Monday, November 15, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 285 (11/15) -- The Cartoon History of the Modern World, Part II by Larry Gonick

Larry Gonick has been writing the history of the entire world in comics form -- well, actually, he started off with the universe, only limiting his scope as the earth cooled and more interesting things started happening here -- since 1977, but he's finally done. Of course, he's only "done" in the sense that he got up to the present (2008, when he was done) and stopped -- history, as it does, kept going on, and always will.

That history first appeared in comics form from the old underground publishing house Rip Off Press -- I've got twenty or so issues in one of my long boxes, deep in the basement -- and was reprinted in book form, first with three volumes of The Cartoon History of the Universe from Doubleday (where Gonick was originally acquired by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis) and then with the follow-up The Cartoon History of the Modern World. This is the second volume of Modern World, published late in 2009, which brought the history of the entire planet from the French Revolution up to "now."

Gonick's history has a clear tone and point of view, embodied by a Gonick-like narrator and characterized by a clear sense that humans are capable of both wonderful and hideous behavior; Gonick neither sugar-coats history nor purely focuses on the gory points. He does try to bring out as much cultural history as he can fit in -- particularly in the earlier volumes -- to keep his book from being the usual history-overview list of kings and wars, massacres and battles. But this volume is more focused on the high points of history than the earlier ones; he has two very busy centuries to fit into less than 250 pages, which doesn't leave much room for discussions of everyday life. (It does then seem to spin along at high speed; one might have wished for this to have been expanded into two volumes -- one for the 19th century, say, and one for the 20th -- but I could also easily see that ever-expanding, as each new volume covered fewer and fewer years, like a high school history class that can never quite make it to WWII.)

Gonick has continued his excellent bibliography -- here a four-page annotated list of works he consulted, with suggestions for further reading -- which is one of the great features of the Cartoon Histories; the earlier volumes, with their wider-than-historical scope, also showcased his thorough grounding in accurate science and scholarship. (Again, that first volume began with the Big Bang and ran through planetary formation and the dinosaurs; a lot of this "history" has been archaeology, physics, and cosmology.)

Gonick's work, as always, is deeply enjoyable just to read; he makes even wars and atrocities into opportunities to learn and do better next time, and has an enthusiasm for learning and knowledge that shines forth from every page. Modern World works equally well as an introduction to the subject and as a reminder for those of us who have studied some of these years (sometime, in some depth, in memories that somewhat survive) -- I can't think of anyone who wouldn't benefit from reading Gonick's histories and thinking about them.

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

1 comment:

Michael Barron said...

I've been meaning to read these for quite a while now and someday I will actually do it. I have met many people who like them.

Do you have any other historical graphic novels you would recommend (besides Maus which I own)?

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