Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Houdini: The Handcuff King

Harry Houdini was the most famous magician of his and perhaps of all time. His name is synonymous with the term escape artist, and he was a master of death-defying stunts and public relations. He would escape from straight jackets while suspended in air, chains while underwater, or contained in a water torture cell. He also popularized tricks where he escaped from milk cans and from underground chambers. In part, his notoriety and fame have endured because his wife Bess kept a full-time publicist for 16 years after Houdini's death to keep his memory alive, but also because he was a consummate showman.

A small part of Houdini's amazing exploits is contained in Houdini: The Handcuff King. In this book, we see how Houdini drummed up interest for a public escape in Cambridge where he was chained and thrown off the Harvard Bridge into the Charles River. We also get to see how he prepares for the trick, as well as some of the public reaction to the spectacle, not all of it positive. Additionally and perhaps most importantly, we are privy to his escape methods.

This book was written by Jason Lutes, a writer/artist known for his ambitious works Berlin and Jar of Fools. Lutes is also an instructor at The Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, Vermont. One of the goals of The Center is to publish quality graphic novels, and this one is their first offering. The art is handled by Nick Bertozzi, who also writes, draws, and teaches comics, and is best known for his graphic novel about modernist painting and Paris, The Salon. Both creators are invested in historical accuracy, and their depictions evoke the time period well.

Reviews of the book have ranged widely. David Elzey found many great features in the book, including the introduction by Glen David Gold and the detailed back matter, and hoped that this initial offering was a sign of things to come. Bill Peschel found the book engaging but admits that he is keen on magic and Houdini in particular. Blogger Kevin Church found the book beautifully designed but more academic than gripping. More reviews can be found at Goodreads.

A short preview of the book is available here. A discussion guide is available from the book's publisher, Hyperion.


  1. Hi, Sterg,

    One of our social studies preservice teachers linked to your blog in a curriculum wiki she developed with her peers. Her review: "Sterg is a professor in the Reading Department at UT. He has great ideas for US History, European History, WWII, and other topics using graphic novels academically."

    I like how you are tagging by content area! I think I will have to check out Capote in Kansas, as In Cold Blood is one of my all-time favs. Have you read Mockingbird by Shields? The chapter about Lee's trip to Kansas with Capote was the best.

  2. Thanks for the kind words, Jennifer! And also for letting me know somebody is getting some use out of my work here :)

    I think the Capote book is worth looking into, especially if you like In Cold Blood (it's one of my all-time faves, I must admit). I have it if you want to borrow it. I hadn't heard of the Mockingbird book, and now I have to find that one. Thanks! :p