Irreverent cartoon history may offend major religions

Posted: Thursday, October 17, 2002

SAN FRANCISCO -- Cartoonist Larry Gonick knew he might be asking for trouble when he set out to draw a comic-strip version about the birth of Islam.

He had no idea that the third volume in his ''Cartoon History of the Universe'' series, now in bookstores, would arrive at such a contentious time.

As tensions reach a breaking point in the Middle East, Gonick hopes to give readers a lively history lesson in his ''From the Rise of Arabia to the Renaissance.''

Garry Trudeau, creator of ''Doonesbury,'' said Gonick's ''unexpectedly timely'' volume may help people understand the current tensions. ''Will reading an erudite, if flat-out hilarious account of Middle East history help us make sense of our current clash of cultures? Let's put it this way: Ignorance hasn't worked,'' Trudeau said.

Still, the 300-pages of cartoon panels are sure to offend some conservative Muslims and Islamic scholars who may take offense at the author's humorous take on their history.

Gonick, who spent almost four years researching, writing and drawing the volume, said he tried to be fair and accurate, but he also wanted to have some fun.

He is an equal-opportunity offender, using references to actual historical events he digs out of his research to draw cartoons of such nuggets as these: pre-Islamic Meccans defecating in a Yemenite cathedral to protest the Christian presence in Arabia; ninth-century Hindus expressing their belief that sex ruled the universe.

''I don't want to be blasphemous,'' Gonick said. ''I just want to be irreverent.''

But some critics say Gonick goes too far, that he takes too many liberties with historical fact and that his cartoon history book perpetrates the notion that ''Muslims have always disliked Jews.''

Gonick, 56, has tackled a variety of complex topics, producing cartoon guides on everything from sex to statistics. The first ''Cartoon History of the Universe,'' published in 1990, began with ''The Big Bang'' and traveled through 3 billion years, from cells to hominids.

In the latest installment of black and white drawings, bearded prophets travel the desert, their robes blowing in the winds; armor-clad Chinese nobles parade the head of an unkind emperor on a bamboo staff; and on the book's cover, in a possible premonition, a narrator resembling Albert Einstein flees as an angry crowd hurls oranges, apples and fish at him.

Gonick's 10 books have sold more than 750,000 copies and have been translated into more than a dozen languages. His books have been assigned in history, anthropology and science courses at such institutions as Harvard University, Yale University and the University of California at Berkeley, according to assigned reading lists at those schools.

''It's not just that he's one of the few cartoonists in the English-speaking world to dedicate himself to nonfictional subjects, it's that he's so good at what he does,'' said Matthew Surridege of Comics Journal.

Gonick and his publisher, W.W. Norton, said they hope readers will appreciate his humor while learning a history lesson.

However, Hussein Ibish, a spokesman for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee in Washington D.C., said some Muslims will take offense at Gonick's book because their history is being represented in cartoon form.

''There are some people who are so worked up about these things, who are very defensive and would react badly to the most reverent and respectful comments. But there are also those who are relaxed and confident enough not to get worked up about something that is funny and not hostile,'' said Ibish, who hopes most Muslims will use the book to better understand world tensions.

There's a difference, as well, said Ibish, between Gonick's history book and a 1990 comic book version of the Quran, the Muslim holy book, that was condemned by the Organization of Islamic Conference.

''The Quran is uniquely sacred,'' said Ibish. The history of the universe, however, can be told in many different ways.

Gonick, who does not draw the Quran in his book, manages to weave together tales about the Byzantine empire, the Mongol conquests and the rise of Spain into one fluid and often amusing story.

Writing about a seventh-century tax in the Middle East on Jews and Christians that prompted conversions to Islam, Gonick draws a mother and daughter in front of a temple. The mother says: ''But my child, which would you rather save, your soul or a buck or two?'' The daughter answers: ''God is good, Mom. ... Wouldn't he want me to worship him in the cheapest possible way?''

On the fourth crusade in Constantinople: ''At first, the Franks behaved themselves. ... They only demanded the 84,000 marks. ... but after some time, when no one gave it to them, they went wild, burning, killing, and raping. ... The Venetians, who knew Constantinople better, pillaged more selectively, carefully picking and packing the best treasures for shipment home to Venice, where you can still see them today.''

Gonick, who draws from his airy studio in San Francisco, does try to tread lightly at times. For example, respecting the Muslim practice of not presenting images of Mohammed, he doesn't draw the prophet anywhere in ''The Rise of Arabia ...''

But that might not be enough for some critics.

Author and filmmaker Michael Majid Wolfe, who made the upcoming PBS documentary ''Muhammad: Legacy of a Prophet,'' said he laughed out loud at parts of ''The Cartoon History'' and was impressed at Gonick's ability to capture a complex history in small frames.

However, Wolfe said he was disappointed that the book ''feeds the notion that Muslims have always disliked Jews.''

''The story of Muhammad is a central foundational story for a 1.2 billion Muslims in the world, yet most Americans have never heard the story,'' Wolfe said. ''So a cartoon to knock at the door with this particular sort of edge on it about Jewish victimization by the foundational Muslim culture is really ... bad news.''

Edmund Burke III, editor of ''Struggle and Survival in the Modern Middle East'' and co-editor of ''Islam, Politics and Social Movements,'' agreed.

He said Gonick takes too many liberties with religious history, oversimplifying at times, exaggerating at others, and leaving out important context. But worst of all, said Burke, is a misleading impression that ''anti-Semitism is emblazoned in the DNA of Muslims.''

Gonick bristles at the criticism, noting that he cites about 75 history books in a bibliography.

''Actually, I soft-pedaled it in some ways,'' he said, ''omitting such things as the complete expulsion of Jews from Arabia by the second caliph.''

''On the other hand,'' he continued, ''I tried to make it plain that from the moment the Arab conquests began, Muslims tolerated Christians and Jews as 'people of the book.' Later, when the world situation had stabilized, Jews played a valued and important role as intermediaries between the Muslim world and Christendom. This is key.''

''Besides,'' he said, ''are we really supposed to ignore facts just because they seem unpleasant?''

But Gonick also has his supporters.

David Cook, who teaches Islamic history at Rice University in Houston, said the book is ''a reasonable version of the life of Muhammad.''

''It does handle sensitive subjects like the treatment of the Jews fairly well, without being too apologetic or too anti-Muslim,'' Cook said.

Gonick grew up in Phoenix, Ariz., the child of ''paranoid leftist intellectual'' teachers. He read and drew comics for a hobby, but didn't pursue a career until he decided he wanted he wanted to make a difference in the world. So he abandoned nine years of studying math at Harvard to draw cartoons for underground newspapers.

''I'm trying to save the world actually, in some way,'' he said.

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