Erik Weisz was born in Hungary in 1874. His parents immigrated to the United States in 1878 and his name was changed to Ehrich, although his friends called him "Ehrie" or "Harry." His family moved again from Appleton, Wisconsin to New York City in 1887.
Ehrich was fairly athletic and made his public début as a trapeze artist in 1884. But an interest in magic led him to learning some card tricks. He began performing as a magician, taking a stage name reminiscent of French magician Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin. But once he began to study escapology and hooked up with manager Martin Beck, he became the world-renown handcuff king Harry Houdini.
Kid Houdini and the Silver-Dollar Misfits tells the fictional story of an adventure Harry untook in 1886 after running away from home. He steals into a boxcar, only to find it inhabited by a troupe of children, circus "freaks" held captive by the circus proprietor. Harry is captured as well and spends the next six months as a carny. On the side, though, he and his new-found friends take on supernatural investigative cases of the down-trodden for the cost of one silver dollar.
The rest of the story focuses on one case in particular, which involves abducted parents, a rotten sheriff, an old gold mine, and the Dutchman's ghost. It's not unlike an old Scooby-Doo mystery in some respects. So given the title of the book, it shouldn't surprise anyone that Kid Houdini saves the day at the end -- but I'll leave you in some suspense by not telling you how!
Also, not surprisingly, the story does take a few historic liberties, mainly that Houdini is a not-unskilled practitioner of sorcery. Within the story, he's shown in fact to be less able as an escape artist (trapping his head inside a crystal ball) and more adept at donning the spectral disguise of Wild Bill Hickock or commanding a flying carpet. It actually makes the story somewhat more amusing by having him focus more on tricks he could never pull off in real life, while making the more mundane task of escaping a straight-jacket much more difficult.
The story is fun. It's not terribly deep, but the plot flows along smoothly and the main characters do have depth to them than what could be simple stereotypes. The characters, in fact, are quite charming, which elevates the story well above the collective stories of Mystery, Inc. The only complaint I might lodge is that Lydia (the young, goth-style snake charmer) is not really well identified as a snake-charmer until well after the others' roles have been defined and the adventure is underway. I'd consider it a minor point except that Lydia's snake does play a note-worthy role towards the end.
There are some nice touches throughout the book for anyone with a passing interest in Houdini and/or circus performers in general. The client's name is Bea and, although Lydia provides much more of a love interest for Harry, the real Houdini's wife was in fact named Bea as well. The name Lydia itself gains some of it's fame from another fictional side-show performer: Lydia the Tattooed Lady. There's also a scene near the end shortly after Harry and his friends are captured which reminds me of one of Houdini's promotional photos, although I can't seem to find a copy of it online to confirm.
Kid Houdini is a good, solid read and I quite enjoyed it, which is hardly surprising given Viper Comics' track record. I'm also encouraged to track down writer Dwight MacPherson's previous Houdini book -- Abra Cadaver: The Afterlife Adventures of Harry Houdini -- even though I'm certain it bears few stylistic similarities to Kid Houdini. I can also see why MacPherson's Image book The Surreal Adventures of Edgar Allan Poo was well-received, and I might have to track that one down as well.
I'd also be remiss if I didn't mention Worth Gowell's artwork. This is his only comic work that I've seen, but it was well-executed throughout. The story flow was clear and the characters remained impressively consistent and uniquely identifiable, despite some deceptively simple designs. He's also got an excellent command of facial expressions, and there's never a question of how a character is feeling thanks to that. And, although often overlooked as part of the art, Gowell's inking is smooth and elegant as well.
All in all, I'm impressed and would easily recommend picking this up.