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Comic Book / The Cartoon History of the Universe

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The Cartoon History of the Universe is Exactly What It Says on the Tin.

Written and drawn by Larry Gonick over thirty years, this series of non-fictional graphic novels is basically a humorous Cliff's Notes of history in comic book format. The first volume begins with the Big Bang, and subsequent volumes cover the evolution of life on Earth, the dawn of man, and into early human history. Volume 19 covers up to the Renaissance, after which the series changes its name to The Cartoon History of the Modern World. The final volume, published in 2009, reaches up to 2008.



  • The Abridged History: Gonick takes creative liberties with some aspects of history. However, his facts are mostly accurate, and not strictly parodic.
  • All Crimes Are Equal: Averted in the sections covering the invention of laws and legal systems. He takes particular aim at Han Feizi and the the Chinese Legalists, who advocated this policy, showing exactly how well it worked for the Qin Dynasty (it led directly to their destruction).
  • All Jews Are Ashkenazi: Averted, but frequently joked about, particularly through use of Yiddish as a Second Language:
    • Jews are frequently depicted saying "Oy" in response to various things.
    • When Salome presents her case to Emperor Augustus (whom her brother Herod had made executor of his estate), she called Archelaus (Herod's eldest surviving son) a "schnook" and a "schlemiel," words that would not appear in any language for a good thousand years at least.
  • Ambiguously Bi:
    • There's no doubt King David is attracted to women, but he also has a good deal of Homoerotic Subtext with Saul's son Jonathan...
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    • Alexander the Great is a case where it's the heterosexual side that's in question. He's depicted as in love with Hephaestion, one of his generals, but he also marries a few women and fathers at least one child. Whether this is to show he's attracted to women as well or just meant to be him fulfilling his dynastic obligations is left deliberately unclear.
  • Ambiguously Gay: Saul's son Jonathan is heavily implied to have some kind of romantic entanglement with David, but unlike with some other cases of homosexuality, there's nothing explicit.
  • Aquatic Sauropods: As it was written at a time when evidence and arguments against the idea of aquatic sauropods were being debated, the first issue alternates between showing sauropods in the water and on land (albeit usually on very muddy ground).
  • Art Evolution: He started in 1978 and finished in 2009, so it's understandable that the art would change at least a little. Particularly interesting are the differences between his depictions of the Professor at the beginning and the end of Part I, and the experimental shift from pen-and-ink to brush-and-ink art in the last section of Part I, reverting to pen-and-ink for the rest of the work.
  • Artistic License: Gonick occasionally takes it, particularly in the artwork, mostly for reasons of Rule of Funny.
  • Author Avatar: Gonick's authorial voice is provided by "the Professor," who uses a library he calls a "time machine" to read history books and imagine the events they describe, showing the reader the events in comic book format. He is represented both in the narration and also appears directly in the events he describes, speaking to historical characters or directly to the reader.
  • Author Tract: Gonick manages to not rant too much except in occasional circumstances, but his political leanings are pretty impossible to miss.
    • Gonick's parents were fans of socialism/communism, and were undoubtedly a little worried during the Joseph McCarthy hearings. Gonick's drawing of Joseph McCarthy as a dark, foreboding individual reflects this.
    • Gonick sticks a number of critical references to the administration of George W. Bush in The Cartoon History of the Modern World.
  • Bestiality Is Depraved:
    • The process of domestication is summed up as "Men and sheep grew very close."
      Shepherd: (hugging a sheep) Darling!
      Sheep: Wha-a-a-at?
    • Later, in a footnote:
      Chicken: None of that funny stuff with ME, pal!
  • Belief Makes You Stupid: Gonick is quick to point out and highlight the many religious absurdities found throughout history. Explicitly invoked in a brief bit about the Indian materialists; when they say that the supernatural and afterlife are lies keeping the people ignorant and afraid, the ruler angrily points out that he likes them better that way.
  • Bolt of Divine Retribution: Played for laughs. Gonick's avatar gets struck by lightning while speculating on how the ancient Hebrews may have pronounced "YHWH", implicitly because he unknowingly landed on the correct pronunciation.
    The Professor (in a thought bubble) Yahu-wahu?
  • Cement Shoes: The prelude to the first volume on Rome has the Professor discussing their famous concrete and cutthroat politics... and promptly gets his foot caught in a bucket of concrete, as Cicero (in his only appearance) teleports in and calls for a swim.
  • Cosmic Deadline: Pretty much in the end. The last few pages of the final volume has the Professor talking about all the current events happening as the book is being written.
  • Curiosity Causes Conversion: Noted in several instances, but particularly when it comes to the history of Christianity (where it is emphatically Truth in Television). For instance, in one panel, a pagan Roman couple in the arena watch with fascination as a Christian martyr enthusiastically welcomes death by lion ("C'mon! What are you waiting for?"):
    Pagan Man: Man, how do they do that?
    Pagan Woman: Must... find... out...
  • Dated History: There are some parts of these comics that haven't aged well.
    • He puts far more stock the historicity of certain Biblical stories than more recent historians (and when it comes to early Christianity, his Author Avatar all but nervously admits that much of its material had to be taken straight from the New Testament due to the paucity of other accounts).
