Houdini & Doyle

Houdini & Doyle

I know. I know.

My blog posts have been spottier than a leopard. They have been as infrequent as a UFO sighting.

Well, there are reasons for that. Some are good. Some, not so good. As I have said before I share a body with an artists named M. D. Jackson who has been too busy doing “art” stuff and has had little to no time for writing.

The “art stuff” came to an end, though and I found myself a little burnt out. So I took to binge watching some television series. I wanted to write about them each individually, but I found I’d lost my blog writin’ mojo. Nevertheless, I’m trying to stage a comeback so… here goes:

HOUDINI & DOYLE

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This series is a British, Canadian, American co-production. The premise revolves around the friendship that existed between Harry Houdini, the famous escape artists and spritualist debunker, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, writer, creator of Sherlock Holmes and famous champion of spiritualism.

doylehoudiniThis is historically true. Doyle and Houdini were friends until they had a falling out in the early 1920’s over Doyle’s belief in the supernatural. This tension between the two famous friends forms the basis for the series.

Houdini is the skeptic. Doyle the believer. Set in 1901 the series is like a turn-of-the-century X-files, or, a more apt comparison would be a turn-of-the-century Scooby Doo as pretty much all of the mysteries presented in the episodes turn out to have prosaic solutions despite their supernatural trappings.

Houdini is played by American actor Michael Weston, while Doyle is played by British Actor Stephen Mangan (who played the role of Dirk Gently in the short lived BBC adaptation of the Douglas Adams novel). Mangan plays Doyle without any trace of a Scottish accent, though, which seemed off to me, but no more odd then Weston’s Brooklyn accent for Houdini.

Houdini and Doyle are joined in their investigations by Adelaide Stratton (played by Canadian actress Rebecca Liddiard), the very first female constable on the London Police force. She is assigned to both the famous men as a way of getting the meddling duo (and the troublesome female police officer) out of the Chief Constable’s hair.

Although the episodes cover fairly familiar territory (Supernatural seeming mystery investigated and revealed to be merely ingenious criminal activity — shades of Scooby Doo –) it is the contentious relationship between skeptic Houdini and believer Doyle that drives much of the action of the story. As the series progress we learn more about Houdini’s relationship with his mother, Doyle’s homelife raising two children while his wife lies in hospital in a coma and his disappointment over the lack of enthusiasm over his just released book about the Boer War (Not surprisingly, his readers only want to talk about Sherlock Holmes).

This is probably the best reason to watch the series. The mysteries themselves range from fairly interesting to somewhat turgid, but discovering more about Doyle’s life and about Houdini’s past and the revelations of the mysterious past of their companion, Adelaide Stratton, make this series compelling.

The entire first season is still available on demand through various services (and, obviously, through certain less than legal backchannels — not that I am advocating internet piracy, understand?) and at only 10 episodes it is certainly worth a look.

Sadly, it seems as though the first season is all that we’re gonna get of this series as Fox, the American network that carried it, has opted not to renew it for another season. The question is up in the air now whether Britain and Canada will continue to produce the series on their own. Still, as I said, season one is worth a look even if there is to be no more Houdini and Doyle.

 

 

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The Man in the Torn Shirt

Here is a reprint of my most recent post for the AMAZING STORIES website. This post was inspired by my good buddy Cal over at the Cave of Cool who tends to knock one of my great childhood heroes because of his choice of shirts.

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This post is about icons.

It’s about powerful images and the way that they can become stuck in the public consciousness.

But it’s also about old pulp heroes. One in particular.

I suppose I should start at the beginning. Not back in the 1930’s when Street and Smith released a new hero pulp magazine featuring a super-scientific crime fighter named Doc Savage. Not even in the 1960’s when the adventures were reprinted in paperback format with covers painted by artist James Bama.

For me the beginning was the summer of 1976. I was eleven years old and it was the start of our family summer vacation. Summer vacation for me meant long drives in a hot car with my brothers and I in the back seat. We had made a stop somewhere and my mother sent us in to a used bookstore with a little bit of pocket money to buy comic books to try to keep us interested in something else other than fighting amongst ourselves.

