As a writer and artist, Jason Lutes created such successful graphic novels as “Berlin” and “Jar of Fools.” Most recently, he teamed with artist Nick Bertozzi on “Houdini: The Handcuff King,” a short work capturing a moment in the life of the legendary escape artist.
In the book, Houdini is preparing for a jump off the Harvard Bridge in Cambridge, Massachusetts on May 1, 1908. Lutes and Bertozzi have their eyes on the details, not only evoking the era and the moment, but the nuance of the players and the affectations of Houdini’s trade.
In just over 80 pages, Lutes and Bertozzi not only capture the place and time, but the excitement of being there and its relation to the world today. In one small incident, they sum up an entire life and the world around it — the devil is in the details, as is Houdini himself.
I loved “Houdini” and was lucky enough to be able to ask Lutes a few questions about it.
J7: When did you first encounter Houdini in your life and what drew you to him?
JL: I think he probably popped up here and there as I was growing up, but I didn’t really have a clear idea who he was until my third year at art school, when a fellow student started telling me about how interesting Houdini was. I started reading up on him, and the more I read the more fascinating he became to me. I think my initial attraction was to the idea of a man who could execute all of these amazing “challenge” escapes, and the nature of public spectacle in the late 19th and early 20th century. One account that impressed me told of how Houdini was locked in a cabinet onstage behind a curtain, and the audience sat watching, riveted, for over an hour with nothing more to keep them going than the occasional sound of exertion and the suspense of his impending escape
J7: Do you think perceptions toward — and the attraction to — Houdini changes from childhood to adulthood?
JL: It certainly did for me, although the shift was from early to later adulthood. I started out fascinated by the legend of Houdini, and over the years became more interested in the personality behind it — the master of public image who created that legend through years of systematic effort, exacting control over every possible variable, and superhuman discipline.
J7: Why did you choose such a tiny slice of a big imposing life?
JL: The main goal was to bring readers in close and give them a sense of the specific time and place, as well as what it might have felt like to see the man in person. The average comics biography tries to boil down the “big imposing life” of its subject, which in narrative terms results in a story that feels like a stone skipping across a pond. We instead chose a corner of the pond to examine in detail, in order to see what we could extrapolate from that small sample. I think this approach is more intimate, and it was also intended to spark curiosity and further investigation on the part of the reader.
J7: Houdini functions as a great springboard to capturing the era. How much research did you do in regard to the Cambridge area — and the times in general — as you were scripting the story? Or was there a lot that you were already familiar with?
JL: I have a working familiarity with the Cambridge area from having spent time there while I was in college, but left almost all of the visual research up to Nick. After I settled on which part of Houdini’s life to dramatize, I read up on the history of Boston and Cambridge and anything else that was germane to the story — the history of the local police force, the history of the bridge, whether or not telephones would have been present (they were), and the types of promotional tools Houdini would have employed then.
J7: What is the importance of Houdini?
JL: Answering that question runs the risk of being reductive, but I will say that he combined self-discipline and showmanship in ways unprecedented, still unchallenged, and singularly American. The fact that he was a Jew heroicized by a mass audience at the turn of the 19th century is also remarkable.
J7: The comics medium has come into its own in the area of history — there’s so much of it being covered by a number of creators. What do you think the medium lends to these endeavors that others might not offer?
JL: The most immediately apparent strength of the medium in this regard is that it’s technically easier and more economical for a cartoonist to recreate or suggest a rich, historically accurate visual environment than it would be for, say, a filmmaker.
J7: Is the research a big draw for you?
JL: Being able to explore the world through my work is the main reason I do it at all, but that exploration can occur during a trip to the library or on a walk through the woods near my house. I enjoy research, but not as much as I enjoy the living world right in front of me every waking day.
J7: What areas of history interest you — and in which ones do you fall short, in that you want to pursue them further?
JL: All aspects of the past are intriguing, but I tend to be most attracted to the details of everyday life. How working people lived in different places and times is of much more interest to me than that lives of the people who wrote or “made” history.
J7: Was history one of your strong suits as a kid? Or is it something that you grew into as an adult?
JL: My American public school history education was woefully inadequate, if not pathetic. I feel like I hardly learned anything at all, and by the time I got to college I felt the pressing need to investigate a lot of open questions. So I’ve grown into it as an adult. But it’s still perennially embarrassing to meet European peers who have a hundred times the knowledge that I do of my native country and its history.