Monday, July 16

Houdini: The Handcuff King


by Jason Lutes
illustrated by Nick Bertozzi
with an introduction by Glen David Gold
The Center for Cartoon Studies 2007

Right. This is how it's done.

The life of Harry Houdini is great material for young readers, for all readers, and the perfect subject for a graphic novel. On the surface this may seem an obvious choice but with Houdini: The Handcuff King we have a single event in the early life of Harry Houdini -- a single stunt, a handcuffed jump into the Charles River on May 1st, 1908. The act itself isn't one of his most stunning feats but the presentation of this event allows readers to get a well-rounded glimpse of the man and a bit of a peek into how intricately Houdini planned and controlled his illusions.

Up before dawn, Houdini inspects the handcuffs to be used later in the day, selecting the perfect pick from his array of tools for opening it. When his wife Bess comes in they practice the still-unproven pass-off kiss which was considered crucial for Houdini's escapes. In a nicely understated way it provides one of several pieces of foreshadowing that help build a quiet drama. Leading up to the event we also get to see much of the behind-the-scenes action of Houdini's confederates, the people in charge of his security, publicity and secrecy. Indeed, lake all good magicians whose job it is to divert your attention away from the trick within the magic, Houdini's people were there to assure all the elements were in place to assure the deception was complete and visually miraculous.

There are other bits of information incorporated into the story to fill out Houdini's character and the give background to the times. This background, which includes some anti-Semitism (Houdini, nee Ehrich Weiss, was Jewish) and the lengths to which Houdini had to calculate protecting his secrets with body guards, may not have all taken place in this one day but best exemplifies what can be done with a "true" story in good hands. Naturally, this can only be accomplished if one is presenting a slice of a character's life where the telescoping of time and place are necessary for various dramatic reasons.

I'm thinking back now to a book I reviewed recently about Louis Cyr, the strongman, told in graphic format and realizing through comparison what I found lacking. In telling Cyr's entire life I was left with the overwhelming sense of eh. I don't know that I feel like there needs to be a Rosebud moment where a person's life needs to add up to something that can be encapsulated in a single image, but there are moments in an individual life that can stand in for the whole or at least give a reader a sense of knowing something about the person they didn't know before. Whatever I thought I knew about Houdini before, I wasn't aware of his entourage or the way that Houdini used publicity and spin to create buzz about his events; I knew even less about Louis Cyr going into his story and afterward I felt I knew even less.

Beyond the graphic novel, this book begins with an introduction by Glen David Gold, author of Carter Beats the Devil and a professed magic aficionado. In the introduction we are given a brief but fairly detailed summary of Houdini's life, work and times. The book concludes with some analysis of particular panels within the story, giving background and back story to things like Bess' on- and off-stage life with Houdini and advertising in Houdini's time. There is also a bibliography and a single page explaining the process of producing a graphic novel.

I hope this initial offering from The Center for Cartoon Studies is a promise of more things to come.
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