CARTOONS AND COMICS are in many ways ideal vehicles for social and political criticism. On the one hand, they can comment on a wide range of difficult and even "dangerous" topics, moving swiftly over terrain that larger, more lumbering vehicles of the imagination find impassable. On the other hand, they contain a sort of built-in brake on self-righteousness and pomposity. Even the most high-minded social critic is apt to keep in mind that a cartoon or comic book, no matter how serious its ultimate purpose, must also be funny.

Such is the common virtue of these five political and documentary cartoon books, a virtue which manages to sustain itself over the course of the very ambitious journeys they undertake. The books are part of a series originally published by Writers and Readers Publishing Cooperative in England and recently issued here by Pantheon. Their subjects are four of the more important figures of modern history (Marx, Lenin, Freud and Einstein) and one of the more important issues (nuclear energy). In every case, the overriding purpose of the authors is not just to educate the reader in an easy and entertaining way, with lots of illustrations, pictures and jokes; it is also to educate the reader politically. Thus, Marx for Beginners and The Anti-Nuclear Handbook argue, at least implicitly, for the transformation of capitalist society into a socialist one; Freud for Beginners and Einstein for Beginners go out of their way to emphasize the political aspects of their subjects (Einstein's socialism, Freud's suffering at the hands of anti-Semites, etc.); and Lenin for Beginners opens with the words, "What is the 'Great Fact' of the 20th century? The victory of the proletarian revolution in Russia October 1917."

Clearly, these are comics with a conscience -- at times, even, a vengeance. Fortunately, the critiques presented never grow so tedious as to forget the nature of the vehicle which carries them. Though these five books vary greatly in quality and effectiveness, all of them possess the redeeming value of being able to make us, at least occasionally, laugh.

Unfortunately, humor is practically the only virtue of Marx for Beginners and The Anti-Nuclear Handbook. The former's presentation of Marx's views, and especially the historical and philosophical background of those views, is uncritical and full of errors, while the latter's discussion of nuclear energy is inadequate, offering vacuous generalizations in place of useful information. The impression one gets in reading these books is that of two stationary vehicles, out of gear, occasionally emitting high, whirring noises.

With Einstein for Beginners, there is a sudden, almost violent lurch forward. The book is well illustrated and thoroughly researched. Its discussion of the political environment in which Einstein's discoveries were made is informative, while the presentation of the discoveries themselves is little short of inspired, showing as few other simplified accounts do how the "relative" nature of space and time follows from the "absolute" nature of the speed of light. Drawing from Einstein's own discussion in his popular Relativity: The Special and General Theory, this little cartoon book even outlines the derivation of the E=mc2 equation. Its tone, like that of Einstein's book, is irreverent and searching.

With the next two books, Freud for Beginners and Lenin for Beginners, both products of a collaboration of "A and Z" (Richard Appignanesi and Oscar Zarate), the speed picks up even more. Zarate's art work is outstanding and Appignanesi's texts are solidly researched and clearly presented. Freud for Beginners is a little tough going at times, but this is due to the complexities (frequently underestimated) of Freud's thought itself, not to any fault of "A and Z." Appignanesi's explanations of Freud's theories show the influence of such works as Ernest Becker's The Denial of Death, Norman Brown's Life Against Death and Herbert Marcuse's Eros and Civilization.

It is Lenin for Beginners, however, which gets my vote as the best of this series. The book is documentary history at its most exciting and informative, packed with dates and other facts yet reading almost as easily as an ordinary "comic book." The account of Lenin's arrival in the Finland Station on April 3, 1917, is especially well-done. Though Appignanesi's view of Lenin is sympathetic and far from impartial, he is so careful and critical in his presentation that he manages to hold the reader's trust at all times. Lenin for Beginners is an extremely effective portrait which should inspire respect for that dour old Bolshevik in even the most besotted exponent of monopoly capitalism. It shows what a well-tuned, properly greased and oiled, politica cartoon book can really do.