    • The race of the pre-Hellenic Egyptians changes based on what theories are popular at the time — they're depicted as black in the first five volumes, in contrast to the white Jews and Hyksos (it's presented as a subtle joke that Moses is also black), but then asides in the fifteenth show white ancient Egyptians discussing farming techniques with black West Africans and buying black slaves from black Nubians. It's now believed that they were (mostly) neither white nor black, but Afro-Asiatic like modern Egyptians.
    • What destroys the Indus Valley Civilization in Volume 8 is conquest by the Indo-Aryans, based on a now-discredited theory formulated by Sir Mortimer Wheeler. Since the supposed evidence of violence has since been ascribed to other factors, it's now believed that changes in climate and a series of earthquakes were responsible for the civilization's decline and eventual collapse.
    • Gonick ascribes more importance to the Battle of Talas than 21st century historians generally do, claiming that it marked the end of Chinese hegemony over Central Asia. To his credit, he says Tang influence in the region could have recovered if not for the An Lushan rebellion, but the narrative that the battle marked a turning point is no longer taken seriously since evidence suggests Chinese control there actually increased between the battle and the rebellion.
  • Doing In the Wizard: The series gives secular accounts of semi-historical events described in such sources as The Bible and The Iliad. For example, rather than say that Aaron parted the Red Sea, it says the Jews ditched the pursuing Egyptians in muddy terrain. This is due to some scholars believing that the parting of the Red Sea is a mistranslation. Other times, however, the comic directly recreates scenes from religious texts such as the Bhagavad Gita, keeping the deities intact.
  • Dramatic Irony: Frequently. For instance, in an apparent fit of pique at Medina's Jewish tribes, Mohammed changes the qibla from Jerusalem to Mecca:
    Rabbi: I think we just made three hundred enemies...
  • Dumb Dinos: The dinosaurs come off as dim-witted bullies who deliberately step on, intimidate, and kick around the mammals.
  • Eyepatch of Power: Lykurgos from Spartan history/legend, described as "great and mysterious", is drawn with an eyepatch.
  • Footnote Fever: Frequently. Sometimes even headered by an icon of a foot drawing an asterisk.
  • The Ghost: The Prophet Muhammad and certain other figures from Muslim history, out of respect for mainstream Islam's prohibition on visual representations of them. This decision was made well before the international Mohammed cartoon controversy. The one main figure in that section he does show, Abu Sufyan, tells the reader that he never really bought the religion and doesn't actually care if he's shown.
  • Godiva Hair: The Hebrew prophet Samuel is depicted with a beard that completely engulfs his implied-naked body.
  • Higher Understanding Through Drugs: Discussed Trope, on how ancient Indian philosophers got in touch with the universe:
    [They] did it the old-fashioned way: with drugs.
  • Historical Domain Character: With the exception of Gonick's own avatar, all characters in the books are either historical individuals or figures from myth and religious texts.
  • Homoerotic Subtext: Subtly played up between David and Jonathan; David, returning with two hundred foreskins, quips "I'll take two of 'em," then, when he flees, Jonathan and Michal are seen as nigh-identical crying silhouettes, and Saul exclaims "my son the pervert!" on hearing the news.
  • Hot Guy, Ugly Wife: Zipporah is portrayed as being much less attractive than Moses.
  • The Internet Is for Porn: Alluded to in a footnote in Cartoon History of the Modern World: Volume II, the narrator mentions that the birth control pill was the greatest invention of the 20th century, prompting two characters in bed to say:
    Woman: Greater than the Internet?
    Man: Sex can make me forget about the Internet, but the Internet can't make me forget about sex!
  • Jewish Mother: Referenced in the bit on the semi-legendary Jewish Queen Judith of Ethiopia:
    Judith: (crying and with her hands in the air) Why don't you win more often? Don't you care about me?
    Ethiopian soldier: God, I feel so guilty...
  • Kilroy Was Here: A Greek mercenary is shown leaving his name on an Egyptian building.
  • Language Equals Thought: Lampshaded when the narrative mentions how Romans decimated (i.e., killed every tenth person — though in actual Roman times this was reserved for executing deserters, but Rule of Funny reigns in this case) Athens.
    Woman in conquered Greece: How many languages even have a word for “killed every 10th person”?
  • Last-Second Word Swap: From the part about Admiral Zheng He (the eunuch admiral).
    Local ruler: Submit to China! He's got a lot of—
    Chinese messenger: Nerve, he has a lot of nerve.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: Elijah against the Baal priests, courteously even spraying his sacrifice with water. Which he somehow obtained in the middle of a drought and may not actually be water, as a bystander notes.
  • Moses in the Bulrushes: Covered during the life of the actual Moses.
  • Murder Simulators: Parodied in a section about the invention of chess. A mother watches her child capture a rook and laments, "These action games are ruining our youth!"
  • "Not Making This Up" Disclaimer: While the comic usually makes up dialogue due to Rule of Funny, occasionally a quote will come with a disclaimer of "Someone actually said this!" Parodied in the section on the Persian wars, where he insists he didn't make up the dialog; Herodotus made up the dialog.
