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The Cartoon History of the Modern World, Part 2: From the Bastille to Baghdad Paperback – October 6, 2009
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From Publishers Weekly
The final installment of Gonick's deeply funny and impeccably researched series has finally arrived, and like the rest of his Cartoon History series, the book covers a wide range of key and fascinating historical events and topics that have managed to slip through the gaps of common knowledge. The section linking the slave trade, the Haitian revolution and the Napoleonic Wars is particularly good, as are the segments on the modern history of Japan and China. Brilliantly funny, the series finds the inherent humor in history rather than pasting on irrelevant jokes. This is the most politicized book in the series, a jarring but perhaps unavoidable element, since it covers an era ending when Gonick sent the proofs to his publisher. Also, the pacing is odd and frequently rushed—it seems to need an extra hundred pages. Possibly as a result, the book has some interesting gaps. Most notably, aside from the occasional snide remark or allusion, the entire pre-Vietnam history of the United States is completely left out. While Gonick has covered these topics in depth in other books (the stand-alone Cartoon History of the United States) and perhaps tired of them, the absence is glaring. (Oct.)
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“Full of facts and wisdom, horror and humor….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.” (Bryan Caplan, The Library of Economics and Liberty EconLog)
“With limber pen and nimble mind, Larry Gonick completes a cartoon journey that started at the dawn of time. Brisk, informative, and hilarious, The Cartoon History Of The Modern World fills us in on exactly how we got so screwed up on a global scale.” (K. Thor Jensen, author of Red Eye, Black Eye)
“Like any good historian, Larry Gonick seasons his facts with a good dose of perspective, and like any good cartoonist, he mixes his drama with a good dose of humor.” (Jeffrey Brown, author of Clumsy and Funny Misshapen Body)
“Gonick makes history fun for comic book nerds and comics readable for history nerds. If you’ve ever looked around this modern world and wondered how we got into this mess, it’s time to curl up with his latest book. You won’t even realize you’re learning—histo-tainment at its best.” (Alex Robinson, Eisner Award winner and author of Box Office Poison)
“Lively cartooning and pretension-puncturing wit.” (Booklist)
“The final installment of Gonick’s deeply funny and impeccably researched series has finally arrived... Brilliantly funny, the series finds the inherent humor in history...” (Publishers Weekly)
“Funny, informative, and comprehensive, Gonick’s history concludes with this second volume. His unique wit, sense of irony, and passion for humanity’s complex story of triumphs, compromises, and disasters are as evident here as they are in his previous books... An insightful review of history.” (School Library Journal)
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It is thus with a heavy heart that I consider this last volume the weakest in the series. The bitter truth, noticeable in the third volume but readily apparent by the fourth, is that the overall quality steadily declines as the series goes on. Gonick's first book, written in installments back in the '80s, has more youthful vigor, creativity, lush illustrations, detailed explanations, and coherence. These last two volumes, the so-called "Cartoon Histories of the Modern World," are smaller in size and contain fewer pages. Book 1 had 7 volumes (50 pages each); this one has 5. Gonick's style has changed a lot over the years, and frankly, it's just not as good. The smaller pages and panels make for less detail and more cramped, confusing panels (although there are a few cases of wasted space, too).
I was nervous years before this that Gonick wouldn't be able to adequately juggle the increasing amount of information that comes with modern history. Book 4 did it decently, but here I think he falters. 5 volumes simply isn't enough to adequately cover all that happened. In general Gonick tries to focus on something in each volume. In the early books, which dealt with ancient civilizations, that is manageable, but here they are more and more scattered with the widening of the scope to the entire world. I take issue with his focus on Einstein in Volume 4, which is a bit too technical for a general history book and not even necessary. World War II is a little rushed too, considering it was the biggest, most complex war in all history. The worst, though, is Volume 5, which recklessly tries (and fails) to condense everything after 1945 into 50 pages. Other reviews have taken issues with this, and they're right. Decolonization is discussed briefly on one page and then dumped. Gonick's coverage of China is usually outstanding (especially in Book 2), but here the tumultuous 20th century is mostly skipped over. He spends a lot of time on Afghanistan and Iraq, probably conflicts that will be remembered as marginal later but were big in the news at the time this was written. At the very end, he admits in a rushed page that he's skipped a lot and tries to summarize everything else. I was heartbroken to read this; it's a pathetic end to a great series.
