History never looked so funny; then again, history never felt so true. Larry Gonick, master of the cartoon history, delivers another volume in his ongoing world history series that meets the standards of his previous editions (The Cartoon History of the Universe Volumes 1-3) and even those of academia.
In under three hundred pages, he manages to cover a wide range of world history that gives interesting and detailed perspectives beyond the typical Eurocentric point of view. In the first hundred pages, he pays particularly close attention to Native American history and Asian history, with a far wider range of information than most would expect. With comic art, he reveals a lot more action than your typical textbook, which will inevitably help readers remember more.
Gonick’s talent goes beyond melding together a cartoon history that is both accurate and compelling. Comedy becomes a lively agent of commentary within this series as Gonick employs it to expose differences in historical narrative between competing groups such as Native Americans and Europeans, Catholics and Protestants, and other polarized groups. Sometimes these contrasts are blatant, but often they come in the form of a character’s passing comment that may take a moment or two to deconstruct. The contemporary state of world politics also influences the humor and commentary presented by Gonick as he makes references to “post-war planning” and other issues in the spotlight. These side commentaries help readers to remember that any history book is as much a product of the present (and the dominating politics therein) as it is of a study of the past.
Gonick’s artistic style is (as the title implies) cartoonish, which works great. He employs hyperbole to illustrate many points such as King Francis of France, continually referred and depicted as “big nose.” With such extreme gestures, the events and the initial points stick in reader’s minds. In particular, Gonick integrates maps into his pieces that keep readers on track with the geographical locations being discussed in relation to others. His maps are not simply maps but additional dialogue and exposition of ongoing points being made. His most bemusing gesture comes in the form of his “footnotes”, included throughout to emphasize a particular point or side comment that doesn’t necessarily fit with the particular flow of history. They are found at the bottom of the page in a series of one to three panels and identified by the drawing of a foot with a paintbrush between the toes and a little mark upon the page - a “footnote” in the truest sense of the word. Gonick also lists a fairly extensive list of sources used in the writing of this book that reveals the extent and range of his research.
To be sure, some historians might have some issue with justifying this graphic novel as a legitimate “history” book, but one can’t deny that Gonick tackles history with great enthusiasm and legitimacy, merely using comic art to display what he has synthesized. No doubt like his previous books, this will find a home not only among regular readers but also college students who are assigned the book by their professors. A great read for anyone, but an even greater read for those curious about how history can be used in different media.