It seems there are figures that will always fascinate us. No matter how many bio pics, novelizations, or musicals their lives inspire, there are a few select legends who touched on such a fundamental element of humanity that their lives still captivate long after their own deaths. In terms of showmanship, imagination, and confronting the limitations of mortality head on, the reigning superstar remains the great Harry Houdini. His life again becomes a subject in Houdini: The Handcuff King, an engaging new comic from Nick Bertozzi and Jason Lutes.
The story itself is not so much a comprehensive look into the phenomenon of Houdini, but rather a quick, day-in-the-life style peek into how the man could plan daring escapes, while still making his way through the world of agents, bodyguards, rabid fans, an overzealous press, and marriage. Set in 1908 Boston, the panels follow Houdini as he prepares to jump off Harvard Bridge into the icy Charles River, while handcuffed. Nice moments come when Houdini coaches his minions in full theatrical bravado, then later collapses into worried self-doubt in front of his wife, Bess.
Lutes and Bertozzi achieve an effortless and graceful visual style here. The all black-and-white drawings can seem a little wonky, but their natural brushstrokes and fluidity actually help the narrative flow, instead of snaring readers in a dense graphic web. Particularly nice panels are those that take a larger perspective, offering detailed panoramas of early 1900's Boston, and Houdini's curled body caught in midair as he jumps before a crowd of onlookers. The comic also captures old school publicity in all its ingenious low-tech simplicity. For instance, I'll never look at a man wearing a bowler hat the same way again.
There are a few panels though, that are less successful in capturing the moment. As we wait for the triumphant Houdini to burst through the surface of the river, the panels turn over to the concerned, static faces of various onlookers -- namely a sweet-looking old lady and a wide-eyed child. Since readers know that Houdini will, of course, surface, the audience tension doesn't translate. The book opens with a long, frame by frame breakdown of Houdini working a pick into his handcuffs in a dry run of his escape, as onomatopoeic TICKS crowd into the panels. Comics should transcend the effect of a cut up reel of film, and this kind of literalism doesn't read as well as the rest of the book. However, the artists do a fantastic job illustrating Houdini's strong physical presence and clever contortions as he wriggles out of the handcuffs, and the underwater scenes are genuinely exciting.
I feel that those most equipped to appreciate this story are fans of Houdini, who already know something of his story. Though very entertaining, the comic is light and fun -- an enthusiastic tribute done by admirers wanting to share their hero worship. A thorough "Panel Discussions" section at the back of the book does offer a few choice facts and explanations in the traditional biographical style, and the introduction by Glen David Gold, author of the thrilling novel, Carter Beats the Devil, does a great job of building curiosity for the man, his legacy, and what his life must have been like. After digesting all the facts, figures, and rumors, there's nothing left (and nothing more intimate) than an imagined walk (or plunge) in the magician's shoes.