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On The Other Hand … Traps II

Written by Logan on Thursday, July 28 2016 and posted in Columns

On The Other Hand … Traps II

“No prison can hold me; no hand or leg irons or steel locks can shackle me. No ropes or chains can keep me from my freedom.” --Harry Houdini

The Great Escape

IN PART I we looked at the art of the trap from the perspective of the trapster. This time we focus on the escapologist (that is the proper term; an escapist is something else entirely). Escapology is the method or skill of extricating oneself from restraints as done by a magician or other performer. There are three basic archetypes that willingly accept the challenge presented by traps: the Artist, the Adventurer, and the Thief.

...The Artist

One of the best street performers I ever saw was an escape artist at the Ren Faire. He gathered a crowd and invited three men to tie him up with ropes and chains that he provided. One of the ropes was pulled very tightly across his throat and he turned red, but he didn't stop them. When they finished, he took proceeded to escape from the bonds in full view of the people all around him. He contorted and twisted and I'm pretty sure he stopped breathing altogether at one point. After ten rough minutes, he made his full escape. It was incredible.

The Artist uses escapology as entertainment, taking on the trap for the benefit of the audience. While magic no longer has the popularity it once enjoyed, magicians like Penn & Teller still create some of the wildest, most creative and thrilling escapes ever seen.

The Handcuff KingThe Handcuff King

Harry Houdini struggled as a magician. For the first five years of his magic career, he tried every type of magic from card tricks to illusions and ordinary box escapes. He thought of giving up entirely. Then, in 1898, Houdini created the Challenge Act, the routine that would make him a legend. Houdini challenged the audience to lock him up in handcuffs. He escaped from police handcuffs, multiple sets of handcuffs, and specially made "escape proof" shackles created just to finally win the challenge. He went on to escape from jail cells, challenging the local law enforcement wherever he toured to keep him prisoner. They never could. Houdini revolutionized the art of escapology and truly earned the title of the World's Greatest Escape Artist.

By the time I was in 2nd grade, I had read every book on Harry Houdini that I could get my hands on. I worked with magicians backstage when I was very young boy, and I was sure that I was going to be a magician and escape artist someday. My life went in a different direction, but I never lost my love of the escapology. As a teacher, I helped a student put together an escape act for the big year-end show. Houdini is still one of my personal heroes.

Houdini has been fictionalized numerous times. The authors often attempt to recreate him as not just an escapologist, but an adventurer. For example, in Houdini & Doyle (a TV series started in 2016) he teams up with a fictionalized Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, to solve crimes and expose frauds. The idea of Houdini as crime-fighter is an enticing one, and one that has led to the combination of escapes and adventure appearing throughout various forms of literature.

...The Adventurer

According to the myth, King Minos kept the Minotaur imprisoned within a specially built Labyrinth. He sent his enemies into the Labyrinth so that the Minotaur would eat them. The Labyrinth was so complex no person could ever find the way out alive. The Labyrinth, arguably the first deathtrap, killed many people over the years before Theseus killed the Minotaur at last.

If the Labyrinth is the first deathtrap, then Theseus must be considered the first heroic escapologist. He was an Adventurer, willingly challenging the trap for noble reasons. The adventurer faces the trap to protect others from danger. They may be attempting a rescue, or performing a quest, or serving as a distraction. Theseus confronted the Labyrinth to end the threat of the Minotaur forever.

The Greatest in the Universe

Mister Miracle, Jack Kirby's super escape artist, first appeared in 1971. Interestingly, he was not inspired by Houdini but rather by fellow artist Jim Steranko who was a magician and escape artist in the 1950's. Steranko went on to comic book fame as an artist, most notably for his often surrealistic work on Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.

The first time we see Mister Miracle he is shackled to a missile with the most complex contraption of chains and locks ever encountered. The cover of nearly every issue of the 1971 series had MM in an impossible and deadly situation. These covers, in fact this whole series, was Kirby at his absolute Kirbiest.


Miracle was the son of Highfather of the New Gods, but he was raised on Apokolips by the ironically named Granny Goodness, a cold-blooded minion of Darkseid. (This was the result of one of the worst political gambits in the history of the universe, but I digress.) Granny Goodness mocked his impending lifelong captivity by giving him the name Scott Free (which would become one of the best aptronyms in comics). As he grew, he developed a natural talent for escapology. Eventually, Scott escaped from Granny's sadistic "orphanage" and made his way to Earth.

The problem with a character built upon the idea of escapes is that he must constantly be escaping something. This means a lot of being captured, volunteering to stand in for another victim, or numerous contrivances to get him in chains when he should really be too skilled to get in these situations in the first place. (It's the same reasoning that had Wonder Woman constantly getting tied up by men, her one weakness.) If you can get past that, it can make for an amazing adventure.

Mister Miracle was at his best on the science-fantastic world of Apokolips. The setting allowed for wonderfully outlandish scenarios and surreal mechanisms. Granny Goodness and Doctor Virman Vundabar had limitless resources to manufacture deathtraps that earthlings could only dream of, each more impossible than the last. Kirby Dots everywhere! They were determined to beat Scott Free by creating the perfect, inescapable trap. They should have just shot him.

