Minky Woodcock: The Girl Who Handcuffed Houdini #1
Writer/Artist/Colors: Cynthia Von Buhler
Letters: Simon Bowland
Cover artists: David Mack, Robert McGinnis, Cynthia Von Buhler & photo cover
Editors: Charles Ardai & Tom Williams
Publisher: Titan Comics/Hard Case Crime imprint
Price: $3.99 US
OK, this may be the best title I’ve ever seen — on a comic, a book, a movie. Ever. That alone should be enough to get just about anyone to pick up this comic book and peruse its pages. Mind you, not everyone should, as this one is definitely not for the younger set, even those with a taste for historical fiction. Writer/artist Cynthia Von Buhler has created something rather unique here, and that’s an even better reason for one to check out this work. The fun and even slightly naughty qualities of this plot actually dress up a more pertinent message (especially in today’s socio-political environment): female empowerment. The protagonist is a woman who refuses to “know” her place in the early 20th century, and the other key players in the drama are women as well. What drew me in the most here was the mystery — not just the mystery at the heart of the plot, but the permeating celebration of the appeal of mystery, and the strong, willful personality of the title heroine had me eager to see her succeed.
Minky Woodcock loves a mystery. Her father is a famous private investigator. She’s named her pet rabbit after Agatha Christie, a favored author whom she’d met years before. And now, another icon of mystery fiction, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, has arrived at her father’s office, looking to hire him. But with her father away for weeks, Minky ends up delving into Sir Doyle’s case: he believes the famed Harry Houdini is interfering in spiritual matters and is somehow blocking him and others from piercing the veil of the afterlife. Leads take Minky and Sir Doyle to the parlour of a noted psychic, and the experience leaves Minky with more questions and a sense of disappointment in a cherished idol.
It’s quite clear that a fair bit of the art in this book is rendered thanks to photo reference. It certainly suits the historic material, as it brings a realism to bear that further casts the fantastic tale into a factual light. The side effect is that some of the art comes off as a little stiff. Mind you, there are several unconventional perspectives employed in the art that show photo referencing alone wasn’t the artist’s only method. The whole thing strikes me as the sort of art one might get if one were to cross the styles of J.H. (Promethea) Williams III and Michael (Jessica Jones) Gaydos. The darker color palette also reminds me of what we often see on Gaydos’s work (usually coming from accomplished colorist Matt Hollingsworth). Some of the visuals also reminded me of the style Melinda (Lost Girls) Gebbie. I think Von Buhler plays a little fast and loose with Minky’s rather revealing clothing, as it seems too daring for the period, but then, I’m no historian, and I have to admit I really don’t know that it’s not plausible or even historically accurate.
That brings me to another key aspect of the book, one about which I found myself a bit torn. There’s a bawdy (though certainly not pornographic) side to the book that I found both appealing and a little unsettling. Given the backdrop of the mid 1920s, Minky’s free spirit, sexual awareness and appreciation of libations certainly project a vision of a liberated woman. However, there are moments when I wonder if it’s pushed too far, if those elements don’t end up objectifying the character for the sake of titillation. I also find her harsh view of the psychic’s more unusual and base qualities to be somewhat contradictory, given Minky’s free and flirty spirit. Of course, that’s also explained by the fact that the psychic is using sexuality to manipulate others. Ultimately, I have to view Minky’s portrayal as a positive, and one aspect that wins me over to that side is the fact she’s written and illustrated by a woman. Since the overall aim of the story is about empowerment, as I noted earlier, it’s hard to see Minky as a bimbo.
Von Buhler’s script is a little verbose and occasionally awkward. The initial scene featuring Sir Doyle’s arrival at the Woodcock office struck me as a little long, as did the exposition in the narration in the opening pages to convey Minky’s situation as the overlooked member of the family who was best suited to taking over her father’s business. I also found it odd that given how much we hear of Minky’s inept brother, we never see him. It would have strengthened the story somewhat to show us how much more capable Minky is than him rather than simply to tell us. We also never get a glimpse of the other members of the Woodcock clan, even in “photos,” but Von Buhler goes out of her way to depict Agatha Christie and to dwell at length on a rabbit in the visuals. Of course, the rabbit is clearly meant as a symbol of magic, and Doyle’s brief mistreatment of the animal represents and foreshadows his misunderstanding of all things paranormal.
The love of a good mystery is an integral part of the appeal of this comic book. Yes, mystery after mystery arises in the plot – such as the question of Houdini’s abilities, or the angle spiritualist Margery is playing — but the incorporation of icons of mystery fiction belies a love of the genre and everything associated with it. The creator of Sherlock Holmes is a prominent player in the drama, and Agatha Christie, while not a participant, is a pervasive presence nonetheless. It seems clear Minky’s ultimate mission will be to debunk something, be it Margery’s scheme, Houdini’s act or Doyle’s misguided beliefs, and I’m genuinely interested in seeing how it plays out. The Girl Who Handcuffed Houdini strikes me as Scooby-Doo for a slightly more intellectual, more mature set, and it’s almost as playful. 7/10
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