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Artist and Author Cynthia Von Buhler Discusses her Newest Comic Book Series, her legendary parties and more

I was lucky enough to attend the Surrealists Ball that Cynthia Von Buhler artist, illustrator, organizes each year. She has written children’s books, written and staged plays, organized some of the most fabulous parties in New York and at her estate near NYC.  Now her latest Comic Book Series is out. A woman with many talents. Von Buhler is truly unique. Minky Woodcock: The Girl Who Handcuffed Houdini, is a noir throwback, complete with old-fashioned gumshoes and femme fatales. The protagonist is an animal-loving firecracker who works as a secretary at her father’s detective agency. While he’s out of the country, she takes on a mysterious case involving spiritualism, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Harry Houdini. Multidisciplinary artist Cynthia von Buhler both writes and draws this saucy take on the genre, which is published by Hard Case Crime/Titan Comics.

You are an artist, author, playwright and theater producer. How do you make these mediums blend together so effortlessly?

All of these are different ways to approach storytelling. After many years of static painting as an illustrator for all the top magazines and book publishers, I decided I wanted to make my work more alive. I started incorporating live doves by posing them in my paintings and photographing them with a 4X5 camera. Then the birds began to fly and I incorporated that. I won many illustration awards for these works and decided I wanted to challenge myself even further by doing fine art.

At the same time, I was the leader of a performance art troupe, The Women of Sodom. I was also managing bands, running an indie record label and throwing outrageous parties.

I started adding sculptural coin-op, robotics, sound and scent to my paintings. I called this series CYNTH-O-MATIC. Many of the works incorporated morality tests or physical interaction. For example, one piece featured a Botticelli-esque painted self-portrait with a wire mannequin body and no arms. The body was filled with crumpled pages from porn magazines. The sentence “Please don’t look up my skirt” was painted repeatedly in script over it. If the viewer looked up her skirt what they find might unsettle them. I had some people at gallery shows apologize to me for looking. Another piece housed my pet rats. They lived inside a clear mannequin body of a man with decayed and rusty pipes as his spine, heart and intestines. You could feed his ego through a hole in his neck. I trained the rats to climb the pipes for the food. [note from CVB: Rather than describe all these sculptures I can send you my art exhibit catalogs. But you might have more questions after reading them.]

At the same time I was writing and illustrating children’s books with dollhouse sets for my publisher, Harcourt Houghton Mifflin. I was hired to illustrate a graphic novel for adults about conjoined twins in the circus, Evelyn Evelyn, written by Amanda Palmer and Jason Webley for Dark Horse Comics. I loved the idea of picture books for adults. I adore children’s books, but I felt like part of myself wasn’t being fully expressed. Graphic novels seemed like the perfect way for me to tell my stories with pictures without limitation.

My grandfather, a bootlegger and speakeasy owner during Prohibition had mysteriously been murdered in 1935. My mother was born on the day he died. His body was laid out in the parlor while my mother was born in the bedroom next to it. In 2011 I decided to launch a Kickstarter to create a graphic novel series about my investigation into his death. I would illustrate it with dolls and sets I would build myself. This was where Speakeasy Dollhouse began. The New York Times wrote a wonderful feature on my project. I was a modern day Frances Glessner Lee, a woman from the 1930’s who made intricate dollhouse sets to teach forensics to police detectives. I had recently seen the play Sleep No More and felt that with my performance background, decorating skills, antique collecting and bevy of performer friends I could do a one night immersive theater production of my investigation as well as the graphic novel. The Kickstarter was funded successfully and the one night theater production became a weekly event. A play that was supposed to be one night went on for five years and turned into a 100 person production company. I’ve staged five immersive plays since then and they always sell out. In fact, we still do Speakeasy Dollhouse: The Bloody Beginning from time to time. For more info, you can visit SpeakeasyDollhouse.com.

Tell me about how you got your start in comic book writing ?

Charles Ardai, the founder and editor of Hard Case Crime attended Speakeasy Dollhouse:The Bloody Beginning. He was friends with my husband. Charles was publishing pulp-style noir books by well-known crime writers. I’m not a novelist. I’m an author who tells stories with pictures and minimal words. We stayed in touch and one day he told me that he had signed on with Titan Comics to do pulp-style comics. He asked if I had any stories and I told him how I was currently investigating the mysterious death of Houdini. He made me jump through a few hoops to see if I could draw sequential works (I can draw anything) and that’s when Minky Woodcock: The Girl Who Handcuffed Houdini was born.

This latest series is so captivating. What inspired you most about Houdini?

I like to focus my cases on Prohibition-era deaths as it’s a time period I know so well from all my research and theater productions. His death in 1926 intrigued me because he is so famous but there is so much confusion about about how and why he died. When my research led me to discover that the student who punched him was a spiritualist, I knew I had to look deeper. Spiritualists hated Houdini and wanted him dead. I reveal the facts within my storylines and let my readers, or audience members, make up their own minds. Another aspect of his story which appealed to me is his great love of animals. He had even more animals living with him than I have and I have quite the menagerie. I learned to do magic with doves and pigeons myself years ago. I can make them appear and disappear. I’ve raised them since the nineties. I’m a licensed wildlife rehabber and avid animal activist. I share my home with two pigs, twenty-three homing pigeons, four cats, one dog and fifty goldfish – all rescues.

