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I remember when the circus used to come each year to Rathcool, the town I grew up in. The posters would appear days before the arrival, with images of laughing clowns and acrobats performing death-defying feats. Then the big day itself would come and my much-pestered parents would accompany me to the opening show. Only for a sense of disappointment to set in almost immediately.

I remember when during the knife-throwing act there was a call for volunteers. My aunt, who had herself been volunteered by my parents to join me on this occasion, had to physically restrain me from throwing up my hand. Then I noticed the man who was chosen was a stage-hand. I had seen him hanging around with the performers before the show. My poor aunt tried to pretend otherwise – I think adults always appreciate the importance of childish illusions, which is why Santa Claus has survived for so long – but I already knew the truth.

This story begins with a man dressed in an acrobat costume voiding his bowels before leaping into his own legend – illustrated by a woodcut of his prowess and two pages of sheet music describing his feats – only to land in his death-bed, drained by a fatal case of smallpox. By his bedside are colleagues and friends arguing over his estate. His nephew Etienne arrives, whose job at the circus was to clean up elephant dung. He is the beneficiary of the great Leotard’s estate, which turns out to be a gnomic riddle, an empty journal containing a fake moustache. Etienne understands his uncle’s dying wish. He is to become Leotard and continue the legend of his uncle.

Unfortunately for Etienne, the troup is still stuck in Paris while it is under siege by the Prussian army. The company’s animals have all been eaten by the starving city inhabitants. Without any animal acts Etienne’s troupe is at a loss as to how they are to continue on. Their new young leader proposes that they become a circus of the stange and wonderful. They are after all strong-men and contortionists, tattooed ladies and bear-impersonators. Etienne is a young man with big dreams, which do not match reality. During their first show a human cannonball sets the famous Paris Cirque de Hiver on fire, burning it to the ground.

Etienne and his fellow artistes have an unerring knack for landing in trouble, becoming embroiled in the infamous Jack the Ripper murder investigation; theft of the Mona Lisa; the sinking of the Titanic; even a catastrophic bloodbath involving nineteen dwarves and a beast known as a ‘Ti-lion’. Through it all success avoids Etienne, leaving him impoverished in old age, despite inventing such implements as fantastical as ‘spring heeled shoes’.

Campbell and Best have fashioned a breezy and romantic counterpoint to the nihilism of that other historical epic, From Hell. Split into a series of episodes, The Amazing Remarkable Monsieur Leotard is a winning evocation of a lost vision of popular entertainment. There are even hints that the circus is an ancestor of sorts to the comic book superhero. Campbell introduces the amusingly titled Le Quartette Fantastique and has the creators of Superman witness Etienne’s final show.

The work as a whole has a rich Pynchonian feel to it. When we discover the romantic leanings of Pallenberg, the man disguised as a bear, it is a fine comic moment that is later revealed to be a set-up to the climactic adventure on board the Titanic. History and whimsy are married together to great effect, with Campbell’s febrile art stylings lending an uncanny edge to the proceedings. Best and Campbell even intrude upon Etienne to discuss the progress of the book so far. It is just that kind of book.

Beautifully illustrated, with a rich comic tone and a lurking sense of tired tragedy, this is a wonderful effort by Campbell, an Australian master of the medium.

When Superman first appeared, he didn’t have X-ray vision or all the neat superpowers. In fact, he couldn’t even fly. But y’know what power he did have? He was bulletproof. Unable to be shot. And that’s why Superman was created: He’s not some American Messiah or some modern version of Moses or Jesus or whoever else historians like to trot out – Superman is the result of a meek little Clark Kent named Jerry Siegel wishing and praying and aching for his murdered father to be bulletproof so he doesn’t have to be alone.

Trailers designed to promote books are an interesting phenomenon. When I first saw one for Brad Meltzer’s The Book of Lies, which features among other Joss Whedon and Christopher Hitchens, I was impressed with the audaciousness of the marketing. It summarises the plot of the book – what if the murder of Abel by his brother Cain, and that of the father of Jerry Siegel, creator of Superman, were somehow linked across a divide of millennia – but also plays off the faddishness of conspiracy fiction in the wake of Dan Brown’s success. What’s more the trailer itself trades in nods and winks at comic book fans. As if to suggest that this book is a self-aware parody of The Da Vinci Code, but ironically replacing high art with comic books..

Cal works with a homeless charity, cruising the streets of Miami in a van, looking for folks living on the streets. His partner Roosevelt is a defrocked preacher who insists that he needs to get himself some kind of a life outside of his work. Cal’s a man with a painful past though, one he tries to bury by doing good deeds and living humbly. As a former customs officer drummed out for misconduct he already has plenty to atone for. One night on their rounds the pair find a mugging victim with a gunshot wound in a park. Cal instantly recognizes the man as his father, who vanished from his life after he was sent to jail for the accidental killing of his wife. His past has caught up with him with a vengeance.

While his father Lloyd is relieved to see Cal, he also appears to be running scared. His story of a vicious mugging does not seem too plausible. Pulling in some favours from a friend in the force, Cal discovers not only is his father involved in a plot to smuggle a secret item into the country, the bullet he was shot with came from the same gun that was used to murder Mitchell Siegel in 1932.

Meanwhile an assassin with complicated father issues of his own named Ellis is on Lloyd’s trail. He believes Cal’s father is in possession, or knows the whereabouts of, an artefact known as the Book of Lies. Believed to reveal the weapon used by the Biblical Cain in murdering his brother, Ellis’ organisation has been searching for it for centuries. They are willing to kill anyone in their path, after all God is on their side. The last person rumoured to have owned the artefact was Mitchell Siegel. Could Jerry Siegel have witnessed his own father’s death and hidden the location of the Book of Lies in a Superman comic?

As this is a novel about a McGuffin its pages are filled with ominous definite articles. The Book of Lies, The Map, The Prophet. I found myself cursing under my breath towards the end What Is The Point? Is this a parody of Brown, or an excoriation of the poor treatment of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster by their publishers? It is interesting to note that Meltzer himself has written for DC Comics, including the best-selling miniseries Identity Crisis, which featured the murder and retroactive rape of the much loved Sue Dibny character. It was not very good.

Neither is this novel. Most chapters are no more than two or three pages. The plot feels like Bible and comic book history trivia strung together haphazardly. Characters dump exposition on the page to move the action along. Everyone has parental issues of one kind or another. Someone once said all American fiction is about fathers and sons. This book takes that adage a little too literally.

While I like the idea of the holiest relic in Western culture being a comic book, it doesn’t justify this dull, plodding narrative. I closed this book with a sigh of relief.

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