Sexy Magic by James Hodges
Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii November, 2002)
James Hodges (pronounced "oh.dj" in his native France) is a professional set designer, an enthusiastic pm-time professional magician with a wide range of magical interests, and a superb and distinctive illustrator. From 1975 through 1984 he published, with Jean Merlin, the conjuring journal Mad Magic and served as its illustrator. I first became aware of his work in the late 1970s as the illustrator of several sets of Gaetan Bloom's lecture notes. Mr. Hodges also provided the marvelous illustrations for the lavishly produced Soirés Fantastiques by Christian Fechner (see page 34). And you can enjoy his work in the current series on chapeaugraphy running in Genii (see page 23).
In 1973, Mr. Hodges produced a small work entitled Sexy Magic. It was a slender manuscript of magic tricks, more a set of lecture notes than a book, but it was produced in folio form, moaning the pages were loose. This was to accommodate the overriding feature of the book, namely a quantity of simply marvelous pen-and-ink drawings which served to, ostensibly, illustrate the meager accompanying text. The theme of the manuscript was indeed reflected in its title, in that the tricks generally had somewhat risqué themes what Edwardian author Frank Harris might have deemed "bawdy" and so the work was entirely illustrated with Hodges' fabulous drawings of nude make that, extremely nude women.
Now, this is bound to turn some of magic's blue noses even bluer, so hey, do me a favor don't even bother to finish reading this review.
Now, although these drawings are outlandishly ribald, what must be communicated is that they are enchanting done with a wink and a smile, with all the accompanying joy of one who delights in the beauty of the human form (there is one anatomically accurate portrait of a young male figure as well namely, Cupid). James Hodges is a wonderful mist, with a style embracing influences from Toulouse-Lautrec to the modern comic book. When I finally met him in 1991, introduced by our mutual friend Gaetan Bloom, I immediately asked about Sexy Magic; although few magicians outside France knew about it, I had seen it years before in a friend's collection, and the instant I heard his name it was the first thing I thought of. Although long out of print, the artist was generous enough to assemble a copy of sorts for me, which I treasure. The original folio was printed on high quality gloss paper, and the drawings were joyous and brimming with life. One can imagine the artist sweeping his pen across the page with a sensuous rapidity that mirrors the lush curves of his subjects. Vive la femme!
Moving along the narrative now, about a decade ago, Richard Kaufman, himself an illustrator of some merit, arranged to purchase the rights to publish an English translation of Sexy Magic. Thus began a long—very long—task of translating the material by Jane Solomon, having the translation double-checked by Jean-Jacques Sanvert, and making it work in English, since some of the tricks actually depend upon spelling, for example, and so the challenges to functional translation are imposing—and if you read this book, the more you think about, the more those challenges might amuse you. Also, the descriptions of the tricks in the original work apparently left something to be desired, being as they were rather cursory.
And so now, at long last, comes Sexy Magic in English, published by Kaufman and Company, and not sold to minors. (Children apparently explode when exposed to representations of nudity, as any child of Rome will no doubt testify. But I digress.) Great effort has been expended to make certain that the 30 entries have been duly and thoroughly explained, ranging from close-up tricks to illusions to escapology and mom, and including several designs for amusing furniture which are not likely to ever be seen on stage, e.g., magicians side tables. The mind boggles.
A number of the tricks are basically packet tricks for which the author provides new artwork, which the practitioner may photocopy and then apply to blank cards. The problem with this material is that those most inclined to use it shouldn't. Those few who could perhaps pull any of this off with a modicum of taste, will likely choose not to. Much of the material actually requires the use of an attractive semi-nude woman, some-thing that many magicians will be hard-pressed to locate, much less to lure on stage. However, the ideas bearing (baring?) this unique requirement are a great deal of fun to read and view ranging from a stripper's costume, the elements of which can be put to use as conjuring props as the star disrobes, to an escape trick in which a nude woman is lashed to a male spectator who says it's hard to get volunteers to come up to the stage?
If you suspect that much of this material lacks practicality, you'd be right. Much of the smaller material is not especially good from the standpoint of deception, at least; if there weren't naked women depicted on these cards, no magician would even manage to slog through the instructions. But the book is not entirely bereft of useable ideas. I liked a mental effect, in which several female spectators each leave the mark of a lipstick kiss upon a tissue, and the magician divines which tissue belongs to which kisser (as it were) by accepting a kiss from each. In the right hands read: very few! this could be a charming bit of light-hearted entertainment.
In another packet trick, a drawing depicts a nude seated woman viewed from behind or a depiction of a sea lion balancing a ball on its nose depending on which way up the card is held. This double identity serves as a method, reminiscent of Daryl's trick, "Peter Rabbit Hits the Big Time," in which sponge bunnies can also double (and vice versa) as chicks uh, birdies. Baby chickens. You know. Once again, one suspects that the method, and the artwork, is more amusing by far than the actual trick.
The prize for best title goes to a paddle trick in which the nubile gal depicted on the paddle alternately loses and gains her costume. The title: "Paddle Me."
Okay, enough is enough. Frankly, I think the emphasis on trying to elaborate on all the conjuring descriptions and making them all work and make sense may have been somewhat misplaced, missing as it might the point of the original conception. The raison d'être for this book is not the magic or the instruction, it is the conception it is rather a marvelous showcase for the original artwork of James Hodges, filled with an irrepressibly sensual joie de vivre. There is absolutely nothing offensive in this book, with the possible exception of the publisher's glib statement in his introduction about feminists allegedly being unable to reconcile the male attraction for the nude female form. Certainly this is true of some aspects of feminism, but I would encourage Mr. Kaufman to investigate the now well established so-called "sex positive" element of the feminist movement, into which, for example, books like the excellent Defending Pornography by Nadine Strossen might be included. This issue aside, Sexy Magic, to the average magician, might just as well be considered an oxymoron, and this book is a welcome antidote to that sad but unarguable fact.