Born in 1874 in Budapest, magician Harry Houdini has become an almost mythological figure. His escapes from handcuffs, locked cells, milk cans filled with water, and strait jackets while hanging from his heels made him world-famous through the end of the 19th century and into the 20th. Even in this era of David Copperfield and David Blaine and though he died 84 years ago, his name is still legend.
He is the kind of historical figure that has a natural appeal for the young adult audience, so it is not strange that he should be fodder for Campfire’s Graphic Biography series.
Harry Houdini, written by Christopher Welsh and illustrated by Lalit Kumar Singh, takes young readers on a quick tour of some of the high points of the escapist’s life. Beginning near his death in 1926, it travels back and forth in time to tell his story.
A young boy named William who is interested in magic has been sent to Houdini for mentoring, by a professor the magician has been working with, and it is to him that the narrative is directed. William serves as the young reader’s surrogate and gives him someone to identify with.
Visually, the artist uses full color for scenes in 1926 and brown tints for the first scenes from Houdini’s childhood. In effect they evoke the tintypes that are so often associated with the turn of the 19th century, although some of the interiors seem too modern for the period.
The first flashback takes us to Wisconsin in 1883, and introduces the nine year old Erich Weiss (his real name) putting on acrobatic shows for his friends. While the story emphasizes the family’s financial needs, the visuals don’t show them as particularly poverty-stricken.
Houdini’s father was a rabbi, and there didn’t seem to be much call for a rabbi in Wisconsin. The young boy volunteers to do his part to help support the family.
As the flashbacks move forward in time, the color pallet seems to expand and soon they parallel the 1926 scenes. We are shown the young boy working with locks and handcuffs, his beginnings with his brother in show business, his marriage, and his attempts to get attention for himself through publicity stunts.
More often than not, the book concentrates on those aspects of the magician’s life which would be of greatest interest to young readers. Panels describe his escape from a Chicago police cell, his tactics for debunking spiritualists, and his escape from the special Houdini proof handcuffs created by the London police.
Some of the secrets of his escapes are even explained. This is the kind of thing that may well enchant the young enthusiast.
As a kind of addenda, the book ends with a two-page section called “The World of Magic: Famous Tricks Exposed!” Here there are nice explanations of old standbys like “The Indian Rope Trick” and “The Balducci Levitation.” When sawing a lady in half for example, the magician uses a box that is deeper than it appears from the audience’s view. The lady gets in and simply curls her legs under, so that her body is never really in the path of the blade. The feet sticking out at the opposite end are fakes which are operated by an electric motor. Never mind the young readers; this may well be the kind of information a good many adults would like to know. It certainly is for me.
With any luck Campfire’s Harry Houdini, like its other graphic books, may help kindle an interest in further reading in the Wii generation. At the very least, it will acquaint them with one of the more fascinating people of the past, which after all is said and done is no mean accomplishment.