The Big Book of Scandal!, Jonathan Vankin et al.

Paradox Press, 1997, 191 pages, C$20.95 tpb, ISBN 1-56389-358-4

Once in a while, the vagaries of fate shine upon the jaded book reviewer and a chance encounter with an oddball title proves to be a ray of light in an otherwise dreary reading regimen. For your faithful critic, the latest of those serendipitous accidents is Paradox Press’s The Big Book of Scandal!, a wonderful comic book that stand high above most of the non-fiction read recently.

The Big Book of Scandal! is a collection of fifty-odd comic strips (ranging from one to six pages), each telling one of the twentieth century’s best-known scandals. (Or, in the case of the O.J. Simpson trial, a twelve-page two-parter describing the period before and during the trial) Each comic strip is drawn by a different artist, but all are written by the same Jonathan Vankin, who does an impressive job of condensing together oodles of material in one accessible but reasonably exact account. The account of the Irangate scandal, for instance, does a splendid job at explaining a remarkably complex business in an entertaining fashion.

After a succinct but clever introduction, The Big Book of Scandals! starts off amusingly enough with a section on Hollywood scandals. The standout piece here is “The Scandal that Sank a Studio”, a wonderful and hilarious six-page exposé on the disastrous making of Elizabeth Taylor’s CLEOPATRA. Other good pieces talk about Ingrid Bergman, Elvis Presley, Woody Allen, Heidi Fleiss and the “Hollywood Bad Boys”. Most of these stories are good shadenfreude material, especially given the personal -often scabrous- nature of the scandals. Good fun, really.

An edge of bitterness begins to creep in the second section, in which we cover miscellaneous celebrity scandals. Tonya Harding, Jimmy Swaggart, Jim Bakker, the English Monarchy and Michael Jackson all get their dues—plus the inevitable O.J. Simpson. Here, financial impropriety vie with more scabrous indiscretions as the source of scandals. While it may be entertaining to read about a preacher being caught paying prostitutes, it’s not as funny to read about them bilking thousands of people out of their money. And it definitely rankles to see someone famous walk away with murder. (This Factoid book might be “100% true”, but don’t make the mistake to assume that it’s 100% biais-free!)

As the book progresses in its third section about crooked politicians, the light humor of the book’s first half is gradually replaced by a merciless sarcasm. While a Hollywood star caught with his pants down might be cause for a prude chuckle, politicians are messing around on the taxpayer’s dime and the public’s trust. Vankin’s treatment of Watergate, Irangate, the Anita Hill episode, the Kennedy Legacy or the S&L Bailout are straight-out chainsaw jobs, clearly explaining exactly what was so wrong about them. The biting humor only drives the stake even further.

But wait; the worse is yet to come. “Dirty Business” is the angriest part of the book, detailing such scandals as John DeLorean, Michael Milken, Robert Maxwell, Lockheed, Ford Pintos, Love Canal and Thalidomide. Some of it so dirty that you’ll end up thinking that a bullet through the head of some of these people might be too generous, whereas a daily knee-capping might be just about adequate. Here, the comic form pushes exactly the right buttons in order to make us sit up and take notice. The Thalidomide segment is a model of clear and direct vulgarization, complete with a forgotten hero (Dr. Frances Kelsey) and criminal corporate behavior.

Any book which causes a strong emotional reaction has to be commended: The Big Book of Scandals! sneaks up on you with laughter and then hits you with pure rage. The art is excellent (with particular kudos to artist Lennie Mace for the Thalidomide segment) and the writing is a marvel of concision. The Big Book of Scandal! is well worth tracking down.

Finally, g’darn it, don’t be prejudiced about a “comic book”: In a month where I’ve read such diverse graphical works as Ghost World, Crisis on Infinite Earth and Alien: Stalker, The Big Book of Scandal not only shows that a “comic book” can be as good as equivalent pure-text non-fiction, but can even be better.

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