Houdini: the handcuff king by Jason Lutes & Nick Bertozzi
The Centre for Cartoon Studies, 2007

It is 5:00am on May 1, 1908, and Harry Houdini is preparing for a handcuffed jump off of Harvard Bridge in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He checks the police-issued handcuffs, goes for a jog, and reviews the stunt plan with the police and his assistant. With the river almost freezing over and a large crowd expected, Houdini has his livelihood as well as his life at stake.

The handcuff king is from the same publisher as my earlier-reviewed Amelia Earhart: this broad ocean, and it bears some striking similarities. Three colours are used in the drawings - in this case black, white, and a grey-blue - and there is a lengthy introduction by Glen David Gold, who wrote a biography about one of Houdini's contemporaries. Also, at the end of the book, there are more than four pages that provide supplementary details about specific panels in the book, from how the locks of the early 20th century worked to promotion and advertising during that time period. In fact, the back matter provides the context needed for this very brief glimpse into Houdini's life.

The entire book spans the events of one day , and one stunt, in Houdini's career. It is a snapshot of the man he was, from his adoration of his wife Bess to the control he had over every single aspect of a performance, and an indication of his ability to attract huge crowds to his spectacles. The illustrations were detailed, particularly the crowd scenes, although I found the lettering style distracting. My favourite part of the book was when Houdini is struggling to escape from the handcuffs while underwater, which is shown on the panels at the edge of each page, and the reactions of the crowd and the ticking clock is shown in inner panels. It gives a distinct atmosphere of concurrent events and certainly increased the tension of the moment for me, and I appreciate how the Lutes and Bertozzi take this life-threatening stunt that would be a memorable event in most people's lives, and present it as a common occurrence in Houdini's life.

The handcuff king is an accessible introduction to the life of a man that holds mystique for many, and in a format that students will be drawn to and learn from.


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