|The Big Book of Freaks. Written by Gahan Wilson and others. Illustrated by various. New York: Paradox Press/DC Comics, 1996. 222p. (Factoid Book). $14.95. ISBN 1-56389-218-9.|
NOTE: An alternate title of this book seems to be "Gahan Wilson's The Big Book of Freaks."
The longest pieces (7-9 pages) are reserved for P.T. Barnum; P.T. Barnum's giants; "How to Run a Flea Circus"; Violet and Daisy Hilton, the highly successful Jazz Age Siamese twins recently resurrected in the musical Side Show; and Tod Browning's cult classic movie, Freaks. Other topics get from two to six pages. All the famous freaks (and fake freaks) you probably have heard of are in this book: Chang and Eng, the original Siamese twins; Tom Thumb; the Elephant Man; Jo-Jo the Dog-Faced Boy; Robert Wadlow, the tallest man ever; Jumbo the elephant; Carl Herman Unthan, born without arms yet stubborn enough to become a concert violinist, a "slight-of-foot" magician, an actor, a writer, and an inspiration to hospitalized soldiers during World War I; Grady Stiles Jr., the drunk, abusive "lobster boy" who murdered his daughter's lover and was himself murdered by his fed-up relatives; Baby Ruth, the 815-lb. circus fat lady; and the Cardiff Giant, a fake "missing link." You can also learn a bit about the carnival business, especially the sleazy grifting side of it, and how to "create" beggars and make giants taller and dwarfs smaller.
The book concludes with a bibliography and biographies of Wilson and all the artists.
Though the writing is generally better than that in the other "Big Books"--Wilson truly knows how to write for the comics format, for one thing--the thing that really sets this book apart from the others is the art. Perhaps it was the nature of the subject, but the artists in this book were considerably more creative and individual in feel than in the other books. (Among the 46 artists included are Ivan Brunetti, Dan Burr, D'Israeli D'emon Draughtsman, Hunt Emerson, Rick Geary, Shawn McManus, Joe Rubinstein, Eric Shanower, Bryan Talbot, Mary Wilshire, and, of course, Gahan Wilson.)
Highly recommended for its friendly coverage of an uncomfortable subject and its smorgasbord of interesting black-and-white art. This would be a good introduction to the "Big Book" series, though the other volumes might be rather disappointing after this one! There's nothing remotely naughty in between these covers, but judging by my own childhood reaction to pictures of "freaks," some younger kids might be disturbed by images of people with physical abnormalities--though in cartoon form they might be less upsetting than the photographs I once paged through.
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