Houdini The Handcuff King by Jason Lutes and Nick Bertozzi (The Center for Cartoon Studies/Hyperion Paperbacks, 2007)
This one is a few years old, but I just discovered it due to my daughters’ newfound interest in stage magic. (Eerily, as I was writing this very paragraph, I flipped on a news site and learned that Houdini’s final stage assistant, Dorothy Young, died just hours ago at the age of 103.)
We’ve had half a dozen Houdini biographies out of the library in the past few months. Of all of them, the girls have been most taken with the garish, postmodern and often downright grotesque coffee table tome Houdini: Art and Magic wrought by Brooke Kamin Rapaport issued by the Jewish Museum.
Where Art and Magic builds upon fantasy images of Houdini flying and glaring and transforming, Lutes & Bertozzi’s The Handcuff King is purposefully pedestrian. Despite its graphic novel openness and related freedoms of expression, it depicts a relatively low-key time in the unbound life of the erstwhile Erich Weiss, vaudvillean escape artist turned international supernatural superstar.
Indie comics are known for their humanizing elements. This proves true even when dramatizing the daredevil exploits of major celebrities. This is an everyday account of Houdini at the height of his success, unsullied by sensationalism.
Houdini may be jumping off the Harvard Bridge in Cambridge, Mass., handcuffed, before a crowd of thousands. But as we see, in quiet moments in his hotel room minutes before the big splash, Houdini puts on his pants one leg at a time like anyone else.
The Handcuff King gives away a major trick of the escape artist’s trade, but only one which has already been given away numerous times by other Houdini scholars. It’s revealed in sentimental fashion. This is the least freakish Houdini book I’ve seen. What you really come away with from it is how much Houdini loved his wife.