Wednesday, September 27, 2023

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 165: The Big Book of Weirdos (1995)

Ed Wood is one of the "weirdos" profiled in this book.

"Weird" is one of the least desirable adjectives in the English language in 2023. File it alongside "problematic," "uncomfortable," and "toxic" among the labels you do not want placed on you. How did this happen? How did "weird" become such a pariah? 

Personally, I blame the downfall of that once-noble word on social media. The internet was supposed to expand our horizons, but it ended up doing the exact opposite. It narrowed them down to a little shiny black rectangle. Now that we can cultivate and curate a little world of our own interests and our own friends, we're more suspicious of (and hostile toward) the unknown. "Weird" basically now means "unfamiliar or unexpected in even the slightest way and therefore highly undesirable." Just be normal, says the world. Blend in.

Excerpt from The Big Book of Weirdos.
That's not the way it was in the '90s. That decade was a great time—maybe the last great time—for quirkiness, individuality, and, yes, unapologetic weirdness. The song "The Dream of the '90s" from Portlandia sums up the mood of the era very well. Sample line from the video: "Remember in the '90s when they encouraged you to be weird? It was just an amazing time when people would go to see something like the Jim Rose Sideshow Circus and watch someone hang something from their penis."

This was also the golden age of "crate-digging," i.e. rummaging through the archives to find albums, movies, TV shows, and other artifacts from the past worth reviving. Back then, it was considered cool to be knowledgeable about our collective pop culture past, especially the offbeat and obscure stuff. Witness John Waters' Serial Mom (1994) in which some high school and college-age characters are fans of Bettie Page, Pee-wee Herman, Herschell Gordon Lewis, and even Chesty Morgan! Back then, Rhino Records and Something Weird Video were my lifelines!

Appropriately, the 1990s witnessed the second wave of Ed Wood fandom, which was more sympathetic to Eddie than the first wave in the 1980s had been. Instead of Harry and Michael Medved's snide The Golden Turkey Awards (1980), this was the decade of Nightmare of Ecstasy (1992), Tim Burton's Ed Wood (1994), and three major documentaries about him, plus various VHS and DVD reissues of his films. (Both Rhino and SWV handled Ed's movies.) Sure, we were still laughing at the cheapness, silliness, and oddness of Eddie's movies, but we were also celebrating him for his uniqueness.

Smack dab in the middle of the 1990s, DC Comics—yes, that DC Comics, home of Batman and Superman—released The Big Book of Weirdos (1995), a hefty, 224-page comics anthology consisting of mini biographies of 67 historical eccentrics. ("The world's most peculiar geniuses," according to the back cover.) These biographies, each about three to five pages in length, were all written by journalist and novelist Carl A. Posey. Each one was illustrated by a different, acclaimed comics artist, which gives the book a great deal of visual variety, similar to Harvey Pekar's American Splendor. 

The titular Weirdos have been sorted into various categories: tycoons, inventors, writers, etc. Ed Wood, Jr. is included in the chapter about artists and entertainers. This puts him in rarified company, alongside Andy Warhol, Salvador Dali, Vincent van Gogh, and others. Keep in mind, however, that inclusion in The Big Book of Weirdos is not necessarily an endorsement; Hitler is included in the chapter on autocrats and dictators, while Idi Amin is among the military men.

For the most part, though, this book is a celebration of its subjects, including Eddie. The three-page comic about his life hits the same basic bullet points as Ed Wood or most of the articles and documentaries about Eddie. Marine at Tarawa? Check. Wore bra and panties under his uniform? Check. Worked with an opium-addicted Bela Lugosi? Check. Worst director of all time? Check. You know the drill. I applaud Carl Posey for mentioning some deep cuts from Nightmare of Ecstasy, including references to the Hindenburg, the Ice Capades, and Eddie's alleged stint as a "carnival geek."

Some Woodian deep cuts from The Big Book of Weirdos.

The real draw here is the evocative, almost lurid artwork by the legendary Mitch O'Connell, who also drew the gorgeous cover for the recent Criswell biography. I'd describe Mitch's style as a cross between Daniel Clowes and R. Crumb, though he'd probably reject that description. Like his contemporary, Drew Friedman, O'Connell proves eerily adept at capturing the spirit of Ed Wood and his various oddball associates. In The Big Book of Weirdos, we get stylized portraits of not only Eddie and his wife Kathy but Tor Johnson, Joanna Lee, Captain DeZita, Criswell, Bela Lugosi, and even Texas Starr! I've talked about how Eddie's unproduced script Trial by Terror should be adapted into a graphic novel. Well, I can't imagine a better artist for the assignment than Mitch!

My favorite part of the mini-biography is its ending, and here I will have to give due credit to both Carl A. Posey and Mitch O'Connell. In the final panels, we see Kathy Wood seated on a couch, smoking a cigarette and reminiscing about the day Eddie died. Her dialogue comes directly from Nightmare of Ecstasy: "What do you suppose he saw in those last few moments? What do you suppose he saw?" This scene ends the story in a mysterious, haunting way, which I think Eddie himself might have appreciated. I also appreciated the various props and furnishings O'Connell has added to the scene, since they have a kitschy, early 1960s feel to them. On the wall behind Kathy, for instance, there is a painting of a sad-eyed puppy dog that looks like it could have been painted by Margaret Keane.

The good news is that The Big Book of Weirdos is available fairly cheap on the secondary market and is interesting from cover to cover. If you're of a mind to appreciate Ed Wood and his movies, you'll probably enjoy this entire book. I can definitely imagine taking this book along with me on a long trip. It's the kind of volume where you can flip to just about any page and find something worthwhile.