Mankind: The Story of All of Us is an ambitious 12-part TV series that looks at all of human civilization, starting from the beginnings of agriculture to the discovery of America. This graphic novel is a supplement to the program and features seven short stories covering from prehistoric times to the Crusades. It touches on several human milestones such as the start of agriculture, the first recorded war, the roots of democracy, and the importance of mining and forging.
Mankind: The Story of All of Us Volume 1
Written by Marve Wolfman; Art by Tom Derenick et.al
Silver Dragon Books; November 2012
120 pgs., $
Since I received my degree in anthropology with a minor in history, Mankind: The Story of All of Us interested me greatly. With two teenagers, I know how difficult it can be to make history interesting, and this title sounded like a good way to do it. While I do find the title does a good job of presenting basic historical concepts in novel and interesting ways, I found some of the stories problematic both for what they show and what they don’t show.
The volume starts in the Ice Age with the story “Seeds of Change,” which shows, through a fictional prehistoric tribe, how humanity started the transition from a hunter/gatherer society to an agricultural one. While it does show how humanity began cultivating plants, its real focus is on how humanity is the only species on the planet that can not only learn from observing both its mistakes and successes, but also pass down that knowledge through both oral and later, written language. It highlights what has made civilization, and all the advancements to come, possible.
The story I thought was the best was “The Runner.” It depicts the legend of a Greek messenger who ran the 26 miles from Marathon to Athens to tell of the Persians’ defeat. It covers a lot of topics in just one story. First, it shows how much the human body can endure and how we can push it beyond its limits when necessary. The messenger ran 26 miles, through rocky, barren land, hardly stopping to rest. His determination kept him going despite his body’s complaints. Completing his mission was more important. His message gave the people of Athens hope that their new style of rule, democracy, would continue and not be crushed by the Persians’ totalitarian rule. Legend, history, and physical ability are all covered in one short story.
“Pyramid of Man” and “Will of Iron” tell the history of mankind’s obsession with war. “Pyramid of Man” tells of the first historically recorded battle, led by Tuthmosis III of Egypt, against the Syrians. It is told from the perspective of a Smith’s son’s first battle who is helped by a veteran mercenary from Nubia and depicts the first use of a chariot in battle as well. The story shows battle used to secure and defend a country’s border. “Will of Iron show how mining iron helped to create new and better weapons, starting with the Spartans in Greece, who used iron weapons and shields against the Persian’s bronze weapons and were able to defeat a superior force with superior weapons. It was iron that made things like guns, tanks, and cannons possible. But iron also helped man expand with tools such as axes and chisels for cutting wood and carving art, making nails to build ships to let explorers go further, and finally to all the modes of transportation we use today: Cars, trains, airplanes, and ships.
These stories do have their fair share of problems. The most problematic one for me was “Citizens and Believers.” It tries to contrast the Roman Emperors with the rise of a new religion, Christianity. If this had been all that the story was about, showing how the Roman Emperors were more concerned with their legacies than the people vs the growing religious cults that offered hope in another life, I would have been okay with it. But instead, this story chose to depict scenes from the Bible of Jesus Christ’s life, such as his attacking the money changers at the temple. The story presents these events as if they were fact, despite there being no supporting, primary evidence for them. For the Roman Emperors, there are at least primary sources of their deeds, no matter how slanted the story wants to make them. This kind of story doesn’t belong in a book that claims to come from a channel devoted to “History.”
My other problem with the stories in this volume is the preference that is given to Western Civilization. Coming from a series that is supposed to be about “all” of mankind, it doesn’t stray very from from Europe and the Middle East. Mankind’s history also includes Asia, the Americas, and sub-Saharan Africa, but we see almost none of the achievements of these civilizations. “Blood and Silk” isn’t a bad story, as it shows an Asian merchant who has traveled from the East to try to make it to Rome to sell his silks, completing a journey his own father dreamed of. This story could have been a good transition from West to East. Ri, as a non-christian, did get to explain some of his Hindu beliefs to some bewildered Christians, but it never goes beyond that, and there is no summary page at the end to explain Ri’s differing beliefs. Big teaching moment lost there. The final story, “From Dark to Dawn,” started out with potential, as it told of cultural differences causing problems with traders between East and West. It wasted that potential though, as it chose to keep its focus in the West and turn to the Crusades instead of giving the Eastern civilizations more of a chance. It was a real disappointment to get to the end and not to have seen anything different than history class taught me.
Mankind: The Story of All of Us is only meant to supplement the TV series, but I hope the TV series does a better job of representing the whole of human civilization than this book did. For the most part, the stories work well, and with some supervision, even the problematic one could be made to work. There are several different artists for the stories, and some worked better than others. The art in “Pyramid of Man” appeared stiff and had a CGI feel to it. Most of the other stories had a more realistic look. Mankind: The Story of All of Us had a chance at reaching kids and giving them a taste of some great moments in history. I just wish some of those moments could have been outside what they already know.