On Larry Gonick’s The Cartoon History of the Universe (1978)

Human beings don’t arrive on the planet Earth until its opening chapter is very nearly over. Yet every single panel of the first book of Larry Gonick’s The Cartoon History of the Universe contains something that seems to tremble with character and energy and momentum. What could be more appropriate for a 48-page section entitled “The Evolution of Everything”? For whatever Gonick shows us in his portrait of a manic and gleeful universe, there’s always the impression that it’s bent on charging off in order to become something else, eager to the point of anxiety to get on with the business of creating the shape of things as we know them now. The “one hot lump” that’s the raw stuff of existence as it quivers prior to the Big Bang; the universe coalescing from steaming super-hot gases; “giant hydrogen bomb(s)” of stars firing off “blazing halo(s)”; “space junk” fudding into itself and creating the complexities of solar systems; long before even the first anthropomorphised algae appear in Gonick’s pages, to of course quip about the environmental consequences of their own arrival, there’s a sense of the universe as the most wondrously exciting phenomena that anyone could ever spend their time thinking about. If only everyone’s physics and geography lessons could contain just an invigorating trace of the enthusiasm and clarity of what Gonick generates here, the world would be a smarter and more exciting place. Even when his panels are nothing but swirls of white paint suggesting improbably hot celestial objects rotating before dark stellar backdrops, Gonick’s skill at suggesting motion and good humour ensures that what might otherwise seem like the driest of material feels vital and fascinating.

But then, Gonick has always made it plain that he despairs of the chin-stroking dullness, pedantry, and complacency that marks a great deal of what’s produced by both academia and the education industry. A self-confessed “revisionist historian” where his Cartoon History volumes are concerned, his pages passionately champion a variety of humane and forward-thinking causes: the central importance of a knowledge of the past to the management of the present; the value of multi-factorial explanations; the virtues of liberal values and the scientific method; and the perniciousness of elite rule and the myths that legitimise it. Over the almost 35 years that have passed since the publication of the work’s first 48-page chapter, aspects of what once seemed so radical about Gonick’s approach to history now seem nothing more than good practise. Focusing upon the affairs of the powerless in addition to those of the powerful, for example, has long since become the unquestioned business of the mainstream. Yet other elements of his thinking, such as his refusal to accept PC-friendly theories of peaceful historical change occurring where anything but was the truth, have meant that the Cartoon History series retains its capacity to challenge as well as educate and entertain.

But the world’s full of well-studied polymaths and principled proselytisers, while there’s a desperate shortage of cartoonists who can deliver both the big ideas and the gentle smiles and belly-laughs. The Cartoon Histories are first and foremost entertainment, and there’s never a sense that Gonick is haranguing or patronising the reader. Even when he’s describing matters as potentially dry and yet theologically charged as the evolution of sexual reproduction, his work remains as witty and inventive as ever. The reproductive processes of the half-celled gametes must be one of the least promising means for generating laughter that could be imagined. Yet Gonick presents them as strangely charming blobs of dripping glop topped with a single great eye, and he succeeds in making them suggest shock, coyness, unrestrainable lust, and finally, even post-coital disillusionment. Indeed, as soon as any kind of life appears in The Cartoon History of the Universe, it’s put to use to represent human beings in all their endeavours and absurdities: bugs muster on the beach to fight back the appearance of the first amphibians; fully grown kangaroos refuse to leave the comfort of their mother’s pouches; dinosaur parents try to encourage their kids to eat more politely while praising their offspring’s laudably lethal kicking skills.

A shameless lover of the most obvious of puns as well as of wry social comment, Gonick’s also capable of suddenly introducing an appropriately underplayed and touching sequence of panels. On occasion, he shifts gears so subtly and swiftly that the reader may find themselves being moved by what’s before them before they can register quite what’s happened. The onset of the catastrophic end of the age of the dinosaurs some 70 million years ago, for example, is illustrated by a series of gloomful panels capped with the scene of a single fallen Triceratops lying dead in a ravaged landscape. Yet even there, Gonick refuses to ratchet up the pathos and push the mood into an excess of sentimentality. As the eye leaves the panel, it’s presented with the sight of a tiny and miserable Triceratops baby terrifying a similarly small rat-like mammal just by the fact of its presence. It’s a smile-inducing, mood-lifting detail that appears to be a homage to Herriman’s Krazy Kat, and it ensures that the reader’s sudden melancholy is eased before the tale rolls on to considerably less mournful matters.

There’s often a tendency to under-play Gonick’s skills as a cartoonist and humorist when his work’s discussed these days. No-one ever denies that he’s more than just a considerable talent, and yet it seems that it’s his smart-minded ends rather than his good-humoured means that often dominate the interviews he’s involved with. With the last of the five doorstop-thick volumes in The Cartoon History of the World series having been published in 2009, there’s an understandable if regrettable tendency to focus more upon the scale of his achievement and the intellectual weight of it all rather than upon the vitality and wit of the pages themselves. Yet in the series’s first book alone, he succeeds where few others could in making millions of years of deep, humanless history seem utterly beguiling as well as entirely comprehensible. For that alone, he ought to be at least as admired for the way in which he earns his laughs as he is for his pedagogical triumphs.

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Colin Smith is currently Q Magazine’s comics columnist and blogs at Too Busy Thinking About My Comics and on Tumbler.

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