Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Big Book of Big Books

The Big Book series published by DC’s Paradox Press imprint in the 1990s were incredibly entertaining, consistently well written and drawn, and massively informative. They were just too big to last.

In the wake of the enormous success of comics like The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen in the late eighties, DC became surprisingly experimental with its imprints. One idea was Piranha Press, which featured the magnificently named Beautiful Stories For Ugly Children, (a title that still gets attention in the comic store, 20 years after it was first used) and other great titles such as Kyle Baker’s Why I Hate Saturn, Marc Hempel’s Gregory and Bill Messner-Loebs and Sam Keith’s fantastically odd Epicurus The Sage.

The imprint only lasted for four years, but lived on under a different name as Paradox Press. The difference between the two imprints was small, with Piranha having a slightly more humorous focus, (Howard Cruse’s wonderful Stuck rubber Baby began at Piranha but was eventually published by Paradox). But Paradox lasted a bit longer, squeaking its way into the new century.

In that time, the imprint carved out its own successful little niche in comics, at a time when DC was more focused on its superheroes dying and getting their backs broken.

Without the attention, the imprint produced some fine and solid work, including future movie properties Road to Perdition and A History Of Violence. There was also another appearance of Wagner, Grant and Smith’s perpetually troubled comic The Bogie Man, Reinventing Comics, Scott McLoud’s slightly less successful follow-up to Understanding Comics and several volumes in the mighty Gon series.

Even with this occasionally spectacular work, it is the Big Books that have proven the standout of the late imprint. For several years, each book presented an incredibly amount of information with humour and style, resulting in works that remain remarkably readable, a decade after they were published.

Eventually they petered out, and have fallen out of print altogether. Which is sad, considering the massive amounts of talent that worked on them. It all just faded away, with the final Big Book of Wild Women, in a state of perpetual pre-production since 2001.

But while they lasted, they were magnificent. Some of them were certainly better than others, some benefited from a stronger focus, while others stretched the boundaries of their own definitions to come up with something worthwhile.

Despite the massive size of the books, they were filled with short, snappy stories, and if one was dull, the reader could just go onto the next. It was series that truly rewarded dipping into at random.

The first out of the gate was The Big Book Of Urban Legends, and while it was one of the least factual books in the series, it was also one of the most entertaining, as the wit of long-time comic writer Robert Loren Fleming combined with the knowledge and passion of urban legend chronicler Jan Harrold Brunvald to produce a smart and funny series of short comic fables. The book also had an air of genuine creepiness around it, helped by the dark style of artists with a huge range of styles, from Howard Chaykin to Shary Flenniken

The series took its first major turn towards actual facts with the next book, the Big Book of Weirdos. While not as absolutely compelling as its Urban Legends predecessor, the volume was still packed with fascinating tales of the lives of Caligula, Henry Ford and the Marquis de Sade. These stories made great reading, even if the sheer repitiveness of much of the weirdness made it more of a book to dip into, rather than read in one go.

The scope was widened a little for the next volume, The Big Book of Death, which was another book that probably shouldn’t be read in one sitting, if only because it could bring on a disturbing bout of existential angst as readers become acutely aware of their own mortality. Still, writer Bronwyn Carlton managed to treat the darkest of subjects with the lightest of touches and tales of the guillotine, mad murders and weird burial methods made for interesting reading.

The Big Book of Conspiracies remains the high point of the entire series, as it captured the ultimate paranoia of the 1990s with a good dose of wit and charm. Doug Moench went through every major conspiracy of the 20th century, and in a remarkable feat, pulled them all together into one giant narrative, looking at the ultimate conspiracy of aliens and spooks.

It’s still a cracking read, a decade after it promised we would end up behind barbed wire fences, it’s just a shame that Moench didn’t bring the light touch he showed in this book to the Batman comic he was writing at the time. At the very least, he had a grand conspiracy comic in him that would have made The Invisibles look like a masterpiece of non-fiction.

Legendary cartoonist Gahan Wilson gave the Big Book of Freaks an odd dignity, as people with odd and interesting deformities were shown first and foremost to be people with their own pride and dignity. Most similar to the Weirdos big book, as it speed through fascinating lives in concise biographies, Wilson’s stories were, as ever, informative and fun.