Gonick's politics have always been pretty leftist, and here it's more blatant than before. The petty Bush-whacking from the previous book is less noxious here, but since we're dealing with modern times, the opportunity for controversy and disagreement also increases. For the most part I didn't take umbrage at it, but some readers might be turned off. For instance, he spends a lot of time discussing slavery and its abolition because (he explains in an interview) he wanted to encourage readers to question the economic system and make difficult changes. His general sympathy for the rest of the world and comparative disdain for the West is very evident here, although it's easy to argue that given the ravages of capitalism and imperialism it's justified.
Finally, there are a few big errors here as in some of his other books. One I noticed was that he places Jiang Jieshi's kidnapping after the war with Japan instead of before it. Mostly they're just annoying and aren't serious problems.
Overall, this review is negative because I felt let down after such a great run. But if you're starting to read from here for some reason, it probably won't seem as bad. As my rating indicates, this is still a great read. Gonick makes most of the subjects he touches understandable and entertaining, and it's still a fine overview. In particular, I liked his overview of the French Revolution (it's this book's requisite historical event-in-focus), which interweaves it smartly with the Haitian Revolution. His discussions of socialism and Afghanistan are also great (even though I complained about the latter). I also loved his choice to focus on Europe's modernization through a Japanese lens, which is probably what I would've done since Japan learned Europe's lessons faster and more successfully than any other nation. Gonick's book still covers many oft-neglected regions of the world and stories in history. I don't have much sympathy for reviewers who whine about x subject not getting discussed just because it's their favorite. That being said, if you compare this with the first two books in the series, the quality is significantly lower. There is less detail, poorer artwork, and honestly less spark and imagination too. I really wish Gonick would've spent more time and either written a few more volumes or another book or two. After all, why should World War II get 6 pages when the Persian Wars and Chu-Han Contention get half a volume each? Why should ancient Greece get 3 volumes when the Soviet Union gets a few pages in total?
Not only is Gonick's work historically interesting, he recreates the past with flair and humour. Any volume of this series is worth dipping into for insight and entertainment. Gonick's historical knowledge is profound.and his passion for his subject permeates every page. His humanist, left of centre perspective resonates with my own and often over the years I have been drawn back to these books as a means of making sense and getting a handle on complex historical events. Gonick is never superficial, he invites his readers to consider history and its meaning.
This final volume in a massive historical, artistic and publishing enterprise is a fitting conclusion, full of Gonick's clever illustrations and unique take on history. If you enjoy history then all of Gonick's volumes deserve a place on your bookshelf.
This volume does not disappoint. Gonick keeps up the fast paced run through of history that we have come to expect in the books, covering from the 1700's all the way through 9/11 and today.
Finally getting up to a century that I know well - the one we were all born in - it was interesting reading his take on events that I actually knew in great detail. There were a few things that I was bummed were left out - though planes start appearing in panels, the beginnings of flight are not covered. While Sputnik is mentioned and ICBMs, the space race is not covered. However, knowing Gonick's work as well as I do, I know this wasn't due to any ignorance or forgetfulness on the author's part - he simply could not put everything in.
As I said before, fans can rejoice because this volume is no different than the others. It is more of the same wonderful history and cartoons fans have come to expect.
Gonick illustrates events in a humorous fashion, making jokes, puns, and commentaries on the events his narration illuminates. Occasional footnotes provide greater depth in three or four panels than some books' entire chapters. He offers a global perspective on events, rather than focusing on American or Western events only. He also takes factors such as population, economics, and technology into account as well as politics and religion when examining the reasons behind events. Overall, casual readers will learn more, faster from his books than from any other source, and more serious history buffs will gain new insights into events no matter how much they've studied them from conventional sources.