Every so often — and it is actually not as rare as all that — I run into someone who is not really interested in history. Not intimidated by it, not curious about one aspect of it but not others … someone who genuinely doesn’t really care about it. Now to me, obviously, this is a bizarre and incomprehensible attitude, but it’s not really all that uncommon. And it’s then that you realise that the things that make you you aren’t inherent to everyone, necessarily. They aren’t even really inherent to you. You learned them.
In my case, it’s no surprise that I learned them from my parents. Both of them studied history or related fields — economics and economic history in my mother’s case, linguistics and political science in my father’s. And when I was young, they both encouraged me (and my brother, although he didn’t develop the same fascination to the same extent) to be interested in history.
Now, when I was a kid I loved comics, of course — still do. And my parents being old-fashioned about literature in some ways did not wholly approve of this fascination. But they did what parents do, and tried to harness that enthusiasm in an educational way. So if they saw comics that they thought would be educational, they would grab them. That is how I came to be acquainted with the work of the otherwise not very well known Chinese philosopher Hong Yingming or Hong Zicheng and his work Vegetable Root Discourses — my dad picked me up a comic adaptation of the thing.
Now, now that I’ve begun this story I don’t remember whether I actually got my first volume of Larry Gonicks’ Cartoon History of the Universe from my parents, but I’m pretty sure. Not completely, but mostly. It might have come from my favourite local bookshop, Know Knew Books, tragically no longer where it once was on California Avenue in Palo Alto but still up and about. Where was I?
Anyway, Gonick’s history is selective and particular. He goes into particular incidents in huge detail and glosses over other things entirely. There’s also a certain amount of “common misconception” stuff, and he oversimplifies some of the cause and effect. But it was in Gonick’s comics that I first read about the early centuries of Islam, about the French and Indian War, hell, about the Peloponnesian War. His comics are clearly influenced by the 70s underground style, and they’re gorgeous, with lovely bold lines and great little characters. His style for some of his other books, like The Cartoon History of the United States, was a little more jagged, but in time I came to love those as well. I must have read each of those books a dozen times, often on nights when I couldn’t sleep. There were a lot of those when I was younger.
A few years ago, I was in some online debate — about the whole Muhammad-cartoon thing, I think — and I emailed Larry Gonick, hardly thinking I would get a reply, but he wrote me a very interesting answer about the matter from the perspective of a cartoonist and historian. Class.
If you want to turn out like me — and who doesn’t — you should get your hands on a set of these. No lie, there’s some good stuff in there.
It is a Thing I Like.