Harry Houdini escaped death, slipping into the collective imagination of popular culture. Like Robert Johnson, Annie Oakley and Agatha Christie (who also appears in Minky Woodcock: The Girl Who Kidnapped Houdini), he keeps living new lives in different stories, sometimes as a main characters, and others as a cameo.The best escape artist in the world dying from a botched trick is an incredible story in itself. It’s the one that Cynthia Von Buhler examines in Minky Woodcock: The Girl Who Kidnapped Houdini.
Von Buhler’s collected the evidence at minkywoodcock.com, and she retells the story in the graphic novel. The telling is an homage to the pulp comic and crime story boom, named for the pulpy paper on which it was printed. Like those stories, this one is full of lurid scenes—a naked seance, bondage play, and pin-up models. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, another historical figure that Von Buhler worked into the story, warns the narrator, “If you are offended by nudity, please do not enter.” It’s a good warning for any potential reader too; there’s a lot of nudity.
Unlike the pulp influences that Von Buhler’s drawing from though, she frames the women’s nudity as a way for them to exploit men rather than being exploited by them. The spiritualist who conducts her seances naked does so to distract her male patronage in a way that allows her to trick them into believing that she’s legitimately contacting the dead. Mindy takes her clothes off to manipulate men and for her own pleasure, never for the readers. Von Buhler is sex positive, treating it as a powerful move rather than a sinful one. It’s a welcome change from slasher film’s punishing logic, where female nudity was followed with swift and violent death.
The art is a strength of Minky Woodcock. Von Buhler knows her influences, and really captures their aesthetic in these pages.
The writing is less strong. There are clunky lines of dialogue, like, when someone brings up seances, another character asks, “You mean talking to dead people?” (13) The line is clearly the author explaining what a seance is to her audience, but a venn diagram of people who would be interested in reading this book and people who aren’t familiar with seances is two circles, very far apart.
Worse than that though is the inconsistencies in the characters. On one page, Bess Houdini hires Minky to investigate Harry’s infidelities. But when she’s confronted by someone Harry’s slept with she lets them off the hook, saying, “This is the Great Houdini we’re talking about. There isn’t a cell that can keep him in or a woman that can keep him out” (39). The person who takes that sex positive stance about her husband’s dalliances doesn’t hire a private investigator to suss them out. The motivations don’t line up.
And of course, there’s the question of tension. Any reader with a cursory familiar with Houdini knows that he died after being punched, yet the conflict driving the story forward is Minky’s attempted protection of Houdini. It seems like a missed opportunity to employ the confessional narrative frame, filled with regret over her failure, which would’ve eschewed making Houdini’s death (or survival) the driving force of the story, putting Minky’s knowledge on the same level as the reader.
Here’s one of the secret’s of reviewing—it’s easy to pick out these little details that aren’t working in a good story. They stick out in a mostly among all of the things that are working. It’s like spotting one or two rotten apples in a display of gleaming galas. And Minky Woodcock: The Girl Who Handcuffed Houdini is that good group with a few things that aren’t working. It’s a love letter to noir, a Houdini pastiche that offers a new theory about his death, and it’s worth reading.
Minky Woodcock: The Girl Who Handcuffed Houdini will be available from the Hard Case Crime imprint of Titan Comics on July 24, 2018.
Wicked Rating: 7/10