Like jazz and rock ‘n’ roll, the comic book is a uniquely American art form that reflects the brashness of our national culture. Although often crudely drawn, badly written and cheaply produced, the earliest comic books quickly captured the imagination of children and adults alike, in large part because they offered escapist fantasies for just 10 cents an issue. In 1938, Action Comics No. 1 introduced Superman to a Depression-weary country looking for idealistic and tireless heroes, and the American imagination changed forever. Michael Chabon (Wonder Boys, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh), a longtime comic-book fan, recognizes the dramatic and metaphoric potential of this cultural phenomenon and has now written an epic novel about the demimonde of artists, hacks and dreamers whose visions of costumed superheroes inspired generations of adolescents.
Chabon’s narrative begins in late 1930s Brooklyn, where two cousins meet for the first time. Sam Klayman is a native New Yorker who works as a part-time copywriter and illustrator for a company that sells shoddy novelties through “Amaze Your Friends” ads on the back pages of comic books. Josef Kavalier, a Jewish refugee from Czechoslovakia, is a talented artist with a passionate interest in stage magic and escape artistry. The two become convinced that they can make their living in comic books, and create a new superhero — the Escapist — inspired by the unconventional talents of Kavalier (now known as Joe). The mystically enhanced escape artist fights the forces of Nazi oppression around the world while disguised as a vaudeville performer. In the novel’s concluding author’s note, Chabon acknowledges “the deep debt I owe in this and everything else I’ve ever written to the work of the late Jack Kirby, the King of Comics.” The Escapist is an obvious tribute to Kirby’s own Mister Miracle, an otherworldly escape artist introduced in the early 1970s.
Indeed, Chabon’s affection for and knowledge of the comics medium are evident throughout the novel. His portrait of the nascent industry is both accurate and sympathetic. Like Kavalier and Clay (Klayman’s pen name), many of the comic-book creators in this era were politically progressive Jewish intellectuals who used the medium to address social concerns and eventually to help wage the war against Nazi Germany.
Chabon effectively uses the history of the medium in developing his characters. Dr. Fredric Wertham’s crusade against comic books’ supposed endorsement of violence and aberrant sexuality, which led to a Senate investigation in the 1950s and the introduction of the Comics Code (which set standards for content), plays a large role in the novel’s concluding chapters. And Chabon’s postmodern “flattening” of the entire history of the medium into two characters and 20 years will delight most comic book fans (and probably infuriate more than a few).
Kavalier and Clay’s ideas often anticipate developments in the history of the medium by a decade or more. Kavalier, for example, proposes in 1954 starting a line of comic books that humanize superheroes; in reality, this would happen in the early 1960s, when Marvel’s Fantastic Four and Spider-Man imagined the day-to-day life of superpowered beings.
As a novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay may be too long and too ambitious. Chabon’s zeal to include as many telling incidents as possible causes the narrative’s forward momentum to stumble on a few occasions. While a lengthy flashback to Kavalier’s childhood in Prague is a necessary, if at times implausible, digression, the novel’s strange, Poe-like interlude set at a naval intelligence base in Antarctica during the war reads like a chapter from a Alistair MacLean thriller grafted into a Saul Bellow novel.
And yet, overall, Chabon’s work is a marvel. He tells a moving story centered on flesh-and-blood characters whose pursuit of the American dream is colored by the sorrows of history. Chabon calls the comic book the “great, mad new American art form,” and it could have no better chronicler than the author of this huge, and hugely appealing, novel.