The Cartoon History of the Universe: Volume 1 by Larry Gonick

I picked this book for the club as a) a change of pace and b) as an interesting perspective on history (I am myself a historian). Gonick, a mathematician by training, has a remarkable talent for portraying history (and pre-history, in this volume) in an engaging and informative way, mixing jokes (including some real groaners), skeptical witticisms, and a fairly broad historical perspective that nevertheless displays a definite point of view about the forces of human history. Gonick is now up to the fourth volume of the History, and his work has been much praised by the likes of Carl Sagan, Terry Jones, Will Eisner, and Lynn Johnston.

Before I get to that perspective, a word about the art- some of the group members had a problem dealing with it on an aesthetic level. This is definitely not a book you get for the art- the style most closely resembles Sergio Aragones and would be perfectly at home on the funny pages or Mad magazine, but after being treated to more virtuoso turns by Tim Sale and Steve Dillon the quality does seem a little lacking. Nevertheless, Gonick has good composition skills and awareness of his medium (see for example the inter-panel play on pages 146-147), and his style works well for his topic and his wise-cracking perspective.

By far the most discussed aspect of the book was Gonick’s take on religion. It is fairly clear from the get-go that he is skeptical towards the more supernatural claims of the major world religions (Chapter one is basically the story of evolution, and his notes make it clear that he has little patience for Intelligent Design theories). This skepticism is, at least, even-handed as it is applied to the ancient faiths of Greece, Sumer, and Egypt as well as the Old Testament (having read the later volumes, this continues with Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, Daosim, Islam, etc.). Gonick’s humor in these sections tends to be the same as in the rest of the book, and to me at least strikes a Mark-Twain-like balance between sympathy towards the human quest for understanding and mockery at some of the odd twists this quest has taken. Other members were, however, less happy with that balance, and seemed to wish that he’d offered a more even consideration of different takes on the subject.

Goncik’s skepticism comes through in other areas as well. One notable example (given the recent release of a movie that featured a lot of bellowing about Sparta) is his take on the battle of Thermopylae. Having given a thorough background to the conflict and Spartan society, Gonick reminds the readers that “the 300” were in fact accompanied by about 900 servants who died with their masters. Gonick thus punctures the romanticized version of the battle while still recognizing its significance.

As an historian, I can say that this book, like all history books, certainly has its biases as to what is “right” for humanity and for those with whom the author feels sympathy (Socrates, for example, is one of the “good guys” while Ramses the Great is a buffoon). This is not the place to discuss all the merits of the book’s scholarship, suffice to say that you should come to it with a healthy skepticism. The same way, in other words, that Gonick approaches his subjects.


One Response to “The Cartoon History of the Universe: Volume 1 by Larry Gonick”

  1. I love Anime as well, my personal favorite of all time is Rei Ayanami