Call Samus Davis, Jr. He’ll vouch for me! (Your Humble Servant endorses The Cartoon History of the Universe)

Comics made me a smarter person. Not necessarily bragging here; it’s not as if I’d just said, “comics made me the smartest person in the world” (because my brain’s staggering capacity for intellectual growth at an exponential level did that), but comics really did make me a smarter person. And actually, it was one particular comic that made me a smarter person.

When I was around 13 or so, there was this small black and white comic called The Trouble With Girls. The only reason I read it, honestly, was because it had a “mature readers” label (which is also why I read Grendel around that same time). The plot specifics of the comic are not important (although I really wish someone would bring that masterpiece back into print). What is germane to this little exercise in narcissism is the fact that the creators of the comic dropped all sorts of references that my feeble Marvel Zombie mind had never encountered before.

I wanted to be in on the joke, so I went out and read novels and encyclopedias and asked older people who were smarter than me what certain things meant. My thirst for knowledge came from a cheaply made independent comic that referenced Helen Reddy, John Steinbeck, and the Marx Brothers as if Dennis Miller’s brain was having a fire sale.

I’ve heard stories like this from a lot of people: Green Arrow / Green Lantern made them aware of the world around them, Sandman inspired them to read everything under the sun, Lady Death and Purgatori led people to tattoo Franz Fanon’s face on their foreskins. Comics really did help a lot of people grow intellectually.

I know this has a horribly fetid “Star Trek and the laws of the Planetary Federation made me respect all forms of life” stink to it, but it really is heartening to know that a “trash” culture like comics can actually lead people to want to better themselves. So, tell your mom to put that in her pipe and smoke it whenever she says your copy of Bonebasher Blyleven and the Robokakke Krew has no nutritive value.

Actually, if you really want to stick it to her, you should pick up:

Larry Gonick
Broadway Books
ISBN 0-385-26520-4

History is a fascinating subject. Comics are absolute fun. And Larry Gonick is the guy that got peanut butter on your chocolate by combining the two in this amazing series chronicling the most important historical events in human civilization. In this volume, Gonick covers the from the Big Bang all the way to Alexander the Great in 358 pages of fast-paced, fun-filled whimsy like your favorite history teacher from high school. One can’t necessarily say that history’s never been this cool, since he gracefully proves that it’s always been this cool.

With this wonderful trade paperback, Gonick accomplishes something that always warms an idealistic fanboy’s heart: comics as educational tool. Not “educational” like those Spider-Man vs. the Chain Smoker propaganda comics you used to get in elementary school (Pack and a half a day! Up yours, Spidey!), or some half-baked civics lesson featuring a superhero versus a gang of demonic Muslims, or that ill-conceived STD pamphlet starring the kids from Ninja High School; but an actual educational experience that enriches the reader with a wealth of knowledge.

The beauty of this comic lies in the aforementioned “wealth of knowledge;” this is a book you can read over and over again. It’s just jam-packed with useful information presented in a humorous and clever way, such as listening to a Spartan warrior talk about the virtues of their rough-and-tumble lifestyle:

“Our only pleasures are a job well done, a glorious death, and humping little boys!”

Speaking of which, there’s a lot of sex in this book, but it’s all presented in the very joyous way that only underground comix hippies like Gonick can portray. Dinosaurs have sex, prehistoric ape-men have sex, men and women have sex — sometimes with animals; but these people used to burn animal fat for the gods, so try to have a little perspective here. Even the aptly named Big Bang takes on a sexual connotation in his two-page spread in which the universe explodes in a torrent of hot gases. Sex is the building block for all life-forms, so it’s only natural that it’s represented in a history of mankind.

It’s also interesting to see how Biblical and mythological tales are fit into a historical perspective. The tales of Abraham and Isaac, Gilgamesh, and the penchant for Greek myths to feature Zeus copulating with various maidens as a wild beast (the theory that ancient Greek women practiced beastiality is an interesting notion, to say the least) are explained in a rational, carefully researched, and believable voice. His bit about Solomon and the baby (you know the story — the one referenced in Seinfeld) is one of the most intelligent things I’ve ever read. He’s very careful not to discount events as they happened in the Bible, but tries to explain them in a scientific, scholarly manner so that heathens like you and I can see their feasibility. Also, he shows the links between the origins of Oedipus and Moses, Dionysus and Osiris, and countless other myths like a cartoony, populist Joseph Campbell.

This book also reaffirms all the reasons cartooning is such a magnificent craft. Sex, violence, and other facets of everyday life are drawn in a loose, quirky style that helps everything move along at a nice clip. There are a lot of comic fans that pooh-pooh “cartoony” art, as it’s not as dramatic as the “heroic realism” of most action comics. Those people are idiots — gigantic stupid idiots who should kill themselves. Gonick has a charming style all his own and it suits his voice. Not everything has to look like Alex Ross to convey the importance of the drama contained within. Presenting 13 billion years in such a limited space is no small feat, and he gives all the pertinent information without cheating the reader from truly getting his learn on.

Like all master showmen, Gonick’s draws the curtain with the rise of Alexander the Great, leaving us wanting more. Luckily, there are two more volumes of fun to be had after this one. There’s even an extensive bibliography, just in case the reader might want to venture forth and read more detailed explanations of the historical events contained in his work. This is a truly important work, arguably one of the most important comics ever made, and if you don’t take any comics buying advice from me other than this one, then you’ll truly die a happy guy or gal.

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I used to be at the Savant meatwagon until we imploded and I've written for this site, on and off, since it was the Continuity Pages. I've created comics published by Moderntales and E-volution and have published my own S.P.I.R.I.T. '76. Why have you never heard of these, you ask? It's because the millions (and I do mean millions) who've read these awesome comics have decided they were so awesome that they should be kept a secret amongst themselves. The uninitiated must never know, or their minds will be blown. So you see, it's for your own good.

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