Tuesday, July 13, 2010

100% True?

In the early to mid 90s, DC was getting hammered. Marvel, thanks to their ridiculously popular X-Men franchise, was running roughshod over the sales charts. As if that weren't bad enough, Image (when they managed to put books out on time) were snatching up more readers, with their innovative blend of popular artists and nonsensical, adolescent-fueled writing. This put DC in a unique position as they were allowed to experiment.

In 1989, DC started Piranha Press, an imprint designed to publish alternative comics. In 1993, DC started Vertigo, a mature-themed line primarily for fantasy and horror titles, which showcased the works of the so-called "British Invasion", with UK and European talents such as Grant Morrison, Neil Gaiman, and Garth Ennis being featured.

In 1994, Piranha Press was tweaked into Paradox Press, where our story really begins. Paradox Press would have three mini-imprints: Paradox Mystery, Paradox Whatever (the name of the second escapes me now) and Factoid. While Paradox didn't have many hits, odds are you've heard of some of their successes like Road to Perdition. The most successful, from a longevity standpoint, was Factoid's Big Book series.

Originally intended to be six books, DC released seventeen Big Books between 1994 and 2000. The debut in the series, The Big Book of Urban Legends, enjoyed both commercial and critical success. This would follow for most of the books in the series.

The success of the Big Book series is somewhat amazing. First, every Big Book was oversized and black and white. Second, they followed an anthology format, with many different stories and pieces, each by a different artist. Finally, each book was non-fiction (with the arguable exception of The Big Book of Grimm, which reprinted many of the Grimm Fairy Tales); the Factoid/ Big Book slogan was "100% True". Of course, they had to put some careful spin on that slogan; for example, The Big Book of Conspiracies had a disclaimer that stated the "100% True" tag applied insofar as all the theories had actually been espoused at one time or another by conspiracy afficionados.

Each book featured a ton of artists, some recruited from the cream of the independent comic scene crop, while other artists were legends in the field. Some of the artists who worked on various Big Books include Sergio Aragones, Dick Giordano, Russ Heath, Joe Orlando, Frank Quitely, Phil Jimenez, and more.

Sadly, the line ended in 2000. However, DC apparently had at least 3 more planned; in fact, some wags claim that one of the proposed titles, The Big Book of Wild Women (focusing on unconventional women who helped change society), is pretty much done but DC won't release it.

I've had a fond spot in my heart for this series for some time now. The stories are told in an engaging and humorous manner that makes learning fun. Also, I've managed to you some of these as sources for collegiate papers when I'm struggling to come up with the required number of bibliography items. Of the 17 Big Books, I have 13 of them, and I've enjoyed them all. What follows are my thoughts on the ones I have read, starting with my favorites.

The Big Book of Grimm

A retelling of several Grimm Fairy Tales, this book revels in the spirit of the original folklore. There's lots of blood and violence, just like there was before Disney and other film companies started watering them down. Furthermore, this book features many of the more obscure stories, such as "Sweetheart Roland" and "The Sun Will Bring It To Light".

The Big Book of Conspiracies/ The Big Book of the Unexplained
I've lumped these two together as they share both an author and a overall worldview, for lack of a better term. The latter was the first Big Book I had bought which was back, if memory serves, in the summer of 1997. I was a fan of the X-Files back then, before Chris Carter allowed it to devolve into self-parody and awfulness (seriously, why on Earth would you think it a good idea to put KATHY GRIFFIN in your sci-fi/ horror series? WHY?!?) The former has basically every bit of paranoid screed that was available to 1995 (so, none of the OK City Bombing theories, and only a very little bit about Waco). The latter contains Fortean phenomena, strange cases, UFO sightings, hauntings and cryptozoology.

The Big Book of Losers
This one is all about failure. From those who can't seem to do anything BUT fail, to those who had it made up until one fateful screw up, this book is a testament to the old saw "There but for the grace of God go I." Also, this book has the tale of Ulrich von Lichtenstein, which might be the single awesomest thing to ever see print.

The Big Book of Hoaxes
This one runs the gamut from huge scams (such as the Hitler Diaries), to lifelong scammers and pranksters (like the inventor of the Ponzi scheme), to quick cons and scams. Fun stuff.

 The Big Book of the Weird Wild West
I bought this one when I was on my Deadlands: The Weird West kick. This book covers pretty much all the bizarre things associated with that nebulous period/place known as the American Frontier. This book holds a special place in my heart as one of the Big Books I used most often in college. I referenced it a lot in discussions for a class on the American Frontier, and I also used a brief portion for a report on Alfred Kinsey for my Feminist Theory class.

These are the ones that stand out in my mind, though I've high opinions of the others that I've read. Reviews might come for those later. Eventually, I'll complete my collection and pick up the other four I've yet to read.

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