Learning history from a comic book sure sounds like fun. And Larry Gonick provides a storehouse of solid facts and dates in his venerable Cartoon History series, which started with the universe (19 volumes collected in three books) and continued with a compact American history. In The Cartoon History Of The Modern World, the Harvey Award-winning writer-artist tackles the age of colonialism in digestible chunks delivered by his Einstein-esque pen-and-ink alter ego.
But the real story is how subversive this cheery little funnybook turns out to be. Gonick doesn't illustrate the standard Eurocentric narrative of the Niña, the Pinta, and all that jazz. He makes the setting of the stage into the play itself, tracking back through the growth of the Aztec empire and the roots of pre-Lutheran peasant rebellion. The book's subtitle, "From Columbus To The U.S. Constitution," betrays none of Gonick's lengthy, bracing forays into the origins of Sikhism and the birth of political philosophy. Yet these sections aren't just sidebars; the book presents them as the story behind the story, the real engines of history that have been hidden from dutiful schoolchildren by the persistent myth of the "great man." When the familiar names show up on the scene—kings, explorers, popes, and artists—they're likely to be getting sideways glances from ordinary folks amused by their obsessive or oddball ways, and Gonick takes pleasure in documenting the futility of their supposed exploits.
The cartoony style, punctuated by occasional panels of startling realism, doesn't suit all Gonick's subjects, and some of the art seems tossed-off. His attitude toward the history he chronicles, however, is invigorating. The Cartoon Histories deflate some hoary old heroes who need to be taken down a peg, and draw inspiration from the noble ideas that human beings rarely lived up to. While empires rise, economies collapse, and religions dissolve into internecine squabbles, Gonick always includes the wry, stoic, or bemused perspective of a contemporary observer. Time-traveling and globe-trotting with him means encountering both the familiar and the new through the eyes of a passionate, knowledgeable professor with a great chalk talk.