Cover of the second collected edition. Artist: Larry Gonick.


Original Medium: Comic books
Published by: Rip Off Press
First Appeared: 1978
Creator: Larry Gonick
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By 1978, when cartoonist Larry Gonick's Cartoon History of the Universe first appeared, the use of comics to teach history was nothing new. Decades earlier, Dick's Adventures in Dreamland, which had been made for little or no other purpose, had achieved national distribution from King Features Syndicate — to say nothing of Texas History Movies and TAmerica's Best Buy: The Louisiana Purchase,

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… whose collected editions had been distributed through their respective states' public school systems. But nobody had ever attempted a work of history, comics or otherwise, with such scope as this. It started with the most up-to-date theories astrophysicists could mostly agree on, as to the probable origin of all that is.

From the beginning, Gonick treated his Cartoon History as a serious, factual source of knowledge — in fact, it's one of the few comic books of any kind to include a bibliography. But he also made it entertaining, funny, the sort of thing a reader might pick up simply because he enjoys reading it. And the work had a goal in sight, bringing the history all the way to the present day. But he took his time about it, to the point where the goal at first seemed unattainably distant. With the first "volume" (a standard 52-page "underground" comic book) carrying the story only as far as the appearance of human beings, it looked like it could go on forever.

The choice of Rip Off Press, whose prior publications included The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers and Zippy the Pinhead, as Gonick's publisher, may seem odd. But from Marvel to Charlton, the mainstream publishers were all firmly committed to material suitable for young children. Even the lone remaining holdout against The Comics Code Authority, Gold Key Comics, eschewed virtually all forms of sex and permitted only relatively mild violence. With restrictions like those, how can anyone possibly deal with human history?

But comix, the 1970s comic book publishing movement that explored new genres and submitted to no outside censorship, offered sufficient freedom to delve into whatever themes Gonick considered appropriate. Over the next few years, Rip Off published the first seven volumes, taking the story as far as Alexander the Great, then W.W. Norton, a publisher of college textbooks as well as books of more general interest, brought it out in collected form. Norton's edition came out in 1990. A few years went by, then publication of the standard volumes resumed.

Through one publisher or another, the work has continued, always advancing the story with an eye toward keeping the reader's interest by entertaining him. At one point, it was spun off into The Cartoon History of the United States, which dealt with specifically American history up to the early years of the George W. Bush presidency. In the early 21st century, the main body of the work was retitled The Cartoon History of the Modern World. It continued to be produced steadily in comic book form, and later collected into compilations covering a broad swath of history. Once in book form, all are kept in print.

In the meantime, Gonick, whose life's work is in education, dabbled in other topics. His Cartoon Guide to Chemistry, Cartoon Guide to Physics, Cartoon Guide to Genetics and similar works, offer the same type of reading experience as does his work in history — accurate educational material, presented in an entertaining, humorous form.

But at no time has Gonick lost sight of the ultimate goal of his Cartoon History series. It was completed in 2008.


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Text ©2009-10 Donald D. Markstein. Art © Larry Gonick.