Depending on who’s behind them, non-fiction comics can be fascinating and educational, or didactic and boring. Thankfully, The Cartoon Introduction to Philosophy falls firmly into the first category.

I attribute that to the crediting of Kevin Cannon as both artist and co-writer. It’s clear that a visual presentation of the material has been kept in mind throughout. The other co-writer, Michael F. Patton, brings the subject matter, since he’s a philosophy professor.

As demonstrated by the cover, the metaphor throughout the book is a journey down the river of philosophy. That allows for various imaginative, entertaining images (as well as the occasional talking fish, commenting archly). Although the text primarily drives the book, there are plenty of strong visuals to enhance, emphasize, and expand on the words.

Our narrator is Heraclitus, one of the pre-Socratic philosophers, given a friendly face and active demeanor by Cannon. He explains early on that philosophy is the pursuit of wisdom, and to investigate that, we’re going to find out what other philosophers thought through history. He’s a great choice for the imagery, since he’s the one that first said, “It is not possible to step twice into the same river.”

The Cartoon Introduction to Philosophy cover

In addition to the historical framework, the book is arranged around a collection of the most famous problems tackled by the field over the years:

  • logic — looking at what makes an argument successful, and watching Aristotle climb a mountain through a chain of true premises
  • perception — examining how we know what we believe, and meeting Descartes and his skepticism in a prison metaphor
  • minds — Plato guides us in exploring mind/body dualism, and a tiny Leibniz explores the brain and drives Descartes in one of the most creative sections in the book
  • free will — determinism on a yacht trip
  • God — exploring religion with logic
  • and ethics — what choices we should make about how to live

I appreciated the way that it was acknowledged early on that the canon, the best-known philosophers, makes for a “testosterone-heavy line-up”. As we meet a new philosopher, there’s a half-page biographical sketch with life dates, a representative quote, a summary of his importance, his location, his most famous work, and a fun fact. It’s a lot of info in a small space, made graphically interesting and easy to find on a flip-through. I learned a lot — mainly about the inhabitants of the Monty Python “Bruces’ Philosophers Song” — and had fun while reading. Although clearly, I’ll need a few more trips on the river before I grasp it all. (The publisher provided a review copy.)

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