Aug 1, 2007

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay tells the story of Sam Clay and Josef Kavalier, two Jewish cousins who, in the late 1930’s, come up with what is to become a successful comic book hero, The Escapist. The Escapist’s power is to bring freedom to those who are held in chains, both real and metaphorical. In the cover of the first issue of the comic, the hero is shown punching Hitler in the face.

In 1939, Sam is a young man who dreams vaguely of working in comic books. He is good at coming up with stories, but his drawing leaves something to be desired. One night, his mother wakes him up to tell him he is to share his room with Josef Kavalier, his cousin who has just arrived from Prague, via Japan.

Back in Prague, Josef Kavalier had been trained as an Escape artist, and it is with the help of his old teacher that he manages to leave the country, along with the legendary Golem of Prague. His family, however, is left behind, and in American he puts away all the money he earns with his art to finance their rescue, and to help support them once they manage to join him. His newfound freedom is permeated with a constant sense of guilt – he doesn’t think it’s fair that he escaped, while thousands of others, including his loved ones, were left in the hands of the Nazis.

There were many things I loved about this book. First of all, I loved the fact that it gave amazing insight into the creative process. The moments when Sam Clay comes up with his initial story ideas are brilliantly written – his speech is rushed, feverish; he wants to get everything down before it slips his mind. One can feel the amazing energy and the excitement behind creation. One can also feel the thrill the characters experience once they realize that they have come up with something that will change their lives. I also loved the fact that the book makes the inspiration for each of the stories so clear – their origins are easy to trace back to the longings, the desires, the fears and the wishes of the “boy geniuses” that came up with them.

I really liked the chapters with the actual comic book short stories – the origins of the Escapist, Luna Moth. They are typical superhero stories, of course, with exaggerations and somewhat predictable plots, but they were exciting to read, and even touching in a way. Here they are, these two young men, just before the war, taking this muddle of feelings they cannot quite name and carving it into stories.

There is clearly a lot of historical research behind this book. Michael Chabon was inspired by the lives of actual comic book creators like Jack Kirby, Will Eisner and Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the creators of Superman. The book includes a lot of details surrounding the origins and the golden-age of comic books, including its less-than-pleasant side.

Like Siegel and Shuster, Kavalier and Clay are tricked into signing away the rights of the characters they created for something $150, thus being robbed of a lot of money that should have rightfully been theirs. Also, like many comic book creators of the time, they are threatened with a cease-and-desist order from DC comics, who considers every Superhero a copy of Superman and thus a copyright infringement – even though most bear but a passing resemblance to Superman, and Superman itself is a collage of previously existing ideas.

The novel also mentions a book called Seduction of the Innocent, by a Dr. Frederik Wertham. This book claimed that comic books were directly responsible for juvenile delinquency, and thus gave rise to an investigation by the U. S. Congress that ended up establishing censorship in comics. My favourite of the good doctor’s claims is that “Wonder Woman's strength and independence made her a lesbian”.

This novel includes references to or actual appearances by historical figures like Harry Houdini, Salvador Dali, Eleanor Roosevelt, Will Eisner or Orson Welles. One of my favourite parts of the book is when, after seeing Welles’ “Citizen Kane”, Kavalier and Clay are inspired to surpass the limitations of the medium they are working in and do something truly great. From then on, their stories change, and this corresponds to a real revolution in comics, conducted by Will Eisner and others. The stories become more personal – Chabon describes issues of the Escapist in which the hero is shown in no more than two panels. Instead, the stories focus on ordinary people, their daily lives and the ways in which they are touched by the hero. Reading this, I was very much reminded of Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman, where most of the time, The Endless are in the background – it’s the people whose lives they touch that have most of the attention, and this makes the stories more introspective, more emotional, easier to relate to.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay makes a very strong statement about the power of storytelling in general, and comic books in particular. These two young men, Joe Kavalier especially, were using stories to fight, to fight in any way they could. They were powerless to put a stop to Nazism, so they fought it in their imagination, in their stories.

Of course, this kind of escapism is not meant to be a replacement of real action, and many could claim that it is useless. Joe feels useless a lot of the time, and he deals with this feeling by looking for trouble and getting into fist fights with the German residents of New York City. But, thinking of Obasan, a book I read recently, I started thinking that fighting the enemy in one’s imagination, through stories, is much preferable to going after innocents who just happen to share the enemy’s nationality. So I think these stories were actually useful – they allowed people to exorcize their feelings in a harmless way. Escaping into a story is not meant to replace real action, but sometimes it may be the only thing that will keep people from despairing, especially if there’s not much else they can do. And this brings me to one of my favourite passages from the book:
Most of all, he loved [comic books] for the pictures and the stories they contained, the inspiration and lucubration of five hundred aging boys dreaming as hard as they could for fifteen years, transfiguring their insecurities and delusions, their wishes and their doubts, their public education and their sexual perversions, into something that only the most purblind of societies would have denied the status of art. Comic books had sustained his sanity during his time on the psychiatric ward at Gitmo. (…) The usual charge levelled against comic books, that they offered merely an easy escape from reality, seemed to Joe actually a powerful argument on their behalf.
But comic books, though central to the novel, are not nearly everything it is about. The novel deals with many themes – the aforementioned power of imagination and of storytelling, ethnic tension before World War II, the persecution of homosexuals, guilt, and shame and the wish to escape, and of course, World War II in itself – the lives lost, the burden of those who survive. There is a part in the book I must only mention vaguely or else I’d be spoiling it, but I can say that it’s right before Part V, “Radioman”, and that it marks a turning point in the book. I read it before bed one night, and it had such a powerful impact on me that I had nightmares about children during the war.

