Comics Editor Carol is off convincing mummies that those ladies who look like their beloved are spunky archaeologists who have their own lives now, thank you very much. She’s also running the official TIFF Midnight Madness and Vanguard program blogs and will be back next month. Now, please enjoy this fantastic piece by Nick Hanover.
I don’t know what the right age is to get introduced to the work of Howard Cruse but I’m going to guess it isn’t 10. Nonetheless, that was exactly how old I was when I first discovered Cruse’s work, drawn in by the round faces of his characters and the heavy ink work. It wasn’t Stuck Rubber Baby that introduced me to one of art comix’ greatest storytellers, no, it was a thing called The Big Book of Hoaxes, an anthology of sorts that you’ll never see pop up on any Must Read Before You Die lists.
The Big Book of Hoaxes was published by Paradox Press in 1994, part of a series of Big Books on a number of fascinating subjects, like Death, and Conspiracies and The Weird Wild West. And Cruse was by no means the only comix figure involved. Big Books introduced me to Richard Sala too, and Rick Geary, and Trina Robbins, as well as comics veterans like Joe Orlando and Marie Severin. Simplistic as the series’ subjects might have been, they offered an impressive buffet of talent and a young Nick Hanover was eager to partake, even if he was fully unaware of the impressive CVs of the creators involved.
The basic premise of the Big Books series was that a writer/editor compiled short, trivia oriented pieces on a broad subject. Most of the titles were a mix of self-contained stories and rapid fire “blurbs” unified by a common theme in capsule sections that frequently bookmarked meatier chapters. Because I was a morbid kid, The Big Book of Death in particular was one of my favorite entries in the series, in part because its subject allowed ample room for capsule sections that showed a lot of gruesome and/or hilarious demises, like this Weird Death section Richard Sala did:
Those blurb sections also handily symbolize the tone of the series on the whole and the way the style shifted constantly. Because the series was meant as a “factoid” delivery system, it wasn’t just easy to get used to the changing styles but also enjoyable, like a chocolate sampler pack in comics form. Where other anthology series can sometimes be a slog to get through because they shift gears not just artistically but also thematically and narratively, Big Books had the benefit of malleable connective tissue. A fiction anthology on Death could take any number of forms but a non-fiction version built around delivering as much information as breezily as possible is somehow more digestible.
The breeziness was also because Big Book’s editors also utilized very smart structures and layouts, abiding by strict five to seven panel grids, breaking the collections down to chapters with their own subthemes. Sometimes the writer/editor would have a narrator stand-in who also helped retain reader focus by introducing individual stories, similar to the “guides” you’d encounter in Eerie and Creepy and their innumerable imitators. But usually the stories simply had a quick intro panel, followed by a few pages of story or blurbs like Sala’s, jumping right into the subject matter with little fuss.
The series won back to back Eisners for Best Anthology in 1995 and 1996 but I don’t remember it getting much attention and today it’s hard to find critical analysis of the series. That’s unfortunate because while the series is decidedly “low brow” and goofy, I can’t imagine a better introduction to art comix or, honestly, the possibilities of comics on the whole. More than all the Marvel, DC and Image material I read as a kid, the Big Book series opened up my views on what comics could be. Future mainstream comic stars like Frank Quitely and Tony Harris sat comfortably alongside their weirdest indie peers and higher brow non-fiction comic pioneers— in The Big Book of Thugs, you see D’Israeli’s stylish woodblock inspired art next to Glenn Barr’s animated caricatures next to Gahan Wilson’s absurd minimalism next to Val Semeiks’ realism and it feels natural.
Big Books always hyped itself as being by its editor and XX number of “the world’s top comic artists” and it really meant it. It was a truly international display of comics art, and the minimally obtrusive writing allowed those artists to show off and experiment with their styles. The books are all in black and white, other than their covers, so there was no distraction from the linework, just bite sized servings of a dizzying number of styles.
The series eventually came to an unfortunately haphazard close in 2001, after a planned 18th release tentatively titled Wild Women failed to make it to print. But with the recent advent of non-fiction comics work, like Matt Bors solo work and his curation at The Nib as well as zines like the excellent irene, I’d say it’s overdue for a comeback. If anything, the advent of tablets and digital comics should make anthology series like these even easier to find an audience, and their honest-to-goodness educational nature allows them to be an inspired choice for kids who otherwise don’t have much interest in learning. I wound up with almost the entire series because my parents loved how they would keep me and my siblings quiet and occupied on long road trips. Though it’s probably for the best that they had no idea how adult the subject matter could be, like this bit on this micro-history of gay cowboys that I encountered as an impressionable adolescent:
Whether or not the Big Book series comes back in any form is besides the point though, as the collection still holds up remarkably well. Unlike a lot of pop comics from the same era, the inventive styles on display remain fresh, even in sections by artists whose Big Two work is otherwise sleep inducing. You can pick up a Big Book now and receive an education not merely in its specific subject but also in the wide range of comics that have been available for the past few decades.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man, which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage over at Loser City as well as Ovrld, where he contributes music reviews and writes a column on undiscovered Austin bands. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with friends and enemies on twitter: @Nick_Hanover