Jillian Lerner on the strange world of Barnum and Brady

Historian Jillian Lerner, working with artist Marc Olivent, has come up with a debut graphic novel set in a time of rapidly developing technology, pervasive hucksterism, and barely checked ambition. No, not New York in the 1980s—New York in the 1850s, when showman P.T. Barnum was amazing the crowds with his museum of oddities, photographer Matthew Brady was turning out the predecessors of baseball cards, and an obscure German professor had just invented the first voice synthesizer—which he concealed behind the mask of a woman's face.

Lerner is self-publishing the graphic novel The Peerless Prodigies of P.T. Barnum via Amazon, and she has an amazing website that shows off the book as well as her sources for imagery and story elements. I asked her to talk about why she is fascinated by this era, and what went into creating her first graphic novel.

Robot 6: I want to start out by talking about the world of this book. It's the mid-nineteenth century, yet there are some very modern aspects to it. Can you explain what interests you about this period?

Jillian Lerner: The mid-19th century is like an archaeological site loaded with the fossilized ruins and living roots of our own culture. Think capitalist frontier: constant innovation, uprooting and outmoding, social mobility, ubiquitous publicity, the birth of mass consumerism and commercial spectacles for the masses. This is also the era in which invention was invented, when advancements in art, science, and technology were pursued with an eye to establishing lucrative patents and products.

This is the world of P.T. Barnum, who was not a maker or thinker but an incredibly cunning promoter of goods, people, and ideas. Barnum is a larger-than-life personality whose career needs no embellishment to make a great story. And his story amplifies the themes of spectacle, invention and self-invention in a very legible form. He is the prototypical self-made man, the founding father of American showbusiness, and a pioneer of hype. 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, now that everyone works to curate content and promote identities through “social media”.

Robot 6: Joseph Faber's talking machine, the first known speech synthesizer, figures prominently in this story. Can you tell us a bit about the actual machine and how you transformed Faber's story for this book?

Lerner: From what I can gather Faber’s “Amazing Talking Machine” was a genuine speech synthesizer that could speak, whisper, and sing in several European languages. The apparatus was modeled on the human vocal anatomy, with bellows for lungs, an ivory wind pipe, mechanical jaws, lips, and tongue. Many of these parts were housed within the mask of a female face, which was mounted on a frame that included a keyboard, and foot pedals to work the bellows. Basic phonetic sounds could be tapped out on the keyboard, in combinations that added up to recognizable words and phrases.

Beyond that the record gets foggy. We know that the machine was invented by Joseph Faber, a German scientist living in America. He did not make much if any headway within the scientific community. And on the few occasions he exhibited his machine to the public in the 1840s, people found the machine gloomy and Faber’s performances bland. Eventually the machine was picked up by Barnum and became one of the famous exhibits at Barnum’s American Museum in New York.

I never discovered what happened to Faber after his machine entered Barnum’s museum. But I had read that Faber carried the machine’s creepy female head around with him in a suitcase. So I made up the rest of the story about Faber following the machine to New York, and since he wasn’t a great performer, I imagined him working behind-the-scenes at Barnum’s museum.

Robot 6: Joseph's daughter, Arachne Faber, is a key character in the story. Is she based on a real person?

Lerner: Arachne is a fictional character. I liked the idea of creating a few characters who would function as viewfinders for the reader, an imaginary vantage from which to explore the real lives and times of historical figures. So we enter the orbits of these amazing entrepreneurs, P.T. Barnum and the photographer Mathew Brady, from the perspective of three young apprentices who like us are outsiders and neophytes who will be gradually initiated in this world. As the story progresses it becomes clear that Arachne is much more savvy, experienced, and closer to Barnum’s command center than the other fictional assistants, Nicholas and Finian. It was important to me to have a female protagonist who could indicate the limiting roles of daughters and wives in the Victorian era, while at the same time transgressing and upending some of those gender norms and constraints.

Robot 6: On the website for the book, you have photos of the real P.T. Barnum and Mathew Brady as well as photos of two other characters, Nicholas Meyer and Finian Weir. What is the relationship of these photos to the characters--did you just use them for inspiration or were they actual assistants in the Brady studio?

Lerner: I wanted to demonstrate the look and feel of the photographic visiting cards featured in the book. They were all the rage in the 1850s and 60s: small mass-produced portraits that people circulated like business cards, but also traded and collected like baseball cards or facebook friends. So I created a showcase on the website, with visiting card portraits for most of the main characters. I used surviving historical photographs of Brady, Barnum, and some of his sideshow performers. I couldn’t find a photo of Faber so I chose a random fellow from an archive of historic photographs (it was the awesome facial hair that sold me on him!). Likewise, I used found photos of anonymous people to fabricate visiting cards for the fictional characters Arachne, Nicholas, and Finian.

Robot 6: Can you tell us a bit about your background and your life as a historian?

Lerner: I’ve spent the last 15 years studying 19th century art, media and culture. After completing my PhD at Columbia I became a postdoctoral researcher and lecturer in Art History and Theory at The University of British Columbia. I taught undergraduate classes, published a couple of peer-reviewed research papers, and traveled to give talks and attend academic conferences. I loved my work, but I was keen to engage a wider audience and try a more creative approach to history.

Robot 6: Why did you decide to present this story as a graphic novel rather than a work of prose?

