A stupendous graphic novel by Jillian Lerner and Marc Olivent
About the book, and an interview with one of the creators, Dr. Jillian Lerner
It isn’t often that we get what we call a “double-play” – something that appeals to us on more than one level of fandom. This time we found a graphic novel by Jillian Lerner and Marc Olivent, called The Peerless Prodigies of P.T. Barnum.
Nicholas Meyer is desperate to invent himself and meet the celebrated inventors of his day. It is 1857 and New York City is awash with young men who are comparably wily and determined. But Nicholas is something of a technical prodigy, with a background in clockmaking and a keen instinct for publicity. He jumps at the chance to work in the studio of celebrity portrait photographer Mathew Brady and acquaint himself with the outlandish attractions of P.T. Barnum’s American Museum. Spurred on by mentors and rivals, talking automatons and bearded ladies, Nicholas explores the emerging forms of photography, robotics, showbusiness and advertising.
A work of historical fiction, this graphic novel explores the technological imagination of the 19th century from the vantage of two extraordinary entrepreneurs. Readers encounter an alternate world that once existed: a bygone world of gaslight, sideshows and horse-drawn cabs to be sure, but also a forward-looking world shot through with experimental media, profit-oriented entertainments for the masses, and grandiose visions of the future. Written by media historian Jillian Lerner and illustrated by Marc Olivent, The Peerless Prodigies of P.T. Barnum entices us to recollect how identities were made and ideas were hawked in a pre-electronic age.
The drawing style isn’t what you’d see in an 1800’s publication. That would have been either truly dreadful or would have read like a Trader Joe’s coupon flyer (for those not in the United States, Trader Joe’s is a chain of alternative grocery stores that feature interesting and/or gourmet food selections). It does, however, handily invoke that era, and the required suspension of disbelief on the part of the reader is managed easily. It’s black and white, but you almost immediately forget this fact and you’re drawn into the story with the feeling that you’re about to go on an adventure. And you’d be right.
It isn’t often a comic book is done by somebody who can put “Dr.” in front of their name and mean it, either. Dr. Lerner is impressively accomplished. She’s been a lecturer on the
History and Theory of Visual Culture at University of British Columbia, did postdoctoral researcher at the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, was an instructor at Barnard College, and was a curatorial assistant at the Guggenheim Museum.
Here are some questions we put to Dr. Lerner:
Krypton Radio: Why this particular subject? What was the attraction of P.T. Barnum as the subject of a graphic novel, and how did the project come together?
Dr. Jillian Lerner: I started with the idea of creating a series about the artist/inventors of new media in the 19th century….people who worked in that murky terrain somewhere between art, science, magic and commerce. There are so many fascinating 19th-century entrepreneurs who were developing new kinds of art and technology and trying to work out how to commercialize them…and they ended up defining new professions and reshaping popular culture in the process.
I chose P.T. Barnum to anchor the first story because he is so recognizable and larger-than-life, as if he is already a caricature rather than a mere person. He is someone around whom the themes of spectacle, invention and self-invention could be gathered in a really legible, accessible way. Barnum is the prototypical self-made man, the founding father of American showbusiness, and a pioneer of hype. Though he wasn’t technically a creator he was a savvy curator of curious goods, people, and ideas. And he was a brilliant promoter; he knew how to wrap stories around things, how to make noise, garner attention, and get people talking. In that sense he was an exemplary man of his times, but also a man for our times… a significant historical touch point for our age of celebrity and ubiquitous publicity, of continual self-fashioning through consumerism and social media, of constant innovation and outmoding.
KR: How did you come to a place where you knew you wanted to embark on a project like this? How many people came to that place with you?
Jillian Lerner: I was ready for a new direction, for a lateral move away from academia, where there is a lot of rigidity in the accepted protocols for communicating ideas and advancing one’s career. I wanted to create a more imaginative type of history, to craft a story that non-specialists would want to read, while still drawing upon the specialized knowledge I’d accumulated as a university lecturer and researcher.
What I ended up with was a hybrid between history, speculative fiction, and the graphic novel. Because I prioritized storytelling I wrapped a fictional narrative around the real lives and times of 2 key cultural entrepreneurs, Barnum and the photographer Mathew Brady. The graphic novel format suggested itself for a number of reasons. First because as an art historian I am used to demonstrating my thoughts visually: not just telling but showing how the experiential texture of the past is both radically different and similar to ours. Secondly, because the graphic novel seemed a good gateway to entice young people back to historical understanding and to books. From teaching undergraduates I’d noticed that the oldfangled technologies and entrepreneurial spirit of 19th century visual culture really resonated with the digital generation, but they had lost contact with books and libraries, where most of that knowledge of dead media is still stored. Ultimately I think it’d be even more effective if my book were tethered to an electronic hypertext of further reading (which I hope to build up on my website when my personal bandwidth allows).
So to answer your last question, I embarked on this project with a lot of creative energy, willfully blind optimism, and support from my family. I have the good fortune to be related to a few wonderful people who encourage everyone to create the reality they aspire to.
It’s also worth noting that I chose to self-publish The Peerless Prodigies. Having so recently sidestepped the medieval gatekeepers of academic tenure and publishing, I bristled at the idea of submitting my manuscript to agents and publishers to then wait, wait, wait for a response. The print-on-demand options make the self-publishing route a no-brainer, the benefits being total creative freedom, instant time to market and no up-front costs. The hard bit is that you have to do all the marketing yourself. I was not to keen about the prospect of spearheading a promotional campaign myself. But I’m figuring out how to use Barnum’s example to bring a creative spark to the task. Its easy to get fired up about marketing if you see it as an opportunity to create new content in the form of experiences, events, stunts and above all, controversies. (That’s all I can say about that just yet!)
KR: The drawing style is bold and energetic – how much time and energy went into designing the look of the book, and where were your greatest challenges?
Jillian Lerner: Because I chose the self-publishing route it fell to me to hire an illustrator and dabble in art direction too. I struggled at first to find an illustrator until I stumbled upon a few comics-related networking groups on linked-in. I was surprised at the number of artists I connected with after posting the details of my project there. That’s how I met Marc Olivent and after reviewing his portfolio and an initial skype chat we decided to work together.
I count myself extremely lucky to have connected with Marc, not only because of his mad skills as an illustrator, but also because I relied heavily on his experience with the comics form. Because this was my first graphic novel Marc taught me a lot about how to adapt the manuscript and think through the camera angles and sequential flow. I populated the narrative with characters, contraptions, and locations, but he really took the lead on establishing the look, the graphic style, and the cinematic direction across the panels. I’m thrilled with the result. Each page has its own dynamism and Marc’s inking style is so laden with contrast that it really captures the capricious spirit of the times and amplifies the eerie charisma of the characters.
I’m used to working in isolation (laptop, coffee, books) so I loved the collaborative nature of this project. The script changed for the better along the way as we bounced ideas back and forth about the shape of each page. One might think communication would be a challenge since Marc lives in the UK and I live in Canada. But we got on famously with a few skype chats, a shared dropbox with historical reference images, and a million emails.
This book is on our “must read” list. History, sociology, comics and steampunk, all in one. What could possibly go wrong?
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