DocSavageTheOtherWorldCoverProofI started rifling through the second-hand paperbacks. I can’t remember exactly what I was looking for, but when I came across the Doc Savage paperback I was stopped cold. The cover showed a muscled man with a torn shirt and a strange haircut, fending off a trio of weasel-like creatures. The name DOC SAVAGE was blazoned across the top but above it was the name of the adventure: The Other World.

The description on the back of the book got me even more excited. “To the world at large, Doc Savage is a strange, mysterious, figure of glistening bronze skin and golden eyes…”

How could an eleven year old resist that? I read the paperback and wanted more.

Fortunately there were lots around at the time. George Pal had just made Doc Savage, the movie. There were comic books and magazines and plenty more paperbacks all featuring the iconic image of Doc Savage sporting a torn shirt.

The iconic torn shirt.

An icon is a religious work of art from Eastern Christianity. Depictions of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, saints, what have you, these images were very powerful representations of a people’s faith.

The icon has become co-opted by our society for anything but religious purposes. An icon is a visual representation of an idea or a feeling. It can be a symbols that encapsulates a feeling or an idea. Icons are very powerful, though we tend not to think too consciously about them. But that’s how they work.

Take Sherlock Holmes. Holmes was never… NEVER… described as wearing a deerstalker cap. The illustrator of the stories, Sidney Paget depicted Holmes wearing a traveling cloak and a deerstalker hat for one adventure. For whatever reason, the deerstalker became permanently associated with Holmes. The deerstalker was a country cap, favored by hunters. To wear it year round, in the city was an absurd thing back in the late 1880’s, yet it quickly became Holmes’ costume.

Put on a deerstalker cap and you are Sherlock Holmes. Even the recent BBC TV series Sherlock, which has updated Holmes to the Twenty-First century, could not entirely get away from at least giving a nod to the existence of the famous cap.

Doc Savage wearing a torn shirt ALL the time is ridiculous. Yes, he’s an adventurer and very busy. If, in the course of an adventure his shirt gets torn he doesn’t have time to get a new one.

Some bloggers, including Calvin from Calvin’s Canadian Cave of Cool, take to complaining about it, asking why he doesn’t make his shirts out of the same, seemingly durable material out of which his pants are made.

But these questions are immaterial. Doc Savage’s ripped shirt is iconic. It’s as iconic as Sherlock Holmes’ deerstalker, or Tarzan’s loin cloth.

It was not always like that. Just as with Holmes’s deerstalker, the torn shirt is a product of the illustrator. Doc Savage’s original pulp magazine run featured lots of action-filled covers and on some Doc appears wearing a ripped shirt. In the very first issue Doc’s shirt is torn. Nowhere near as torn as it would be in later covers, but it was there from the beginning. But other covers do not feature the torn shirt. In some cover illustrations Doc is wearing a suit and tie with not a single rip in sight.

When the adventures were released in paperback the job of painting the covers went to artist James Bama. Bama was the one who settled on the image of the torn shirt (the publishers insisted on the weird, widow’s peak hairstyle, but that’s another story) and the torn shirt appeared on every single cover that Bama or any other artist painted, right up until today.

 
So now, poor Doc Savage has to wear a torn shirt all the time, just like Sherlock Holmes was saddled with his ridiculous deerstalker. Perhaps Doc will move beyond the torn shirt. There is supposed to be a new movie in the works. Perhaps that will give us a new iconic image for Doc Savage. Maybe something cleaner, sophisticated and less… torn.

Perhaps that is a vain hope. I imagine that the poster for the movie, should it ever materialize, will feature a picture of whatever broadly muscled actor they cast sporting a shirt hanging raggedly about him to better highlight his pectorals and six-pack abs. That image will still overshadow the essence of a character who is so much more than a torn shirt.

Such is the power of the icon.