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Review: ‘The Lost Carnival’

The Lost Carnival
Writer: Michael Moreci
Artist: Sas Milledge
DC Comics; $16.99

As superheroes go, original Robin Dick Grayson has always had one of the more colorful backgrounds, his pre-heroic day job being every bit as interesting as his eventual role as Batman’s kid sidekick. No mere millionaire playboy, journalist, scientist, or lawyer, Grayson was a circus acrobat before he put on a costume to fight crime. Despite appearing in comics for 80 years now (44 as Robin, 36 as Nightwing), Grayson’s pre-Robin years in the circus have only been occasionally and briefly touched upon, rather than thoroughly explored as a setting for stories.

Until now. Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to direct your attention to the center ring, where writer Michael Moreci and artist Sas Milledge have crafted an intriguing graphic novel about a particularly strange summer in the life of teenage Dick Grayson, the youngest, most daring member of The Flying Graysons, well before their travelling circus ever made its fateful stop in Gotham City.

In The Lost Carnival, Dick Grayson is quite a bit older than he’s usually depicted before meeting Batman, but then this is a standalone graphic novel for a YA audience rather than part of the ongoing shared-setting story of DC’s monthly comic books, and the basic frustrations of being a teenager are pretty key to the drama here—that is, being old enough to know what you want from your life, but not yet having the freedom and power to pursue it.

When we first meet Grayson, he and his parents are the stars of Haly’s Circus, which put up stakes just outside of Cheyenne, Wyoming. Grayson has begun to chafe against life on the road, and he sometimes longs for a normal life, one in which he can live in one place, go to a real school, and have friends who aren’t also his parents or co-workers.

It’s in pursuit of a taste of normal teenage life that he and his best friend Willow, the niece of Haly’s magician, sneak off to attend a local party. There they meet another pair of outsiders, one of whom is a beautiful young woman named Luciana who seems to possess real, rather than stage, magic. She and her friend hail from The Lost Carnival, a rival circus of sorts that has set up right next door to Haly’s, providing unwelcome competition and inflaming tensions.

Grayson is intrigued by the mysterious carnival, where everything seems a little too perfectly old fashioned and the magic show is bizarre and otherworldly, but he’s even more intrigued by Luciana. He begins to pursue her, despite her on-again, off-again reluctance to share anything about herself with him.

As the story unfolds, the secrets of Luciana and the carnival are gradually revealed, and the genre of this pre-Batman Grayson story is more supernatural than superhero, with Grayson finding himself torn between his own circus family, his interest in Luciana and her family, and beginning his coming-of-age story.

Though Moreci never mentions or alludes to Batman or Robin or the tragic future awaiting The Flying Graysons’ act, a reader’s foreknowledge of Grayson’s story certainly adds a layer of portentous drama to the story, particularly when Dick’s parents try to convince him that their life together in the circus is a temporary one.

It’s also interesting to see such a fallible version of the character, as here he is headstrong and self-righteous, trying hard to do what he thinks is the right thing, even when it involves fighting, but not yet mature enough to have all the facts before acting.

The relatively blank slate this time period offers Moreci and Milledge also means it’s easy to put Dick in a romantic situation, as he’s unattached and in an unfamiliar—at least, unfamiliar to readers—part of his life.

Like several other of DC’s YA-focused original graphic novels, the book is more black-and-white than color. The Haly’s sequences are all colored blue, while the Lost Carnival sequences are light red, with few variations; if magic is used in a Haly’s sequence, we’ll see a character’s blue hand, for example, glow with a reddish aura; when Grayson appears in a vision of the Lost Carnival, he’s colored in blue while everything around him is red. Sound effects appear in yellow or a deeper red

Milledge’s art work is quite strong, and she works in a naturalistic style that is neither slavishly representational nor too terribly cartoony, striking a solid balance between realistic and stylish. Her characters all look, move, and feel real, so that when something extraordinary happens, it both fits the narrative but is also notable for its dramatic departure from the norm, be it something like Dick or his mom using their acrobatic skills to climb up a ferris wheel, or strange-looking creatures from another dimension appearing and disappearing.

Based on the results of their exploration of Grayson’s time in the circus, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see Moreci and Milledge create more stories set during his pre-Robin years. After all, the nature of the circus is to travel from place to place, and surely Wyoming can’t be the only place with attractive young women for Dick Grayson to befriend and strange mysteries for him to solve.

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J. Caleb Mozzocco About J. Caleb Mozzocco

J. Caleb Mozzocco is a way-too-busy freelance writer who has written about comics for online and print venues for a rather long time now. He currently contributes to Comic Book Resources' Robot 6 blog and ComicsAlliance, and maintains his own daily-ish blog at EveryDayIsLikeWednesday.blogspot.com. He lives in northeast Ohio, where he works as a circulation clerk at a public library by day.

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