Where pre-20th-century Americans spun yarns of Paul Bunyan and John Henry, postmodernists favor urban legends, weird-but-possible scenarios that can be updated to suit any trend. These tall tales are like a virus, spread by human contact, which explains their uncertain origin and their “I heard it from a friend-of-a-friend” nature.
As primitive societies conveyed ideas in cave paintings, Urban Legends uses black-and-white art to chronicle this generation’s lore. Text often helps explain the stories here, but the drawn characters and events are universal symbols that might be decoded by any culture. The volume’s readability is ensured by a mostly uniform, nine-panel-per-page design; regardless of their usual styles, the artists tend to stay within the lines. Still, the techniques demonstrated—linocut, scratchboard, etc.—make this a diverse stylistic sampler.
“Exam Scam,” a discourse by a fraternity brother to his pledges on ways to cheat on college exams, characterizes the book’s appropriate story/artist pairings: It’s drawn by former National Lampoon editor Sheri Flenniken, creator of the scholastically themed Trots and Bonnie strip. College-level reading skills aren’t even required to comprehend Donald Davis’ wordless “Decapitated Motorcyclist,” in which grainy, low-resolution block prints tell the grisly story of a truck driver who sees a biker decapitated by his rig’s cargo. And devotees of TV ‘toons should appreciate Ren and Stimpy director Bill Wray’s “What Killed the Dog?,” a convoluted tale of woe straight out of a country-western song: A man learns that his dog died from eating horses burned in a barn fire, which was started by candles at his mother-in-law’s funeral, who keeled over after hearing that her daughter eloped with the hired man. Wray’s retro influences are evident; his swooping lines, rotund sheriff, and square-jawed protagonist have a faux-’50s feel.
Urban Legends is a rather comprehensive anthology, complete with vanishing hitchhikers and sewer-dwelling alligators. Yet you won’t find Jimmy Hoffa in its pages, and it seems to have bypassed some of the D.C. area’s most persistent rumors. Sure, the congressional nuclear bunker turned out to be real, but what about the Capitol Hill elevator operator who was allegedly fired after announcing, “Third floor—Aloha Deck!” when a certain Iowa representative was on board? And, say, what ever happened to those Libyan death squads that were ordered to D.C.?