Cynthia von Buhler has had a rich life as a genre- and medium-spanning artist. She’s released songs and albums, taken part in immersive theater productions, and had her artwork displayed all over the globe. She’s also released several graphic novels, including 2018’s Minky Woodcock: The Girl Who Handcuffed Houdini.
She returns to the world of her rip-roaring female P.I. with a brand-new follow-up, Minky Woodcock: The Girl Who Electrified Tesla. Ms. Woodcock’s latest case is quite the alt-history humdinger, with references to “Nikola Tesla’s death ray, Josephine Baker’s spy activity during WWII, and Donald Trump’s uncle’s involvement following Tesla’s mysterious death.” It’s an old-school detective’s story with some gorgeous art, unique sensibilities, and twists galore.
Before today’s release date (November 30), we caught up with von Buhler via email. There, we discussed the Woodcock character, her rich art career, her interest in alt-history, and much, much more.
AIPT: What’s the elevator pitch for this series? How does it compare to the first Minky Woodcock adventure, The Girl Who Handcuffed Houdini?
Cynthia von Buhler: Set during WWII, a strong-willed female detective uncovers a sinister and twisted mystery when she gets involved with world-renowned inventor Nikola Tesla, Nazi agents, and the race to command the world’s first weapon of mass destruction.
This episode fast forwards almost two decades from her first case. Minky is no longer a rookie detective, yet her father still won’t let her officially join his firm. In The Girl Who Handcuffed Houdini, our heroine got far too mixed up in Houdini’s life, and once again, years later, she still becomes too invested in the life of the person she’s investigating.
AIPT: What is it that interests you about the Woodcock character? How do you think she’s different from other female detectives?
CVB: In true noir pulp fashion Minky Woodcock isn’t afraid to use her sexuality to solve her investigations, yet here she finds it’s a shared love of animals that bonds her and Nikola Tesla. Minky is smart and powerful, yet she’s also flawed and hurting emotionally. She drinks too much and gets far too personally entrenched in her investigations.
AIPT: You serve as both the writer and artist. Is that balance hard, and what comes first for you, the story or the overall look and design?
CVB: The story always comes first, although this is a series and we knew ahead of time that the book would be done in the same noir style as the first.
AIPT: You’re also known for your work in theater and play writing. How does that experience impact or shape your work in comics/graphic novels?
CVB: The theater productions can help shape the books if they come first. This book hasn’t been made into a play yet; however I did pose actors as models to draw from. Watching actors interact helps me find emotion and physical reactions to the situations I place them in.
AIPT: Did you draw on any other alt-history comics/films/TV shows/etc.?
CVB: No. I wanted to approach this purely based on my research. I do know that there have been many representations of Tesla’s conflict with Thomas Edison. That is mentioned in my book via flashbacks, but it’s not the main story. In 1943 Thomas Edison was long dead. This story is about Tesla’s mysterious death and his death ray invention.
AIPT: I think that the art in these books is just dazzling, and it all stands out amid the larger marketplace. Do you feel like the art is a kind of distinct throwback, and does standing out like that have meaning or value?
CVB: Thank you! This doesn’t quite fit into the comic book world of super heroes. This is more like the vintage noir pulp comics of the past, although with updated themes of sexism and female empowerment. I like the idea of drawing upon the look of those gorgeous vintage books and films in my books. The dark noir colors, smoky rooms, glowing neon lights – I love all of that. That said, this is a new approach because it’s based on actual people, crimes, and evidence. It’s noir non-fiction woven together with a fictional heroine and plot.
AIPT: When you’re writing a mystery or detective story like this, do you know where you want to end up, or are you trying to build it in a way that you also “discover” the case?
CVB: I do tons of research. I read books, news articles, autopsies, police documents, visit locations, and interview people (if they are still alive). From there I build my story based around facts. The Minky Woodcock investigations are plausible explanations as to what might have occurred. I like to give all of the evidence and suggest what I think happened. The reader can decide for themselves based on the evidence laid out for them. The research always comes first. I need to find the story before I start writing it down.
AIPT: Without spoiling too much, do you have a favorite (non-Minky) character or even a moment that you like? And maybe it also says something about the overall book/story?
CVB: In this book I really love Josephine Baker. She was a spy for the French during WWII and she partners with Minky, professionally and physically, in this episode. Baker was bisexual and I’ve always pictured Minky that way as well. I’m bisexual myself. I also really love Tesla and his love of pigeons. I also raise and rescue New York City pigeons. One hundred of them live with me and fly free by day and return to their safe coop at night.
AIPT: The book never shies away from depicting sex and violence and even bird-related jokes. Do you have conversations with yourself about what to show or not show, or is everything pretty much fair game?
CVB: Everything is fair game – to a point. I freaked myself out drawing Minky in the shower after she realizes she had sex with a Nazi. As she washes his blood off her body she is repulsed and the dripping blood forms a swastika shape on her body. I repulsed myself drawing that. I physically had a grimace of horror on my face while drawing. If you have to have violence it might as well be against a Nazi. Sex and nudity is fine, but the Nazi needed to get f----d up in my book. If he succeeded in the end it would not have been acceptable to me.
AIPT: How much research do you do beforehand? And does it matter to you regarding just how far you might “stray” from historical events/happenings?
CVB: Good question. I do a great deal of research. At least a year or two of it for each book. My story is woven from real events and evidence I find. If a character was dead during the time frame of my book he will not appear in it unless it’s in a flashback – as with Edison. It needs to be plausible to me that Otto Skorzeny and Josephine Baker were alive in 1943 and details about them are true. Baker did write notes with invisible ink on her sheet music. Skorzeny did dress in the uniform of his enemies and infiltrate across enemy lines.
I should make a list of all the true facts in this book. It would astound you. The majority of the Minky series is based around actual facts, even though many seem too bizarre to be true. Donald Trump’s uncle really was told to find out if Tesla’s death ray was plausible. Baker was a spy for the French. The Morgan family were boating enthusiasts. For example, it was important for me that their boat actually could have been docked at the Boat Basin in Manhattan in 1943. I’m obsessive about the tiniest details.
AIPT: Can we expect more tales from Minky and this universe? Anything you’d like to tease?
CVB: I have one in the works about the poisoning death of the world’s first flapper who was dubbed “the most beautiful girl in the world” back in the twenties.
AIPT: Why should anyone pick up The Girl Who Electrified Tesla?
CVB: The Girl Who Electrified Tesla is a fascinating story based on my investigation into the events leading up to the mysterious death of a great man who foresaw the future, Nikola Tesla. Did he really make a death ray and was he murdered for it? As time goes on history changes who we admire. Edison used to be the man who invented electricity. Now Edison’s former company, the behemoth General Electric, is struggling and being broken up into smaller companies, and the company named after Nikola Tesla, the man whose legacy was kept hidden for years, is going to space.
The following pages are all courtesy of Titan Comics.
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