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Big Book of the Unexplained (revisited)—“Inked essay art visualizes tall tales”

Writer: Doug Moench

Artists: Over 40 top comics artists

Paradox / DC Comics, 1997

NEARLY TWO HUNDRED PAGES of amazing black-and-white panels tell inky “tales of paranormal phenomena” in this BIG BOOK OF THE UNEXPLAINED, a title in a series that ran through the 1990s, starting with an award-winning Big Book premiere on urban legends in 1991, and running through conspiracies, freaks, little criminals, thugs, weirdos, the ‘70s, and several other alternate realities. Perfect bound on heavy paper, these volumes exhibit the best in modern publishing, and might go on an art shelf close to Dutch graphic artists sketching bridges and gables, except the content here is way farther out.

Versions of this kind of nonfiction picture storytelling have existed for ages to the present, still in the Sunday funnies. Yet an archival set of books like this is an imponderable spectacle. Artists orgied on this big book phenomenon for a decade. What a blast it would be to see parts of these books blown up large to paper over a big-box warehouse on twelve-foot walls so you could virtually walk through the eerie tales just as the artists intended.

The art panorama requires concentration to penetrate the jumble of stories. Each essay runs two to six pages with dense text boxes, longer than bullet points and more opaque than the typical smack boom sounds and long silences in action comics. Reading about the skull of doom, Loch Ness monsters, alien abductions, creatures on the moon, and fabulous coincidences—absorbed momentarily in each small picture—recalled lying on my stomach in the living room as a kid, reading while the family watched TV. Comic books like this helped me learn English, and later as an adult, other languages, pondering those text boxes.

Author Doug Moench takes the guise of Charles Fort, a real American researcher on “anomalous phenomena” portrayed as one of those bluff guys from an earlier era with a bushy mustache, guiding us through more recent times. The fact he is dead investigating his future is part of the drama. Hard to say I ever started a story at the beginning or stayed long after Fort’s depicted armchair introductions. In fact, first I started at the back of the book for anything on the stories, and found them all nicely sourced in a bibliography. So they are derived from facts, not invented. Little effort is made to convince the reader on any point, only to open a door to the possibility of unimaginable things existing, believe it or not.

Expanding the mind is the theme Mr Moench pitches at the end, staring at us through Ford’s spectacles. Whatever. I found myself instead absorbed in details, first by some nice shots of buxom Jayne Mansfield and the news she was told she offended Satan. Or her boyfriend did and she was next. I always wondered what happened to her. From there, snippets, in which I found myself drawn repeatedly to the same pages by Graham Higgins portraying mothman visitations and Bob Fingerman drawing mysterious men in black, probably aliens exploring our neighborhoods. For me, the visuals in hand here at once passing style to style was the best fantasy, not underneath the façade of the conventional world, but right here as genuine facts of many imaginations.

[Editor’s Note – this title is available here: The Big Book of… TPB The Unexplained | Read All Comics Online For Free ]