Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Book Reviews: From political histories to bad comics, to bad comics of political histories. And the occasional rant about fiction and writing.

Mimsy Review: The Cartoon History of the Universe

Reviewed by Jerry Stratton, May 27, 2001

Sex—it has to be dealt with… always important… yet left out of so many histories… but how to strike a balance in a world divided between prunes and porn peddlers? So please forgive me, reader, for any breaches of taste that follow… but is it my fault if Greek ladies used to lie down with bulls and swans? Or Spartan warriors with adolescent boys? Or that a great art form began with an “obscene” parade? Is it? No… of course not… I couldn’t help myself. The Greeks made me do it.

Do not pass up these books. The most fun I’ve ever had reading history. Larry Gonick has an eye for the absurd from the beginning of time. But don’t let the funny pictures fool you: this is a real history book.

RecommendationPurchase Now!
AuthorLarry Gonick
Length368 pages
Book Rating8

Currently there are three books available in this series plus an extra one outside the series. The first book covers the Big Bang up to Alexander the Great, and lots of sex in between: that’s the beauty of evolution: “Sex was good for individual differences, and individual differences were good for survival. Therefore, sexual beings survived, and the ones who did best were the ones who liked sex the most—which is why sex felt good then, feels good now, and can only feel better tomorrow!!!”

By the time of the neolithic revolution in Asia, it is believed, each tribe was divided into self-governing clans, allied to each other by ties of marriage. The men, as always, took charge of hunting, fishing, and fighting. The women had authority over nearly everything else, including most clan business, for clan membership passed through the women. That is, children belonged to their mother’s clan—not their father’s.

So here’s dad, in a different clan from his own kids. As a matter of fact, he probably didn’t even know they were “his”. His wife had the kids. Who knew he had anything to do with childbirth? Not primitive man. But all that changed with the invention of sheep-raising and private property. Constantly associating with sheep, he can’t fail to see it: sex has something to do with reproduction. He has a changed attitude toward his sheep and his children.

That crumbling sound you hear is the status of women.

Okay, a little oversimplified and exaggerated. Still, you’ve got to read it in the comic to appreciate it.

The second volume is “From the Springtime of China to the Fall of Rome”. This one begins with Alexander the Great marching up to India, doing an about face on meeting “the sweltering heat, poisonous snakes, armored war elephants, and mosquitos the size of chihuahuas”.

This one hits the history of India and China, and then heads back to the West for the transition from the Greek to Roman empire, thru to the beginning of the Dark Ages (farms burnt, wealth gone, dead Bulgars all over the place). Like the first book, it alternates between serious discussion of historical figures and jokes about serious discussion of historical figures.

Within a year, Alexander [the Great] collapsed after one of his famous all-nighters. He died in Babylon on June 13, 323 B.C., aged 33 years. A golden coffin, housed in a rolling silver temple pulled by 64 mules, carted the conqueror’s corpse towards Macedon for burial.

And an onlooker asks another onlooker “So. For the Alexander coin, do you favor the glamorous young conqueror or the puffy old fatso?”

The third volume is “From the Rise of Arabia to the Renaissance”. This one begins with three Arabic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. It quickly settles down on Arabia, with a conflict between Ethiopia and Mecca. The major portion of the book covers the rise if Islam. But it also surveys the Mongols, Jenghis Khan, and China from 552 (where everyone expected a Turkish invasion) thru the Mongol invasion of China in the 1200s and the black plague throughout India and China a century later.

India, from 300 to 1000 AD:

King Harsha, famous for his posh court, his lavish gifts, his generosity. Beware of “generous” kings! Whatever they give away, they have to take from someone else! During their reigns, the people fall into poverty, and many turn to banditry and rebellion.

But the Turks got them, too.

And it covers Europe in the middle ages (partly in response to the great Turkish kingdom) with a little side-trek down English history. This is the time of the crusades, when pope and emperor both tried to enlist European knights into the war in the east. Sometimes they got both more and less than they bargained for.

There is another book outside these two volumes specialing in the history of the United States. “The Cartoon History of the United States” is as brilliant and meticulously researched a work as the previous two. It presents the history of the U.S. in an easy to read, humorous format going from the Puritans to the bombing of Iraq.

My favorite part has to be General Washington, southern aristocrat, taking command of the egalitarian, racially integrated New England army: “Do my eyes deceive me, or do I see Negroes with muskets?” Also, the rise of Industry, reconstruction, and the truth behind Little Big Horn. This book is an absolutely marvelous way to get an overview of American history. There’s a lot in here about the American revolution, and a lot about the American civil war. About Harriet Tubman:

She was the chief conductor of the “underground railway,” which, unlike the real railway, didn’t run on rails. The purpose of the underground railway was to bring slaves to freedom or Canada, whichever came first. Ms. Tubman, an escaped slave herself, made nineteen trips into the south to rescue her fellow slaves.

“And believe me,” she says, “I took a gun!!”

Carl Sagan called these books “a better way to learn history than 90% of school textbooks”, and in my opinion that’s an underestimate. The Cartoon Histories should be on every bookshelf of the English-speaking world. I strongly recommend them.

The Cartoon History of the Universe

Larry Gonick

Recommendation: Purchase Now!