Harry Houdini is as much of a conundrum as his many tricks. He was an illusionist who hated dishonesty. He was a magician who didn’t believe in magic. He was, at the height of his fame, one of the most famous and beloved men in the world and yet nearly 100 years after his passing he is largely forgotten to the general public, save as the ultimate example of the “the show must go on” mentality of theater folk. All of these contradictions and more are explored in Campfire’s graphic novel biography of Harry Houdini.
Our tale is told through the perspective of two fictional characters –skeptic Dr. Buster Harper and his nephew William, an aspiring magician. We are told that Houdini and Dr. Harper cooperated on a number of efforts to “bust” phony psychics and that Houdini owed Harper a favor. Noting the increasing depression of his young nephew, Dr. Harper asks Houdini if he would take William on as an apprentice. Houdini agrees and as the final days of Houdini’s life play out, he tells William of his life, his illusions and his motivations. At the same time, Dr. Harper muses about what he knows of Houdini’s past in a series of journal entries as he ponders writing a biography of Houdini but despairs over what details should or should not be omitted for fear of embarrassing his dear friend.
The script by C.E.L. Welsh spares us little of these details. From his beginnings putting on shows for the other children in his neighborhood to the final performance he gave in defiance of a doctor’s instance that he must be hospitalized immediately, we are told every fine point of Harry Houdini’s life. I even learned a thing or two from this book, such as the suggestion that Houdini’s zeal to go after fraudulent fakirs came about not because of a skeptics’ commitment to logic and reason but because of a deep guilt that he and his wife were forced to work as mediums, conning people out of their money during the hard times before he became a household name.
Sadly, the art by Lalit Kumar Singh fails what might have been an otherwise excellent graphic novel. Singh’s attempts at photo-realistic drawing are competent enough when he is aping famous photos of Houdini but the character proportions are inconsistent and off-putting throughout. There are several pages where Harry Houdini looks less like himself and more like Flat Top from Dick Tracy! But what really makes this book an artistic failure is the lack of continuity. At one point we are treated to a depiction of Houdini’s great Milk Jug trick – a stunt where he locked himself inside a milk jug, escaped and then had the jug filled with water thus increasing the need for speed in picking the locks when he escaped a second time. And yet, in drawing this scene, Harry Houdini is depicted as soaking wet before the water is poured into the jug! Houdini may have been the greatest magician of all time but it will take more magic than even he had to make this graphic novel an acceptable purchase for any library.
by C.E.L. Welsh
Art by Lalit Kumar Singh