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Houdini the Handcuff King
posted February 2, 2007


Creators: Jason Lutes, Nick Bertozzi, Glen David Gold (Introduction)
Publishing Information: Hyperion, 96 pages, April 2007, $16.99
Ordering Numbers: 0786839023 (ISBN), 9780786839025 (ISBN13)

The one thing that's clear when you look at even the Advance Reading Copy of Houdini The Handcuff King is that James Sturm, as expected, can add book packager in addition to a resume that includes cartoonist and educational administrator. Done in conjunction with Sturm's Center For Cartoon Studies, the Hyperion release is smart and to the point: the end notes are interesting, the cartoonists are well-selected, and the introduction by Glen David Gold makes the comic's case before you read a single panel. According to the author, Houdini was the first person to become famous because what he did was cool. Cartoonists Jason Lutes (who shot into comics consciousness with the magician story Jar of Fools and Nick Bertozzi (who should enjoy a fine 2007 for this book and a similar period piece The Salon) then go about proving Gold's point by showing you what Houdini did and why it was cool.

They do so by compressing much of Houdini's life into a single stunt, a bridge jump in Boston where Houdini escaped from handcuffs after tossing himself underwater. This allows the pair to show samples of recurring themes in Houdini's carefully crafted career: coordinated publicity stunts, secrecy, his close relationship to his wife, practice, physical fitness, working the press, and several instances of showmanship. Houdini proves so interesting that the story itself is told with little flair: the narrative is straightforward and concentrates on process rather than locking itself into the unraveling of a mysterious incident; the visuals favor open, airy panels, establishing sequences, a six-panel grid to get through the more detailed sequences and an energetic design with a Houdini that pratically snakes and shifts along the contours of his own inky line.

This is a very professional, very nice little short story, the only thing connecting it to alternative comics in general may be the focus on the Houdini's romantic partnership and collaboration, a sweet portrait of what was, at least for the afternoon depicted, a seemingly perfect marriage. It's also very much the straight-forward piece, absent of dark moment or controversial opinion or stab at significant meaning, the kind of tone one might of guessed would be part of the project from the very beginning. It's a book to admire, but maybe not one to which anyone will thrill.