Smash Pages Q&A: Cynthia von Buhler gets magical with Harry Houdini

The comics artist, author, playwright and designer discusses ‘Minky Woodcock: The Girl who Handcuffed Houdini,’ her latest comic series from Hard Case Comics.

Over the course of her career, Cynthia von Buhler has been a comics artist, illustrator, children’s book author, playwright and designer. Von Buhler has shown an affinity for and fascination with the early 20th Century, exploring the period and many real life stories in her various projects over the years. Minky Woodcock: The Girl Who Handcuffed Houdini is a new comic series out from Hard Case Comics that she’s writing and drawing. In it, von Buhler introduces a fictional young woman who works for her detective father, still haunted by the death of her mother. She winds up working as Harry Houdini’s assistant. Houdini’s wife wants to keep an eye on him and have an assistant that she can trust. Spiritualists loathe Houdini and how he’s been debunking them. Could there be more to Houdini’s unusual death?

I like to start by asking people, how did you come to comics?

As a girl I used to cut out comic characters from The Archies and Josie and the Pussycats and use them as paper dolls. My storyline scenarios were much more risqué than the originals. As an artist and writer I didn’t come to work in comics until I was asked to illustrate Evelyn Evelyn by Amanda Palmer and Jason Webley for Dark Horse Comics. I had been an illustrator and children’s book writer and they were looking for something along those lines, only creepier.

Who is Minky Woodcock?

Minky Woodcock is an aspiring Prohibition-era private investigator who wants to work at her father’s detective agency. Her old-fashioned father will only let her be his secretary.  Minky, haunted by her mother’s mysterious death, is curious by nature and isn’t content to sit idly in an office. Even though Minky has the smarts to crack even the hardest of hard-boiled cases, her full-contact investigative style gets her into trouble.

Where did this project begin? Was it with Houdini and his death?

My bootlegger grandfather was mysteriously murdered in 1935. He died on the day my mother was born. Nobody in my family knew why he was killed. In 2011 I started to investigate his murder. I ordered court records, police reports and his autopsy file. I found a newspaper article in the library which shed a good deal of light on the situation. Intent to figure out what actually occurred I built dollhouse sets of the crime. This led to a Kickstarter with a graphic novel and immersive theater production titled Speakeasy Dollhouse. The play became a hit in New York City.  I discovered that I’m a good investigator of Prohibition-era crimes. I created another play based on the mysterious death of Ziegfeld girl, Olive Thomas, Ziegfeld Midnight Frolic, and held it in an old, disused Broadway Theater on 42nd Street. It ran to sold out crowds for a year before I lost use of the theater. The story of Houdini has always fascinated me. The time period and the enigmatic details of his death led me to this story. He was also a New Yorker.

I really love Bess Houdini. She makes an impression in her one brief scene. Are we going to see more of her in the series?

Yes, she is an important character in the story. This story is filled with strong women. I can’t say more or I will reveal spoilers.

You’re tackling spiritualism in the story and Houdini famously debunked many mediums and psychics. Do you want to talk about that aspect of the story.

Spiritualists wanted him dead. One even foretold that he’d be dead before November (1926). Most people don’t realize that the man who punched Houdini in Montreal was a spiritualist himself. An autopsy was never performed on Houdini and he died from sepsis and blood poisoning. Was he poisoned by spiritualists? Why did Bess get sick on the train to Montreal? Why did he have an accident onstage in Albany? Why didn’t Bess have an autopsy performed? I did a great deal of research.

How easy was it to get reference and to get the look and feel of the period just right?

All of my immersive theater productions take place in the twenties and thirties. I know the time period very well. I have period costumes, actors who have already been immersed in the era and I collect antiques. I used the Manhattan townhouse and the neighborhood I live in on the Upper East Side of Manhattan for my sets. Did you know Houdini grew up there as well? The neighborhood is called Yorkville. Houdini also lived in Harlem at the time of his death which is where my model for Minky, Pearls Daily, lives.  I’m basically drawing what is around me.

What was the biggest challenge for you on a project like this?

