Robot reviews | Three nonfiction graphic novels

What hath Larry Gonick wrought?

OK, the author of such acclaimed books as the Cartoon History of the Universe and the Cartoon Guide to Genetics isn't the only person responsible for the glut of nonfiction graphic novels that litter bookstore shelves every year -- folks like Scott McCloud and Joe Sacco share some responsibility as well. Still, when considering the plethora of comics about the Constitution, or philosophy or science or history that have come out in the past decade, it's hard not to see how Gonick's success has resulted in more and more .

Gonick's influence is certainly all over Economix, a detailed look at how the economy -- specifically, the U.S. economy -- operates. Writer Michael Goodwin unabashedly pays homage to Gonick in the acknowledgments and indeed, the book mimics Gonick's rhythms and format to a tee: Namely, present a fact in the text and then underline or undercut it with a visual joke.

The book is more history lesson than economy textbook, spanning from the medieval era to modern day while pausing every so often to delve into a particular author's theories, such as those of Adam Smith or John Maynard Keynes.

The main thrust of the book is on American economics, though, and Goodwin doesn't have any problems letting readers know where he stands. A confirmed Keynesian, he views most conservative, laissez-faire policies as detrimental to the economy and out of touch with reality, to put it mildly. To his credit, he is methodical in his reasoning and fact-checking, and his viewpoint certainly aligns with my own, but I find it hard in this abrasive, partisan age to imagine any reader with the slightest conservative leanings to be willing to regard Goodwin's thesis with anything less than disdain.

But then Goodwin and artist Dan Burr are aiming more at the uninformed American -- the average Joe and Jane, let's say -- than those that have already made up their minds. The ultimate goal is to show readers that economic policy affects them in a very direct way, and on that basic level the book succeeds. It's an engaging book, to be sure -- I certainly came away feeling more informed -- but at the same time it feels a bit flat. It doesn't throb with the sort of good humor and esprit de corps that Gonick's books frequently do. Part of that may have to do with Burr's art, which serves its purpose but tends to mimic the text rather than supplement or work in concert with it, relying heavily on caricatures or obvious, cliched cartoon tropes (economic experts, for instance, wear caps and gowns). Ultimately, while Economix proves to be a useful and intelligent book, it's also a curiously sterile one.

Unlike Economix, I doubt Dutch cartoonist Margreet de Heer was strongly influenced by Gonick's oeuvre. And that's kind of a pity, as de Heer could have used a bit of Gonick's structured approach in her new book, Philosophy: A Discovery in Comics.

A rambling, erratic affair, Philosophy starts off strong, with de Heer addressing some basic existential questions and then delving back into the theories of famed Greek philosophers. Each philosopher gets a page to cover his bio and another page or two to explain his general theories as simply as possible.

So far, so good, but the closer de Heer gets to the modern day, the more discursive she gets. Rather than provide some sort of overall history of philosophy, she picks and chooses her thinkers seemingly at random, and turns to her friends and family members to ask them about their own philosophies. This leads to some odd choices and banal observations. As great a comic as George Carlin was -- de Heer's husband picks him for a favorite thinker -- it's hard to view him as much of a philosopher given that his worldview basically boiled down to "People suck" and "The English language is a bizarre and contradictory thing."

Part of the problem is length. De Heer has simply concocted too short a book to delve adequately into the ideas and theories she wants to express. A tighter structure, more research and willingness to go a bit more in-depth would have resulted in a much better and more interesting graphic novel.

Then there's Stan Mack. Like Gonick, Mack is a bit of an outlier -- he's been making comics almost as long as Gonick has -- perhaps even longer. In fact, his latest book Taxes, The Tea Party and Those Revolting Rebels is an updated edition, as it was originally published in 1994 by Avon.

Mack did his homework here; this is no cursory, elementary-school view of the American Revolution (although certainly fifth- and sixth-graders could read this book with few problems). He fills the book with details, like the fact that Paul Revere didn't actually yell, "the British are coming," and he isn't afraid to take shots at the founding fathers -- George Washington in particular comes off rather badly.

Overall, Taxes contains the sort of energy and detail that Economix and Philosophy alternatively lack. Although Mack crowds the book with his hurried handwriting and although his art has a rough edge to it, Taxes never becomes a dreary slog or appears slapdash.

The general canard is that comics, because of their visual element, are particularly good at conveying detailed information, which in turn makes them perfect vehicles for talking about weighty subjects like philosophy and science. Having read these three graphic novels, I'm not sure that's entirely the case. Or, at the very least, it takes a bit more forethought and practice to be able to convey these difficult and sometimes abstract concepts in a manner that makes for exciting, worthwhile comics.

Economix: How Our Economy Works (and Doesn't Work) by Michael Goodwin and Dan E. Burr Abrams Comicarts, 304 pages, $19.95

Philosophy: A Discovery in Comics by Margreet de Heer NBM, 120 pages, $16.99.

Taxes, the Tea Party and Those Revolting Rebels: A Comics History of the American Revolution by Stan Mack NBM, 176 pages, $14.99.

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