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Bad Guys, Good Art

[whitespace] The Big Book of Bad
Anime-mania: 'The Big Book of Bad' concludes with a section on bad taste, including the story of the Japanese cartoon that produced epileptic fits in viewers.

History's worst villains prove that truth is stranger than comic fiction in the Big Book series

By Richard von Busack

HISTORY IS NOTHING but good stories that last eons. That's why history beats fiction every time, since, as the saying goes, fiction is nothing but history diluted with a moral. Now, those possessing a B.A. in history--and yes, I boast this coveted degree--achieved their title through dreary hours in libraries, and years in crowded lecture halls. As a result of my labors, I'm licensed by the state of California to kill any conversation with details of the Edict of Nantes, the Diet of Worms and the Wilmot Proviso. Ah, the Wilmot Proviso ... wait, where are you going? Sex! Sex and violence. That's what history is all about. Do you think historians really care about tariffs and agrarian reform? Hell, no, it's ancient scandals and gore that really lure us travelers into the past. And, to paraphrase Santayana--the philosopher, not the band--those who cannot remember the past can't fully enjoy the ripe, rotten, juicy scandals of today.

So hold your nose and take a whiff of the ancient muck raked up by ex-Metro staffers Jonathan Vankin and John Whalen, pages of well-aged compost to feed today's bad attitude. Centuries of human folly and cruelty, all minced up into easy-to-swallow cartoon form. Each book contains 60-plus thumbnail histories, illustrated by as many different artists, of misconduct ranging from genocide (Armenian, Sioux) to the creating of ugly art (Rod McKuen, Vanilla Ice).

Comparing the two books, it's no question that Vankin has the broader canvas to work on. The Big Book of Bad goes over 20 centuries of awfulness, from the bad behavior of Caligula to Pol Pot. Vankin and the other writers in the book also rope in a few semi-mythical bad people, Professor Moriarty, Mordred and Mr. Kurtz. But the best true stories of evil lives match any fiction.

The history of Edward "Blackbeard" Teach is handsomely illustrated by San Francisco artist Steve Leialoha. I wasn't a fan of pirate stories, personally, but Leialoha made me one. Apparently Blackbeard was retired, pardoned for his crimes and living in North Carolina, but he just had to head back to the ocean for more piracy--man loved his work. The career of the Romanian dictator Ceausescu, illustrated by DC comics old-timer Joe Orlando, is an example of Stalinism run amok. Vankin doesn't miss the details: the registration of typewriters by the government, Ceausescu's refusal to check Romania's blood supply for HIV, because AIDS was a disease he felt would only strike the decadent West.

The match of first-rate cartooning with dire subjects continues in Sergio Aragones' history of nuclear power in America. Hunt Emerson, the funniest cartoonist in the UK, illustrates the unsavory story of Asahara, the Brian Wilson lookalike who founded the killer Aum cult in Japan. Did you know Asahara charged his flock 20,000 yen ($220) for a drink of his bath water? Bastard probably faked them with someone else's bath water, too. On the subject of marginally less grave crimes against humanity than Sarin attacks, artist B.K. Taylor lampoons the ridiculous Vanilla Ice (in a story called "Flava o' Da Month") in a delightfully savage caricature.

Whalen's book, The Big Book of the Weird, Wild West, only has about 50 years to cover, but fortunately the high number of eccentrics, cannibals and beloved serial killers (Earp, Holliday, et al.) of the Old West makes for plentiful material. Whalen reminds us that the mythologizing of the prairie began before the buffalo had completely checked out. A favorite story here, illustrated by Alan Weiss, is the biography of Ned Buntline, the scoundrelly dime novelist who packaged the frontier for Eastern amusement. It was Buntline who rewrote the hard-drinking scout Buffalo Bill Cody into a temperance crusader. Weiss seems to have used the old movie star Errol Flynn as a model for his drawings of Buffalo Bill; the self-amused fraudulence Flynn liked to flash his audience is reflected in Bill's own embarrassment at playing himself on the stage in dopey Wild West shows. Drinking in the Old West is remembered in "A Stiff Drink," drawn by Pat Broderick; apparently frontier whiskey was as bad as you've heard, adulterated with such savories as raw alcohol, strychnine and even sulfuric acid.

Rick Geary, who has contributed to Metro, draws the story of Margaret Brown, better known as the unsinkable Molly (played by Kathy Bates in Titanic). And Bob Fingerman, a fine young talent best known for his Minimum Wage comics, illustrates the biography of local transvestite legend "One Eyed Charlie" Parkhurst.

The grislier side of the West isn't shirked in the Big Book of the Wild West. Aragones draws the story of the Donner Party; the sad tale defeats even his humor. As drawn by Russ Heath, "A Scalp for a Scalp ..." is a hair-raising, so to speak, account of John Glanton, the professional scalp-taker whose monstrosities are, strangely enough, still waiting for the definitive film version. (The '66 film The Scalphunters, directed by Sydney Pollack, is a comedy loosely based on the tale.)

These two books may be set in the past, but they seem to represent the future of the comics industry. It may seem crass to mention it, but an important duty of the pulp/popular fiction racket is serving up full weight. The Big Books, a series of nearly two dozen volumes at this writing, provide several hours' worth of reading each. Which mostly isn't the case in the graphic novels that may have price tags as high as the Big Books'. Of course, entertainment value is of secondary importance here; these books are educational! If only they'd do The Big Book of Arcane History next; I wonder what Hunt Emerson could do with the Wilmot Proviso. ...

The Big Book of the Weird, Wild West by John Whalen and various artists, 192 pages, $14.95, Paradox Press

The Big Book of Bad by Jonathan Vankin and various artists, 192 pages, $14.95, Paradox Press

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From the October 1-7, 1998 issue of Metro.

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