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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.

Nonfiction; reference

Adults, teens, older kids; some possibly disturbing images

NOTE: An alternate title of this book seems to be "Gahan Wilson's The Big Book of Freaks."

Like the other "Big Books," this one contains a series of short pieces about its topic--in this case, human freaks, from the mythological to the historical to the fraudulent. The book begins with an introduction by Ricky Jay, "author, illusionist, and SCHOLAR OF THE UNUSUAL," that provides a summary overview of the contents of the book. The short pieces are separated into these chapter-categories: "Legendary Freaks" (mythological races, Goliath, gargoyles, etc.), "Medical Freaks" (from Siamese twins to children deliberately mutilated to produce dwarfism), "P.T. Barnum's Freaks," "The Golden Age of Freaks" (carnival freaks), "Bearded Beauties and Tattooed Men," "Lives of the Freaks," "Grifts" (cons and making a living by exhibiting freaks), and "Past, Present, and Future 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.

Easily the best of the "Big Books" that I've seen so far, Freaks is a fascinating yet ultimately touching work that emphasizes the humanity of the "freaks" over their oddities--at least, when the stories warrant it. Some of the individuals were treated very badly by their exhibitors (e.g., Julia Pastrana, the "ugliest woman in the world," and her equally hideous baby were mummified and displayed after they died); however, many took advantage of their condition to become international stars and make a lot of money (e.g., Zip the "What-Is-It"). In general, the message of this book is that it's possible to overcome considerable odds to have a happy life. On the other hand, the stories about carny cons are both amusing and instructive. The most grotesque of the stories (e.g., real geeks, how the Chinese and the Europeans created dwarfs, beggars' techniques to make themselves even more pathetic) reveal how ultimately the most horrible freaks are born of the soul, not the body.

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.)

Copyright 1996, Gahan Wilson and Bill Alger. All rights reserved.
 One of the many striking pictures in The Big Book of Freaks
(art by Bill Alger)
Copyright 1996, Gahan Wilson and Bill Alger. All rights reserved.

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.


Copyright 2000, D. Aviva Rothschild


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