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Barnum: In Secret Service of the U.S.A.

Though SteamPunk had a brief run at the top of literary Sci-Fi, it is no strange condition that it has taken hold in comics, where the images that make the subgenre work can be drawn. Though Barnum: In Secret Service of the U.S.A. uses far less of the SteamPunk thing than JLA: Age of Wonder did, it still shows through in a number of areas.

Howard Chaykin and David Tischman have concocted a fine little story where P.T. Barnum and 6 of his freaks, I mean Transmundanes, are asked to go on a mission to stop the evil Nikolai Tesla from taking over the world.

Strange that Tesla should appear in two volumes in the same week, but I digress.

Tesla has Ada Huxtuble, aka Lady Ada Lovelace, the woman some call the first programmer for her work with Charles Babbage. Among Barnum's stable are Chang & Ang, the Siamese Twins, Plastino the contortionist sword-swallower, Dyna-mite the midget strongman, and Hypnosia the hypnotist. They go off in their little adventures across the country, with all the typical events that happen in civilians asked to do undercover work stories, but there is so much freakish fun going on, it's hard to really notice.

There are problems, mostly in the history. Simple research would have shown that Babbage's first name wasn't George, and that Chang and Ang and Lady Lovelance didn't live into the Cleveland Administration, but I can forgive these as they make for a much more interesting story.

The world itself seems to be a pastiche of 1800s personalities, and it works so well, with each character pulling us into the vision, that I can forgive Chaykin for not doing Alan Moore-like research.

As the book progresses, the quality of Henrichon's art seems to increase, adding little touches that seem to make the entire book glow. I'm of the opinion that no other artist could have conveyed the story with the proper amount of humor and heart. The freaks are a dream to draw, and he takes advantage of every opportunity.

All in all, a fine little book, that while it does slip a little on the real history, makes it all work on the level of the story. At thirty dollars, it's a bit steep, but the level of enjoyment leads me to say it's worth every penny.

Barnum! (Hey, Amazon has it for just over twenty bucks...)

Chris Garcia

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