IMAGE OF THE WEEK
Cover to Detective Comics #27, which contained the first appearance of Batman. (Image links to a good site on the history of superhero comics.)
:: I’m a day late with this week’s Image, primarily because I wanted to tie the image with my thoughts on the remarkable novel I finally finished reading yesterday. The book is Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.
What a book this is. It is the tale of two cousins, Sammy Clay and Joe Kavalier, who team up to create a number of notable comic book characters, their most famous creation being “The Escapist”, a costumed superhero who is sort-of the ultimate Houdini. Chabon tells how these two men come up with the idea of doing comics in the first place, how they create their initial works, and how their creation becomes more famous than they ever thought possible. A mere plot description of the novel makes it sound like a “rags-to-riches” story involving comics, but it is far, far more than that. Chabon isn’t content to merely give us a few years in the lives of two comics men; instead, he gives a meditation on the entire Golden Age history of comics itself, complete with owners who cheerfully (and sometimes not so cheerfully) pocket all of the financial rewards from the artists’ efforts; the lawsuits begun by DC Comics in an effort to keep anything remotely resembling its cash cow, Superman, off the market; and the McCarthy-era turn against comics which was brought about almost single-handedly by Dr. Frederick Wertham and his book Seduction of the Innocent, which in turn led to the creation of the Comics Code Authority (and, to some, the setting back of comics as an artistic medium in the United States). Many novelists could get an entire work out of just that material, but in many ways the historical background of comics is just that: background for his work, which concentrates instead on character. And it is in its characters that The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay takes flight.
Put simply, it is a very long time since I read a book whose characters were as real as the ones presented here. Chabon gets us to rejoice at every victory, wince at every defeat, and acknowledge every stop on the voyage of self-discovery that Sammy and Joe take. Both of these men are full, three-dimensional characters who lead full, three-dimensional lives. And what lives they are. Joe, for instance, isn’t just Sammy’s cousin. He is a Jew from Prague who has managed to escape the oncoming Nazi threat, alone of his family. When he arrives in America at last and meets his cousin Sammy, he quickly falls under Sammy’s spell. Sammy is one of those rambunxious youngsters who always has some kind of “get rich quick” scheme cooking up, and who thinks nothing of talking benefactors into bankrolling his plans before he has even fully formulated his plan. This happens early on, when Sammy talks a businessman — Sheldon Anapol — into entering the comics business, with the promise that he and Joe have “the next Superman” ready to go. Of course, much of this is bravado and bluff, and after they convince Anapol to give them a chance they promptly start work on creating this superhero they have already claimed to have. Sammy is to do the writing, and Joe is to do the artwork.
However, both Sammy and Joe are torn in different directions. Sammy is a writer with brilliant talent, but he can never quite overcome his belief that comics are just junk, telling pictured stories for children; plus, Sammy is increasingly unsure of his own sexuality. As the book progresses, Sammy’s self-loathing becomes more and more apparent, as does the unnecessary nature of it all, because Chabon makes clear that he is a man of talent.
Joe is likewise torn in opposing directions: between the art of comics (for he regards comics as an art, a fully respectable medium for expression) and his desire to get his family out of Prague (his concern is particularly strong for his beloved little brother, Thomas). Joe also develops a strong hatred for the Germans, which plays out in some very unexpected ways at several points throughout the novel. And to top things off, there is a love-triangle of sorts between the two men and a woman named Rosa Saks, a wealthy New York socialite and herself a brilliant artist. Chabon resists any urge he must have felt to deal with the complex emotions of his novel in perfunctory, soap-operaish manner; instead, he shows us complex people behaving in complex ways, each trying to live as best they can in the face of a world on the brink of (and later engulfed by) war. The feeling of “There but for the grace of God go we” pervades this entire novel, but this feeling can only exist if we are given characters we can care about — otherwise, the whole exercise is fruitless.
Chabon’s language is also accomplished. It took me a long time to read this book, not just because it is long (636 pages in trade-paperback format) but because it is such an amazingly rich novel that there are entire passages that demand to be re-read immediately. Joe’s lessons in magic and escape, learned in Prague from a kindly magician named Bernard Kornblum, are wonderful. They come early in the book, and we wonder why we are being told these things, but everything becomes clear later on as Joe’s magician-training not only forms the basis of The Escapist but also much later becomes a means by which a family is reunited. Painstaking attention to structure is evident throughout the book, as are some wonderful sentences. For example:
:: Regarding the fate of Kornblum, Joe’s boyhood magic teacher in Prague: “Kornblum[‘s] encyclopedic knowledge of the railroads of this part of Europe was in a few short years to receive a dreadful appendix….”
:: Regarding the work habits of Sammy and Joe: “In the immemorial style of young men under pressure, they decided to lie down for a while and waste time.”
:: On people’s ability to appraise their times: “One of the sturdiest precepts of the study of human delusion is that every golden age is either past or in the offing.”
:: On a particularly unfortunate aspect of the Empire State Building: “A great feat of engineering is an object of perpetual interest to people bent on self-destruction. Since its completion, the Empire State Building, a gigantic shard of the Hoosier State torn from the mild limestone bosom of the Midwest and upended, on the site of the old Waldorf-Astoria, in the midst of the heaviest traffic in the world, had been a magnet for dislocated souls hoping to ensure the finality of their impact, or to mock the bold productions of human vanity.”
Imagine a 636-page book filled with sentences like that, and you have a book that is not to be read quickly like a Clancy or Grisham page-turner. You have a book of literary amazement. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is absolutely deserving of its Pulitzer Prize. It’s the kind of book that leads one to take pity on the next item on the “To read” pile.