Genetiken i Bild och Bubblor
Larry Gonick och Mark Wheelis
(Bokskogen, Götebog, 1986)
The Cartoon Guide to Statistics
Larry Gonick and Woollcott Smith
(HarperCollins, New York, 1993)
Trotsky for Beginners
Tariq Ali and Phil Evans
(Writers and Readers Publishing Cooperative, London, 1980)
The Cartoon History of the Universe
Larry Gonick
(Rip Off Press, San Francisco, 1978)

I have attended innumerable lectures, journal club reports, colloquia, and seminars in my professional field, and related fields. But there is not a lot I can report about these many hours spent in lecture halls, because from my graduate school days right through the years into retirement, I have experienced them in much the same way. I watch the first slide like a hawk; I study the second slide carefully, at first, but then things begin to slide; and then, the next thing I know, the lights are all back on and everybody else has left the lecture hall.

Perhaps I could hang onto consciousness longer if these seminar presentations were all in cartoon form, like Disney's classic "Fantasia." The latter, it might be recalled, included a long sequence that presented the evolution of planet earth, A dry, even academic subject, but I managed to stay awake for the whole sequence at the age of six, and then again in a more recent viewing. Of course, my attention may have been related to the music, Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" played by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Stokowski. But even without such memorable music, or any music at all, there is something uniquely gripping about the cartoon mode of exposition.

The cartoon format is actually even more gripping when expressed in language that is not merely technical, but perfectly incomprehensible, like Swedish. This is the particular attraction of "Genetiken i Bild och Bubblor," which is the Swedish edition of "The Cartoon Guide to Genetics." What could make the average person roll his or her eyes more than a lesson in Genetics? On the other hand, consider the exciting, enticing mystery evoked by a caption which reads: "För att illustrera detta, låt oss titta på exemplet med den vanliga trädgårds tomaten". And then, to cap it off, we have a vivid cartoon of a man hungrily eyeing a tomato and exclaiming: "Med mutant majonäss?" And finally, at the bottom of the cartoon, this tragic instruction: "...Och försök att inte äta upp exemplet förrän efter lektionen."

By contrast, consider the cartoon guide to the equally dismal science of Statistics, by the same author (the indefatigable Larry Gonick) but in English. It is riddled with captions like this one: "The t distribution can be used if both populations are mound shaped and have the same standard deviation σ = σ1 = σ2. The only wrinkle is that we have to pool the sum of squares about the means to form a single estimate of σ."

The only wrinkle indeed. But even in English, the book has the saving grace of Larry Gonick's witty cartoons. The text about pooling the sum of squares doesn't tip us immediately into unconsciousness because it is introduced by two lizards dressed in suits; they are the proprietors of Chameleon Motors and Iguana Auto, two competing car dealers, and the two dressy lizards are shown staring quizzically (if a lizard can be quizzical) at two tables of data about their respective car stocks. "Um...that about says it," Mr. Chameleon muses in a speech bubble, "but what does it say?"

Larry Gonick and his statistician coauthor are apparently aware of the problem I alluded to at the start. At one point, they present a sidenote stating: "Strictly speaking, the derivation of the t distribution depended on the assumption that the sample was from a normal population. In practice, confidence intervals based on the t work reasonably well, even when the population distribution is only approximately mound-shaped." This warning is accompanied by a cartoon of a grotsque, goggle-eyed head, resembling a Polynesian idol, saying: "Still awake?"

The warning about the t distribution, and much else in the text, would be improved immeasurably if it were in, say, Finnish, a language that is not even spoken by the Finns, because it is too difficult. That would be a perfect way to expatiate on the derivation of the t distribution. Especially if it were illustrated by a cartoon of a gecko skiing into the frame while asking: "Mitä muuta on siellä sanoa?"

It is unfortunate that Tariq Ali did not find a cartoonist as imaginative as Larry Gonick to illustrate "Trotsky For Beginners." On the other hand, it is not exactly news that humour is not the most outstanding quality among Trotskyists. Here is a typical example. The text recounting Trotsky's first arrest in tsarist Russia tells us: "Trotsky is sentenced to four years deportation in Siberia. In prison, he marries his old sparring partner, Alexandra Sokolovskaya, who will accompany him to Siberia." The cartoon shows Trotsky and Alexandra, bundled up to the ears in customary Russian fashion, trudging along a snowy road past a sign that reads "To Siberia." Ha ha!

The rise of Stalin in the new USSR, prefaced by Lenin's phrase "This cook will only cook peppery dishes!" shows Stalin dressed as a cook, with a chef's hat on his head, a pepper-pot in one hand and a long knife in the other. Ha ha! A few pages later, the text explains: "Trotsky, like other clear-headed Bolsheviks, understood that a real decline in class-consciousness had taken place. Revolution was defeated in Europe. In Russia, it degenerated. A new social layer arose and strengthened its grip on society as a whole. Who are they?" The rest of the page shows pictures of this new social layer: party-state bureaucrats, technicians, factory managers, party functionaries, military officials --- each of whom looks exactly like Stalin, with his droopy mustache and cook's hat. Not bad, but this is about as far as pictorial wit goes in "Trotsky For Beginners." It is a pity that Larry Gonick never got around to Trotskyism.

In fact, Larry got around to cartoon guides on practically everything else, including not only Genetics and Statistics, but also Physics, Chemistry, Computer Science, the Environment, Sex, and Tax Reform. His magnum opus is undoubtedly "The Cartoon History of the Universe," brought out in multiple comic book volumes, and later published in book form by Doubleday. The illustrations are a hoot. For example, one panel on the development of Greek civilization notes: "The combination of getting drunk and letting it all hang out proved irresistible, and the cult of Dionyssos --- minus the old bloodiness --- soon had offical support." The cartoon shows a pile of drunks with goofy grins lying on the floor, next to which a dignified individual in a toga is saying: "Yes, I think we can provide city funds for this!" Illustrating the Old Testament, Larry shows the prophet Samuel as a little, unkempt hairball of a guy, rather like the comic book Mr. Natural. When Samuel reproves King Saul, the cartoon shows hairball Samuel jumping up and down in front of Saul and shouting: "OO, did I ever make a mistake when I picked you!"

But my favorite part is the Jurassic Epoch in comic book Volume 1, with its many kinds of cartoon dinosaurs. A migrating herd of brontosaurs is shown stepping on each other's tails, amid shouts of "Ouch, my tail!" Another panel shows two brontosaurs with their long necks entwined, under the caption: "And afterwards, the brontosaurs invented necking." A few pages later, in the Cretaceous Epoch, a caption reads: "After 130 million years of dominance, the dinosaurs had finally left the world to their old competitors, the tiny mammals." A lavishly detailed cartoon shows a fallen Triceratops lying on the ground, next to a small triceratops which is looking doubtfully at a small, rodent-like mammal.

With this, my mind is thrown back to a movie theater in New York City about seven decades ago. Troops of animated cartoon dinosaurs, rendered in lavish detail, lumber across the movie screen into the middle distance, and disappear into an indistinct mist. It is a rather haunting image of extinction. The music is the "Evocation of the Ancestors" section of Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring," played by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Stokowski. Ever since then, I have had Stokowski, Stravinsky, and dinosaurs on the brain.
--- Dr. Phage