The first question to be addressed is whether or not it’s acceptable to refer to people with profound disabilities or restrictions as “freaks” any longer. Historically ridiculed and persecuted people in the early to mid-20th century at least survived, but via employment in carnivals, consigned to what were called freak shows. While conceding there’s difficulty in coming up with an acceptable alternative term for the people whose experiences are presented here, ultimately you’ll know whether this is a book for you given the subject matter.

Beyond the title, though, the impression shouldn’t be given that The Big Book of Freaks is nothing but a sordid parade of gawping and mockery. It’s a broadly sympathetic biographical look at people who in earlier times had few opportunities, and often found themselves happier among others with disabilities, differences and deformities than facing the constant judgement of the outside world. Despite the attitudes of the time, some people were able to overcome their conditions to become celebrated. Siamese twins Chang and Eng (actually Chinese by birth) astutely managed their finances and toured the world as celebrities, and while having endured an early life of torment Elephant Man John Merrick was later feted by the British establishment.

Famed showman P.T. Barnum looms large in many stories. A rogue to the core, he had an innate sense of how to part the rubes from their money, and if that involved deception it was of little concern to him. Time and again we read of his learning about someone unfortunate and shunned whom he persuaded to be displayed either in his New York museum or his touring carnival, and while that’s now seen as exploitation, there’s no doubting the result was a better life than other alternatives.

Written by Gahan Wilson, who also draws a couple of entries, the coverage is comprehensive, beginning with a historical perspective through the ages, and ending by pointing out how little separates modern day ‘reality’ shows from the carnival sideshow. In between the entries range from jaw-droppingly grim, such as the slavery of Siamese twins Violet and Daisy Hilton, to more heartwarming stories, along the way revealing trickery and scams, how some disabilities were cultivated along with some medical explanations. There’s also a chapter on Tod Browning’s seminal film Freaks, well illustrated by Glenn Barr.

As ever, the selection of artists is broad and eclectic, encompassing many styles from the realistic to the more individual, with Ivan Brunetti and Dave Johnson notable artists supplying their only Big Book strip. The sample art combines David Donald’s look at the purpose of gargoyles, and Joe Staton’s investigation of carnival cons.

There’s no disguising that some content is disturbing, but for the most part it’s because it chronicles man’s inhumanity to man. If that’s a concern, this is not the book for you. The Big Books are designed as individual packages, so reading in order isn’t required, but next on the schedule was The Big Book of Little Criminals.