love of history that survives to this day.

As with most ‘big’ projects, it’s easier to define Gonick’s Cartoon History by what it isn’t   It is not an attempt to professionally summarize the breadth of human history.  Nor is it just a comic rendering of western civilization’s greatest hits.  The books present a version of history that is entertaining on its own, capitalizing on the larger-than-life figures and bizarre incidents that riddle the history books.  Where archaeology and recorded history fail, Gonick fills in the blanks with the mythologies and legends of the cultures he’s examining.  He attempts to place these pieces of fiction within their factual contexts, such as the real war against Troy that formed the backdrop for Homer’s Iliad.  The result is a ‘dried out’ version of these stories, stripped of much of the supernatural or religious trappings, but given new life in the context of history.

The first omnibus covers the entirety of pre-human history, through to the collapse of the Greek golden age, and the rise of Alexander the Great and his Macedonian empire.  While this may seem like a lot, Gonick has put the focus on human history, and the book moves from archeo-biology to ‘proper’ history by the end of volume 2.  Each volume contains a single culture, or narrative line.  The volumes are generally in chronological order, but around the 400s B.C., history starts getting more and more crowded and the volumes are forced to explore cultures in parallel or come back to examine different areas.

The second book kicks off with one such backtrack, to prehistoric India, where the history either never existed, or was lost to perishable materials.  Too his credit, Gonick doesn’t limit his exploration of history to Western Europe, but spends volumes in book two on India, China, and Southern Asia before jumping back to the Roman empire and the rise of Christianity.  Book three jumps back again to cover the rise of Islam and the wars in the Middle East and North Africa, including the African empires of Mali and Ethiopia.  The camera then shifts back to Europe for the slow collapse of the Byzantine emperors, before pulling back and leaping all over the world for the Mongolian invasions of China and Eastern Europe, the Crusades and the start of the Renaissance.

Where Gonick truly succeeds is in his efforts to make history accessible to any reader.  Some of the referential humor will go over the heads of younger readers, but even a middle school student should be able to digest the majority of the books.  Gonick doesn’t shy away from controversial topics, from sex to religion to biology, and but navigates dangerous subject matter by sticking to the facts and making equal fun of everyone.  Not that it’s impossible to be offended by the Cartoon History, just that rational people shouldn’t be.  Overall, Gonick does a very good job of covering history evenly, with a natural lean toward revolutionary events.  There are some places where the detail is a little sparse, or he spends a few extra pages on a section that he is particularly fond of, but these sections rarely get in the way of the bigger picture.

These books aren’t going to make you an expert overnight, but I guarantee you’ll feel more conversant with history after you read them.  Unless you are an expert.  And as an added bonus, you’ll laugh a few times along the way.  Gonick succeeds where many historians fail.  He finds the joy of history and takes you on a ride to discover it.  It’s a mindset that seems foreign to most text-book writers, and one we could certainly use more of.  While we’re waiting for that ideal to become a reality, The Cartoon History of the Universe offers a wonderful, and educational, diversion.

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Posted on October 16, 2012, in Cannonball Reviews and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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