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The Boston Globe: A Reading Life

Larry Gonick: Arabia to Columbus, a cartoon history installment

It is, of course, an insane enterprise, like recreating the Tower of London out of pottery shards, or turning Michangelo's work at the Sistine Chapel into a tattoo.

Once upon a time a man named Larry Gonick, a Harvard mathematician, decided to write a cartoon history of the universe. The first collection came out in 1990 ending with the cliffhanger of Alexander the Great bearing down towards Persia. The second emerged four years later, beginning in ancient India and ending with the fall of the Roman empire circa 600. "Imagine a collaboration between Arnold Toynbee and R. Crumb," Kirkus suggested. Other reviewers noted the affinity to Jim Hatlo. Now, with the third collection, Gonick has moved from Doubleday to W.W. Norton and come in his peculiar journey as far as the Renaissance. The volume begins with the rise of Arabia and ends with Columbus setting sail for the New World. One more collection to go.

I've just read number three, and can't remember when I've had more fun. I'm amazed at how much I've retained, at how fluid my understanding of historical movements is. The rise and fall of Constantinople, the importance of the Bantu, the highland kingdoms of Nubia and Ethiopia; Huns and Turks and Volga Boatmen; The Crusades. Dr. Davis, my history professor at Tulane, would finally have reason to be proud of me.

Gonick began his career as a political cartoonist, writing an early series about colonial Massachusetts for this very paper. "But I kept running out of material," he says. "So I decided to pick a project that would keep me busy for a long time."

Irony is the stuff of the age, the cloth the suit of our world's cut from, the bubble wrap that keeps us safe while reality's being shipped from place to place.

This is in no way to disparage Larry Gonick or his enterprise. He has both a marvelous grasp of historical tides and the extraordinary ability to cook a myriad disparate elements down to a tasty soup. Decades of conflict, patterns of trade, the influence of spice or dyes or elephants — he makes it all clear. But he has also a sense of humor that won't stop. He's the kind of guy who'd have a welcome mat by the front door that says Go Away , the kind of guy who'd put Look out — behind you! on his gravestone.

Kind of guy who'd dedicate his book "To All the Skeptics Who Have Ever Lived" and on the cover show all the characters from within throwing fruit at him.

Gonick's wonderfully researched narrative proceeds by hip patter and backtalk, pratfalls, sight gags, slapstick, running jokes. Sober text enjambs comic image. Felicitous depictions of geography, architecture and costume cohabit with Mad Magazine-like characters. From time to time a balding, unkempt academic, the very one being pounded with fruit on the book's cover, shows up to usher us along some particularly prickly path.

Meanwhile back in Mongolia , Gonick will say, directing us to dog-eared, earlier pages. Or he'll call time out to offer a non sequitur footnote about, oh, I don't know, split noses, maybe. Even the bibliography is a vehicle for set-ups and one-liners. Hear those rim shots in the middle distance?

Cro-Magnon artists roam caves using their sticks like spray-paint cans, Greeks fantasize about running shoes on long treks. Muhammed, in the chapter devoted to his life — images are sacrilege, right? — remains ever off-panel.

"Cartoons are lifelike," Gonick says by way of explanation for his method. "They have movement and narrative; people aren't intimidated by them." And so they can make difficult, complex subjects like world history accessible. (Gonick has also written and drawn a cartoon history of physics.)

Initial editor for the first collection, which wound up selling some 100,000 copies, was Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Entertainment Weekly's "a work of scholarship and looniness" pretty much sums up the general reaction. The word goofy also makes a frequent appearance in reviews. Of many appreciations ranging from Carl Sagan to Ann Landers, here is Pulitzer winner and past poet laureate Rita Dove's:

"On wintry evenings when my mood needs cheering, I curl up with Larry Gonick's Cartoon History of the Universe . Gonick's drawings and texts are so irreverent, so unabashedly cynical (yet more informative than many a 'serious' history book), that I find myself wiping away tears of laughter...There's nothing better for restoring one's perspective than to be bounced through a few thousand years of war, lechery and cunning."

Here, too, is Garry (Doonesbury) Trudeau's tribute to the new collection:

"Brilliantly rendered and unexpectedly timely....Will reading an erudite, if flat-out hilarious, account of Middle East history help us make sense of our current clash of cultures? Let's put it this way: ignorance hasn't worked."

Obviously, things are a jumble here, as intended. Eccentric takes — Hinduism winning out against Buddhism in India because of its incorporation of sex, for instance — crowd elbow-to-elbow with revisionist views: the place of women in history, the daily, fairly continuous lives tucked away invisibly behind the folders of the all-important wars and disruptions.

Those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it, Santayana said. Those who do know it, those like Larry Gonick, may be similarly doomed, driven to try to make some sense of it all [and to prove its relevance]: the sprawl and endless reiterations, the loopiness, lunacy and cruelty, lacunae and longueurs alike.

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