Levitation: Physics and Psychology in the Service of Deception

LEVIcoverHow do they do it? That’s always the question when you see a magician at work. In Levitation, Jim Ottaviani peels back the curtain and gives us a glimpse behind the history and science of one of the most famous illusions of the trade: Making someone seem to float in midair. The story takes place in the 1930′s, with flashbacks going back to the turn of the twentieth century.

As he always does, Ottaviani meticulously researches his subject, and in this case has found the voice of the perfect narrator in the person of Guy Jarrett. A stagehand for magicians in the early part of the twentieth century, Jarrett had firsthand knowledge of how the tricks were done as well as the foibles of their performers, and his unique voice adds humor and authenticity to the tale he tells his coworkers. Luckily we’re able to listen in as Jarrett fills them in on how things started.

The flashback sequence is told while they are setting up for the next performance of one of the most famous magicians of the early twentieth century, Howard Thurston. Jarrett shares that Thurston is not the first to use the levitation trick, but actually took it with the blessing of his mentor, Harry Kellar. But even Kellar wasn’t the first to use it. He found out the secret from the British magician John Nevil Maskelyne, who performed regularly in his London Egyptian Hall. According to Jarrett, is was he who was first able to perform the trick elegantly, able to use the hoop that you often see magicians use to ‘prove’ that there is nothing holding a person up in the air. In order to get the secret, Kellar first watches Maskelyne’s show from all angles in Egyptian Hall, attending again and again, sitting everywhere in the auditorium. When that doesn’t work, Kellar offers money, only to be rebuffed. Knowing he is running out of time before he has to go back to the Untied States, Kellar’s solution to the problem turns out to be incredibly direct.

Upon coming back to America, Kellar and Jarrett refine Maskelyne’s technique and Jarrett performs across the country. As the years pass, Jarrett comes to tire of the schedule and eventually finds his protegé in Thurston. Through the whole tale Ottaviani uses authentic magician’s patter, some of the actual dialog, as well as giving us a good peek into the nature of Thurston as a person particularly. In this he is assisted by artist Janine Johnson, who uses a straightforward, greytone style. Her characters are drawn in a way that grounds them in reality and her shading is especially good in showing the characters as they are on stage performing. Most of the time, the apparatuses are also well depicted, letting us in on the tricks. However there are a few panels where I personally was unable to decide what I was supposed to be looking at. One in particular has a caption of “What the audience doesn’t see,” and I, to put it simply, didn’t see it either. But besides these few panels where I felt I was missing something, Johnson’s art is easy to look at, and adds to the story.

Levitation covers a subject matter that will be of interest to all ages, though its presentation and text will make it more suitable to either the young adult or adult shelves. You will notice that I didn’t reveal any of the methods that the magicians use to work their magic. Who am I to reveal a magician’s secrets? After all, that’s Ottaviani’s job. And one he does well in this fascinating history.

Levitation: Physics and Psychology in the Service of Deception
by Jim Ottaviani
Art by Janine Johnston
ISBN: 9780978803704
G.T. Labs, 2007

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