Graphic History

By J. Stephen Bolhafner
Published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Sunday, September 30, 1990

The Cartoon History of the Universe
Book 1: Volumes 1-7
By Larry Gonick

NOTE: This was the first review I had published in the Post-Dispatch, the second piece of writing I was ever paid for. I knew I was going to write it for two weeks before I did, and trying to come up with a good "hook" for a lead was driving me crazy. Then I took it with me to visit my then-in-laws with my now-ex-wife, and a perfect opening fell into my lap.

MY FATHER-IN-LAW is a high school mathematics teacher with a passion for history, one of the founders of his town's chapter of the Missouri Historical Society. I wouldn't expect to find him reading an underground comic book, but he devoured Larry Gonick's ''Cartoon History of the Universe'' in a weekend. All 358 pages of it.

Gonick's hip, flip trip through history was originally published by the Rip-Off Press, better known for publisher Gilbert Shelton's ''Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers.'' The first volume, ''The Evolution of Everything,'' was titled ''The Evolution of Everything including SEX!'' when it came out as a 50-page underground comic book in 1978.

The first seven volumes collected here have been revised somewhat, which under the new copyright laws allows an updated copyright. It also allows Doubleday to hide the origin of the material - the book is copyright 1990 by Larry Gonick, there is no mention of the Rip-Off Press, and the Doubleday press release even refers to the book as an ''original trade paperback.''

This is a shame, because Shelton really deserves credit for discovering the entertainingly educational Gonick. How good is he? Biology and paleontology classes at Yale, Berkeley and other colleges have used volume two, ''Sticks and Stones,'' to teach human evolution. The bibliography in the back lists more than 150 sources, from Herodotus to articles in Scientific American. My father-in-law's enthusiastic reaction was typical: ''I knew most of that stuff, but I'd never seen it all laid out like that before.''

Indeed. Watching history unfold can be an absorbing experience, in the right hands. Gonick aspires to be the Will and Ariel Durant of comic books.

I do think I caught one mistake: most anthropologists believe Neanderthal was an evolutionary dead end displaced by our Cro-Magnon ancestors, while Gonick has Cro-Magnon evolving from Neanderthal. But it's hard to tell these days what's a mistake and what's the latest update of scientific theories. Before reading this book, I wasn't aware that scientists have long known there was something wrong with the ''organic soup'' version of life's origins but let it stand in the textbooks because they didn't have anything to put in its place. ''Until in late 1988, German biochemist Gunter Wachterhauser worked out an alternative: life began not as soup but as a sandwich (open faced).'' Gonick goes on to explain Wachterhauser's theory a lot better than I could, and with illustrations.

The comic book is an effective educational tool, almost as effective as television. That they are rarely used in a consciously educational manner, and that attempts to do so are usually inept, in no way detracts from their potential, as bright spots like this book prove. Such truly educational books appeal to the continuing self-educator by being fun to read.

Enjoyable, entertaining and educational, Larry Gonick deserves an ''E'' for ''Effort'' and another for ''Execution.'' ''The Cartoon History of the Universe: From the Big Bang to Alexander the Great'' is a delight. I eagerly await the rest of the story.