Thursday, April 28, 2016


Back in the Golden Age, the formula was still being figured out. Superman had created a baseline for superheroics, pulp heroes had created the model for tough guy crimefighters, and guys like Doctor Occult and Zatara had covered the magician market, and so on. There was still plenty of room for experimentation, however, and that's where Jack Cole's inventiveness - with writer Joe Millard - comes in handy. This is how we get Carnie Callahan, a.k.a. The Barker -- he fights circus crime!

Starting in National Comics vol.1 No.42 (May 1948) and spinning off into a few issues of his own title, the Barker was -- as the name implied -- a professional carnival barker who makes his living shilling for the acts at Colonel Lane's Mammoth Circus, a ragtag travelling outfit which frequently found itself in trouble with cads and crooks of all varieties.

Callahan boasted no powers except for a bombastic tough-as-nails nature and a ready right hook, but he had pals. Accompanying him on most of his adventures, along with occasional assistance from Colonel Lane, included Lena the Fat Lady, Tiny Tim the strongman, and Major Midge -- a cigar-smoking little person who was more rough-and-ready than the Barker. There was also a whole midway full of freaks and performers in the tent: Peaches the bearded lady, Spudo the Spider Man (and former pickpocket), Bombo the Human Cannonball, Jojo the Missing Link, and a multitude of others.

As for baddies, they primarily ran across pickpockets, confidence rackets, gangsters, rival circus owners and a general dearth of super-villain types (with occasional outliers, like the bird-suited Hawk). The appeal of the strip, however, was the snappy writing and lively cartooning, partly the work of Cole and later the work of the underrated Klaus Nordling, whose Pen Miller strip is owed a spot on this blog before long. (The occasional primer into circus slang was also probably pretty appealing to its youthful audience at the time)

The Barker is part of the Quality comics group and is, presumably, part of the DC Comics catalog. So far, they've exercised their franchise on the character precisely once, as a backup in a quartet of Batman comics back in 2000 or so. It obviously didn't set the world on fire, possibly because it only ever haunted the back pages without someone to loudly evangelize for its virtues and entertainment value. Gee, who could've helped them out with that ... ?

We've all had this dream, right?

1 comment:

jim kosmicki said...

The Barker is a great strip - very inventive overall and much more workable in its era when gentle humor was a popular format for comic stories. This is really, for me, the epitome of the Quality "humor" strips - they put these strips in almost all of their books almost from the beginning, more so as heroes started to be cancelled, but most were not really funny. The Barker was consistently funny.

The Barker was the cover feature on National for almost as many issues as Uncle Sam, and got 15 issues of a solo book at a time when not many features got solo books. I wish someone would put out a collection - I think people would be pleasantly surprised (and they could use the Jack Cole connection to goose sales too).

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