December 03, 2006

Gonick & Lat

I passed around my copies of Larry Gonick's Cartoon History of the Universe in my classes last week.

These exist so far in three volumes:
I. From the Big Bang to Alexander the Great
II. From the Springtime of China to the Fall of Rome
III. From the Rise of Arabia to the Renaisssance
(These all have sample pages, incidentally, if you're curious)

I often mention these books in class, since linguistics deals with history and these are the best (and by far the funniest) histories I know.

The students loved it, of course. They always do. When I went to find a web site to refer them to, however, I found (on Larry Gonick's home page) that his latest volume is coming out next month.

That's a great piece of news. This book is apparently the start of a new series (The Cartoon History of the Modern World -- From Columbus to the U.S. Constitution), without the time travel motif, but still much the same in spirit.

Like The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language and The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, I think these books should be part of the permanent library of every college student in the Anglophone world. They tell the truth and they tell it well. You can't ask for more in a book.

Looking at the stuff about Gonick's cartoon books reminded me of my other favorite cartoonist, Lat. (Larry Gonick admits that he's been a fan of Lat for years.)

"Lat" is actually a childhood nickname (short for bulat 'round', since Lat was a little on the "husky" side as a child, bodyshapewise) for Mohammed Nor bin Khalid (who has become Dato' Lat while I wasn't paying attention, in 1997 -- not that he didn't deserve it: he really ought to be Tun Lat, except they only give that honor to politicians, worse luck).

Lat is the Garrison Keillor and Bill Mauldin of Malaysia. Together. Greatly beloved, and exceedingly funny. He gets Malaysian life just right. He fearlessly makes fun of those who take themselves too seriously, he plays no favorites (he himself is Malay, but he portrays Malays, Tamils, Sikhs, and the several varieties of Chinese who inhabit Malaysia with great affection and accuracy), and his cartoons and cartoon books are like nothing I've ever seen in the USA.

My only complaint about his work is that it's too hard to find. His wonderful cartoon Bildungsroman memoirs Budak Kampung 'Kampung Boy' (in both Malay and English) and Town Boy (I've only ever seen an English version) have been followed by dozens of cartoon collections that are both hilarious and instructional (especially since some of them are in Malay).

I collected as many as I could find when I was in Malaysia (1986), but it's been 20 years now and there's lots more. I wish I could order them all online. Perhaps that will be possible some time soon. Insha'allah.

Posted by jlawler at 02:22 PM | Comments (1)

November 30, 2006

I ♥ Kukulkan

I just got back from seeing a preview of Apocalypto, after a lovely Linguistic Club pre-function. Mark Sicoli and I both talked a bit on what we knew of the Mayans, whom the movie is ostensibly about (all the actors speak Yukatek Mayan, and I have to say they do a great job of acting, and speaking).

Mark suggested (and I must say I agree with him now, after seeing the movie) that it was really about the Aztecs -- or rather, that it might just have made a little sense if it were about them, rather than the Mayans. But as it is, the Mayans ought to sue Touchstone.

The movie is a sort of stew with 900 years of MesoAmerican history and mythology slopped in, overly seasoned with special effects, and stirred vigorously. If Mel Gibson had made the Passion to the same formula, Jesus would have escaped from the cross, swum the Mediterranean, and wound up assassinating Julius Caesar and Hitler.

Lots of gratuitous violence (but we knew that already), cool settings, plenty of suspense and vicarious vengeance... but that ending (which I will not reveal here, though you'll wish I had if you see the movie) spoils everything. I've never before experienced a literal deus ex machina; literal deus, literal machina. Unbelievable.

Bottom line: Read the Popol Vuh and skip the movie.

Update: There's a nice article in Salon today by a Maya scholar (which I am not) that says roughly the same thing -- it's historically inaccurate and gets the culture totally wrong.

Posted by jlawler at 11:41 PM | Comments (0)

November 19, 2006


I happen to be on the Linguistics Department's Undergraduate Committee (well, all right, not really just happen to be -- in fact, I would have thrown a hissy fit if I hadn't been put on that committee, since I'm very concerned with the migration of linguistics to the undergraduate curriculum, and eventually to the secondary and primary curricula -- but that's a matter for another post).

Anyway, last week all us faculty in Linguistics received an email invitation from Touchstone Pictures to a local screening of Mel Gibson's new flick Apocalypto, filmed in Yukatek Maya, the same way his previous blockbuster was filmed in Latin and Aramaic. Touchstone seems not to know the difference between language departments and a linguistic department, but never mind -- that's just another example of how linguistics is the best-kept secret in America.

I suggested to our Linguistics Club that this would make a terrific event, and received some enthusiastic support. So (¡ojalá!) if we get enough tickets, we'll have a short teach-in beforehand, and then troop over en masse to see Apocalypto a week after Thanksgiving. Sounds like fun. And even a bit of preference for those of us actually concerned with funny languages.

I did a little online research on various topics and compiled a Web page of resources that might be of interest to anyone seeing the film who's interested in the language, culture, and history of the Maya. There's plenty more, gods know, but this will certainly do for starts.


Posted by jlawler at 04:45 PM | Comments (1)