From Slime to Oafs

The Big Bang and After, Frame by Frame, Gag by Gag

By Scott Rosenberg

The Cartoon History of the Universe
Adapted from the book by Larry Gonick
CD-ROM for MPC/Windows or Macintosh
1994, Putnam New Media (703 860 3375)

I never understood the appeal of Classics Comics Illustrated, those artfully drawn yet appallingly serious-minded comic-book versions of the Great Books. Adults tended to scorn them as Not the Real Thing -- degraded travesties of literary art. They also sighed with relief that at least you were being exposed to travesties of literary art instead of, say, the X-Men or the Incredible Hulk.

But you, too, knew that Classics Comics weren't the real thing. If you wanted to read a classic, you'd take one out of the library. And if you wanted to read a comic, why accept a substitute for the X-Men or the Incredible Hulk?

At first glance, Larry Gonick's The Cartoon History of the Universe (Volumes 1-7) -- a 1990 book that's been transformed into a package of 2 CD-ROMS -- seems to be a similarly ill-conceived undertaking. The CD-ROM catalogs are full of "edutainment" products that either dress up games with pseudo-educational trappings or sugarcoat dull lessons with dubious distractions.

So here's a history lesson that races from the Big Bang to the emergence of pond slime to the reign of Alexander the Great, with stops along the way to explain (among many other things) the development of life, the origins of sex, the evolution of man, the rise of agricultural civilization in Sumer and Egypt and the flourishing of classical culture in Greece. That's a lot of ground to cover. Before the kids' eyes glaze over, why don't we make it more palatable by adopting a comic-stmic-strip form?

Only that isn't what Cartoon History turns out to be. Far from a leaden, Classics Comics version of The Rise of Civilization, it's more like Groucho Marx meets Asterix the Gaul in R. Crumb-land.

What sets Cartoon History apart is Gonick's comic sensibility -- half kindly professor and half mischievous kid. Reading it feels like eavesdropping as the ideal history teacher you probably never had tries to keep up with questions and wisecracks from his smartest, most easily bored pupil.

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