The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay - Michael Chabon

Michael Chabon's novel is amazing in its scope. It centers on Kavalier and Clay, two Jewish cousins in New York who create the Escapist, a costumed comic book superhero, during the time of World War II. That alone would have been subject matter enough for a pretty good novel: the first appearance of Superman; the mad rush to cash in on the rise of superhero comics (and the subsequent lawsuits against copycat characters); the Golden Age of comic books; Dr. Frederic Wertham's Seduction of the Innocent which led to comic-book burnings and Senate hearings about the horrible effects superhero stories had on young boys all over the nation. But this is a monster of a book: the amazing adventures also include a daring escape from Prague, Jewish mysticism, magic (from card tricks to Houdini), a stint in Antarctica, the 1939 World's Fair, Surrealism, and the birth of suburbia.

The stories are so packed with details, historical footnotes, references, actual events and places and people, that it has the feel of historical fiction, rather than a piece of fiction wearing a shiny coat of historicity. It's well done, and without doing my own bit of research, it's hard to know what's real and what isn't. Salvador Dali makes an appearance at a Surrealist party wearing an old-fashioned diving suit, from which he is rescued by Josef Kavalier. There's a Jules Feiffer quote about the (non-existent) work of Kavalier and Clay, and several books discussing their work are cited throughout. Toward the end, there are appearances by Stan Lee, Julie Glovsky, Gil Kane, Frank Pantaleone—all real comic book creators—discussing the Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency of the Senate Judiciary Committee (probably real), specifically Sammy Clay's testimony (fiction) about the (possibly real) charges that kid sidekicks were the objects of less-than-noble desires.

There are a couple chapters of what are actually Sammy's comic-book plots, and the translation from comic book form to prose is fascinating. It's especially striking when the comic book world merges with the real world and the Saboteur strikes against the Escapist aka the Amazing Cavalieri aka Josef Kavalier: you're never quite sure how much of it is fantasy.

I didn't find Part V, "Radioman," quite as captivating, but it may just have been that it less focused on the comic-book business, which I had a personal interest in; other readers may prefer the break. The rest of the book, though, kept me eager to read more, and I was sorry when it ended. Interestingly enough, though, there are now plans to make the Escapist real, faked history and all. That's something to look forward to.

Fed to jonathan's brain | July 05, 2004