Eye on Comics

Comics criticism and commentary from Don MacPherson

Do You Believe in Magic?

Posted by Don MacPherson on July 18th, 2007

Levitation: Physics and Psychology in the Service of Deception original graphic novella
Writer: Jim Ottaviani
Artist/Cover artist: Janine Johnston
Letters: Tom Orzechowski
Publisher: GT Labs
Price: $12.95 US

Writer Jim Ottaviani is well known in the comics industry for his passion for bringing the history of science to life in sequential storytelling. No one else really does what he does, and even if there were others, I doubt they could do it any better. Levitation is one of two releases this week from his independent GT Labs publishing outfit, and it stands out as a fascinating read. Ottaviani has timed this graphic novella well. With the films The Illusionist and The Prestige still fresh in the pop-culture consciousness, there will no doubt be a greater interest in his history of stage magicians from the late 1800s and early 20th century. Janine Johnston’s artwork certainly captures a sense of the historic here but has a wondrous quality at work as well. Ottaviani crafts a story that not only conveys the cold, hard facts but one that explores the personalities involved. He blends his approach to history with a respect for the legends to which it gave rise. Though the book is a bit pricy for a 72-page volume, there’s no denying that the storytelling is magical.

Levitation has been a mainstay of stage magic for what seems like forever, but the trick came to Western culture in the late 1800s thanks to an inventive and successful British magician named John Neville Maskelyne. It didn’t take long for his magician rivals to covet the secrets of the levitation trick, and one particular performer — an American named Harry Kellar — would stop at nothing to get it. After uncovering the secret, he improved upon it, passing it along to a successor, Howard Thurston. And as Thurston’s assistants prep a stage for a performance, his longtime manager shares the history of the trick and the secret itself with his fellow laborers.

Janine Johnston’s art reminds me of the work of such comics industry talents as Kieron (Sea of Red) Dwyer and Eddie (From Hell) Campbell. There’s a softness in her art that brings out the grounded, everyday qualities of the characters/historical figures. Her style isn’t highly detailed or photorealistic, but she captures a sense of realism with the characters’ natural movements and her solid grasp of anatomy. There’s a hazy quality throughout the book, especially when it comes to the backgrounds, but the art never strikes one as being lacking in any way. Instead, the use of grey washes and sketchy backdrops adds to the air of mystery and magic that is nevertheless an integral part of a story that essentially exposes the inner workings of a classic stage illusion. Johnston also provides simple but concise diagrams that demonstrate the construction and execution of the levitation illusion clearly.

There are only about 50 or so pages of actual comics storytelling in this book, but thankfully, Ottaviani bolsters the project with lengthy historical notes and images in the back of the book. He provides extra historical notes and even outside references for the reader, but an even greater treat is the inclusion of period advertising for the performers from the story.

I’m a fan of DVD commentary tracks, original comic art and more; basically, when artists invite me to look behind the curtain and witness the creative process, I’m fascinated. That’s why I was so enthralled to learn how the levitation trick works. Ottaviani matches Johnston’s straightforward art with clear descriptions of how the trick worked, and I was especially taken with his revelation of how the hoop (used to “demonstrate” that no wires or other tricks are employed in the illusion) works in such a performance.

Mind you, the exposure of the secret is but a brief sequence in the larger picture. What drives the story — and the history — forward is the rivalry between two magicians: Maskelyne and Kellar. Ultimately, the most interesting aspect of the plot is the fact that Kellar, who so desperately worked to uncover Maskelyne’s secrets, ends up becoming something of a purist himself, disappointed that the man who inherited his act so readily risked exposing the illusion for what it really was. 8/10