The Cartoon Guide to Life, the Universe, and Everything
June 6, 2011 11:20 AM   Subscribe

Larry Gonick is a veteran American cartoonist best known for his delightful comic-book guides to science and history, many of which have previews online. Chief among them is his long-running Cartoon History of the Universe (later The Cartoon History of the Modern World), a sprawling multi-volume opus documenting everything from the Big Bang to the Bush administration. Published over the course of three decades, it takes a truly global view -- its time-traveling Professor thoroughly explores not only familiar topics like Rome and World War II but the oft-neglected stories of Asia and Africa, blending caricature and myth with careful scholarship (cited by fun illustrated bibliographies) and tackling even the most obscure events with intelligence and wit. This savvy satire carried over to Gonick's Zinn-by-way-of-Pogo chronicle The Cartoon History of the United States, along with a bevy of Cartoon Guides to other topics, including Genetics, Computer Science, Chemistry, Physics, Statistics, The Environment, and (yes!) Sex. Gonick has also maintained a few sideprojects, such as a webcomic look at Chinese invention, assorted math comics (previously), the Muse magazine mainstay Kokopelli & Co. (featuring the shenanigans of his "New Muses"), and more. See also these lengthy interview snippets, linked previously. Want more? Amazon links to the complete oeuvre inside!

Reading note: All the book titles in the post above link to readable versions on the web. Some of the older Cartoon Guides and the first chunk of the original Cartoon History of the Universe comics (through Volume 9 -- ancient China) are available in full; the rest, including the (two-part) Modern World series and The United States, are available partially through Harper-Collins' free book preview feature, which includes the first dozen or so pages of each book and then jumps ahead randomly from there to the end. So pay attention to the page numbers on those links to avoid getting caught off guard by the (unannounced) page-skips!

Amazon links:
Cartoon History:
The Cartoon History of the Universe I (Vol. 1-7): From the Big Bang to Alexander the Great (1990)
The Cartoon History of the Universe II (Vol. 8-13): From the Springtime of China to the Fall of Rome (1994)
The Cartoon History of the Universe III (Vol. 14-19): From the Rise of Arabia to the Renaissance (2002)

The Cartoon History of the United States (1991)

The Cartoon History of the Modern World Part 1: From Columbus to the U.S. Constitution (2007)
The Cartoon History of the Modern World Part 2: From the Bastille to Baghdad (2009)

Cartoon Guides:
The Cartoon Guide to Genetics (1983)
The Cartoon Guide to the Computer (1991)
The Cartoon Guide to Physics (1992)
The Cartoon Guide to (Non) Communication (1993)
The Cartoon Guide to Statistics (1994)
The Cartoon Guide to the Environment (1996)
The Cartoon Guide to Sex (1999)
The Cartoon Guide to Chemistry (2005)

Other:
Kokopelli & Company in Attack of the Smart Pies (2005)
posted by Rhaomi (29 comments total) 62 users marked this as a favorite

 
Yay! Another post from Rhaomi! Ok, diving in. I may be some time.
posted by likeso at 11:23 AM on June 6, 2011


I checked out Cartoon History of the Universe volumes I and II from the library about a year ago. Very fun stuff and I really learned a lot. All his stuff is on my wishlist.
posted by jnrussell at 11:26 AM on June 6, 2011


Right on! Gonick's one of my favorite people working in the medium... I really can't overstate how much I've learned from his books, and how much raw, rad enjoyment I've gotten out of them. I actually just had kind of a callback to one of Gonick's histories in a Sarah vowell-oriented episode of my own strip.
posted by COBRA! at 11:28 AM on June 6, 2011


I was just talking to my girlfriend over the weekend about how much reading the Cartoon History of the United States when I was 13 or so affected me. Thanks for this.
posted by dismas at 11:29 AM on June 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


Man, am I glad this didn't turn out to be an obit!
posted by Jpfed at 11:32 AM on June 6, 2011


OMG, I *heart* Gonick's work so much. He's almost the only reason I know any history at all.

Cartoon History of the Universe (later The Cartoon History of the Modern World)

Well NO WONDER I can't find anything after Vol III.
posted by DU at 11:33 AM on June 6, 2011


The Cartoon Guides were the best part about being homeschooled.
posted by WidgetAlley at 11:38 AM on June 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


Gonick made discovering how ignorant I was of world history fun. That in itself is an art.
posted by tommasz at 11:41 AM on June 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


I've been a fan of the Cartoon History series ever since my folks got the first CHOTU book when it came out. They do have the occasional error, though, but that's hardly stopped most textbooks from getting shipped en masse into schools acrosse America.
posted by zombieflanders at 11:41 AM on June 6, 2011


The Cartoon History of the United States I found weak. I'm in lurv with everything else he's done.
posted by Zed at 11:41 AM on June 6, 2011


Larry Gonick's "Science Classics" cartoons, along with Jeffrey Kluger's columns, were the best parts of Discover magazine in the late '90s. Thanks for posting this.
posted by Johnny Assay at 11:43 AM on June 6, 2011 [2 favorites]


There was a very good profile of Gonick, who apparently lives (or at least did 8 years ago) in San Francisco's Potrero Hill, in the SFWeekly back in 2003. Very interesting guy, and great post!
posted by KatlaDragon at 11:46 AM on June 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


Several years ago my father wrote a fan letter to Gonick and got back a postcard with a sketch of a dinosaur humorously expressing shock/amazement that there are liberals in Texas. It was one of his proudest possessions.

Also, his stuff is just plain fantastic.
posted by sotonohito at 11:54 AM on June 6, 2011 [4 favorites]


I've been a fan of the Cartoon History series ever since my folks got the first CHOTU book when it came out. They do have the occasional error, though, but that's hardly stopped most textbooks from getting shipped en masse into schools acrosse America.