  • Not Me This Time: Many of Alcibiades' misdeeds are covered in the book, but the narrative goes with the theory that he had nothing to do with the mutilation of the hermae that he was historically accused of.
  • Oh, Crap!: Quite a few of these moments, for example:
    • Egyptian laborers have this reaction when they see the Hyksos.
    • Xerxes when his fleet gets smashed at Salamis.
  • One Thing Led to Another: This phrase is used in explaining the origins of sexual intercourse.
  • Pet the Dog: Discussed Trope, where the author points out that in the days before diplomacy, everybody was tender to their own people while at the same time callously brutal to everyone else.
    Dorian Chief: (doting over his wife while being surrounded by piles of corpses) Oh, did you cut your finger, dear?
  • Political Overcorrectness: Parodied with the etymology of the word slave (derived from Slav).
    Academic 1: People were so insensitive back then!
    Academic 2: Yes, couldn't they have called them "unfree persons of Slavic descent"?
  • Running Gag: Many different characters and organizations get running gags about them.
    • Moses as the slightly-embarrassed-to-be-Hebrew half-Egyptian aristocrat.
    • Alcibiades being a hedonist.
    • Xiang Yu's (impressive) voice.
    • The Gauls are consistently portrayed like the Gauls of Asterix.
    • The ghost of Abu Sufyan showing up whenever a member of the Muslim Umayyad dynasty is featured (as an aside, this makes him the longest-running character in the work!).
    • Muslim missionaries making exactly the wrong pitch to Sub-Saharan African rulers: arguing for modesty of dress in Ghana (where dressing less was an asset) or for the sequestration of women (not really a Muslim doctrine, but it had become part of the package by that time) to a woman ruler.
    • Central Asian nomads' (adversarial) relationship with vegetables.
    • Almost all civilizations' aversion to bathing.
    • Drawing Robert Guiscard, a Norman lord, as a weasel ("Guiscard" means "weasel" in French).
    • Drawing Helen of Troy and her sister Clytemnestra as ducks. Their mother was said to have mated with a swan, but ducks are funnier.
    • Babur, founder of the Mughal Empire in India, is portrayed as a stoner with buck teeth: a stoner, because he is said to have liked a kind of cannabis candy, and buckteeth because his name is hypothesized to mean "beaver."
    • "Merrie" England and the gleeful use of Ye Olde Butcherede Englishe.
    • Ethan Allen was additionally known for being able to throw a bag of salt over his shoulder with his teeth - in every image of him he has a bag of salt pinched in his teeth.
    • The "Northern Barbarians" (complete with tribal-esque headdresses and ominous drums), which bedeviled the Chinese for most of their history.
    • "OOPS!", for when an unintended consequence of a decision (or series of decisions) lead to disaster
  • Russian Bear: Russia in the late 19th century is shown as a menacing bear from the Japanese point of view.
  • Screaming Warrior: Xiang Yu is portrayed as such, only speaking coherently on select occasions. His skill as a general is jokingly credited to his yelling ability.
  • Shout-Out: Several. One that stands out is the Gaulish sack of Rome in Volume II, which shamelessly uses shout-outs to Asterix (it even ends with "Our work is done here, Asterix! Let's go get our own comic book!!")
  • Shown Their Work: The series is a non-fictional summary of history, so it all falls under this trope. Each compendium provides a bibliography with encouragement by the author to check out his sources for further study. They are every bit as fun to read as the books themselves.
  • Speech Impediment: Alcibiades has a rather strong lisp. This is Truth in Television.
  • Spell My Name with an "S": The chapters on China in the second book are hit hard by this, since at the time, Asian history and philosophy were much more esoteric in the US, so romanizations are touch-and-go. The spellings he went with are generally the phonetic ones, i.e. using Chin over Qin.
  • Starfish Aliens: Sometimes, aliens appear in the book. When they do, they're usually portrayed in this way.
  • Tastes Like Friendship: Offering scraps is how the proto-humans got the first proto-dogs to hang around (and, implied in the dialogue, to eat the scraps instead of people).
  • Villain Has a Point: Salome, Herod the Great's sister, uses some very underhanded and even malicious tactics to try and maneuver one of her sons into becoming King of the Jews. However, when she insists to Augustus that putting Archelaus on the throne would be a bad idea, she turns out to be right: his rule is plagued by controversy and unrest, forcing Augustus to depose him and impose direct Roman rule over his territory.
  • Visual Pun: Footnotes have a picture of a foot drawing an asterisk.
  • What's a Henway?: When King Solomon meets Hiram, king of the "sophisticated seaport" of Tyre, the latter responds to the former's inquiry as to whether he's Hiram with a crack about how he hires 'em and fires 'em too.
    Solomon: You Hiram?
    Hiram: And I fire 'em! Haw haw haw!
    Solomon: Did someone say "sophisticated"?
  • Who's on First?: Parodied, when mentioning that ancient Hindus composed a poem to the great god "Who".
  • Ye Olde Butcherede Englishe: Gonick has a field day with this in the sections on 16th- and 17th-century England.