(art by Sergio Aragones, The Big Book of Bad)
No discussion of my Nineties Comics Experience (also the name of my post-rock ensemble act) would be complete without some discussion of DC’s series of Big Books, released through the publisher’s Paradox Press imprint from 1993 to 2001.
The Big Books were a line of comics anthologies centering around a “true-life” single subject or theme such as death, scandals, hoaxes, or conspiracy theories. The individual “stories” (or, more accurately, “picto-articles”) ran from anywhere from one to four pages and featured art from an absolutely stellar array of up-and-coming and veteran talents from both the mainstream and “indie” sides of the funnybook scene. Each volume was released in a slightly-oversized, B&W paperback format ideal for the gift book and “bathroom reader” markets.
(art by Frank Quitely, The Big Book of Urban Legends)
I got in on the ground floor with the inaugural entry, The Big Book of Urban Legends, picked up at a mall bookstore during the “fuck it, I’m going to treat myself” phase of the Christmas shopping cycle. At the time, “urban legend” was an unfamiliar term for me, though I’d read “The Forbidden” in Clive Barker’s Books of Blood and had been repeatedly exposed to implausibly believable “friend-of-a-friend” tales since early childhood.
(Hey, did you hear there’s a clown in a blue van giving out temporary tattoos laced with LSD? Scottie’s cousin’s neighbor licked one and now she’s locked up in an insane asylum, I swear!)
The notion that all these familiar (and often frightening) stories were part of a anthropological phenomenon was fascinating enough to make me seek out additional information — academic tomes and mass market collections of Jan Harold Brunvand’s research on the urban legends, pulled from the shelves of the campus library where I worked and voraciously read during the long dead hours of my weekend shift.
Prior to that moment, my cultural “studies” didn’t amount to more than contextual nostalgia. I loved horror movies and nuclear war fiction, so I’d read some texts on the subject in hopes of gleaning some interesting leads and maybe some clarification. I was an English major who dabbled in very specific historical subjects. Conceptual theories regarding social and cultural history were alien to me, except in the most generalist terms.
Urban legends — being both fascinating and familiar — were an ideal subject for picking up the basics of those disciplines, even if it was a heightened awareness of the signal distortions and cultural biases which operate in socially transmitted narratives, where the “how” is equally significant to the “why.”
(art by Rick Geary, The Big Book of Scandal)
This unintended intro would set the tone for my experience with the rest of the Big Books series. Enjoy the stories and art, check the “further reading” section in the back, and go on from there. It even began to influence my choice of college courses. Having completed my major requirements early, I spent the remaining semesters drifting between core electives. Over time, it ended up gelling into an unofficial multidisciplinary major surrounding the socio-cultural tapestry of post-WW2 America. It’s likely I would’ve drifted in the direction without the Big Books igniting my curiosity, but I wouldn’t have had the same level of enthusiastic engagement.
(art by Jason Lutes, The Big Book of Hoaxes)
To be honest, several of the books were of marginal interest to me outside the artwork. The Big Book of Martyrs and The Big Book of Grimm stand out there, along with the ones dealing with thugs and petty criminals. They were well-illustrated bathroom reads, but the subject matter wasn’t as compelling compared to that of The Big Book of Bad or The Big Book of Vice.
The one volume that truly stood out, and would ultimately have the biggest impact on me, was The Big Book of the 70s. It was the final volume released before DC pulled the plug on the imprint (leaving the purportedly complete Big Book of Wild Women in perpetual limbo), and my favorite of the lot. The decade theme fit the format to a tee, offering a snarky-yet-celebratory look at that most maligned and misunderstood of eras. It went deeper than the superficial camp appropriation that passed as Gen X’s regrettable “70s revival” phase, which itself was remarkable at a time when my college’s American Studies electives skipped from “The Sixties” straight to “The Eighties and Beyond.”
(art by Jeff Parker, The Big Book of the 70s)
(Fun Fact: When I ran into Jeff Parker at Boston Comicon, I asked him to sign the Burt Reynolds entry he illustrated for the The Big Book of the 70s. It was one of my primary reasons for attending that crowded nightmare, and it was totally worth it.)
As I read through the bibliography, I noticed one reference kept cropping up — a book titled Retro Hell from the editors of the Ben Is Dead ‘zine. Curious, I ordered a copy of it through a online bookseller called Amazon-something-or-other. (I wonder what became of them?) It arrived in the mail a few days later and that was the moment Armagideon Time was born — in concept, as the reality would take another half a decade to manifest.
The ideas and theories and hobbyhorses that had been percolating in my skull for years — the subjective-selective falsity of nostalgia, the reconciliation between personal recollections and factual accounts, the overarching importance of context — were clarified and given a voice, a personal voice able to mix theory with painful memories and too many cuss words.
And all because I was bored and footsore and looking for something to read while getting a bite at a food court Arby’s back in 1994.