Barnum: In Secret Service to the USA: Freaks, Suckers, and Maniacal Madmen
P. T. Barnum is a fascinating enough real-life person that it seems natural that a comic book miniseries was created revolving around him and his famous circus. And, I'm pleased to say, the merchant of flim-flam pops off the page, with this fast-paced story of intrigue, secession, treason, and assasination.
As the story opens, Barnum and his "Congress of Anomalies" are able to stop an assassination attempt on the life of President Grover Cleveland. Impressed, Cleveland dispatches the first female Secret Service agent, Firestone Kelley, to recruit Barnum and his band to become secret agents of the US government to foil a plot by evil genius Nikola Tesla to steal away all of America West of the Rockies. Barnum, realizing what having the thanks of the president can do for him, agrees.
The rest of the story consists of Barnum and his crew (including a mesmerist, a rubber man, a human fly, an animal charmer, a minature strongman, the famous conjoined twins Chang and Eng, and a brilliant African-American scientist/lawyer) figuring out and thwarting Tesla's plans. This leads to action scenes of the appropriate amount of bombast which are very entertaining, which made me devour the comic with alarming reading speed. It was definitely a fun read.
Unfortunately, it does have disadvantages. For one thing, I disliked the portrayal of Tesla. He (as well as his lover and accomplice, Ada Lovelace) just seemed to be a generic mustache-twirling villain. There was nothing unique about him, which, given how unique the actual Tesla was, is somewhat criminal.
I also wish Howard Chaykin and David Tischman the writers and Niko Henrichon the artist had thought out their setting better. Sometimes it felt that they just picked three or four of the most famous oddities of late 19th century America (Barnum, Telsa, Changand Eng, the Dead Rabbits, etc.) and just threw them into the story without really figuring out how to best use them. Since these characters are fascinating in real life, it made their genericness in this story seem even more frustrating.
However, Barnum himself is well-written. We see inside his head and therefore get all of the various complications of his personality. He is bombastic, and enjoys a bit of flim-flam, but especially enjoys entertaining people. He also loves his Congress of Anomalies, and sees them as a sort of family. I especially liked the detail that he is in mourning for his dead wife, a fact he represses but has a tendency to sneak out.
All in all, although it is somewhat insubstantial and has a criminally generic villain, this comic is a fun read. If you see it, check it out if it's not too expensive. You shouldn't be disappointed, if you keep in mind that it's just a bit of flim flam.
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