Review by Frank Plowright
Let it be noted from the start that The Big Book of Death isn’t for the squeamish. It’s well researched and generally well drawn, but not for anyone likely to have their stomach turned by discussions of forms of execution, post-death processes and massacres.
While it’s understandable that the Big Books can’t credit 67 different artists on the cover, once again the person who wrote over two hundred pages isn’t deemed worthy of a cover credit. At least Bronwyn Carlton’s name appears on the title page this time. She’s very thorough, and even avid watchers of the regular forensic dramas and documentaries that have spring up since publication will learn fascinating details such as the grim process of someone dying of gas inhalation.
Carlton also solves the narration problem, a sticky point in earlier books. The sequences leading up to a joke are smoother, and while varied, her methods of introducing topics all work well, such as the potentially offensive subject of necrophilia treated as a romance comic via Craig Hamilton. In keeping with the tone taken by earlier books, the mood can be irreverent, although slightly less so given the topic. Still, Steve Dillon’s cartoon electric chair talking to children is very disturbing nonetheless.
Frank Quitely’s sample art detailing the effects of hanging represents the restraint shown by most artists when covering gruesome situations. Despite many artists being early in their careers, there are few pages where the quality induces wincing, and some offer above and beyond. Surprising strips include Barron Storey’s heavily crosshatched explanation of Dante’s Hell, Feliks Dobrin’s abstracted near-death experiences and the variety of Randy DuBurke’s approaches in showing Green-Wood cemetery. That’s one of a series in which Carlton’s personal avatar guides readers around the world’s most famous graveyards.
Toward the end Carlton moves beyond death to consider what may happen, along with vampires and zombies, noting associated medical conditions. But you want to know about some weird deaths, don’t you? Nine pages of single panel notices are supplied, and to select three from Fred Hembeck’s contribution, it was only when they died that musician and adoptive father Billy Tipton was revealed as a woman; a killer claimed self-defence after stabbing a man 72 times and running him over with a car, and two women in Seattle died after coffee enemas. Richard Sala’s sample art supplies another selection.
From Sean Taggart’s introduction of a child asking her father about what happens after death to Michel de Montaine’s philosophising, The Big Book of Death provides what the title promises in very readable informative chunks.