Lerner: Well, I’m a diehard proponent of the book form. I cannot give up on the wonderfully tactile, contemplative and individually-paced experience of a real physical book. But I also wanted to provide some visual cues to help readers grasp the experiential texture of the 1850s. The graphic novel fit that bill, somewhere in between bookishness and cinematic journey.

I was also inspired by all the recent talk about how comics and graphic novels can be a tool for education, conveying information and encouraging literacy amongst the digital generation. There are a couple of fabulous organizations now fostering awareness of that terrain, for example Josh Elder’s Reading With Pictures.

Robot 6: The world looked very different in the mid-1800s than it does now. What did you do to create that look for the comic?

Lerner: I loaded up the script with a certain level of description, with an emphasis on the settings and the visual technologies. I also loaded up a shared dropbox folder with historical references images. The illustrator Marc Olivent took it from there, and he did an amazing job establishing the graphic style, handling the art direction, and imagining what the fictional characters would look like.

Robot 6: The art seems very dark. Was that deliberate?

Lerner: Yes, although Marc deserves most of the credit there. I wanted a gritty atmosphere, to suggest dirt and chaos, a sense of risk and possibility, the destructive creation and perpetual incompletion of modernization. Marc captured that and upped the ante too: his severely shadowed faces and stark contrasts establish an eerie, uncanny tenor. And I think the dark approach effectively underlines the magical realism of a gaslight adventure... makes us aware we’re entering a viscerally different world, familiar yet mysterious, destabilizing and alluring at the same time.

Robot 6: And there seem to be a lot of advertising slogans in public spaces. Was that characteristic of the time?

Lerner: Absolutely. This is the era when ads were being written on any available surface. Not just shop signs but on the sides of buildings, poster hoardings, mail coaches and omnibuses, even on people! There were men wearing sandwichboard signs and advertising ladies wearing dresses that had commodities and household goods sewed right onto them! For the most part the ads were verbose typographic exercises containing words rather than pictures. Nonetheless there were still a few iconic shop signs, monumental depictions of one’s product, for example huge glasses for the optician, or a massive beer glass outside the saloon.

Robot 6: There's a theme that runs through the book of technology and the necessity of "selling" it to the public--it wasn't enough for Faber to build a voice synthesizer, he had to give it a story and make it interesting. What made you think about this--is it a pattern you observed in your studies?

Lerner: Yes, I have observed this pattern in my studies and my own life as well.

Faber struggled to convert his technical achievement into intellectual or commercial success. People just weren’t that interested in watching an engineer operate a machine and explain how it works. But they were fascinated by the same machine as it was framed by the performers, attractions and illusions of Barnum’s museum. There viewers expected a certain level of amusement with their information, and a shadow of magic, deception and charlatanism with their science. Just as any consumer of novelty (technological or otherwise) needs some level of storytelling, of experiential counsel, to imagine how a product or idea fits into their horizons and ultimately adjusts or re-engineers those horizons.

Surely Barnum’s talkers would have wrapped Faber’s machine in wonderment and controversy. How does a talking machine change our thinking about human life, creation, man’s relationship to technology, his place in the world? Will we be replaced by machines? Are we at heart machines endowed with souls? Is this thing for real? Is it indeed a talking or thinking machine? Is that technically possible? Or could it be hiding a ventriloquist, or a dwarf? If it’s a hoax or illusion, how is it achieved?

In a way, that theme underlies my approach to this project, to wit: my recent re-invention as a writer of imaginative history and the graphic novel; my desire to experiment with new kinds of storytelling; my temptation to amuse and bewilder as well as inform; and the determination to have a bit of fun in the telling.

Robot 6: What was the hardest part about creating a graphic novel--was there something that surprised you about it?

Lerner: One of the biggest challenges for me was learning how to translate my story into sequential art: how to break down the action and dialogue across a series of panels and camera angles. Marc was absolutely heroic in that regard, he brought his experience with the medium to bear and he taught me a tremendous amount along the way.

Robot 6: Are you self-publishing this? If so, why did you decide to do that, and what were the challenges involved in that?

Lerner: Yes, I’m using Amazon’s print-on-demand service. The benefits of self-publishing include creative freedom, instant time to market and no up-front costs. The hard bit is that you have to do all the marketing yourself. Frankly I’m not the kind of person who gets excited about spearheading a promotional campaign. But I’m figuring out how to use Barnum’s example to bring a creative spark to the task. Its really about creating new content in the form of journalism, experiences, events, stunts and above all, controversies. I won’t give away all my schemes but I can reveal that we’re planning a series of barnumesque events as part of the book launch. First up is a Touring Pop-up Sideshow Saloon in San Francisco on May 6 and Brooklyn on May 14. [Event details on prodigies.ca and facebook.com/peerlessprodigies.]

Robot 6: You have a very sophisticated website with previews and information about the book. Why did you think this was important?

Lerner: An engaging website is indispensable for independent creators with a self-published title. This is the main portal for people to find us and learn more about our project. It also allows for an interactive extension of the book, inviting readers to enter and enhance the world of the book, and insert themselves in the story. I wanted to provide some historical background and signposts for further reading without breaking down the essential illusions and mysteries of the story. When I have more time I’d like to add a glossary of the featured technologies and a hypertext of links and bibliography to guide those who want to learn more about 19th century visual culture.

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