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

Written and drawn by Larry Gonick, this series of non-fictional graphic novels is basically a 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 recent events in 2008.


This work provides examples of:

  • 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 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.
  • Art Evolution: He started in the early '80s and finished in 2009, so it's understandable that the art would change at least a little. Particularly interesting is the differences between his depictions of the Professor at the beginning and the end of Part I.
  • 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.
  • Belief Makes You Stupid: Gonick is quick to point out and highlight the many religious absurdities found throughout history.
  • But You Screw One Goat!: Several cases, but the most notable is in the section "In the Hills of Western Asia" about the domestication of sheep (relatively) shortly before the creation of Sumerian civilization (Part I, Volume 2).
  • 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...

  • Did Not Do the Research: One or two minor errors that stand out only in contrast to the enormous amount of research the author obviously did do. For instance, Gonick states that when Henry VIII broke with the Roman Catholic Church, Thomas More, the Archbishop of Canterbury, protested and was assassinated. Apparently he has confused Thomas More with Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury who was assassinated four centuries earlier when Henry II ranted, "Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?!" Thomas More was never Archbishop of Canterbury. He was Henry VIII's chancellor; when he balked at the break with Rome, he was stripped of his office and eventually tried and executed for treason, as recounted in Robert Bolt's play, A Man for All Seasons. However, Gonick will edit out errors from subsequent versions when they are pointed out to him.
  • 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, when Mohammed changes the qibla to Mecca

 Rabbi: "I think we just made three hundred enemies..."

  • Eyepatch of Power: Lykurgos from Spartan history/legend, described as "great and mysterious", is drawn with one.
  • The Ghost: the Prophet Mohammed 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 tells the reader that he never really bought the religion and doesn't actually care if he's shown.
  • History Marches On: In particular, he puts far more stock in Biblical myths than more recent historians. Also, the race of the pre-Hellenic Egyptians - 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), asides in the fifteenth show white ancient Egyptians discussing farming techniques with black West Africans and buying black slaves from black Nubians.
  • 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.
  • Idea Bulb: Lampshaded.
  • 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!

 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...

  • 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!"
  • Pet the Dog: Shown by a warlord standing over the corpses of enemy troops, but tenderly asking his wife if she's okay
  • Running Gag: Many different characters and organizations get running gags about them.
    • Moses as the slightly-embarrassed-to-be-Hebrew half-Egyptian aristocrat.
    • Xiang Yu's 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' 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 as a duck. Her 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.
    • One character 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."
  • Science Marches On. The earlier books, especially on human evolution, suffer from this.
  • Screaming Warrior: Xiang Yu is portrayed as such, only speaking coherently on select occasions.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Ye Olde Butcherede Englishe: Gonick has a field day with this in the sections on 16th- and 17th-century England.
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