MiracleandBardaNo Escape

Years later his adventures were confined almost entirely to Earth. He became an entertainer, escaping for fun and profit. That was when he fell into the ultimate trap: he got married and settled down in the suburbs. His biggest nemesis was no longer a tyrannical space god but a sleazy human promoter. Today, Mister Miracle is best known for two things, neither of which is escapes.

First, Scott's wife is Big Barda, an elite warrior of Apokolips bred for battle. She's almost a foot taller than Scott and is strong enough to go toe-to-toe with Wonder Woman. Kirby based her appearance on sex-symbol Lainie Kazan and for decades they had the most successful, loving marriage in all of comics. (Supposedly, their exchanges were inspired by Jack and his wife, Roz.)

His other prominent signature is his outrageous, garish costume. It is a Jack Kirby original, over the top in every way. He's probably the last character to ever be given a cape with high collar. The costume can be justified as that of a circus performer, but it really is like no other. It falls into the so-ugly-it's-beautiful category.

Even without the notorious monthly escapes, Mister Miracle was a fun and interesting character. Until DC decided he needed to grow up.

The nigh-invulnerable Big Barda was fridged off-screen in the appropriately named Death of the New Gods (2007), a Countdown to Final Crisis crossover. Her death tore Scott apart and Mister Miracle as we knew him was gone. Scott finally embraced his powers as a New God, something he had rejected for so long so that he could enjoy life as a normal human. Now he was finally a 'credible' threat. That wasn't enough, though. His costume was...well, see for yourself.

Dark times


I won't even address the New 52 version.

...The Thief

Mission-ImpossibleI have seen it posited that Indiana Jones is more graverobber than archaeologist. While I've never subscribed to that perspective, his classic first appearance certainly resembles a heist more than a research dig. The booby traps in the temple are essentially a security system. The traps are the adventure, and the treasure is merely a MacGuffin.

The Thief takes on traps for fun and profit. They invert the archetype by breaking in instead of breaking out. Treasure must be protected, whether it's a golden idol or a chest of gems or a computer file, and the best security systems use booby traps. (Alarms are overrated.) These protagonists are rarely heroes, but we root for them none-the-less.

I just love a good heist. What makes the heist is the challenge, not the treasure. And the better the security, the better the heist. Taking on impossible security is a challenge some simply cannot resist, even if failure means prison or death. From The Great Train Robbery (1975) to Mission: Impossible (1996) and beyond, novels and movies (and real life) are chock-full of tales of daring robberies and criminal capers that amaze our imaginations.

My favorite of the genre is Ocean's Eleven (2001). Mastermind Danny Ocean assembles a crew to steal over $150,000,000 from a ruthless casino owner. This is generally considered a bad idea. "I know more about casino security than any man alive, I invented it, and it cannot be beaten. They got cameras, they got locks, they got watchers, they got timers, they got vaults, they got enough armed personnel to occupy Paris!" They manage to pull it off, of course. If you haven't seen it, that little spoiler is irrelevant because the fun is in watching the adventure of creating and executing the insane caper. Also, you should go see it now.

ImpossoibletostealAn Exceptional Thief

In comic books, we don't get to see the heist in detail nearly as much. Usually the theft is revealed after the fact. "The jewels are gone? But how? That's impossible!" Part of the reason for this dearth of great heists is the lack of great thieves. Very few villains set out to steal anything these days. You youngsters won't remember this, but there was a time when the majority of villains were out to make money by robbing banks, stealing jewels, or breaking into museums. Today, even the great bandits of the past have evolved to become assassins, psychopathic monsters, or politicians.

The last great villainous thief is E. Nigma, the Riddler. He is the only one that still considers theft an honorable crime. He's in it for the challenge. If there's an impervious vault somewhere he wants to break in just to prove he can. In a constant search for new challenges, he actually hires himself out as a master thief. Beware hiring the Riddler, however, for he will do it his way; A nice quiet theft is out of the question.

The Riddler also works the other side of the table as an accomplished trapster. The Prince of Puzzles has tricked Batman numerous times into his dastardly deathtraps. Unfortunately for Nigma, Batman rivals Mister Miracle as an escapologist.

The Escape Clause

The deathtrap is a dying art form. They used to be a common staple of the adventure genre, but now they are viewed as antiquated and silly. They have moved on to the horror genre where escape is rare. The Saw movies represent the modern image of the deathtrap; gruesome, brutal, and very lethal.

The heroes of escapology are fading away because the good, entertaining traps are a thing of the past. Without appropriate challenges, what happens to Mister Miracle? And what about the villains that thrived on them like Arcade and Granny Goodness? They must all grow up, become something more mature, something much less fun if they want to continue. Even the heist must modernize and enter the world of cyberspace to be taken seriously.

My love of classic traps is safe, though. It is firmly shackled to my heart with unbreakable chains of diamond reinforced cord and protected by motion activated green lasers. I don't think you will even make it past the giant man-eating gorilla with the attitude problem. I'm sure it's safe.

"On The Other Hand" is a column of unrepentant nostalgia in a superhero world suffering from an overdeveloped sense of maturity. The author can't wait to try an Escape Room now that there's one in town.

ultimate deathtrap


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