You throw these very lavish evenings that I was fortunate enough to attend. Tell me about them?

The Illuminati Ball you attended is a larger version of my immersive excursion with the same name. That was for 1,000 guests, quite a challenge. A few years ago my dance choreographer showed me photos of the Rothschild’s surrealist Illuminati Ball from 1972. They were wild. I had to recreate it, but I added my own bizarre storyline about animals. Guests are involved in morality tests and anthropomorphic escapades. I hope you’ll come to the summer ball. That one is much smaller, only 40 guests, and they are whisked away in a limo bus to a secret estate. Guests are much more involved in the story and interactions with the summer excursion. With transportation, the elaborate dinner, bespoke drinks, and all the entertainment it’s pricey to create. Tickets are $450 each and every guest must fill out an application and be accepted in order to attend. I’ve been throwing intense parties for ages. I love entertaining people. [google: Cynthia Von Buhler’s Freaks party, Cynthia Von Buhler’s Barbie cake birthday party, The Fur Gnarl parties.]

The productions of your parties are so detail oriented. What is your process with venue, theme and the Rothchilds?

The Illuminati Ball New York City could be seen as a masquerade ball or as a immersive play depending upon how you approach it. In the larger NYC show, if you want to be more involved with the storyline, you have to seek it out. Did you approach any of the kinship leaders? If so, they would have sent you on missions. There were many secret rooms. What did you see and encounter? Did you wander? Wandering is a must.

The process is intense. I write a script. It’s complicated because I write one for each room and they are on a strict timeline. Then I source set and prop pieces. I do that all myself because I adore set design. I had to buy 1,000 unique masks and I altered many of them to make them more surreal. Many of the kinship leader masks were made by Kat Mon Dieu. My choreographer, Delysia La Chatte, and I choose acts and music. My production partner, PJ Mead, and I go over entry trajectory, guest lists, mask delivery and ticket sales. My stage manager herds the cats (actors) and sends emails. My team an I rehearse all aspects of the show for weeks: dance, music, aerial and interactions. I work directly with any collaborators on their set needs and desires. I have an excellent relationship with The Weylin. I’ve done several shows there. They are a pleasure to work with.

Working with a subject matter as controversial as the Illuminati has its challenges. I could write a book about all I’ve learned about people’s obsessions with the Illuminati. Many people believe we are the real deal. I’m flattered my work is so believable, but it can be creepy. I’m not interested in misleading people. This is fiction based around facts like all of my other interactive plays. This is magic realism you can walk around in, not an actual Illuminati meeting. I hate to break it to these people, but nobody wants their souls. There’s no magic bullet to get fame. Keep fantasy in entertainment, not in real life.

How has the circus and burlesque influenced your work?

I started back in the nineties as the lead singer of an all female S&M band. Let’s just say I influenced a lot of their work, not the other way around. Ha ha! I’ve done it all. I understand their desires, needs and challenges. These types of performers understand how to engage and connect with audience members better than stage actors. Sometimes a role calls for a great actor and other times a burlesque or circus performer is more suited to an interactive role.

Tell me about your next theater projects?

I’m staging The Girl Who Handcuffed Houdini at The Connelly Theater in Manhattan from Oct 1 through mid-November. I used my actors as models for the book and now they will come to life in the theater. I will be using all parts of this beautiful venue for the play. I’m completely re-designing the space and building a speakeasy.

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About Cynthia Parsons McDaniel

Cynthia Parsons McDaniel works as an artist in the mediums of video installation, collage and illustration and diorama. She recently attended the National Academy Museum School in New York City for Drawing and Visual Story Telling and Monotype Printmaking. She had her first collage piece in a group exhibition at the museum. She has written about design, film and theater for METROPOLIS, ELLE DECOR, IN STYLE, ELLE, DAILY NEWS, FASHION JOURNAL and NEWSWEEK. She has contributed to five books on design and film related subjects. She was nominated for an emmy while a producer at NBC. She was head of pr and marketing at Cannon Films, New Line Cinema and VP Grammercy Pictures, then special projects editor at IN STYLE and Features Editor New York Daily News. McDaniel then went back to working with actors on MAD MEN, WEEDS AND 30 ROCK and doing personal publicity and creating Tony, Emmy, Grammy and Academy Award Campaigns. She has produced events and handled press including European Film Awards in Berlin, Cannes Film Festival Party at Hotel Du Cap, Sundance and Toronto Film Festival and Elton John's Oscar party, re-opening of the Hall of Mirrors and the Royal Opera House at Versailles and the Bob Hope Memorial Library Ellis Island. The short she produced was shown at both the Tribeca Film Festival and the London Film festival. She recently did props for Boardwalk Empire (HBO) including window displays using antiques from Olde Good Things. She has wrote a one act play about early broadway and created the props by hand using various antiques and paper techniques. She works as an artist and illustrator, having recently attended the National Academy Museum School she was in her first group exhibition there. She studied at the Center for Italian Modern Art and Bard Graduate Center for Decorative Arts and The American Museum of Natural History studying Diorama Making. Her work can be seen here http://cynthiapmcdaniel.wix.com/home/ http://vimeo.com/user51648799/videos http://www.boxdioramas.com/cynthia-parsons-mcdaniel/ She is currently writing a graphic novel and showing her work at group exhibitions in Manhattan. She is a member of the prestigious Women Film Critics Circle.
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