In the interest of full disclosure, I must admit before reviewing Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay that in a past life I was a huge comic book fan.
I own every issue of the seriously great Howard the Duck comic, an existentialist satire that probably had a greater influence on my own grownup views of society, politics, religion, and sex than the two year Humanities Sequence I endured at UCSD. I’ve also collected many first edition copies of the Atlas Comics titles (Atlas was started when Marvel Comics founder Martin Goodman sold the company in 1972).
And then there’s the Daredevil, “the man without fear”. Blinded by radioactive sludge, Daredevil lurks the shadows of Hell’s Kitchen, using his heightened senses and highly-developed sense of radar to fight the sociopathic Bullseye and the mob boss The Kingpin. It’s a testament to the genius of these comics that their power simply cannot be reproduced on the silver screen: film versions of Howard the Duck and Daredevil both bombed at the box office.
Like most self-respecting comics fans (many of whom also nurse secret aspirations to “grow up” and become comic book artists), I still own a dog-eared copy of Stan Lee’s seminal work, How To Draw Comics The Marvel Way. With zero formal art training other than this how-to book, I managed to support myself as an advertising illustrator for several years in San Diego.
Let’s just say my expectations for Chabon’s book were quite high.
Let’s be clear: reading Chabon’s sprawling novel is nothing like reading an actual comic book. Comics present their readers with snapshots in time, lush panels stitched together with invented words and colorful swaths implying forward motion. Reading a comic book is a kind of juggling act: as you do your best to absorb the intricate details of ink, color, and shadow, you’re also trying to connect the dots between snapshots, imagining in your mind’s eye how the characters made it from one panel to the next. In the end, the experience becomes much more than the sum of the individual words and pictures.
But where the comic book is drunk on color, Chabon is drunk on words, fantastic and ambitious words like limned and incantatory, injurious and dappled, minced and greased and crimped and carbolic. Words packed with imagery, like whipstitch and purled and spavined and gimcrack. In describing a masterful graphic novel penned by one of the novel’s protagonists, Chabon addresses this interplay between language and imagery:
With his un-English ear, he had made a study of, and understood, as the great comic artists always have, the power of written sound-effect words – of invented words like snik and plish and doit – appropriately lettered, for lending vividness to a jackknife, a rain puddle, a half-crown against the bottom of a blind man’s empty tin cup.
But enough about my obsession with comics, and back to the book review.
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay follows the rise and fall of the Kavalier & Clay comic book business: from the fateful evening in 1939 when the haunted young Joe Kavalier arrives in Brooklyn from Prague to settle into his cousin Sam Klay’s bed, to the final act, when Sam Klay escapes what has become his humdrum New York existence to depart for the sunnier shores of California.
Both cousins are aspiring artists, and before you can say snik the two have conspired to start a fledgling comic book title, The Escapist, which becomes the basis for their future careers in the Golden Age of comics. Based loosely upon their joint obsession with the Jewish hero Harry Houdini, as well as Joe’s thrilling escape from Prague inside the fake-bottom coffin (carrying the sacred totem of a Jewish Golem), the comic book title is a huge hit. Joe makes some serious coin, squirreling cash away in the hopes of rescuing his doomed family from the Nazi concentration camps, while Sam lives life to the fullest, spending it all as he goes on good food, good clothes, and a lover who escapes his attentions midway through the book.
The novel is chock full of escapism: Joe becomes a semi-professional lock pick, magician, and escape artist; extended riffs on Harry Houdini and his importance to the Jewish kids who admire him; The Escapist and his “League of the Golden Key”, dedicated to freeing the people of the world from whatever shackles might imprison them; Sam Klay’s desire to escape his polio-riddled past and his repressed homosexuality; and Joe Kavalier’s escape from a burgeoning romance to a frozen Antarctic battlefield, where he is soon the only surviving member of a “jerry”-fighting force tasked with eavesdropping on the approaching Nazis.
As the novel progresses and the characters mature, their youthful ambitions are soon ground down by the business end of the comic book business. While it’s true that the cousins are successful, the lion’s share of the profits from their joint venture go to the fat cats funding their operation. And yet they still plug away. “I believe,” says Joe Kavalier, “in the power of my imagination … I believe in the power of my art”.
After Joe escapes to Antarctica, Sam stays behind to help raise his cousin’s illegitimate son with Joe’s girlfriend Rosa Saks. Sam and Rosa marry, settling into a partnership characterized by true friendship and a sterile sort of intimacy. But neither are happy: Sam pines for his lost love Tracy Bacon, a radio actor with whom he has a brief, spectacular fling; Rosa still harbors the secret wish that Joe will one day return.
When Joe does finally return, Sam has become embroiled in a U.S. Senate hearing to investigate whether comic books are spoiling the minds of America’s disaffected youth. In a humiliating sequence reminiscent of the McCarthy-era hearings, Sam is “outed” during his testimony. In the end, the most poignant escape in the novel is Sam’s flight to California, leaving Joe and Rosa to raise their young son, together at last after long years of separation by racial, political, and economic forces greater than themselves.
In an increasingly dangerous and politicized world, Chabon says, escapism becomes a necessary survival instinct:
Having lost his mother, father, brother, and grandfather, the friends and foes of his youth, his beloved teacher … his city, his history – his home – the usual charge leveled against comic books, that they offered merely an easy scape from reality, seemed to Joe actually to be a powerful argument on their behalf. He had escaped, in his life, from ropes, chains, boxes, bags, and crates, from handcuffs and shackles, from countries and regimes, from the arms of a woman who loved him, from crashed airplanes and an opiate addiction and from an entire frozen continent intent on causing his death. The escape from reality was, he felt – especially right after the war – a worthy challenge. He would remember for the rest of his life a peaceful half hour spent reading a copy of Betty and Veronica that he had found in a service-station rest room: lying down with it under a fir tree, in a sun-slanting forest outside of Medford, Oregon, wholly absorbed into that primary-colored world of bad gags, heavy ink lines, Shakespearean farce, and the deep, almost Oriental mystery of the two big-toothed, wasp-waisted goddess-girls, light and dark, entangled forever in the enmity of their friendship. The pain of his loss … was always with him in those days, a cold smooth ball lodged in his chest, just behind his sternum. For that half hour … the icy ball had melted away without him even noticing. That was magic – not the apparent magic of the silk-hatted card-palmer, or the bold, brute trickery of the escape artist, but the genuine magic of art. It was a mark of how fucked-up and broken was the world – the reality – that had swallowed his home and his family that such a feat of escape, by no means easy to pull off, should remain so universally despised.
This review is one in a series for what I’m calling the The DIY MFA in Creative Writing.
Click here for the comprehensive listing of titles, and check back often for updates on other selections from the list.