When Houdini was Strange

StrangeHoudiniRedTo celebrate the release of Marvel Studio’s new blockbuster, Doctor Strange, I am pulling back the curtains of time to reveal the historical relationship between the Piper Houdini novels and Marvel’s Master of the Mystic Arts. The story begins in early 1993, when the editor of Doctor Strange, Mike Rockwitz, asked me to submit a proposal to write the comic book. I had always been fascinated by the supernatural subject matter in the good doctor’s stories and I jumped at the chance.

Mike told me that I’d be teamed with the incomparable Geof Isherwood as my artist on the project, so I called him to discuss our plans. It turned out that Geof had recently created a mystical teenage character named Kyllian Kell, who derived his powers from the Celtic gods. After an intense and energetic brainstorming session, I spent the following week writing a proposal for a three-year story arc, which featured the upstart youth replacing Doctor Strange as Earth’s Sorcerer Supreme. (You can read the original proposal here.)

When I handed Mike the outline, he looked at me as though I had three heads and asked, “What’s this?”

“The Doctor Strange proposal you asked me to write,” I replied.

“Oh! I forgot to tell you,” Mike said, having a V-8 moment. “I’m no longer editing Doctor Strange. I’m editing Namor. How’d you like to write that instead?”

So Geof and I embarked on a fun-filled, two-year run on Marvel’s mighty underwater monarch, and I tossed the Doctor Strange proposal into my personal slush file, where it lingered for 7 years.

Duncan coverBy early 2000, the Harry Potter phenomenon had attained worldwide commercial success among younger and older readers alike. Fans of the series were so eager for the next installment that bookstores around the world began holding events to coincide with the midnight release of the books. So I blew the dust off my original Doctor Strange proposal and revitalized it by making the Kyllian character a few years younger and a lot more likeable.

I pitched the series as a whimsical response to the popularity of Harry Potter, giving Doctor Strange a nephew named Duncan whom he never knew existed. I began to imagine all sorts of trouble Duncan could get into while living in his uncle’s sanctum sanctorum. And it fit perfectly in Marvel continuity since it had been previously established that Doctor Strange had a brother named Victor who was a vampire—an unseemly father figure.

The previous year, at The Big Easy Comic-Con in New Orleans, I had met an artist named John Kissee whose eerily charming style was tailor-made for the project. John laid out the first few pages of the story, which you can view here. (Note how closely the scene parallels the first chapter of Piper Houdini: Apprentice of Coney Island.)

But alas, when I brought the idea to Marvel’s then editor-in-chief Joe Quesada and publisher Bill Jemas, they passed on it, saying that it didn’t fit their current plans for Doctor Strange. So back in the drawer it went, this time for ten years.

During that time, I wrote an occasional custom comic book, a couple of children’s illustrated storybooks, lots of medical white papers, and I even tried my hand at publishing a humor magazine. But never had I attempted to apply my skills to the one medium that most aspiring writers yearn for—the all-American novel. Ideas weren’t a problem—I had plenty of those. But which of them would be most fun to write and have a chance at translating into commercial success? The young adult landscape was still rife with opportunity, and I still had a desire to write heroic fiction.

My mind kept returning to the redheaded kid who lived in his uncle’s mystical mansion. Obviously, I couldn’t use properties owned by Marvel. I would need to overhaul the entire concept using characters of my own design. But who would fill the role of the older authoritarian figure that Doctor Strange had portrayed? And how could I tap into that same iconic potential? Then it hit me. Who is the one figure in history that everyone invariably thinks of when they hear the word magic?

Harry Houdini!

Unfortunately, everything I knew about the acclaimed escape artist derived from the Tony Curtis and Paul Michael Glaser movies. Which meant that I would have to conduct a ton of research—a task that proved to be easier than expected thanks to the vast archives of Wild About Harry, an online museum featuring a fascinating assortment of Houdini facts and memorabilia. While conducting my research, I was pleased to learn that the Handcuff King and the Sorcerer Supreme shared a number of attributes:

  • Both were childless, providing ample opportunities for the angst of an adolescent dwelling in their midst.
  • Both had “supernatural” enemies. Strange has an array of arcane adversaries while Houdini had made foes of an entire religion whose alluring premise was the ability to communicate with the dead.
  • Both lived in mysterious brownstones in colorful New York neighborhoods—Strange in Greenwich Village and Houdini in Coney Island. (I took some artistic license here. After his mother’s death, Houdini lived for a time with one of his brothers in Coney Island. But during the time of the novels, his “permanent address” was actually in Harlem.)
  • Both had brothers with vampiric traits. That’s right, Houdini’s brother Will had a condition that made him the perfect candidate to fill the role of Doctor Strange’s vampire brother!

But there were overt differences between the two magicians as well. The more I researched, the more I realized that my protagonist would have to change to accommodate these distinctions. The new character would retain Duncan’s messy red hair and his distinguishing pattern of freckles. But his name would change, as would his gender. Duncan Strange, nephew of the modern-age super hero Doctor Strange, became Piper Houdini, niece of the early Twentieth Century escape artist, Harry Houdini. At first, I outlined a convoluted storyline about Houdini having been buried alive 90 years ago and somehow managing to remain alive in his crypt the whole time. I didn’t know much about the 1920s and I wasn’t convinced that readers of this genre would relate to that era. Or perhaps I simply didn’t want to undertake any more research. But when the modern-day tale hit a brick wall, back I went to Google and the library for another year of painstaking research.

Four years later, including an extremely productive one-year layoff from my day job (that’s another story), I proudly published the first Piper Houdini novel. I thought it was only fitting to ask John Kissee to design the covers since he created the visual identity of original character. John did a far better job than I ever imagined, lending a perfectly different look to Piper while still capturing the spirit of Duncan.

So there you have it, the Strange history of Piper Houdini. The moral of the story is something that my old friend and mentor Jim Salicrup always used to tell me, and something that current Spider-Man writer Dan Slott recently echoed in one of his Facebook posts: Hold on to your ideas until you find a way to make them work.


Doctor Strange is a registered trademark of Marvel Characters, Inc.

Posted on Friday, November 4, 2016.








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