By | Wednesday, August 08, 2007 Leave a Comment
I first learned about Jim Ottaviani, I believe, from Jay Hosler mentioning him at the Mid-Ohio-Con a few years ago. I tracked down Jim's Xeric-Award-Winning Two-Fisted Science and was impressed enough to track down his other two comic works available at that time: Fallout and Dignifying Science. (So I'm guessing this would've been around 2001 or 2002.) I've picked up each of Jim's books since then and am continually impressed.

So, a few months back when I heard he had two new books coming, I immediately asked my Local Comic Shop to order some copies for me. I returned the following week to have the owner ask about them because he, nor the Diamond rep he spoke with, had either heard of or could find any record of them! A few weeks later, he did receive a promotional poster for Levitation which had some additional information on it and he was able to order that book for me -- it finally came in two weeks ago and I just got a chance to read through it. (Still waiting on Wire Mothers to come in, though.)

Anyway, Levitation is the story of how magician Howard Thurston acquired his levitating-girl illusion from Harry Kellar, who had stolen the premise from John Neville Maskelyne. The names probably don't resonate with most folks these days, but they were all huge performers in their day. In the late 1800s and early 1900s they were their contemporary equivalent of Criss Angel or David Blaine. Kellar in particular paved the way for Houdini, Blackstone, Henning, Copperfield and just about any other stage magician you've ever heard of. I know them because my father was/is a magician, and we had reproductions of some of their promotional posters hanging up in the basement as far back as I can remember.

What Jim tends to do in all of his work is capture moments in history and ground them in a reality that really resonates with the reader. It's not hard to come by material that recounts names and dates, facts and figures. Jim certainly does his research in that arena and most of his books have several pages of notes in the appendix citing where all of his information came from and how he may have tweaked things slightly to make his story flow a little smoother. But what makes Jim's books stand out is that he's able to do all that research and get to the heart of who all the players were as individuals. He's able to draw out mannerisms and quirks of personality that make them very real and very relatable. When possible, he even gives them dialogue that they actually said in real life.

One thing I've found particularly fascinating about all of Jim's books is that he uses different artists. That naturally means that each story has a unique visual style to it, and Jim's savvy enough to be able to find artists whose personal approach lends itself well to the subject matter. Where it becomes fascinating to me is that all of the stories flow quite smoothly and have a solid rhythm. This suggests to me that Jim's actually writing quite detailed scripts for the artists and plotting out, if not panel layouts, how he envisions each beat of the story. While this could be a drawback, that's not the case in Levitation (or any of Jim's books) as Jim seems to have a very solid handle on comic book storytelling. I suspect he'd do an incredible job on a book by himself if he has any illustration skills. (He might, but given that he has NOT drawn any of his own books to date.)

I don't mean to dismiss artist Janine Johnston's work here at all. She repeatedly captures the magician's likenesses throughout the book (no small feat in and of itself!) and does a good job illustrating the story as it unfolds. Given that it's largely told in the form of flashbacks, this can be tricky to pull off but Janine does an admirable job and I, at least, never had to question when or where I was relative to the storyteller. She also blends in, fairly well, a visual explanation of the levitation trick and the story Kellar used in his act to explain how he came by the secret. Both sequences utilize a slightly different style than the main narrative so they seem distinct from that, but are still similar enough that the effect isn't jarring.

If you're interested in stage magic, Levitation does a good job of explaining the basics of the levitating-girl trick. But you can get that in any of a few dozen, more technical books. The reason why you should buy Levitation is for the personalities in the book. What kind of a man was Harry Kellar? Or Howard Thurston? Or narrator Guy Jarrett? You attend a magic show to watch the performance; this graphic novel, like Jim's others, is a performance worth attending.
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