Good question. The answer is time.The deadlines in comics are grueling. I’m a fast draftsman, but each page takes me a full day to draw and color. I’m really picky.  Every detail has to be just right. I will not rush the art. We wanted to get this series out before Christmas so I’m actually drawing each issue the month before they are released. I have no life right now. I’m up all night drawing — but I’m loving every minute of it.

How did you end up working with Hard Case Comics?

My husband worked for Charles Ardai back when he founded Juno. Juno was one of, if not the first, free e-mail sites back in 1996. Charles went on to  create Hard Case Crime. Charles and I had met a few times through my husband and he came to see my Speakeasy Dollhouse play. Last year he told me he was venturing into comics and I told him about Minky. I had never done a comic like this before so I had to prove to Charles I could draw in a realistic comic book style with animated characters. Older art styles are my forte (CynthiaVonBuhler.com).

You’re writing and drawing the book and drawing the covers but your variant covers, I have to say, put most variant covers to shame. Robert McGinnis, David Mack, and then photo covers featuring PearlsDaily. How did this happen?

Thank you! I agree. I know David through my illustration work. We both were extensively interviewed for Lisa Cyr’s wonderful book, Art Revolution, Alternative Approaches for Fine Artists. We have become friends and I’m honored to have him do my first cover.  He’s a comic book legend! Charles, my publisher and editor, is friends with Robert McGinnis. Charles, who took the beautiful photograph variant cover, also took the photo Robert McGinnis used to make our cover painting. Robert is 90 years old and very reclusive, but he’s still painting like a madman. He did the James Bond and Breakfast at Tiffany’s art. He also did thousands of pulp novel covers. I’m trying to get Charles to take me to his studio. His work is incredible.

We also have amazing variant cover art coming from my Emmy-winning friend Dean Haspiel (Cover B, Issue 4), Fay Dalton (Cover 1, Issue 2) and Fred Harper (Cover B, Issue 3).

You’ve been making comics and picture books for a few years now but you do lots of other things as well and work in different media. What do you like about comics?

I’ve been writing and illustrating picture books since 2006 (TheFurGnarl.com). I’ve been an illustrator for ages. I’ve worked for most well-known magazines and publishers.  I’ve also been repeatedly in all the illustration award books. I ventured into fine art and have shown my works all over the world. I already told you about my plays. I recently started writing screenplays. In fact, Minky Woodcock was first written as a TV series screenplay. I hope she’ll get her own TV series. Comics are like illustrated screenplays. They are storyboards. If I’m going to write screenplays I wanted to draw how I felt they should look. I’m a visual artist first and foremost. That’s how I best tell my stories, by showing and not telling. This works well in theater, children’s picture books and comics. I have no interest in writing a novel without drawings, paintings or photographs. I love combining visual media to tell my stories.

What’s your process like working on this book? What kind of materials are you using?

I use a variety of materials: pencils, paper, painted textures as well as drawing and coloring on the glorious new iPad with pen. I draw from live actors when I can get them to stay still long enough or I place them in sets I create and shoot them with my Nikon camera. I will also use myself as a model whenever I must. I can pose one hand while I draw with the other. Houdini and Bess’ faces have to be drawn from internet reference. I prefer working with live models. I can look at a few photos and extrapolate from them.

You always seem to be in the midst of many things. What else are you working on?

I have been taking my immersive excursion play in the woods, The Illuminati Ball, and writing/staging it as a much larger show for 1,000 people in an incredible venue in New York City. I tried it in October and I’m doing it again in February. I’m also creating The Girl Who Handcuffed Houdini as a play in Manhattan. It will open in October, 2018. I’m writing The Illuminati Ball as a comic and I have a couple of children’s novels in progress. My hobby is animal rescue. I adore animals.

So what can we look forward to in the future issues of the book?

Minky is going undercover to spy on Houdini to see if he’s cheating on his wife, but this is going to lead to a much bigger case — the investigation of his death. There will be more seances, a little S&M, the Water Torture Trick, speakeasies — all inspired by facts. You can read about the facts I weave throughout my story in the evidence section of my website for the book: MinkyWoodcock.com

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