Thursday, April 5, 2007

Houdini, the Handcuff King

Houdini, The Handcuff King by Jason Lutes and Nick Bertozzi, presented by The Center for Cartoon Studies (Hyperion Books for Children)

I’ve been anxiously awaiting this book about the great escape artist Harry Houdini which is the first publication from The Center for Cartoon Studies. I was curious as to why The Center for Cartoon Studies would go into publishing, so I did some digging around and found a weeklong journal from 2005 at written by CCS Director and series editor James Sturm. Here is how he explains it: My hope is that a working studio will lend vitality to CCS. Students will have an opportunity to see firsthand how one kind of graphic novel is put together by helping with research and production. Creating books will also provide a secondary source of revenue stream to supplement tuition. And in terms of marketing and promotion, these biographies, geared for a young-adult market, are likely to wind up in a lot of high school libraries where potential CCS student can discover them. Brilliant, I say.

Houdini, the Handcuff King is not a biography, but a fictionalized graphic depiction of Houdini’s handcuffed jump from the Harvard Bridge in 1908. We see Houdini’s entire day; his preparations and lock-picking practice, his morning jog, his press conference in a hotel lobby, tender moments with his wife, Bess, his swearing-in of a new employee, meeting his throngs of fans on the street, and finally the daring and highly-publicized stunt.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and not just because I’m a Houdini fan. It’s not a romanticized depiction of the escapist – his impatience and arrogance comes through – but his relationship with Bess humanizes him and brings him closer to the reader. The story also briefly touches on anti-semitism and Houdini’s deft defusing of uncomfortable situations. The “day in the life” depiction of one of Houdini’s stunts is a great story in its own right, but Lutes and Bertozzi have also managed to convey a sense of Houdini’s place in history very effectively. Bertozzi’s heavy line work is perfect for the tone of the story, though I might have chosen another shade besides blue for the third color – it comes across as a bit cold. The lettering leaves something to be desired, but I did appreciate the use of regular text and punctuation, reserving all caps for shouting. I particularly like the cover design under the dust jacket – I’ve left the book out on my desk just so I can look at it repeatedly. Be sure to read (and encourage kids to read) the introduction and the notes at the back – they’re full of fascinating historical information.

Sarah says: Houdini is this guy who lived in the late 1800s and early 1900s who was a great escape artist. The book Houdini, the Handcuff King is about one trick that he did when he jumped off a bridge into the water and he took off handcuffs that he was wearing. It would probably be a hard trick because most people can’t hold their breath that long underwater and the water was cold enough to freak out the audience but not cold enough to freeze him to death. It was sort of cartoonish and I like that, but I didn’t like that they put too much sweat on the people and it looks funny. The kissing parts are really important even though I don’t really enjoy watching the cartoons kissing. I think that Houdini, the Handcuff King is for all ages. My only concern is that smaller children might get scared of it because there’s kissing in it and they might not understand the story.

Shelby says
: Houdini, the Handcuff King is a great book. It is very interesting to see how Houdini might have done his tricks. It’s amazing how only a few lines can look just like the real Harry Houdini. I don’t think this book is for everyone because there is some kissing and a little bit of violence, but it’s okay for 8-years-old to adults. I think it’s cool how there are only three colors that the artist uses. The black is the outline and the blue makes the shading. In addition to the story is real information about Harry Houdini and it’s very interesting because it tells you all about how he and Bess, his wife, got married. I wouldn’t get married on the very first day I met someone – they’re crazy!

Houdini will probably be of interest to readers ages 12 and older, but there’s nothing to keep younger readers away. Houdini’s new hire, Mr. Beatty, roughs up a nosy reporter, but it’s not too violent. There are a few kissing scenes, which elicited some eeeeewwws from Sarah, but they are integral to the story. Though this is being sold as a children’s book labeled “ages 12 and up”, I highly recommend Houdini, The Handcuff King for adults as well – it would certainly be a wonderful addition to any collection.

Read a preview of Houdini at Nick Bertozzi’s site, read a Newsarama interview with Bertozzi, and visit The Center for Cartoon Studies


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