The writing style of this book could understandably bother some readers. Chabon uses multiple perspectives, includes a lot of details, flashbacks and asides, and has a tendency to go off on tangents. Often he will present a scene whose fully significance will only become clear after a 50-page-long explanatory flashback. I can see how many people could find this irritating and frustrating. This style worked for me, though – its consequence was keeping me glued to the book until everything became clear. I suppose that the same general story could have been told in half as many pages, but then, for me, it wouldn’t be quite the same story – not as epic, not as powerful, not as memorable.

What I’m trying to say is that even though I found this a remarkable and brilliant book, I know it’s not something everyone will enjoy. It helps to have an interest in comics to begin with, but I think the problem is that you have to really fall in love with the story to really enjoy it, to eagerly welcome all the asides and details. Otherwise, I can see how it would become tedious.

I like comic books, but I cannot say I know very much about them. This book definitely makes me want to do something about that, though. Also, I discovered that Dark Horse Comics created an actual comic book based on The Escapist. I think I will very much enjoy reading it.

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18 comments:

  1. You sold me on this one 100%! I'm a huge comic book fan and I've always enjoyed books and/or films on WW2. I'm sure I'd enjoy this as well. I loved the passage that you gave us...it captures the essence of what comics are all about pefectly! Great premise for a book. Glad you read this one :)

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  2. Lovely review. I'm looking forward to reading this one for the Book Awards challenge even more now.

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  3. Until I read your review, I didn't even consider that my husband might be interested in reading this. I bought the book for myself a few months ago and added it to my TBR collection. He's into comic books and would probably get a kick out of this one. Of course, I'm also looking forward to reading it. :-)

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  4. Great review! I've had this one for a while but haven't felt a strong desire to pick it up. Partly because it's a chunkster, but also I'm not sure whether I'll like it, not having read many comics. Some day, though.

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  5. I read this book a few years back - and I recall how the book slowly moves towards pathos, and how he uses the comic book writing as a cartharsis against his powerlessness. Hmm... should pick up another Chabon book soon.

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  6. I am not sure if my husband has read this or not, if he hasn't I will definately be buying him a copy. It looks like the perfect book for him. A mixture of comic book lore and a great story, I might even pinch it off him when he is done!

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  7. I really enjoyed this book, but I agree with you that it's not for everyone. Since reading it, I've been wanting to visit the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco. Haven't had the opportunity yet, but I hear it's really fascinating.

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  8. I was given this a long time ago, with a much cooler, comic bookish cover, by a friend...the one who introduced me to Sandman and consequently Neil Gaiman and back to comics in general. I feel bad that I've never read it as I've had it for years. I have heard so many good and bad things about the book, both from people who share my reading interests, and I have been loathe to pick it up. I still have it though, so maybe someday.

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  9. Chris: I really like books and movies on WW2 too. I'd say you'll like this one, but it's a bit of an unpredictable book. But hopefully you will!

    Kim: I look forward to seeing what you think of it!

    Literary Feline: I hope both you and your husband enjoy it :)

    Tanabata: I thought it was a surprisingly fast read for a chunkster. But then again, you have to really fall in love with it to feel that way.

    Dark Orpheus: Yeah, exactly... it was their only possible escape from powerlessness. After this, I also really want to read more of Chabon's work.

    Rhinoa: You should! There's a lot to it other than comics!

    Robin: It does sound fascinating! I hope you blog about the experience when you make it over there.

    Carl: This really seems to be a love it or hate it book. But you should give it a try - being a comics fan, you will get something out of it even if you don't enjoy the writing much.

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  10. This is a book that probably never would have caught my attention, but as usual, you made this book sound downright compelling. Perhaps it's time for me to expand my horizons once again.

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  11. Wow, Nymeth, what a bang up job! You brought fascinating things to light (such as Wertham and the lesbian comment), and my favorite line is this: “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay” makes a very strong statement about the power of storytelling in general, and comic books in particular." I think that is the book's most redeeming quality. I enjoyed your review more than the book itself; you certainly gleaned a lot more from it than I took away.

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  12. Debi: You have to promise not to hate me if you end up not liking it, though :P

    Bellezza: Thank you :) I couldn't contain my enthusiasm when writing about the book, but I do get afraid that people might pick it up and end up feeling misled. Like I said over at your blog, I really do understand where the people who don't like it are coming from.

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  13. This has been on my TBR pile forever! Since it was first published, actually. I just keep not getting to it, and I really should, because I think I'll love it.

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  14. I think you will too. This is the kind of book different readers will take very different things from, so I'd love to read your thoughts on it.

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  15. I really liked this novel and found it led me to question and research several aspects connected to the war, the unusual method of propaganda, the influence of comic books on morality/ philosophy, the early radio stories, the characters who were real people or based on real people.

    Last summer, I also read The China Town Death Cloud Peril which immediately reminded me of The Amazing Adventures and even had Joe Kavalier make a cameo appearance. Most of the names mentioned in TCDCP were those of real people (Houdini, Walter Gibson, Harry Blackstone, Lester Dent, H.P. Lovecraft, L. Ron Hubbard)celebrities and pulp fiction writiers, so when Paul Malmont used Joe Kavalier...it was certainly intended as a compliment to Chabon.

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  16. I had never heard of "The China Town Death Cloud Peril". It sounds really interesting - I'll add it to my wishlist. Thank you!

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  17. Excellent review!! I just linked to it -- you have raised the bar on what I will expect of myself in the future... Thank you!!

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  18. Thanks for the link Nymeth! I liked both reviews a lot :)

    Kim

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Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.