Cynthia von Buhler is one of the most hyphenated multi-hyphenates I’ve ever encountered. She was already an artist, performer, playwright, and author before adding comic book creator and illustrator to her list with the release of Minky Woodcock: The Girl Who Handcuffed Houdini. The series is published by the Hard Case Crime imprint of Titan Comics, and is slated for four issues and a graphic novel finale. Minky Woodcock plays on von Buhler’s habit of producing theatrical experiences centered around prohibition-era murders, combining her deep dive into the styles and stories of the 1920s and 1930s with another of her life’s passions: magic.
The murder that started it all remains close to von Buhler’s heart. “Shortly after prohibition ended, my grandfather was shot on the streets of New York,” von Buhler tells GeniiOnline. “Nobody in my family knew why he was murdered, and my mother was born the day he died. We know he was involved in bootlegging, but that’s all. It was a strange mystery in my family, so I started investigating.” Her research into grandfather von Buhler’s murder resulted in a 2011 play called Speakeasy Dollhouse: The Bloody Beginning, which ran for many years and still pops up occasionally in New York City.
After The Bloody Beginning she produced the Midnight Frolic, a play about Ziegfeld girl Olive Thomas’ mysterious death in Paris in 1920. Elbow-deep in the search for the next prohibition-era murder to hang her hat on, von Buhler came across none other than Harry Houdini. “I’ve always been interested in magic, I actually do magic myself,” von Buhler says. “I can make doves appear and disappear. I was shocked by what I found out about Houdini because there are so many loopholes and mysteries about how he died.”
Von Buhler says she was already hard at work on a new play about Houdini’s death when a publisher from Hard Case Crime contacted her. “He said he was starting a comic book line and asked if I had any ideas for pulpy comics. I said, ‘well, I’ve been doing this series, and any one of these stories could work.’” The idea for a private investigator character came up when von Buhler realized she’d need to thread together all the deaths she wanted to include in her narrative, and Minky Woodcock was born. “I came up with the name Minky Woodcock many years ago,” Buhler admits. “I’ve been using it as my pseudonym. She’s kind of me, but not me. She’s a part of me.”
The comic opens on Woodcock & Son, a private investigator firm that Minky’s father started with hopes of roping her brother Bennie into the business. But Bennie has no interest in investigating, he’s more interested in becoming a showgirl. Let the gender politics begin. Minky explains that she wants to be a private detective, but her father will only permit her to be his secretary. “Later on, you’ll find that part of the reason Minky’s father doesn’t want her to be a private investigator is because she’s actually really good at it,” von Buhler teases. “He doesn’t want her to find out some things he has been hiding.”
While the challenge to traditional gender roles was an intentional theme in the story, von Buhler says that the comic’s release coinciding with the #MeToo movement was a happy accident. I asked von Buhler about the “mature readers” rating on the comic, and about including scenes that are sexually explicit and that depict sexual assault. “I’ve been working this for a few years, so before the whole #MeToo thing started,” she says. “We’ve come so far but we have so far to go. I like showing that we have made progress, but things are still bad. The times and how Minky is treated as a woman are definitely a big part of the story. I’ve had to deal with a lot of sexism in my life. I’ve buried a lot of it, but it’s there. It’s in our minds, it comes out in our art.”
As much as elements of early 20th century sexism that feature into the comic are based on fact, von Buhler says most of the comic’s narrative is actually the truth. “That’s what intrigues me,” she says, “the facts are so bizarre you wouldn’t imagine they could be real. On my website I have a section called ‘Evidence’ where you can actually look at the documents I dug up as proof.” Von Buhler discovered that female private investigators working undercover during prohibition was actually something of a trend: “It became popular that women could manipulate situations and they wouldn’t be suspected so they made better spies.”
In the Minky Woodcock story, we catch up with Houdini when he was rallying hard against the spiritualist movement. “A lot of people didn’t know that Houdini was trying to debunk spiritualism,” von Buhler says. It’s one of the elements that caught von Buhler’s eye when she dove into the historical archive of work written both by Houdini and about Houdini. Von Buhler is quick to recommend Wild About Houdini as a source for anyone interested to learn more about Houdini’s life, and says that her favorite book in all her research on the project was The Man Who Killed Houdini, by Don Bell. “He actually went up to Canada to interview people about Houdini’s death,” says von Buhler. “The fact that the man who punched him was a spiritualist was groundbreaking, in my opinion.”
Of course, Houdini’s death fits perfectly into von Buhler’s already well-tested obsession with mysterious murders of the age. “If you ask most people how Houdini died, they’ll say, ‘oh, he died during his trick,’ because there’s a movie where he died during a trick. Or they’ll say ‘oh, he was punched,” but they don’t really know much about it. I’m really delving into what that punch meant, and what else was going on around him. A lot of people didn’t like him. He was a very opinionated person and he had a lot of enemies. People wanted him dead.”
Houdini’s spiritualist adventures also captured von Buhler’s imagination because of the contextual difference between spiritualism and magic. “It’s funny that Houdini was debunking spiritualism, because what he was doing was sort of the same thing. But he was calling it entertainment, and they were preying on people who had lost loved ones. What’s interesting about this is that Houdini really wanted to believe. He loved his mother so much that when she died, he really wanted to reach her. He wanted someone to prove him wrong.”
Most of von Buhler’s theatrical productions qualify more as immersive experiences than as straight plays. Breaking down the traditional barriers of performance and of art are crucial to her ethos, and venturing into comic book creation has been a project inspired by that approach. “I was trained as a painter, that you should be able to show something in a single image without words. I always thought comics were cheating because you’re adding words and panels,” she confessed. “I hadn’t thought about it as a storyboard, I hadn’t realized it was a whole other way of storytelling that I hadn’t explored yet. I find that comics bring a lot of people to reading who wouldn’t normally pick up books, because they like the pictures and that helps them.”
That’s just one of the ways that von Buhler hopes MInky Woodcock will inspire readers to do more and explore on their own. Whether it’s the comic book form encouraging the passion of a new reader or Minky’s adventures with Houdini inspiring people to learn more about good ol’ Harry, von Buhler considers that kind of personal connection with a piece of art to be the ultimate goal. “I find that people relate better to art when they actually interact with it. If you’re looking at a painting on the wall you may get something out of it, but if that painting starts talking to you or you have to interact with it, to touch it or look at it from a different angle, then it becomes partially yours. That’s what I try to do with my art. I want people to go to the website and read through the evidence, asking, ‘did that actually happen? This is amazing, but is this real?’ I want people to do that with Minky too.”