When you’ve caught a bullet and played Carnegie Hall, what’s the next logical step? Comic books!
Steve Cohen’s built an acclaimed career as a stage magician with such acts as “Chamber Magic,” performing elaborate tricks in intimate settings. Here’s a taste of his work here.
Cohen, a lifelong comic book fan, decided to give his stage character, “The Millionaires’ Magician,” an origin story… in the form of a graphic novel that, like most magic tricks, combines reality with the larger-than-life. The Millionaires’ Magician officially hits comic shops on December 19, and tells the tale of a fictionalized Cohen’s run-in with corrupt forces, desperate flight to Japan, and return to New York City with revenge on his mind. It’s done in collaboration with a number of comics veterans, with the story adapted by Keith Champagne, the art by Peter Krause, and colors by Jordie Bellaire.
We spoke with Cohen (who is a major fan of a certain member of the Justice League) about bringing his kind of magic to comics.
Newsarama: Steve, how did the idea to tell the backstory of your character in graphic novel format come about?
Steve Cohen: I was looking for a new creative challenge! I had already written a book, created a television special, and performed on stage at Carnegie Hall. My ongoing magic show at the Waldorf Astoria was in its fifteenth year.
One day in 2015, on my way to meet a friend for lunch, I had a eureka moment and decided my next project on the spot – I was going to create a comic book. It simultaneously felt thrilling and crazy.
I have been a Batman fanboy for much of my life, collecting Detective Comics, Batman, Legends of the Dark Knight, and all related series. The collection grew through my college years, and then I eventually gave all of my comics away, with the exception of Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One.
Batman: Year One was ultimately the inspiration for my graphic novel because it provides a well-rounded origin story of an existing character. I wanted to create a similar origin story for my performing character, so that visitors to Chamber Magic would have more depth of understanding where I “came from.” In addition, people who read the graphic novel would want to come meet the Millionaires’ Magician in real life.
Nrama: What were some of the biggest challenges in telling it in comics format?
Cohen: I’ve never actually murdered anybody, but there is quite a bit of crime included! It’s hard to write a crimefighting story without including some pretty heinous acts. So, we had to sprinkle in a healthy dose of murder, drug dealing, and human trafficking.
If I had stuck to a straight retelling of my actual rise to fame, the story would read like a business book. I prefer to call this comic a “not-quite-autobiography” since many true elements of my life are woven into the story.
Yes, I really speak Japanese. I really performed for the Queen of Morocco. I really headlined Carnegie Hall. And, I really attempted the life-threatening “bullet catch” illusion.
The challenge was to seamlessly weave my real-life escapades into a compelling fictional framework so that readers would not suspect, let alone detect, the boundary between fact and fiction. I wanted them to wonder whether any of this is true, and if so, how much?
Nrama: When magic's depicted in comic books, it's usually the big bright lights, Doctor Strange kind of magic, as opposed to slight-of-hand illusions. What were some of the challenges in having these depicted in comics format, and with working with Keith and Peter to make sure they came off correctly?
Cohen: One of the design parameters I explained to Keith Champagne at our first writers meeting was that every magic trick included in this story must be one that I have actually performed, or could potentially perform. Readers and audiences have a visceral sense of what is humanly possible. The Doctor Strange style of magic taps into a mysticism that stretches beyond the public’s willingness to accept from a stage magician.
I invited Keith and Peter Krause to my live show, and also showed them videos of what the actual sleight of hand tricks would look like in person. Their attention to detail serves as a tip of the hat to any magicians who might read the book.
There were several times when I had to request art corrections because a panel wasn’t drawn true to form. It was important to me that the hand positions were accurate so that readers would feel they were watching a comic adaptation of a live magic show, wrapped up in a larger story.
Nrama: What were the biggest challenges in crafting a multi-year, multi-continent narrative for the story, as opposed to the more limited, intimate venue of a stage show?
Cohen: My first visit to Japan was thirty years ago, and I lived in Tokyo for a total of five years. It’s a huge part of my life so I knew Japan had to feature prominently in the comic. I was thinking of using Japanese kanji characters in the speech bubbles like a traditional manga, but decided instead on a stylized font that implied the characters were speaking Japanese.
