Review by Frank Plowright
Larry Gonick’s first two volumes of the extraordinarily titled Cartoon History of the Universe, are consistently fascinating, energetically drawn, and provide a constant stream of educational surprises. This is the same. The greater universe has taken a back seat as humanity evolved, and having established such a creatively successful formula, there’s no fumbling of the ball. Gonick takes humanity from the earliest days of Christianity and the foundation of Islam to Christopher Columbus just about to journey West in the late 1400s.
Because he’s reached a period of great human diversity Gonick does have to change his approach, and each of the six chapters follows how societies evolved in a broadly defined geographic area over several hundred years. The opening chapter, for instance spotlights the rise of the Muslim faith and how adherents all-but conquered the Arabic world along with North Africa and considerable areas of what’s now Spain. Gonick’s approach to history isn’t the Euro-Centric approach of old, and he doesn’t shy away from the atrocities committed by Europeans, ostensibly in the name of faith in a loving God. As previously, footnotes, amusingly illustrated with a foot holding a brush, expand on astounding items or highlight points where there is no historical certainty, such as how far cattle farming was responsible for the spread of the Sahara desert.
Gonick’s research has such depth that no-one can fail to learn, and he delights in history’s dumb moments and revealing inevitable failure. The sample art spotlights the preposterous origins of the Fourth Crusade, bizarrely successful despite being ludicrous, and Gonick’s never short of a sardonic comment or a pithy illustration. That’s the triumph of his approach: it’s such fun, so much delivered so accessibly. You’d have to be a historian yourself to fully appreciate how concisely he compresses complex events into easily understood snippets, but there can surely be no more enjoyable form of historical learning. Of course, it can reasonably asked why anyone with a curious mind should bother with a book, in black and white yet, when there’s a wealth of information online. That discounts the inspired way Gonick connects historical threads, and the consistently witty and engaging presentation. Not even in Horrible Histories (which owes much to Gonick) are the ridiculous errors of people who considered themselves important so thoroughly highlighted, and he’s a master of giving credit where it’s due, even when that’s been denied for centuries.
With humanity well established and the fifteenth century approaching, Gonick switched titles, producing The Cartoon History of the Modern World over two volumes. Starting in the 1980s Gonick took on sideline projects with the Cartoon History title applied, first looking at genetics, computer science and the USA, a series that continues to this day.