I first discovered the work of cartoonist Larry Gonick when I found an issue of the comic book series, The Cartoon History of the Universe, which told the history of the universe and of Earth in the medium of cartoons and comics. The Cartoon History of the Universe was initially published in comic book installments (by Rip Off Press), and ran for nine issues from 1978 to 1982. I can't remember which issues I bought, but it was several of them – until I could no longer find a store that stocked the series. The Cartoon History of the Universe was eventually collected in three large-sized trade paperbacks.
Gonick has also adapted the format he used in The Cartoon History of the Universe to produce or co-author a number of “cartoon guide” books. They include such titles as The Cartoon Guide to Genetics, The Cartoon Guide to Sex, and The Cartoon Guide to the Computer, to name a few. Gonick's publisher, WilliamMorrow (an imprint of HarperCollins) sent me a review copy of The Cartoon Guide to Algebra a few years ago.
William Morrow also sent me the latest “Cartoon Guide” from Larry Gonick, The Cartoon Guide to Biology, which Gonick co-authors with Dave Wessner, a professor of biology at Davidson College. The publisher describes The Cartoon Guide to Biology as “a hilarious and informative handbook to the science of life.” In words and pictures (cartoons), Gonick and Wessner explain the inner workings of the cell, the hows and whys of gene expression, the whatnot of sexual and asexual reproduction, and beyond, with a warning about “Disruption.”
THE LOWDOWN: I remember my science text books as being illustrated by photographs. I suppose that if anyone dared publish a science text book illustrated with cartoons, especially during the 20th century, that publisher would have (1) gone bankrupt; (2) been laughed at; (3) and been unable to get a meeting with the salesmen, middlemen, and assorted gatekeepers within public school text book sales and distribution networks.
Seriously, it is not just the cartoons that make these “Cartoon Guides” work; it is also the sense of engagement. The text and cartoons are not delivered as dry lecture or as mere explanation; instead they are like storytelling. From the development of the study of biology to the secrets of cells and then, proteins, sugars, fats, and more, Gonick and Wessner tell a story.
Readers will enjoy the sections on respiration and photosynthesis. Of course, Chapters 12 and 13's trip through reproduction will also be of interest. Those chapters are full of sly humor, with a cartoon reference to the X-Men and some mocking of “mansplaining” the “planting of seed.” The book ends with a warning about climate change, but adds encouragement for the those future biologists.
I won't act like The Cartoon Guide to Biology is perfect; sometimes reading the terminology can end up being a quick trip down the black hole of disinterest. Still, if only school science books were like The Cartoon Guide to Biology, at least little, maybe science and students would come together and engage more often.
POSSIBLE AUDIENCE: Fans of Larry Gonick's cartoon histories and guide books and also fans of science, especially biology, will want The Cartoon Guide to Biology, on their shelves.