Friday, July 10, 2009

Review - The Big Book of Urban Legends

The Big Book of Urban Legends
Written by Robert Loren Flemming and Robert F. Boyd Jr.
Art by two hundred different artists
Edited by Andy Helfer
1995 Eisner Award Winner for Best Anthology

The Big Book of Urban Legends is the first book in the "Big Book" line of comics by Paradox Press. They were an imprint of DC comics that seemed to focus on the bookstore market by producing a few mature readers graphic novels (The History of Violence and Road to Perdition) but their biggest success was this line which consisted of strange trivia.

There is no plot or story to The Big Book of Urban Legends. Instead it is a compilation of two hundred one page strips the illustrate a story that is passed around as true. There are a handful of times when two pages are used to cover a topic but that is rare. The typical page gives a title for the strip and the situation plays out.

Almost all of the legends presented in the book are pulled from Jan Harold Brunvand's compilations of urban legends The Vanishing Hitchhiker and The Choking Doberman. Sometimes a page will comprise a story though it's far more common for it to be a joke. And as you might guess with two hundred of them in one book there's quite a bit of repetition in themes. Flemming and Boyd do a fine job in changing up the writing styles for the strips though their dependence on a punchline for the last panel means that the rhythm of each page remains the same throughout the book. Still for the format they did a fine job.

I wasn't joking when I said that two hundred artists worked on The Big Book of Urban Legends. With that many doing one page a piece you'll find a different style every time you turn the page. The majority of the artist used something along the lines of a Harvey Kurtzman EC Comics style which was a natural fit for the anthology. There are others who went for something more cartoony or impressionistic. I can't bring myself to call any of the pages "bad" since a single page in a constrained format is something that's tough to judge. On the other hand the number of pages that made me say "That looked pretty good" outnumbered the ones that made me yawn. I suspect that many of the minor artists treated the opportunity as a try-out for other comics work and that seems to have brought out the best in many of them.

(The above page is Frank Quitely's first work published in the United States.)

As an anthology this is the editor's baby. Helfer is to be commented for bringing together the most diverse group of comic creators ever assembled to contribute to it. I can only imagine the organizational nightmare that was. Unfortunately Helfer is also responsible for the organization of the book and I think that falls flat. The legends are divided and grouped into categories and while some of them can be fairly diverse others are almost the exact same story over and over again. It doesn't help when he puts two nearly identical stories on opposite pages such as people turning up nude at their own surprise party.

The Big Book of Urban Legends reads a lot like a compilation of newspaper comic strips and I don't think that's a bad thing. It's a book intended as bathroom reading; something you can pick up for a few minutes and put down. I think if you read it that way, a few strips at a time on occasion, it is entertaining. It's also interesting as a showcase for all of those artists. It's well worth getting just to poke through.