Book Review: Barnum! In Secret Service to the USA by Howard Chaykin and David Tischman

Title: Barnum! In Secret Service to the USA

Authors: Howard Chaykin and David Tischman

Format: Trade Paperback Collection, DC Comics

Published: 2003

Barnum

I absolutely love, as both a writer and a reader, stories that take historical personages and events and do something creative with them. From turning a well known or little remembered happening completely on its ear to outright bending history so much that it breaks off into an alternate timeline, those types of tales are some of my favorite. That’s why when Chaykin and Tischman’s Barnum! In Secret Service to the USA came into my possession, I was excited, even though I usually enter Chaykin’s work with trepidation and an expectation to be let down.

Let’s say that didn’t happen this time…as badly as it has in the past.

Barnum! In Secret Service to the USA is exactly what the title says it is. Famed showman P. T. Barnum and his collection of performers, including Chang and Eng the famous and real Siamese Twins, foil an assassination attempt on the life of President Grover Cleveland. Due to this, the President enlists Barnum and his traveling show to work for the United States in order to stop an evil plot to overthrow the government, a plan led by the evil Nikola Tesla. Using their own unique skills as well as the talents they all share due to living the circus life, Barnum and his crew use the traveling aspect of their show to attempt to derail the dastardly machinations Tesla has set into motion with the help of various well heeled industrialists.

There are definitely fun little things to find throughout this story, including nods to history and easter eggy references of sorts. And to see Barnum played in this way is extremely interesting. But really, beyond that, this tale is just an average trifle. The art aspires to be reminiscent of circus posters and such and, while reaching near that pinnacle at times, falls into a muddled puddle more often than not. The story suffers from the same malady as well, turning out to be a string of scene with unrealized potential strung together between speed bumps of action.

Probably the worst part of Barnum! is the completely missed opportunity of having Barnum and Tesla in a book together. Instead of giving us two very well rendered, fully realized geniuses in their own rights facing off with each other, the book instead casts Tesla as a maniacal, over the top villain with little depth and almost no discernible, believable reason for his actions. This version of Tesla seems to be an attempt to turn the historic character into a Bond villain and doesn’t even manage to make him someone who would feel right in an episode of The Wild, Wild West. I abhor using phrases over again, but there is nothing else to say except that making Tesla more than just a shade of Blofeld was nothing but a missed opportunity by the writers.

Barnum! In Secret Service to the USA manages three out of five pages. It’s a fun little read, but the inconsistencies in the flow of the story, the added impediment of the art, and the total cardboard characterization of Tesla take a great deal of ‘pow’ out of a tale that should have been a one two punch.

As for my own scale, this one rates three out of six bullets.   Read it as a distraction, take what enjoyment you can from it, but don’t plan on putting it on your ‘Oh, I want to read it again’ list. It shoots too far off the target for that.

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1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. tamaralowery
    Jul 17, 2016 @ 13:14:22

    If you enjoy books which take historical figures and have fun with them, you should try the “In Hell” series from Perseid Press. They are themed anthologies which take historical figures and place them in Hell. They are very well researched, because you have to KNOW the character to know how best to torment them, and they are full of devilish humor. The latest edition, due for release in August, is “Pirates in Hell.”
    I haven’t been officially invited to submit to these anthologies yet, but I know enough of the Hellions to know I may eventually get drafted to their ranks.

    Reply

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