I was puzzled why a theater historian would write WEIRD AND WONDERFUL: The Dime Museum in America, but Andrea Stulman Dennett’s book reveals that theater was a very large part of the 19th century dime-museum industry. As she details, early attempts by American museums — mostly collectors showing off their cabinet of curiosities to the public — to charge admission flopped. P.T. Barnum, however, found the magic formula, a mix of science, freak show and humbug, all carefully packaged to be family friendly (which brought in a female audience as it was a safe place women could go together).
Museums turned to adding theater because they could swap a new play in much faster than replacing a midget or a dog-faced boy; over time, they also added waxworks, novelty acts and even short film, making them the launching pad for vaudeville, cinemas and carnival sideshows. While the offspring outlasted the parent, Dennett points out that Ripley’s Believe It Or Not appealed to the same sense of wonder that had audiences flocking to Barnum and others, and ran well into the late 20th century.
AMERICAN COMICS: A History by Jeremy Dauber does a good job discussing how sequential art goes back a long way (do William Hogarth’s prints such as A Rake’s Progress constitute the first comic strip?). Dauber then traces the history from political cartoons through comic strips to the Golden Age of comic books … and after that everything became familiar so I stopped.
That is not the author’s fault but I did find some extremely bad errors. Luke Cage was not Power Man when he started out (see the Billy Graham cover here) and the Barbara Gordon Batgirl was a separate character from the one who appeared a few years earlier (if that’s not what Dauber meant, he wrote it poorly). So I’m even happier that I didn’t bother to go through it all.
GARAN THE ETERNAL is an oddball Andre Norton collection that includes two Witch World shorts; her first published story, “People of the Crater”; and it’s prequel, written years later, “Garin of Yu-Lac.” Comparing the two Garin stories shows how much Norton improved as a writer. The first one is an A. Merritt-style Lost World story but while Norton knows the elements it should include, she can’t make it sing. The second story is bigger and better but the characters are still stick figures.
The short story “One Spell Wizard,” by contrast, is a fun story about a shapeshift matching wits with a mage. It’s odd in that the magic seems like real magic rather than the more psi-oriented powers of the series. Still, it’s fun, and the other yarn, “Legacy of Sorn Fen,” is pretty good.
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