Escape Artists

After a solid month of reading, I finally wrapped up The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. It’s one of those dense novels that takes a while to plow through, regardless of its literary merit. And this is a book that won a Pulitzer. The award is well deserved; Chabon is a master novelist – both an exquisite writer and fine storyteller.

Joe Kavalier is a refugee from Jewish Prague, a tall, skinny introspective artist and aspiring magician. His initial escape from the encroaching Third Reich is solid adventure, smuggled out in an oversized coffin with an artifact of Jewish mythology – an earthen golem. When he finally reaches New York City – he meets up with his cousin, Sammy Clay – diminutive, bookish, the prototypical comic-book nerd of the 1930s.

The two have big dreams – Sammy with a gift for concocting extravagant plotlines and characters – Joe with a unique vision of shadow and line. At the behest of Clay’s fat cat boss, they set out to create another Superman and “make a million bucks.” They succeed remarkably with the Escapist, who “roams the globe, performing amazing feats and coming to the aid of those who languish in tyranny’s chains!” Thus begins the golden age of comics, in the years leading up to World War II.

Both Joe and Sammy create their epic sagas of heroes and villains as a way to escape the anxiety of Europe in Turmoil. For Joe’s its personal – his family is slowly disappearing under the iron thumb of the Third Reich. So the pages of Escapist Adventures are filled with the blue-suited hero vanquishing Panzers and legions of SS, busting prisoners from chains, spoiling devious plots of world domination.

It is here Chabon is at his height, with rich prose that is a joy to read – exaggerated, quick and heroic like the pages of a comic book. New York City is rendered nostalgically, tinted like a fading photograph. Joe’s adventures are funny and full of warmth – rescuing a suffocating Salvador Dali from a jammed deep sea diving helmet, sneaking through a Jewish Ghetto in Prague, performing magic tricks and feats of escape (ala Houdini).

I was reminded of Howard Roark from the Fountainhead – a thin, cigarette smoking artist, chained to his drafting table to complete a revolutionary vision. The golden age was just that, the good old days, the glorious past.

Once Pearl Harbor is attacked, the glory days abruptly end. In a fury, Joe drops everything to enlist in the Navy, to avenge his brother (sunk by a U-boat on the journey to NYC), unknowingly leaving behind his pregnant girlfriend. Desperate, she turns Sammy for support.

The novel takes some odd turns at this point, bouncing off the South Pole, veering into the mundane drudgery of domestic life – 11 years are glanced over and the characters fall deeper into pathos and lost dreams. After the war, Joe becomes a recluse, locked away in the Empire State Building, drawing a word-less epic comic book without an audience. Like his namesake creation, he escapes from the world – much like the narrator in Ellison’s Invisible Man.

Though there is some resolution, the book is somewhat of a downer. In that sense, it succeeds in reminding us why escapism is so vital. Comic books and art in general, allow us to visualize a different world – of harrowing escapes, valiant heroes, devious rogues and villains. The bright colors, deep shadow and hard lines of the comic book panel bring sanctuary from the pain of the real world.

In response to the book, I decided to check out a recent comic book (graphic novel): Marvel 1602. It’s written by Neal Gaiman, a renowned name in comics (for his highly original Sandman). The premise is that the Marvel superheroes (Xmen, Spiderman, Fantastic four) have shown up 400 years early because of a rift in space-time. So we have Nicholas Fury as Queen Elizabeth’s spymaster, Carlos Javier (Professor X) teaching a school for witch kind (mutants), Count Otto Von Doom from Latveria, and Magnito as the Grand Inquisitor of the Spanish Inquisition. Gaiman is very interested in mythology (see American Gods), and 1602 is no exception, using the superheroes of the Marvel Universe as his pantheon. The art complements the story well, detailed wood-cuts for the splash pages, costume and scenery to match the dialogue and tone.

And it’s a quick read – I dashed through the 6-issue set in an afternoon, a lovely escape from the grey walls of my cube.

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