Yearlong Best of the Year: The Cartoon History of the Modern World Part II: From the Bastille to Baghdad

Posted by on April 14th, 2010 at 1:00 PM

Harper Paperbacks; 272 pp.; $18.99; B&W; Softcover

With The Cartoon History of the Modern World Part II: From the Bastille to Baghdad, Larry Gonick brings the celebrated chronicle he began in 1978 to its appointed and gratifying conclusion.

Gonick’s work has long been the gold standard in educational comics in English. It’s probably precisely because of that unusual marriage, of pedagogy and form, that his material does not get the acclaim it deserves from either academia or patrons of the art.

These are really good comics by all commonly acknowledged standards. Gonick’s drawing is congenial, expressive and winning, essential qualities for a saga of this scale. His is a thoroughly effective mix of cartoon shorthand and unfussy fidelity, suitable for rendering historical figures in caricature and concrete objects with verisimilitude. Panel composition is solid and accessible. Visual approach is varied, again an essential virtue at this length, but it remains intelligently apt, fit but subordinate to task.

Gonick’s storytelling abilities are formidable. On one hand, he can merge diverse if far-flung threads of global conditions into a comprehensible portrait at any number of complicated junctures; for instance, see his orderly stacking of the complex tinder that would ignite at the beginning of World War I. On the other hand, he is also adept at telling a relatively straightforward narrative compellingly, as in the spasms of the French revolution through the arc of Napoleon. As occasion arises, Gonick can write with a revealing flourish: when the Shogun abdicates and creates a vacuum of power in Tokyo, the whole imperial court wends its way from Kyoto to assert its new role: “The procession, creeping forward like an inchworm in silks, lasted nine months.”

This line accompanies an appropriately sweeping tableau devoted to the grandeur of both the royal parade and the inspirational Japanese countryside. It’s merely a more flagrant example of the success Gonick routinely achieves in his wedding of the verbal and the visual for history’s benefit. That success permits a tremendous concision and compression in addressing the impossibly ungainly store of narrative material. It also allows the reinforcement of key ideas. On the very same page, we are expressly told that upon arrival in Tokyo, “The emperor reigned, but militant modernizers ruled.” Okey-dokey, but in case you can’t figure out what that might mean in context, an armed guard who greets his head of state bares his teeth in the quintessential embodiment of a shit-eating grin.

That smile is emblematic of the real trick, achievement and attraction of Gonick’s books. As entertainment they enlighten, but as instruction they are hilarious. A sure-fire method of intelligent clarification provides information, objectively imparted, in heading or caption with picture or dialogue providing the common-sense, ironic or humane counterpoint. It sets up historical fact as straight man: when a plan was afoot to establish a new Israel in Uganda, the dapper activist Theodor Herzl recites the advantages to a female native saying, “These benighted savages know nothing of anti-Semitism …” Behind him another intones, “Take my land; I can learn.”

This is perhaps Gonick’s funniest volume of the series, possibly because the comparatively recent events allow sharper, more nuanced punch lines than those derived from the broader characteristics of the human comedy: the abjectly clueless Louis XVI thinks to himself,  “I’m strong! Decisive! In control. But reasonable,” as he deals with his underlings at the height of crisis, adding, “Heckuva job, guys!” thereby unavoidably invoking the memory of a recent President at the height of Katrina’s devastations.

That specifically being said, Gonick, apart from being on the side of the great unwashed and the besieged globe on which we stand, is an equal opportunity satirist. I’d have no hesitation in recommending this book, or any of the series, to anyone interested in an astonishingly encompassing overview of world history and who isn’t doctrinally averse to laughing.

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