Gonick the Great - and How He Could Have Been Greater
By Bryan Caplan
Larry Gonick has finally completed his magisterial five-volume cartoon history of the universe. It all started with The Cartoon History of the Universe 1 (1990), followed by The Cartoon History of the Universe 2 (1994), and The Cartoon History of the Universe III (2002). The titles of the last two volumes are different, but it’s a continuous narrative. The fourth volume, The Cartoon History of the Modern World Part 1 (2006) picks up where the third volume left off, and the last volume, The Cartoon History of the Modern World Part 2 (2009) takes us all the way through the Iraq War. Hard as it is to believe, you can get all five books for under $100. This series is a steal.
Gonick’s masterpiece has many virtues: It’s full of facts and wisdom, horror and humor. It treats the Great Butchers and Useless Idiots of history with the respect they deserve. It’s multi-cultural in the good sense: He impartially covers a wide variety of human cultures, and spares no sacred cows. He’s a master of the Entertaining Aside, as well as what Tullock calls the “open secrets” of history.
Gonick’s one-two punch of pictures and words isn’t just a gimmick; it makes it much easier to remember the facts of history. If we really wanted kids (or adults!) to learn history, we’d throw away our textbooks, and teach Gonick. Everyone from kindergarteners to Ph.D.s can enjoy his cartoon histories – they’re The Simpsons of history. Seriously – I read these books to my sons when they were in kindergarten, and they couldn’t get enough.
Still, the series could have been better, especially the last volume. Gonick barely mentions the three amazing and almost unprecedented facts of the last two centuries: The doubling of life expectancy, the six-fold increase in population, and (by conservative estimates) the TEN-fold increase in per-capita income. Sure, he talks a little about industrialization, new technology, and cheaper stuff. But he doesn’t notice that a billion human beings now live better than the emperors of Rome.
None of this is a political point – Brad DeLong will tell you the same thing. But I confess that I’m also unhappy with Gonick’s leftist economics. He makes snide references to free trade, without even considering that free trade might really be an important reason for rapid progress. And he writes about 19th-century socialists’ critique of industrialization as if they had a point. They didn’t. The socialists were lashing out at the greatest thing that ever happened to mankind – and when they seized power, they proved to be the kind of bloodthirsty tyrants Gonick exposed in his earlier volumes.
The source of his blind spot, perhaps, is his historian’s sense that “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” Gonick’s so used to conquerors’ phony rationalizations that he assumes that free-market policies are just the latest window dressing for plunder. If he took some time to appreciate the modern world, to admit that it is a miracle that defies the whole prior history of humanity, he might have wondered whether its underlying economic philosophy could be the real deal.