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Barnum: In Secret Service to the USA

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Bet the title hero of Barnum: In Secret Service to the USA (Vertigo) would’e loved the conceit behind this graphic novel: beloved charlatan and show biz impresario P.T. Barnum is pressed into the service of his country, bringing along some of his most famous performers and side show anomalies for the ride. His adversary: electrical genius Nikola Tesla, who with a secret cabal of moneymen, is plotting to take over the United States. Barnum’s troupe travels across the country in pursuit of Tesla and his mistress Ada (every would-be world dominator needs a sultry mistress, right?), encountering serial-style perils along the way.
P.T. would’ve applauded the concept, but I wonder what he would’ve said about the execution. I’m betting that writers Howard Chaykin and David Tischman sold this package to DC/Vertigo as an American League of Extraordinary Gentlemen – some of Nico Henrichon’s panels even echo Kevin O’Neill’s art – but the end results are closer to the movie Wild Wild West than to Alan Moore’s Boy’s Lit confection. Reading Moore’s Legion is like delving into the layered mind of a pulp-raised Nabokov; reading Chaykin & Tischman is a more half-dimensional experience.
Though the book promises thrill and spills with Barnum’s Congress of Anomalies, it hedges it bet by dropping two “normal” characters, secret service agent Firestone Kelly and lawyer/confidant Pelham DeCarlo, into the mix. Adding average folk into a plot filled with fantastic figures (famous Siamese Twins Chang and Eng, midget strongman Colonel Dyna-mite, a Dog-Face Boy and a fat lady who’d appear to be Barnum attraction Susan Barton) is a standard Hollywood ploy – gives the Rubes someone to identify with – but what’s it doing in a comic book? We come to a comic about circus performers expecting these colorful characters (and the Great Man Himself, of course) to show off. Anything else is an unnecessary distraction.

Chaykin, Tischman & Henrichon concoct some decent action sequences, particularly those involving a balloon and zeppelin, but they fail in the most basic arena: evoking the sawdust and tinsel world of these circus folk. (In American comics, Klaus Nordling’s largely forgotten late forties series, The Barker, is the standard to match.) Even our title lead has been more believably captured elsewhere: as a bear who spoke through circus font in Walt Kelly’s classic comic strip “Pogo.”
Reading this book give me serious pause considering DC/Vertigo’s book publishing arm: though structured like a four-issue booklet mini-series (each chapter is eighteen pages long), the company chose to debut this material in thirty dollar hardbound graphic novel form. Clearly, somebody thought this lightweight mock historical adventure was a prestige work (even as worthier pamphlet series continue to cry for respectful book reprinting). Now that’s the kind of elevated hypery ol’ Phineas T. could’ve gotten behind.

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About Bill Sherman

Bill Sherman is a Books editor for Blogcritics. With his lovely wife Rebecca Fox, he has co-authored a light-hearted fat acceptance romance entitled Measure By Measure.
  • B. Barnum

    I am so tired of P.T. Barnum, i am a Barnum and it always comes back to P.T. whenever people try to remember where they heard the name before. I wish someone would come up with a cooler, better character with the last name Barnum so people will soon forget who P.T. Barnum is.