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Marvels & Tales 17.2 (2003) 269-272
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The Big Book of Urban Legends by Jan Harold Brunvand. Adapted by Robert Loren Fleming and Robert F. Boyd, Jr. New York: Paradox Press/DC Comics, 1994. 223 pp.
In the introduction and commentary to The Big Book of Urban Legends (BBUL), Jan Harold Brunvand wonders "is this the climax of my career as a folklorist--to see my collections of urban legends turned into comics?" (7). He continues, saying that his mentor, the late Professor Richard M. Dorson, would probably have approved as Dorson himself wrote an illustrated book, America in Legend. Magnanimous, Brunvand also observes that "comics are just another manifestation of the same popular culture that gives rise to many urban legends in the first place." Despite Brunvand's low estimation of comic books, BBUL should be of interest to folklorists and storytellers.
BBUL is a collection of two-hundred urban legends (ULs) selected from Brunvand's previous works: The Vanishing Hitchhiker (1981), The Choking Doberman (1984), The Mexican Pet (1986), Curses! Broiled Again! (1989), and The Baby Train (1993).
BBUL is not a reprint as the ULs are presented in an entirely different format: one-page black-and-white comics. What further sets BBUL apart is that it is unusual for any collection to have two-hundred different illustrators and their art styles. The styles range from iconic, straightforward simple lines tending toward the abstract; to expressionistic works, reflecting the illustrator's inner chaos; to the photo-realistic. With so many stylistic shifts, a reader might expect a jarring experience. The different styles however do not detract from the reading experience; rather the variety could be seen as a visual translation of the range of narrative voices from the various testimonials printed in previous Brunvand works.
A first-time reader may be surprised that nine panels are sufficient space in which to tell a UL. What the reader may not consider is that the comic book is [End Page 269] a subtractive and additive art. That what is there is as important as what is not there. The imagination of the reader also plays an important part. Because comic books are not complete without an audience and the engaged imagination of that audience, reading a comic book is a demanding task, requiring an active participation. A comic book page has not just the panels, but the space in between, known in the industry as the gutter. Neither has any meaning without the imagination of the reader. The panels and gutters fracture space and time, creating a staccato rhythm of storytelling. In the gutter, a second or an eternity can pass. And it is in the gutter that the reader has to construct and continue the narrative. This is closure, the observation of parts, being able to perceive the whole based on experience, the most important act to commit while reading a comic book.
Readers must understand that the format is not the only change; the storytelling aspect is radically different. For example, from chapter one, "Moving Violations," is "The Decapitated Motorcyclist" (27). Done in an illustrative style similar to Lynd Ward's woodcuts, the comic is dense with shadow and hatching, lending a weight suitable to this grisly UL. This nine-panel comic is silent (no word balloons, expository captions, or sound effects). A script of the comic follows:
Title panel: Road sign with title and blood spatter. Skull in helmet at foot of sign.
Panel two: High-angle long shot. Motorcyclist riding motorcycle with sidecar behind truck in foreground.
Panel three: Medium shot. Truck flatbed. Chain securing sheet metal breaks.
Panel four: Long shot. Motorcyclist moves onto oncoming lane to pass truck.
Panel five. Close-up shot. Truck tire in pot hole.
Panel six: Medium shot. Dislodged sheet metal decapitates motorcyclist.
Panel seven: Medium shot. Horrified truck driver as torso, spurting blood from neck, passes by in foreground.
Panel eight: Medium shot. Truck driver clutches chest with both hands, an apparent heart attack.
Panel nine: Long shot. Truck barrels through guardrail and toward people at bus stop...