Writer: Cynthia Von Buhler
Art: Cynthia Von Buhler
Titan/Hard Case Crime $24.99
Jo S: I’m not totally sure I remember what made me pick up the first issue of Minky Woodcock: The Girl Who Handcuffed Houdini: I’m pretty sure it would have caught my eye because of the deliciously cheeky title, and the introduction of a girl, denied the chance to be a private investigator, who becomes an assistant to the most famous escapologist in history, and quite possibly the mention of Conan Doyle and spiritualism. The release of the collected series in hardback has given me a chance to relive the unfolding of the story and it was an enjoyable journey once again - rereading a story based on historical events does have the advantage that there are really no major spoilers to change one’s perception the second time: we already know Houdini dies at the end!
This series appears on the Hard Case Crime imprint, which allows Titan to delve into some more unusual stories in the hardboiled crime genre: you could say these look a little dated these days, deliberately reflecting ‘50s pulp magazines but the relatively recent comic book strand gives fresh opportunities, and Cynthia Von Buhler’s creation sits beautifully in this arena. Von Buhler’s background spans across an unparalleled range of artistic styles; she is a fine artist, sculptor, playwright, singer, performance artist, burlesque artiste and producer of immersive theatre. It’s easy to see how she has gone forward with this series, which is now a theatre experience in its own right. Her breadth of experience and passion for performance permeates the whole book - the titular character is clearly an aspect of Von Buhler’s own personality, with her forthright fearlessness, relaxed attitude to exhibitionist behaviour and persistence in the face of continual discouragement.
Von Buhler plays a very clever game throughout this book - creating a credible blend of historical fact and fictional embellishment is a challenging task. As mentioned before, anyone who knows anything about Houdini knows that he died young, apparently from peritonitis triggered by a sucker punch to the abdomen for which he hadn’t properly prepared, and some may know that he was a very public critic of the spiritualist community, working hard to debunk mediums who sought to make money out of bereaved and vulnerable people. Von Buhler has meticulously researched the reports and sources available surrounding Houdini’s life and has included a huge amount of detail in this story, not seeking to imply that this is a possible version of the truth, but instead using existing ‘fact’ (or at least, facts as reported at the time) to raise the believability of the book as far as possible.
The demonstrations of the sneaky tricks played by parlour mediums are fascinating; again, Von Buhler has used reports from Houdini’s research to explain how punters as eminent as Arthur Conan Doyle were hoodwinked, and how those seeking to extract cash from the wealthy exploited their recent bereavements and their fervent wish to be reunited with their lost loved ones. Even Houdini’s love of animals, including his famous parrot Pat, features in the story: Minky’s rabbit, Agatha, named after her crime fiction heroine Christie, is given as a reason for the Houdinis to trust her to join them.
This blend of the historical with the fictional does have one downside though: Von Buhler seems to struggle a little to end the story. History requires that Houdini die, and that we never really know the cause or who might have been responsible - this makes it tricky to write a denouement, as there’s no danger of him being saved at the last minute, as might normally be possible in such crime fiction. The tying up of the tale as apparent insurance fraud feels a bit, well, too true and boringly real life!
Minky Woodcock is entirely Von Buhler’s creation: her distinctive artistic style is superb for this situation. With colours raised up from a murky black background, the entire story is rendered in shadows and mysterious darkness, with redheaded Minky frequently appearing as a bright shining jewel in the rich blackness. Von Buhler clearly loves to represent her heroine: Minky is confident enough to appear naked in many panels, and Von Buhler gives her a glamorous 1920s style - she is the centre of attention in every page she graces - but also maintains her image as a strong independent character who can hold her own in a fight, whether verbal or physical. There’s a strong feminist message of ‘the best man for the job is a woman’, and the villains of the piece are mostly female too. Von Buhler doesn't quite get a handle Houdini’s wife Bess though - she comes over as a bit mousy and inconsequential; her apparent acceptance of Houdini’s philandering is brushed over to some extent - I would have been interested to see this explored further.
On the topic of the artwork, I was looking forward to seeing the variant covers gallery in this hardback version, as there were a number of fantastic alternatives available. As well as Von Buhler’s own, there are versions by Robert McGinnis, Dean Haspiel, Fay Dalton, David Mack and photo covers by Charles Ardai. Each gives Minky a remarkably different look (Mack’s is especially striking in its variance from Von Buhler’s styling for Minky). Not all are shown here and several are only seen as part of a composite page, as final covers rather than clean, art-only pages - I found that a missed opportunity. Fred Harper’s cover, showing Minky and exposed fraudulent medium Margery in the stable where Minky secretes her enemy while impersonating her, is a gorgeous example of the blatant use of the curvaceous female form to sell pulp magazines and as such is a perfect homage to the genre. To paraphrase Margery’s assistant: Margery is especially adept and manifesting ectoplasm from her orifices. If you are offended by nudity, please do not enter! 7/10