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The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay

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The most recent Comics Journal (#248) has a sharp column by R.C. Harvey on Michael Chabon’s Pulitzer-winning novel about the early years of the comic book industry, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (Picador USA). In it, comics scholar Harvey basically fact-checks Chabon’s book – which focuses on the fortunes of two young superhero creators in the era referred to as comics’ Golden Age – and only finds two comics-related items to refute.
First is the existence of a plainly fictional building that Chabon asserts once housed Al Capp before the cartoonist struck it big w./ “Li’l Abner.” Second is a description by Chabon of the 1954 testimony by cartoonists Walt Kelly & Milton Caniff before Estes Kefauver’s infamous Senate committee hearing investigating the spurious links between comic book reading and juvenile delinquency. Chabon characterizes this testimony as a betrayal by the National Cartoonists Society of its “brothers in ink,” but Harvey (who writes the intros to the current book reprints of Kelly’s seminal “Pogo” comic strip) demurs somewhat, straining to put a different spin on Kelly’s appearance before the committee.
That a diligent scholar like Harvey was only able to take issue with two relatively small details in Chabon’s book speaks well of the writer’s research as well as his evocation of setting. The novel is clearly written from the perspective of someone who has loved comic books (the acknowledgement at book’s end concludes with a statement about the “deep debt” the writer owes to artist Jack Kirby). This appreciation informs every page of Chabon’s work, which is unblinking in its look at the process of early comic book creation and packaging – as well as the shenanigans that permeated this low-rent industry.
Kavalier & Clay focuses on two young Jewish boys who strike it big by creating a superhero character called the Escapist. Sammy Klayman is a Brooklyn-born boy who does the scripting; Josef Kavalier is a young refugee from Prague, who has left his family in Nazi-controlled Czechoslovakia. Young Joe is gifted as a pen-and-ink artist, middling in the art of Houdini-esque escape. Together, the two develop a hero whose main metier is escaping devilish traps that’ve been set by Nazi-inspired comic book baddies. This proves to be both a source of commercial success and dark irony for both men: while Joe is able to cache enough money to fund his younger brother’s escape from Europe, for example, he remains unable to ultimately rescue him.
The subject of escape – its allure and traps – permeates the book. There’s a line in literary criticism, which asserts that physical escape has long been a motif in American fiction: think of ol’ Huck Finn heading out west at the end of his book. One of the questions that Kavalier & Clay repeatedly asks is where do you go once all the frontiers have been mapped? Is the escape of fantasy sufficient when it’s the only uncharted realm remaining?
For Joe, clearly it isn’t. Drawing an ongoing series of comic books where his hero gets to beat up on Nazi surrogates isn’t sufficient; he’s driven out into the streets of New York where he picks fights with any man he encounters who looks vaguely Germanic. When he learns of his brother’s death, he enlists in the service only to find himself stationed at an isolated Arctic post (really out in the territories!) slowly going mad. Sammy, meanwhile, sequesters himself in a passionless marriage in a futile attempt to escape his homosexuality; his wife Rosa, trapped in the post-war suburbs, turns to illustrating romance comics.
For the protagonists of Chabon’s novel, the glorious & tatty fantasies that juvenile comic books portray are intertwined w./ their own lives. The author is especially adept at pulling in key pieces of comics history – the moment when Citizen Kane, for instance, opened young artists like Will Eisner to the visual possibilities of their medium; the lawsuits filed by the owners of Superman against Captain Marvel & other superhero imitations; the publication of Frederic Wertham’s alarmist anti-comic book screed, Seduction of the Innocent; the Kefauver hearings – and making them intrinsic parts of his characters’ story. The sequence where closeted Sammy is forced to publicly acknowledge his predilections during the televised hearings is particularly heartbreaking, as is his later private refutation of the simplistic homophobia that fueled so much anti-comic book sentiment.
The novel ends in the mid-fifties, a period generally considered an ebb for superhero comics. Discussing the sorry state that these once-proud characters are in, Chabon makes an uncharacteristic anachronistic error by describing the desperate “attention-getting” measures writers have been driven to, listing such goofy plot gimmicks like Bat-Mite & Bat-Hound. This reference is being made for comics in 1954-5, but Bat-Mite – to get profoundly geekish here – didn’t show up ’til 1959. (Hah! I found a flub on my own!) But though the industry is down, the book ends on a cautiously positive note. Joe’s returned from the territories with a graphic novel that anticipates art comics yet to come, while Sammy has finally gotten up the nerve to himself embark on a trip out west where he’ll doubtless put his pulpish talents to work in the nascent TV medium. As for superhero comics, they’ll experience their own bright rekindling in the 60’s by a crew of writers & artists old enough to be Chabon’s heroes.
Chabon’s novel is well written (though at times I felt that his agile elaborate sentence construction drew more attention to itself than was necessary), and it does much to honestly illuminate a pop culture world that frequently gets treated with unnecessary condescension. Like many bulky books these days (Kavalier & Clay clocks in at 600-plus pages), there are times you get the sense that the writer’s love for his material has sent him down digressions not entirely fruitful. But because his characters are so clearly realized, because his world has so much sparkling detail, I followed Chabon to the end. When I’d finished, I had the not-unfamiliar urge to go and read some superhero comics.
And why not?

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About Bill Sherman

Bill Sherman is a Books editor for Blogcritics. With his lovely wife Rebecca Fox, he has co-authored a light-hearted fat acceptance romance entitled Measure By Measure.