When creating the story, Keith and I agreed on a three-part format. The first twenty-five pages take place in New York when I was a young magician scraping out a living at low-paying gigs. The second twenty-five pages find me living in Tokyo, where an unsavory figure from my past resurfaces. The final fifty pages return the story to New York where I emerge as the Millionaires’ Magician, performing entertainment at exclusive events. With my new resources and expanding network among Manhattan’s high society, I gain access to an untouchable criminal who wronged me in the past. The rest of the story is like watching a clever revenge flick unfold.
Nrama: Do you see yourself telling more stories with your character in comics in the future?
Cohen: Absolutely! It’s kind of like a marathon: the moment you pass the finish line, the runner’s high compels you to think, “I want to do this again.” When we finished this hundred-page graphic novel, both Keith and Peter asked me if we could do another one! We created well-rounded characters who have their own backstories, and they populate a realistic world that is believable to readers. I am already planning another graphic novel, and could imagine a whole series.
Nrama: What, in your opinion, are some of the best depictions of stage magic in different media? Have a fondness for Bill Bixby in The Magician myself.
Cohen:I enjoyed Edward Norton’s portrayal of Eisenheim in The Illusionist, because it captures the era I am most drawn to – late nineteenth century parlor and stage magic. The color tones, the mysterious workshop plans, and the tricks in that film definitely pushed my buttons.
In literature, I am fond of Roald Dahl’s The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar. The titular character is based on a real Pakistani magician named Kuda Bux, known as the Man With the X-Ray Eyes. On stage, he could see through solid objects, and even read books while blindfolded.
Television magicians who appear as characters on television shows are, by default, portrayed as anti-social geeks. I wish there were a way to move past this trope. Plenty of magicians have certainly fit that stereotype over the years, but there are also practicing magicians today who do not. Why perpetrate that stereotype any further?
Having said that, I always laugh when Gob Bluth (Arrested Development) says, “But still, where did the lighter fluid come from?”
Nrama: What unique elements do you feel Peter, Keith and Jordie brought to the story?
Cohen: I came across Peter Krause when I saw his artwork in the Marvel book Daredevil: Road Warrior. I instantly knew that he was the artist for my book! I had rejected other artists’ portfolios because their style was too modern. The specific vision I had in mind pointed at the moody styles of Alex Toth and David Mazzucchelli. Peter’s work on Shazam also convinced me that he was the right artist for this project.
Keith Champagne is a polymath in the comics world, and can do it all: writing, penciling, inking. In our collaboration, I only tapped into his script-writing talents, but Keith’s added ability to draw comics helped inform the way he crafted the script. There were descriptive notes on every page that specified the type of shot – wide, over the shoulder, low angle, etc. – to inform the artist how to execute the panel visually.
I was enamored by the Eisner Award-winning colorist Jordie Bellaire, through her textured color work on Flash Gordon, Shazam, and many other books. Jordie has created her own grainy brushes so her work is immediately recognizable. She currently lives in Ireland, but I invited her parents (who live in the U.S.) to attend my show at the Waldorf Astoria New York. They loved the show, and I think that clinched the deal since Jordie ultimately agreed to participate in my project.
Nrama:And what are some of your favorite comics/creators in general?
Cohen:Batman: Year One, Batman: The Long Halloween, Batman: Hush, Batman Annual #14 (the Two-Face origin story is exceptional), Batman and the Mad Monk, Batman: The Cult, The Many Deaths of Batman.
Nrama: Sensing a theme…
Cohen: I also like Daredevil, particularly the Frank Miller / Dave Mazzucchelli series, Daredevil: Born Again.
Nrama: What's next for you?
Cohen:I am looking into appearing at upcoming Comic Con events to invite a new demographic to experience my work.
I already have a separate magic-themed graphic novel concept in the works, with a major publisher. More on that at another time…
Meanwhile, my weekly shows at the Lotte New York Palace are entering the nineteenth year, and I am already starting to plan special festivities for the twentieth anniversary show, including new magic.
Nrama: Anything else you'd like to talk about that we haven't discussed yet?
Cohen: n real life as the Millionaires’ Magician, I have entertained more than 500,000 guests, including celebrities, royalty, and other notables: Warren Buffett, Stephen Sondheim, Guillermo del Toro, William Goldman, Woody Allen, and the Queen of Morocco.
In the world of comics, the Millionaires’ Magician would perform for well-known comics billionaires like Tony Stark, Oliver Queen, Lex Luthor, Richie Rich, and… Bruce Wayne!