I feel like the world is divided into those who love comic books and those who don’t much care. Other than reading a few Archie and Josie and the Pussycats comics in my girl days, I was one of those who never much cared. It kind of surprises me, because I loved (and love) drawing and art. And while I can now appreciate some of the cheesy appeal of the genre, I have always preferred immersing myself in a novel and letting the author’s word spin my own unique images of the characters and action in my mind’s eye.
Perhaps my disinterest in comic books is why it took me over ten years and three tries to finally read The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon. Despite a complete lack of illustrations anywhere in its 636 pages, I can picture the Escapist, Luna Moth, and other creations of the two main characters, Joe Kavalier and Sammy Clay, two Jewish cousins breaking into and developing the comic book genre in the early twentieth century.
Joe and Sammy’s fates and fortunes are tied to the real historical events of World War II (Joe has recently escaped from Czechoslovakia and his family will die in the Holocaust and wider events of the war), historical figures (Houdini, Dali, and Orson Welles make cameos and play major roles of inspiration for the cousins), and American industry and politics (Sammy testifies in the real 1953 Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency that sought to skewer comic books as violent and perverse influences on children). Joe and Sammy develop from scrappy young men with prodigious artistic gifts as artists (mostly Joe) and writers (mostly Sammy) into some of the kings of the Golden Age of Comics all before they reach their mid-twenties.
Chabon gives us a lot of history about the Golden Age. He mostly weaves it into the story, but a few sections of narration are given over to nearly pure historical exposition. It’s quite a trick to pull off effectively, and for the most part he does. Not being a huge comic book fan, I was sometimes indifferent to these sections. Fortunately, he also deeply develops his fictional characters: Joe is a haunted, charismatic slob, but surprisingly sexy. Sammy has the biggest, brashest, most loyal heart. Rosa is equal parts bohemian artist/girlfriend and self-reliant working woman and mother, but she’s neither flaky nor fluffy. I loved them all, and found the last third of the novel, where their career development gives way to their emotional transformation (except Rosa, who gets her career in the end, as many women do), particularly satisfying.
As much as the novel is about comic books, it’s also about magic, magicians, and the ability to escape and disappear. Joe studies under a master magician in Prague before he escapes from the country hidden in a coffin. He and Sammy’s breakthrough character is the Escapist, who battles Nazis. He moonlights at the Amazing Calavieri doing magic tricks at bar mitzvahs. He also spends years trying to help his parents and brother escape Czechoslovakia, and he “disappears” from his life and friends when confronted with great loss. But it is also magic that brings family back to him.
It was at these times that he began to understand, after all those years of study and performance, of feats and wonders and surprises, the nature of magic. The magician seemed to promise that something torn to bits might be mended without a seam, that what had vanished might reappear, that a scattered handful of doves or dust might be reunited by a word, that a paper rose consumed by fire could be made to bloom from a pile of ash. But everyone knew that it was only an illusion. The true magic of this broken world lay in the ability of the things it contained to vanish, to become so thoroughly lost, that they might never have existed in the first place.
Chabon’s tone is springy and inventive, and feels just right for a tale about comic book heroes. He has a fondness for ten-dollar words. I really like when an author sends me to the dictionary, but Chabon does this a lot and I’m not sure the instances served his purpose as much as they distracted. An interesting and skillful thing Chabon did with the narrative was to occasionally start some chapters with a character starring in his (usually a male) own comic book-like story and then slowly transform the writing back into the regular narrative so we see that this passage was part of the character’s imagination.
Chabon won the Pulitzer prize for The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay in 2001. He was up against Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates and The Quick and the Dead by Joy Williams, neither of which I’ve read. I’m glad I finally ticked this one off my list.