The first graphic novel to emerge from Vermont’s Center for Cartoon Studies, Houdini: The Handcuff King offers the reader a look at a single day in the master escape artist’s life. Jason Lutes and Nick Bertozzi take a minimal approach with this work, avoiding narration and the like to tell the story simply and clearly, and while that approach is something I usually applaud, this time I found myself left cold. Don’t get me wrong; this is a fine effort by two accomplished cartoonists, but it feels sterile and academic versus being evocative and thrilling.
What’s annoying is how right this could have been for me. I love books like Carter Beats The Devil (written by Glen David Gold, who provides an introduction here) and the story takes place on Harvard Bridge, a place that I could probably hit with a well-thrown stone and a bit of wind from my front porch. I’ve enjoyed both creator’s material in the past – Lutes’s Berlin and Bertozzi’s Ernest Shackleton webcomic engaged and entertained me handily, but the meat of this book feels like an exacting re-creation of what a historic graphic novel should be. It’s got the right elements: quality writing, beautiful art, but ends up being so very clinical.
All told, Houdini: The Handcuff King feels like it comes from a place called The Center for Cartoon Studies, not an interesting book in its own right. It’s probably telling that I found the overall design of the book, along with Gold’s prefacing material and the historical footnotes more interesting than the story pages inside.