The Big Book of Little Criminals was the first non-obvious title in the series, but proved just as interesting as any other book, as it dealt with less well-known subjects as its predecessors. Minor mobster and incompetent thieves finally got to shine, even if the vast majority of them came to a sticky end.

The next few volumes, the Big Book of Hoaxes, the Big Book of Thugs and the Big Book of Losers, all have their own charms, even as the series fell into a fairly predictable pattern. There is still a lot to like and still a lot to learn. Each book is more than worthwhile, but the format was starting to get a little stale.

Doug Moench came back with a semi-sequel to his conspiracies book with the Big Book of the Unexplained, which carried some of his pet theories forward, while also taking a much wider focus. This broader view meant it wasn’t quite as successful as its predecessor, but it also gave Monech the opportunity to cover more esoteric subjects, or just plain strange experiences with Bigfoot.

Judge Dredd co-creator John Wagner brought another strong vision with his Big Book of Matyrs, even if this is the one volume that suffers the most from repetition. After a while, the sight of seeing good and just people continually going to their deaths gets a little hard to churn through. The sheer horror that many of them endured is almost unimaginable, although the levels of faith on display are extraordinary.

The last half dozen books covered a dazzling array of subjects. Sometimes, that repetition factor began getting a little high, as the Big Book of Vice and the Big Book of Scandal tended to overlap in subject matter. The Big Book of Grimm was one of the simplest, exposing the disgusting origins of many of our favourite fairy tales, while unearthing a few gems that have been largely forgotten. The Big Book of the Weird Wild West, the Big Book of the 70s and the Big Book of Bad were all so massively wide-focused that the individual writers were able to indulge their own interests, even if they could have benefited from a little more detail.

And it all ended with the 70s book, with the aforementioned Wild Women remaining in limbo. Going back through them now, it is easy to see why the series faded away, even beyond the obvious fragilities of the comic market.  With such a huge number of pages to fill, some worthwhile stories get lost in the crush and the interest inevitably flags.
Still, one thing that should never be overlooked is the artists who came in to illustrate these weird and wonderful tales. While restrained by the strict nine-panel grid formula, there were still some extraordinary art from some extraordinary artists. Over the dozen or so books in the series, the artists involved include the following stars:

Kevin Maguire, Dick Giordano, Mike Zeck, David Lloyd, Eddie Campbell, Bryan Talbot, Walt Simonson, Kevin O’Neill, Trina Robbins, Carlos Ezquerra, Frank Quitely, Steve Dillon, Phil Winslade, Joe Orlando, Simon Fraser, Richard Sala, Fred Hembeck, Roger Langridge, Linda Medley, Barron Storey, Teddy Kristiansen, Peter Kuper, Richard Case, Colin MacNeil, Joe Staton, Marshall Rogers, Kieron Dwyer, Bob Fingerman, Ivan Brunetti, Sergio Aragones, Colleen Doran, Sam Glanzman, Gahan Wilson, Paul Guinan, Joe Sacco, Rick Geary, D’Israeli, Ty Templeton, Rian Hughes, Eric Shanower, Jason Lutes, Howard Cruse, Paul Pope, Mick McMahon, Mark Badger, Art Adams, Evan Dorkin, Al Davison, Keith Giffen and the mighty Hunt Emeron. 

If you don’t like many of the names in that list, then you’re reading the wrong blog, friend.

With so many great artists with their own unique styles working on so many interesting subjects, the Big Books are still stylish pieces of work. And with so much information presented in such an entertaining manner, they are an valuable addition to any comic collection and are a constant source of amusement.

If nothing else, they reinforce the old idea that truth will always be stranger than fiction.

3 comments:

Zom said...

Agh, I haven't read any of these.

I must now go away and work out how to buy them all. The Big Book of Conspiracies is the best you say?

Bob Temuka said...

It's much better than the X-Files because it has Frank Quitely drawing grey aliens exploding heads of soldiers.

Don't take my word for it. Take Grant Morrison's:

"By turns hysterical and terrifying, The Big Book Of Conspiracies is the seminal reference work for anyone interested in the labyrinthine secret world of corrupt tycoons, shady government operations, alien interventions and plots against freedom. Not surprisingly, it fills in a lot of background material which may help you to understand the world of The Invisibles a little more."
From The Invisibles Vol 1 #18

Zom said...

Done a bit of research and sadly that one is pretty difficult to come by... fer cheap, that is.

Bugger!