I have read one book of “The Cartoon History of the Universe” (which has collected the first seven volumes of the series) and I must say that I like it. But it’s not something that you should read all at once, just as you shouldn’t splurge on a large pizza by yourself. My older brother told me I would have this book for one week, so I could read one volume a day. That’s what I did, even though I felt like I could finish it during the last stretch. Why do you need to pace yourself? Because this series is, for lack of better words, a textbook set to comic illustrations. It could’ve gone the other way by telling the story through the comic, but instead you get the history in captions and then the illustrations to add humor. Later in the book illustrations are used to narrate the story, but if you want to get through the section on evolution then you should read one volume a day. Otherwise you’ll think that the book is too thick and shouldn’t have been written in the first place.
So if this is a history textbook, then what kind of history does it cover? Like the title suggests, it covers the history of the world. On the spine it says “From The Big Bang to Alexander the Great” for the first book. That means that the first eighth of the book is dedicated to evolution of life before moving on to cover civilizations. How do we cover the history of the world? There’s a history professor who takes us back using a time machine constructed from books. We have a one-page introduction with him for each volume that shifts transition between time periods. He warns us when there’s going to be explicit sex and violence and what exactly we are going to cover. Although my eighth grade World History teacher was funnier, this professor has his moments.
I think that Larry Gonick did a good job with executing this story. I even understood the parts of history that I had never heard about before. However, Kevin didn’t like how Gonick covered evolution and then went on to retell Bible stories without divine intervention. He mentioned that you have to either talk about evolution, or the Bible. I remember that in eighth grade World History we covered three possible origins of the world: evolution, intelligent design, and a transition in between the first two options. We also covered some Bible stories, such as Moses (we saw “The Prince of Egypt”), David and Bathsheba, and we watched a movie on Jesus. Later on we also covered Muslim history. Maybe Gonick should have covered both evolution and intelligent design in order to not confuse people who believe in one or the other. And maybe he put the Bible stories there in the first place to appease the historians who believe that these stories truly occurred during evolution. (It is World History after all.) Despite the fact that I understood it, I’m going to knock a few points off for that because not everyone will.
I’m also going to knock points off for the amount of nudity in this book. Don’t worry; it’s not censored, but it seems so unnecessary! In the beginning it was used in order to explain evolution, but once we get to civilization, Gonick has no problem with showing baby boys without loincloths or naked women throwing spears or people having sex for no real reason at all. This is a textbook, not a perverted comic book! In our family library we have a series of short comic books from India called “Amar Chitra Katha”, which narrates Indian mythology. (It’s the only comic book that Indian kids could read in school.) Even when a character is naked, the publishers realize that this is for kids to read and use camera angles to cover any unnecessary nudity. In history class we only talked about sex and violence when it related to historical events. (Addendum 10/18/06: The second book when talking about Indian mythology mocks it cleverly and even made my family laughed. We all have read “Amar Chitra Katha” at some point and we don’t feel offended.)
There was also violence in “Amar Chitra Katha”, but it wasn’t what you’d call shocking. I have to give credit that Gonick uses the same level of violence, so that didn’t shock me. (It won’t shock too many parents, either.) The rest of the artwork is fine, as you can’t confuse people or animals and the backgrounds are accurate and detailed. Most of the illustrations are for laughs anyway, so you won’t really mind. The only image that freaked me out was this one panel with a Delphi priestess. This priestess would inhale vapors from crushed leaves and (so I’ve seen on Discovery) laughing gas from the waters near Delphi. So this stoned priestess for one panel narrated that this Greek king, if he fought the Persians, would destroy a great empire. (He went to fight; the empire he destroyed was his own.) I’ve always found it fascinating how most of the predictions from Delphi came true, but the image reminded me that the ladies who made these predictions were not sober. It’s disturbing if you think about it. I do have to cover this: since most of the drawings are for laughs, what is true when you get to the point where you need to see the panels in order to understand the history? I think that most people can figure out what is fact and what is fictional. And even the humorous panels (about people, that is) have a grain of truth in them.
So this is a strange situation. If you’re willing to see, or let your kids see a lot of sex and nudity in order to learn history from this book, then check it out from your library and read it. (Keep in mind that this was published in 1980, though, in case some of the history is different from what you’ve learned.) If you feel that your kids are too young to see sex and nudity (see above for mentions on violence), then skip to the back and decide which books to read from the bibliography. If you feel that you or your kids are suffering in history class (WORLD History class, that is), then read this book. If you are reading this because you’re a history buff, decide for yourselves whether or not this is worth it. I say the same to anyone who wants to read this for fun. That comes to two out of three recommendations, not counting the last two sentences as they depend on the person. I’ll bear the sex and nudity because I am inquisitive to see this author’s spin on history. I’ve already requested the second book from my library, even if it costs me another week of manga.
- -Review By Jaya Lakshmi- -