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4,500,000,000 Years in 350 pages

By Liam T.A. Ford

CRITICS of popular culture frequently bemoan the lack of historical knowledge of today's youth, citing statistics that indicate students don't even know what century the Civil War occurred or who Plato was.

If he has his way, Larry Gonick (Harvard class of 1967) will change all that. Gonick is the author of the recently released Cartoon History of the Universe (Volumes 1-7), a milestone in the development of cartoons used for serious purposes.

Nobody can accuse Gonick of lack of ambition. The author of the Cartoon Guide to Genetics, used in Harvard genetics course and the now-defunct weekly Cartoon Kitchen has his work cut out for him: cartooning the entire history of humankind. After leaving Harvard's math department in 1972, Gonick has managed to produce seven "volumes" (read: comic books) of History so far, up to the time of Alexander the Great.

Asking of the Math Department, "what do they know about time travel? Snort! Most mathematicians can't tell a second hand from second base," Gonick begins his history with an excellent overview of the origins of the universe and life on earth.

After quickly tracing the development of life from the first crude cells (which cry "Free! *! We're free!" as they "colonize the open ocean") to the first primates, Gonick moves on to early pre-history in volume two, "Sticks and Stones. Homo Erectus, Neanderthal and the more advanced Cro-Magnon human of the Stone Age give way to the Homo Sapiens of the first post-ice age settlements of 12,000 years ago. Volume two ends with the founding of cities in Sumer, between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in Iraq. Four billion years in 100 pages. Not bad for a comic book.

Volume three describes the rise of the first civilizations in Sumer and Egypt and uses the first written texts as a guide through early history, including the origins of Judaism with the migration of Abraham from Hammurabi's Ur. Gonick then moves from the earliest bible texts to the conquest of Saddam Husseun's idol Nebuchadrezzar to the rise of the Greeks, devoting the last two volumes more extensively to Athenian life (with much cribbing from Herodotus).

With such a large period to cover and only 350-odd pages in which to do it, Gonick pulls off a spectacular feat by making history both readable and meaningful. The cartoon medium is uniquely suited to describing the essential facts of history and conveying a sense of everyday life in the ancient world. Because he can show us how people dressed, cut their hair, furnished their homes and conducted their religious ceremonies, Gonick can concentrate on using his text for historical or scientific narrative and explanation.

Although cartoons necessarily stylize human beings, there's nothing like having a visual image interwoven with bare facts to give a feeling of what a historical period actually meant to those who lived it. Whether it's the primitive swamplands of the Devonian period or the orgies of the Greek cult of Dionysos, god of wine (which started with the tearing apart of a goat, a bull or a baby), Gonick succeeds in fixing facts more in your mind than even the most exhilirating textbook. And Gonick is able to maintain the historical accuracy of his work, making it one of the most educational comic books ever.

The cartooning style which he uses to such great effect is reminiscent of that of Walt Kelly, the creator of Pogo. His forest scenes in volume one especially remind one of Kelly's Okefenokee swamp. All of Gonick's volumes, however, show a great attention to visual detail which only comes in the cartoonist who is able to sketch superbly but who's having a bit of fun drawing comics.

In its historical content too the Cartoon History shows the acute attention to detail and penchant for amusing but pertinent sidetracks that characterizes the self-educated layperson. Historians tend to either bog down in superfluous facts or theorize their subjects into oblivion. Gonick, however, knows how to set up a the basics of a culture and then fill in the reader's knowledge with tantalizing facts. His footnotes (three panels at the bottom of the page set off with a foot drawing an asterix), which he uses to give background or explain historical controversies (such as the Egyptian version of the Trojan war), are especially interesting.

Readers who relish a good history book and wish to see one of the most active minds in modern cartooning at work should definitely get this book. It's a great substitute for terribly long histories, and if you are interested in learning more, Gonick even offers an illustrated bibliography.

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