Smash Pages Q&A: Jeremy Holt

The comics writer discusses his latest project, ‘Before Houdini,’ which is about the early life of the magician and escape artist.

Though he came to comics late in life, Jeremy Holt has been making up for lost time. He’s written a number of comics in recent years including Pulp, Southern Dog, Skinned and Skip To The End.

His new book, which was just released by Insight Comics, is Before Houdini. A prequel to After Houdini, the 2018 graphic novel that Holt made with John Lucas and Adi Crossa, the new book looks at the early life of the aspiring magician and escape artist. In these books Holt and Lucas have established an entertaining supernatural universe, but his greatest gift is the sense of sprawl, both historical and fictional, that explodes from the pages, the panels offering but a glimpse into this larger world while also managing the story and plotting.

It’s a fine line to walk, and Holt and I spoke recently about the long path working on both of these books, his love of research and what comes next.

To start, how did you come to comics?

It was completely by accident. I grew up around comics. My oldest brother collected comics, but I didn’t really read them. It was probably a year after I graduated I was living in New York City and I went to visit my stepbrother. We had some time to kill so he said, let’s go to a coffee shop and read some comics. He gave me a copy of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. That book really opened my eyes to what comics could be or are. That set me on the path. Flash forward maybe six months later I decided to take a stab at writing my first comic and fortunately I was able to network with some friends from college and I met a couple editors.

How do you describe your new book, Before Houdini?

This is the story of Ehrich Weiss before he becomes the famous Harry Houdini. He is mastering all sorts of illusions. He’s getting into escapist acts. His interest catches the attention of an early version of MI6, so he is recruited to London where he is teamed up with three other youngsters, each of which exhibit their own special abilities, and they are tasked with tracking down a supernatural creature that’s stalking the streets of London in the late 19th Century.

I’m sure some people get confused that the first book is After Houdini and the second book is Before Houdini.

(laughs) It’s very confusing, I know. It wasn’t intended that way initially. I thought it was going to be After Houdini Volumes 1 and 2. Before Houdini wasn’t even supposed to happen. My editor Mark Irwin was really into the book and was able to get the publisher to take interest in doing a followup. I at first declined. I had no intention, and it was such a long seven year journey to get After Houdini made that I didn’t really have the mental bandwith, but I thought this might be a good writing exercise to see if I could write a followup. I’d never done a second volume of anything. For a while I was stuck on how do I tell this story, which I’ve wrapped up pretty tightly. I started doing research into Houdini, and I realized there isn’t a whole lot documented about his early life. I started doing some more research into major events in the late 19th Century and that’s when it all started to come together. It was a happy accident.

You planned After Houdini as a standalone, self-contained volume, so how did you approach Before Houdini?

I wanted to write it in a way where both are standalone, but there’s enough narrative arcs that loop into each other. I introduce things in After Houdini that also get introduced to Ehrich Weiss in Before Houdini. Anybody who’s read both books can see that Houdini learns his abilities that he passes onto the other members in After Houdini. I never explained that so it was a fun way to explain the real magic that exists in both stories. I always like to package my stories so that it’s easy for a reader to jump on board with the protagonist and it’s very satisfying by the time they finish it.

I was going to say, you have the perfect opportunity to write a third middle volume just called “Houdini.”

(laughs) I’ve read a couple reviews that have asked those questions. I don’t have any plans to do that. It would be a fun challenge.

Some of that response – besides the natural sequel/spinoff tendency in comics – is because the books are alluding to other events, both historical and fictional. You are presenting this much larger world in each book beyond what we’re seeing the panels.

Absolutely. That’s what I love about historical fiction. It’s an interesting dance because I can get so sucked into the research and go so far down these rabbit holes that sometimes it takes me a while to sift through what are actually interesting facts. I find all of it interesting but I have to find the key moments that help the reader go, oh, this is set in a very real time, but not hit them over the head with so many facts that they’re just bored. It’s fun to have these a-ha moments when I was doing research and thought, this person was there at this time and this event coincides with the storyline in my mind and it all fits together like really fun puzzle pieces.

In real life Houdini was a famous atheist and skeptic who did not believe in the supernatural and debunked the supernatural. And you’ve placed him in this supernatural story.

To reconcile that I imagined that in this world – where at a very young age he’s roped into fighting these supernatural forces – that if this was part of his life, going around debunking mystics would be a form of misdirection. He’s saying it’s fake and wants everyone else to believe it’s fake, so no one really goes looking for the truth. He says, I can prove that they’re fake even though he knows that something very real is going on. I figured in my mind he was playing another misdirection.

You wrote a little in the back of the first book about the long history of putting the book together. How did you and John Lucas end up working together?

