P. T. Barnum, prince of humbug, has fascinated the public since the mid-19th century. This story, set in 1857 during Barnum’s height of fame, reveals the wonder and some of the contempt in which Barnum’s public held him. The protagonist is a young photographer’s assistant who has scorned his family’s business of clock making to embrace this technology of the future. Of course, when Barnum sits for a portrait, the young man’s life turns on its head as he tries to find a way to impress the great showman.
This story gives an interesting peek into Barnum’s New York museum and it would be a good introductory text before a class’s unit on The Great and Only Barnum: The Tremendous, Stupendous Life of Showman P. T. Barnum (prose biography by Candace Fleming, illustrated by Ray Fenwick, published by Schwartz & Wade) or other Barnum biography. There are many historical details that add a feeling of accuracy to the story that I appreciate, such as the fluttering attentions of the bearded ladies and the brief graphic tour of Barnum’s museum, but the story falls short of what one might expect from a Barnum biography. I did not feel much of an emotional connection with any of the characters, many of whom were manipulative or conniving in one way or another. Yet it was a quick read that gave some insight into the era and Barnum himself.
The art is very old school comic style, just straight black and white lines. This gives the visuals a gritty feel, which, while mimicing our impressions of the times fairly well, can be harsh with many dark scenes. The darkness is alleviated a bit within Barnum’s masterpiece museum, but Barnum’s work was all about flash and pizzazz and this book lacks the jazziness of what I imagine Barnum’s world would have been like.
Overall, this book is a good effort, but it misses the certain spark I would expect from a Barnum tale. Quite a bit of imagination went into the story, but it felt like most of it came from Barnum himself, with his sideshow acts and clockwork people. Still, there are some fun bits and creative storytelling elements with plenty of intrigue to keep things moving along.
The Peerless Prodigies of P.T. Barnum
by Jillian Lerner
Art by Marc Olivent
Sensorium Editions, 2012