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A New Graphic Novel Take on P.T. Barnum
Created by JosephCRVourteque on 5/29/2012 3:25:00 PM

Lord Vourteque returns to give us his thoughts on a recent graphic novel "The Peerless Prodigies of P.T. Barnum"


I'll come outright and say that I'm a bit of a fan of P.T. Barnum, or more so, his unapologetic willingness to promote himself and his projects.  Thus upon hearing of historian Jillian Lerner's new graphic novel, The Peerless Prodigies of P.T. Barnum, about the man and those around him in mid 19th century New York, I was immediately interested.

The book does not so much feature Barnum but more so utilizes him as a central catalyst in the book's main narrative which centers on the young Nicholas Meyer, the ambitious son of a clock-maker pursues a calling he sees as more contemporary, photography.  We're quickly thrust into this world through the eyes of Meyer as he works for the illustrious Mathew Brady alongside fellow up and coming photographer and Irish immigrant Finnian Weir.

As Brady has established himself as the preeminent photographer in New York it is not long before P.T. Barnum himself comes knocking for a portrait and it is the eager Meyer who insists on taking it.  Brady refuses but allows Meyer, at the expense of Weir, to assist.  The picture is taken and Meyer meets up with Weir in the dark room where a conspiracy of sorts against Brady between the two is established.  Yet this is interrupted by an attractive young woman, Arachne Faber who, as it turns out, works for Barnum himself.  In a strange series of missteps that leads Meyer to follow Arachne to Barnum's American Museum where he is is exposed to a variety of oddities and wonders including a singing automaton named the "Euphonia."

From here the narrative turns to Meyer attempting to get work with Barnum, Barnum's conspiracies against Brady and the eventual meeting of Meyer and the technological genius who created the Euphonia and Arachne's father, John Faber.  This all culminates in Barnum asking Meyer to create a new kind of advertisement for him.  All the while the rivalry between Meyer and Wier builds to an ultimate, though seemingly not catastrophic end.

If any of the aforementioned seems a bit convoluted to you, that is because it is.  I did enjoy the story and I appreciated the artwork, done in striking and bold blacks and whites that evoke the style of older independent graphic novels.  Yet I found the overall narrative frustrating.  It moves too quickly, creating confusion as what characters have what morays and motives.  On top of this there is a plethora of potential plot points and twists that could arise and yet trail off without conclusion.

The motives for any conspiracies against Brady are never explained, nor does a single one of them even become fulfilled.  The hinted attraction between Meyer and Arachne are never explored and Meyer interacts with the inventor Faber only once.  Meanwhile the eponymous character, Barnum, is only seen in a select few scenes, and little insight past what we already know about him historically is given.  Then there is the final conflict of the story, a literal explosion that has little resolution and even less reverberation on the narrative. 

The concept for the story is phenomenal and there is much to work with here, from fascinating characters, both real and imagined, to the very idea of mid-19th century New York and the technological revolutions happening all about.  Because of this I cannot help but feel this would make a much better prose novel than graphic one.  From that vantage point Lerner could have delved far deeper into what was happening and who the characters were.  Instead we are left with Meyer being ultimately unlikable as he practical baths in apathy toward his family and comes across as a self-entitled pissant toward everyone else.  Brady and Barnum, the two historical figures of the story, are more set pieces than characters, and the narrative itself never truly comes about.

To the author's credit, it is not easy to tell a story via graphic novel, especially not in 67 pages.  Perhaps as a primer to a longer narrative this could work, but not as a fully realized story.  In that light, I would like to see The Peerless Prodigies expanded, with more character and story development.  There is a gold mine here to delve into and Lerner has the voices of the characters down pat in her writing style.  Unfortunately that is not enough to save this singular piece.  Yet, should it ever be enlarged further, I would definitely be interested in returning to it.

 

The Lord Baron Joseph C.R.. Vourteque IV is one of the primary founders of SteampunkChicago.com as well as one of the producers behind such event series as The Clockwork Vaudeville, Gearbox Fantastique, Watch Chains & Lace and the lauded Carnivale Delirium.  He's also a member of The Lords & Ladies DJs and their core remix artist.

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