Anytime two creators join forces and want to make a comic book it can be complicated. Everybody who’s ever made a comic with somebody else knows that real life gets in the way and how do you juggle your day job and your creative outlet and all of these things. I give full credit to Kevin Ziegler the original artist and co-creator of this series because he’s the one who planted the Houdini seed in my head. I had been pitching him stories but nothing was jelling with him. When I asked him what he was into drawing, without hesitation he said, I’m really into Houdini right now. I went and did some research and that’s where it all came about. We really fleshed out what became After Houdini. Kevin hadn’t worked on anything long form and it took us a while to get the pitch together. That was a bit of a concern for me, but I can’t pressure any artist who’s willing to work on spec for shared intellectual property rights. I can write a 22 page script in a weekend which would take an artist at least a month to draw. So I let him work at his own pace. In every collaboration I say, work at your own pace. I had pitched it all around and I think it almost had a chance at Image Comics but for whatever reason Eric Stephenson decided to pass on it at the last minute. It landed at Insight and we had contracts and advances and it all became very real and exciting but Kevin was also drawing an issue for a friend’s Dark Horse series and I think he was struggling to juggle both projects. It was a year after that that we had to reassess and be very honest about how this was going to work. It didn’t seem feasible to keep working on it together because we’d run out of assurances to give the publisher. That was a very difficult conversation to have. Kevin is a friend and he still is a friend and I mention his contributions to the project every chance I get asked about Houdini. It was my editor Mark who had John Lucas on board to do the followup, Before Houdini. I was already developing the second book when he had to renegotiate our contract with Kevin and Mark asked John to jump on and he said sure.

You show some of Kevin’s art in the back of After Houdini and it is very different from John Lucas. What was the process of working with John after working with Kevin for so many years?

We didn’t have a whole lot of communication. It was really through Mark. This was a really unique experience for me because I’ve put together dozens of pitches and worked with dozens of artists. Only a fraction of them have seen the light of day, but as the writer and co-creator, I’m on the ground floor and directing traffic and managing multiple people. This was very different. I delivered the manuscript and kind of sat back. Every few weeks John would send me images of the pages he was drawing and they were great. I really had no notes. Mark has a really good editorial staff and I trusted them. I felt a little on the sidelines but everything came out exactly as I’d hoped so I have to give a lot of credit to Insight for that.

With all my other projects I’m reaching out to creators and I assemble those teams myself so it was kind of nice to have an editor who was managing it instead of me doing it. The production of the book was the most exciting thing about going with Insight. Their books are beautiful. They spare no expense. I was excited that they ere printing everything at the European format. They were only doing graphic novels which was exciting. The production value of their work was a draw for me.

Would you work with John Lucas again?

I would absolutely work with him again. Knowing his style now, I have ideas for other stories to tell that his art would be a perfect compliment, but he’s busy and it comes down to good timing. But if the chance rolls around, I would absolutely collaborate with him again.

You talked about working on a few different projects, but just more broadly, what are you interested in doing next and doing going forward?

I have two books under contract. I can’t say who the publishers are but one is going to be a miniseries and one is going to be a graphic novel. I finished writing the graphic novel and after that I took a month off and I dived into the miniseries.

More specifically, since last year I’m done writing white male protagonists. I’m Asian American. I’m now at a point where I can create characters – especially lead characters, regardless of genre – that can provide more visibility for readers. I don’t really write for readers but this is the first time I’ve thought about that and about what am I trying to say. I think it’s an exciting time to have better representation. So moving forward, I’m writing people of color. I also identify as non-binary so I’m writing LGBTQ and genderqueer themes more. Most of my life I’ve been having to do mental gymnastic to align myself with characters that I read and I’m in a position now where I can skip that and tell the stories I want to tell, the themes I want to tell, and provide that content for someone like me – a person of color living in America who wants to see something that they can relate to immediately. That’s been really exciting and broadened my ability to write stories.

Right now we’ve seen so many people doing this in so many genres and forms. Is there work or people who have made you think, I don’t want to just write about outsiders, and push your work in this direction?

I’ve been reading more prose novels than graphic novels and comics the past couple years. I’ve been reading a lot of female writers and people of color and that’s opened my eyes to how I was relying on this very specific character that is accessible to the average reader. I’ve really thought about my experiences as a person of color, but also my identity is something that I think about constantly because I’m an identical triplet, I’m also adopted. These are things that I’ve been thinking about all my life that I now have a chance to explore more deeply and more sincerely in my work. I’ve been really inspired by other creators who are telling more of those stories and telling their personal truths. I’ve kind of avoided that, I think. Specifically with gender identity. Being able to not be beholden to certain expectations has been really enriching for me. I want to tell these stories because most people think Jeremy Holt is just another white guy writing comics. I wanted to make that statement without changing my name. I’m proud of my name. I’m proud of my family. I want people to read a story and go, that’s very authentic and that makes sense, he’s telling it from his own personal experience.

What’s your big final pitch for the books?

I gave the spiel for Before Houdini. For After Houdini I usually tell people, other than being the world’s most famous magician, Harry Houdini was also a covert spy for American intelligence during WWI. During a reconnaissance mission to Russia he doesn’t return so his government handler Teddy Roosevelt has to rope in Houdini’s estranged son Josef into this world of intrigue to track down the father he’s never know. These stories both examine Houdini indirectly. I wanted to add some more flavor to what is already known about him and I wanted to do my own magic trick where you think you’re getting a biography but you’re thrust into these fantastic worlds.

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