Larry Gonick,
The Cartoon History of the Modern World, Part 1
(Collins, 2006)

The author of The Cartoon History of the Universe, Vols. 1-3 gives us the history of the world from the time Columbus left Spain to the creation of the U.S. Constitution.

When you consider the correlation between history and the political cartoon, and how, in some instances, cartoons actually shaped political history, it seems like a natural jump to frame history in cartoon format. The political cartoon is uniquely suited to relaying masses of information in a compressed format, which is one of the best ways -- apart from extraordinarily tiny print -- to relay the history of the world from the time of the Portuguese conquest of South America, to the fateful decision by King George III of England in 1783 to rid Britain of its expensive, and increasingly upstart, pesky colonies.

Larry Gonick's meticulously researched narrative has a neat way of humanizing the brutal truths behind "conquest" and "development" while unfailingly finding the humor in the most unlikely places, even in that most delicate of historical touchstones -- human sacrifice -- without losing sight of the gravity of the truths behind any action. He does what the best historians do: creates empathy for the subject while leaving value judgment out of the picture.

Every historical narrative is driven by the author's personal views. Gonick goes to great lengths not only to not remove himself from the text but to actively remind readers that history, at the end of the day, is not only instructive but highly personal. Much depends on what we happen to think is fair and right. All good histories are written on the basis of evidence, which is ironic given how much of the actions that compose history are based on lies, propaganda, opinion, biases and stereotypes. Gonick bases his interpretations on fairly solid evidence (heavily influenced by Jared Diamond's book Guns, Germs & Steel) while handling nuances with the skill of a Swiss watchmaker, making room for varying and even controversial views of subjects that are the focus of much scholarly debate. He reminds us that history is created by human beings who are both flawed and magnificent, which is why history is such a many faceted jewel.

Cute and sweet as his art is, the information threshold has not been lowered for the reader. Indeed, Gonick seems determined to cram as much information as possible into his writing as much as his drawing. Nor does he lower the pain threshold: he is brutally honest about things that would ordinarily be airbrushed out of concern for political correctness. But Gonick is as concerned with correctly presenting politics as he is with making sure every frame of his art is condensed with detail. According to Gonick's hard-to-disprove premise, the history of our world is a saga of pain and power and promise combined into one very heady cocktail. The history of history is written in the blood of innocents as the hunger and need for power motivated nations to drive themselves to financial and spiritual bankruptcy as they stepped on one another to get to the high ground.

And yet there are gems of enlightenment, individuals and nations alike whose decency and foresight were just as important as the bloodier labor pains experienced by a world in the process of defining itself. The peacemakers and the warmongers are given equal time treading the boards of Gonick's vast stage of characters. It is not just sovereigns and generals whose discoveries and victories both expanded humanity's geographical understanding and defended or exploited all claimed territories: the scientists, philosophers and activists, who both propelled and created history and whose discoveries were vital to the development of human understanding, are equally feted.

Certainly, enough of history has accrued at this time in human development that, like a coral bed, the general shape of what humans truly are is now evident to all but the most uneducated or deluded eyes: we are as capable of peace and freedom as we are of exploitation and slavery. Gonick focuses on the bright spots of human development across the board, giving each culture credit where credit is due in terms of discoveries made in science, medicine and astronomy. Humanity is not defined by brutal conquest alone but also by its willingness to learn, eventually, from its mistakes and to embrace painfully clarifying knowledge (e.g., it is the Earth that revolves around the sun and not the other way around). For all we have done in this world, our greatest achievement is the discovery of humility and empathy.

Gonick leaves history at the birth of the nation that would come to be known as the United States of America. Being the youngest superpower on the planet and just growing out of tweenerhood, the USA is still something of a work in progress. With so many examples of how to do things right, and how to do them wrong, what will this very young nation, unique on the planet in being the first nation in history to draw upon the experiences of all other nations, do with what amounts to the entire history of humanity at its back?

This book is perfect for anyone who wants a working knowledge of the basics of world history but who only has time to read one book. It's engaging, funny, accurate and easy to zip through for all its density. After reading you may find that quite a few pieces, and huge chunks at that, have suddenly fallen into place. It's well worth the price for the expert clarification.

[ visit the author's website ]

review by
Mary Harvey

5 July 2008

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