I was introduced to CHOTU by an old boyfriend who claimed to have caught one of the errors in the first volume, and written to Gonick with proof (I wouldn't put it past him -- the guy had one of the most INSANELY AWESOME history book collections I've ever seen). Gonick wrote back thanking him, and actually corrected later editions; that's why in some editions, the art in the latter chapters dealing with ancient Greece goes into a sudden change about halfway through the biography of Pericles.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:54 AM on June 6, 2011 [2 favorites]


This is what I love about Gonick's books: if you're willing to wade into some aspect of world history, but you're not sure where to begin or you're not willing to buy a thick tome on some specific aspect of world history only to find it bores you to tears, read Gonick's books. He pretty much touches on everything. Anything that you find interesting in there, get the thick tomes on that/those things. His books work as a great jumping off point for anything you might find interesting. That's how I got going with the history of the Byzantine Empire and the history of Islam.
posted by NoMich at 11:56 AM on June 6, 2011


I read the Cartoon History of the Universe Volume I, cover to cover, when I was 11 and in the hospital after an appendectomy. When the last volume was released I was 30 and had long since re-read them several times. Now I aggressively recommend these books to everyone I know. I'm actually kinda sad now that it's complete...
posted by sharkitect at 12:04 PM on June 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


I love, love, love the Cartoon Histories. And the Cartoon Guide to Statistics did more for me in terms of understanding that discipline than three tries at a 200-level statistics course in college. Gonick was better at teaching the material in print than any of the lecturers I had in college.
posted by immlass at 12:21 PM on June 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


The Cartoon History of the United States was my first real exposure to liberal philosophy as a kid. It was the first time anyone had ever challenged the nutso right-wing version of history I was being taught in Christian school. Twenty years later, the book's falling apart, but I've still got it.
posted by EarBucket at 12:24 PM on June 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


I have repeatedly used the "Cartoon History of the Universe" instead of traditional textbooks while teaching high school history & literature (Greek mythology).
posted by scaryblackdeath at 12:32 PM on June 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


The Cartoon Guides to Physics, Genetics, Computers, and the Cartoon Histories comprised the bulk of my bedtime stories from ages 8 to 10. They had a significant effect on how I view the world, and on why I studied science.
posted by Jon_Evil at 1:03 PM on June 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


Gonick is awesome. Not least because he has a great bibliography and suggested reading at the back of his books -- if you're really interested, he tells you where to go next.

I own all the History of the Universe books (and some others) and they've sparked so many discussions with my daughter. Excellent books.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 1:15 PM on June 6, 2011


I first began reading "Cartoon History of the Universe" back while it was still being published as an underground-style comic by Last Gasp. Most of Volume 1 was first published in this format.

It was fun comparing those comics to the book version; Gonick took the opportunity not only to fix some errors (see EmpressCallipygos anecdote), but also clean up the artwork and dialog. The long time Gonick needed to complete the three books reveals itself in how much the art changed over time, and how certain narrative techniques get dropped and return. But tracking that is also part of the fun.

It's amazing how easily the historical narrative flows; it really is a history of the universe (albeit - forgivably anthropocentric). But it's also amazing how easy it is for naive readers to readily discriminate between the factual content and Gonick's elaborations. I don't feel any reservations about letting kids pick up the books and learn how crazy and fascinating the past is; they're not going to get too hung up that the real-life Confucius didn't sling an endless series of stand-up one-liners in his written works, but the character sketch of him as a man of infinite energy, bottomless petulance and innumerable obsessive-compulsions contributed to an understanding of his effect on history in ways that any number of flattering and respectfully discreet biographies fail at.
posted by ardgedee at 1:37 PM on June 6, 2011


<i*glances at line of "Cartoon History" books on the shelf*

You know, it's a perfect time to re-read these! THANKS!
posted by Ron Thanagar at 1:39 PM on June 6, 2011


I thank Larry Gonick for making me aware of the rich tradition of Chinese eunuchs in CHOTU II.
posted by benzenedream at 2:00 PM on June 6, 2011


I first began reading "Cartoon History of the Universe" back while it was still being published as an underground-style comic by Last Gasp...

I wish I could claim underground cred. I bought the first book at Waldenbooks in the mall.
posted by DU at 2:17 PM on June 6, 2011


Hah. Not trying to claim cred here (except maybe as proof of age).

There are times when the comics versions get a little too derailed by reaching for a killer gag, and those are rewritten in Vol 1 to stay on mission. The book is, by and large, better because it flows better, but the Last Gasp comics can be fun for their roughness.
posted by ardgedee at 2:27 PM on June 6, 2011


Larry Gonick's work led directly to my greater appreciation for Harry Turtledove's alternate-history short story "Counting Potsherds". The Cartoon History books helped me understand things in the plot of the story like the discovery of the rich vein of silver that let Athens finance a huge navy to fight off the Persians and the practice of ostrakismos. (Athenians could vote to exile any citizen from the city for a period of ten years. The votes were written on pieces of broken pottery, or ostraka. The word ostracism comes from this.)

Basically, Gonick enabled me to win pub quizzes and bore my wife to tears, neither of which is a bad thing. =)
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 2:51 PM on June 6, 2011


Thank you so much for posting this. I've loved his history books to death and am looking forward to getting my hands on the guides.
posted by charred husk at 6:39 AM on June 7, 2011


And for those who want the whole set, you should know that the Cartoon Guide to Genetics was published in a revised edition in '91. The '91 Cartoon Guide to the Computer is a reprint of the earlier Cartoon Guide to Computer Science (as far as I know, the contents were unchanged.)
posted by Zed at 9:53 AM on June 7, 2011


« Older "Juno" was the beachhead for Canadian forces durin...  |  Philosopher A C Grayling annou... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments