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Boardwalk Empire’s Eddie Cantor and his Golden Age comic book life story – Super Magician Comics #6

January 14, 2013

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Comics have always had their subgenres that come and go, burn bright and then fade away, sometimes to return, sometimes never to be heard from again. Horror, UFOs, pirates and Westerns have all had their run, and have been resurrected at different times and to varying degrees over the past eighty years. Magic and the men and women who work it has swerved in and out of the comic consciousness in those decades as well, hence the comic that gives us today’s fodder.

Super Magician Comics was a 1940s showcase for, you guessed it, magicians. And not just fictional magicians, mind you, but fictionalized versions of real life (fake) magicians. The main star of this particular comic was Harry Blackstone, who was also a highly regarded touring magician outside of the printed page. Just going by his fearsome name surname in books and comics, he fought menaces terrestrial and supernatural with sleight of hand and earth-shattering incantations, while he did the usual cache of illusions (sawing people in half, floating things, etc.) in his stage act. Of another era than the open-shirted Copperfield and Blaine showmen of today, he brought a stately tie and tails to his performances. In sum, his flesh and blood persona was pretty much what generations grew up thinking of when they heard or read the word “magician.”

His fictional exploits could verge into the ridiculous, though perhaps that was both justifiable and necessary to sustain readers’ interest. He displayed a range of powers that bordered on terrifying, as witnessed by the pre-Code image on the cover, with spectral swords impaling a native’s feet (conjuring up comedian Bob Odenkirk’s bit about how life would be hell if magicians had actual powers). Yeesh. Yet no matter how much pain and destruction that was wrought in Blackstone’s quest for justice, water still returns to its level, as seen in in this panel with Jack Binder art:

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Yes, he’s subduing a giant guy holding a spear with the egg trick that Leslie Nielsen did in Airplane.

There are other magic themed stories in this comic, as well as some sequential how-tos for amazing your friends with your own illusions. (Illusions, not tricks. As Gob Bluth once said: “Illusions, Michael. Tricks are something that a whore does for money. Or cocaine.”) Yet things veer a bit off-track towards the back of the book, though they still, if we mix metaphors, stay in a stage’s lights. As advertised on the cover, the rags-to-riches story of early 20th century singer/actor Eddie Cantor is told within. Here’s his glowing name to prove it:

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Cantor, though once one of the most famous names in America, may be unfamiliar to many readers here, though he’s had a bit of a boost the last few years thanks to a recurring presence on HBO’s sterling Boardwalk Empire. I could write out his life story, but what fun would that be? Especially when we have a (half) life story in comic form, featuring art by George Marcoux.

Cantor is born in New York, and at a young age discovers that he has a love for performance. He masters his stage fright (which appears to have made him almost wet his pants) and is a rousing success in his first treading of the boards:

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When he gets real hard honest American currency as recompense for his little act, his future is set. Like so many performers at the turn of the last century, he has his time in Vaudeville:

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Boy, with scintillating humor like that, it’s a wonder how Vaudeville ever died.

One of the odd features of this biocomic is the framing story of the present day (at the time) Cantor waiting for the arrival of his newest child, and his fervent hopes that it will be his first son after a number of baby girls. It’s not the birth of his child he’s waiting for, though, but delivery by a stork, as shown here where the boy shows up just a little too late:

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If you’re like me, this nonsense is making you doubt the vérité of the rest.

The mileposts of Cantor’s career are briefly but well chronicled, in much the same manner as the similarly structured (though lesser in quality) biocomic of his contemporary, Will Rogers. Hey, speaking of Rogers, he’s in this! Right here! During their time in the Ziegfeld Follies!:

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It’s hard to recreate the song and dance numbers that were Cantor’s claim to fame, but the comic tries. Here he is in blackface, singing his big hit “Making Whoopee”:

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Lest you think the Al Jolson bit was integral to his act, here he is performing another version of the song — which makes that panel an odd choice (though it may have been a simple effort to condense things, as Cantor did perform in blackface at times):

Things wind up with Cantor meeting the fellow performers — Rudy Vallee, Bert “The Mad Russian” Gordon — with whom he’d find some of his greatest success. It ends with his discovery of songstress Dinah Shore — and a wish for what Luca Brasi would call “a masculine child”:

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The writing may be pro forma, but the Marcoux art in the Cantor story outshines everything else in the book, including the Blackstone main feature. The blackface scene is nice in spite of itself, and the blue outlines of the pit orchestra and the white glow of the conductor’s sheet music are a nice touch that you don’t often find in early 1940s comics. Overall, not bad.

Stephen DeRosa’s portrayal of Cantor on Boardwalk Empire has at no point been integral to the central plot (though he figured more in the events of one episode this past season), yet it has been one of the factors that has helped suspend disbelief and convince viewers that yes, they are indeed looking at Prohibition-era Atlantic City and its environs. The depiction of Cantor veers into making him out to be 24/7 gay — if you type Eddie Cantor Boardwalk Empire into Google one of the first potential results to pop up adds “Gay” to those keywords — which is odd, given the reality of his family life, which is so out front in the odd side-story here. I have no idea if he was deeply closeted or not (always possible considering the era, even if he travelled in more bohemian circles), nor do I really care, but that prominent aspect of the BE Cantor deserves mentioning in light of what we see here.

And it should be noted that he never had a son, stork-brought or otherwise.

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