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Unlocking the life of the handcuff king
on May 1, 2007
I just can't help but wonder," the magician Harry Houdini wonders at the end of "Houdini: The Handcuff King," a graphic novel by Jason Lutes and Nick Pertozzi, "will anyone even remember me a hundred years from now?"
Who can tell, awash as we are in the flood of current events, movies, books, comic books and other forms of entertainment? He certainly deserves to be, if only as a historical figure, a stage magician who built his reputation by being the best magician and escape artist there ever was, and by making sure everyone knew it.
"Houdini" tells this story by focusing on the events of a single day -- May 1, 1908 -- and a single publicity stunt, in which Houdini leapt into the near-frozen Charles River in Cambridge, Mass., wearing only a bathing suit and shackled at the wrists and ankles. Writer Jason Lutes follows the magician as he works at his craft, is interviewed by the press (and, like modern athletes, showing that he's capable of making them laugh, but also bringing out the claws to defend his reputation) and working with the police while rehearsing his stunt. And even though we know what to expect, he still pulls several surprises, working the reader as well as the audience.
Historical figures do not operate in a vacuum, and neither did Houdini. While watching him work, we're also made aware of the support network he built around him, starting with his loving wife, Bess, who he relied on for emotional support off-stage and as an assistant on-stage. Houdini also needed someone to promote his shows, and to protect him from unscrupulous rivals. It's a measure of the respect he engendered that he took to the grave the secrets of his most spectacular stunts.
"Houdini" also manages to give us a peek into life as it was lived a hundred years ago, before the Internet, before cable television, before VHF and UHF and even before radio and the movies. It was a time when everyone who could turned out to see a great man, even if it was only to see him walk down the street. When, if you wanted to be remembered, you had to be prepared to risk everything, because in person, you couldn't fake it. Houdini didn't fake it, and that's why we still remember him.
Although I believe this book is marketed for teens and younger, I found it an engaging read, but I have an interest in magic and Houdini's life in particular.