In keeping with NPI’s December theme of Aught Lang Syne, this month’s Sunday Book Reviews will cover some of the most important works of literature to come out this decade. Today we’re starting with Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.
What is the appeal of superheroes? As this decade’s onslaught of superhero movies* has proved, simply investing someone or something with incredible abilities does not suffice to make a compelling story. And yet so many people are preternaturally drawn to these stories, like a moth to a flame.
*For the record this decade has seen three Spiderman movies, four X-Men, two Batmans, two Fantastic Fours, one Superman, two Hulks, one Iron Man….Am I forgetting some? Oh yeah, two Hellboys, Daredevil, Catwoman, Elektra, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and, if you want to count them, two Blade sequels.
In Michael Chabon’s modern classic, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier &Clay, he provides something of an explanation. Early in the novel, when the titular “heroes” are struggling to come up with a superhero to launch their new comic book business, they realize the futility of trying to come up with an irresistible gimmick for the hero. As Sammy Clay, the brains of the operation, puts it:
“No matter what we come up with, and how we dress him, some other character with the same shtick, with same style of boots and the same little doodad on his chest, is already out there, or is coming out tomorrow, or is going to be knocked off from our guy inside a week and a half…How? is not the question. What? is not the question….The question is why…What is the why?”
What is the why, indeed. Personal motivations are important to any story, but for superheroes, for whom the What and the How are often mere fanciful invention, the Why becomes the crucial issue. What makes Chabon’s novel so compelling, though, is that his exploration of the Why captures the motivations of both the comic book heroes and its fans—and, most importantly, how the two are related.
This kind of parallelism is built right into the title: The “amazing adventures” of our heroes refer both to the adventures they write and draw, and the ones they experience. In some ways, the story of Chabon’s protagonists is the story of New York City before World War II, but in some ways it is a superhero story of its own, with two poor young Jews as the heroes.
If Josef Kavalier, the novel’s central character, is meant to be a superhero, then he is certainly not lacking in an origin story. Growing up in Prague in the 1930s, Josef trained to be an escape artist, learning how to hold his breath for up to three minutes. The opening salvo of his career—planned with help from his younger brother, Thomas—was meant to be a valiant escape from a laundry bag, while bound in handcuffs, dumped into the River Moldau. As with most superheroes’ inaugural performances, Josef encounters some problems: He and Thomas nearly drown, only to be saved by Josef’s teacher, Bernard Kornblum.
Of course, for a Jew growing up in Prague in the 1930s, nearly drowning would probably not be the most traumatic experience of a childhood. When he is 18, Josef’s family invests all their emotional and financial hope in getting him out of the city before the Nazis invade. Josef’s travel documents are rejected, but rather than return to his family in defeat, he resolves to get out of the country any way he can. Working with Kornblum, Josef applies his Houdini-like skills to escape Prague.
This section of the novel—told before we get to the comic books, to the drawing, to Sammy Clay, to the real crux of the novel—is about as beautiful as backstory gets. The Nazis were as close to real-life supervillains as the world probably ever got, but the fact that the stories of Jews struggling to escape their grasp are so familiar, and still so remarkable, to us lends this a tone of realism. And yet the whole story plays out almost like a fairy tale: The means by which Josef travels from Prague to Lithuania to Japan to San Francisco to his cousin Sammy’s bedroom in Brooklyn are fantastical and almost magical. If it weren’t for the family he had to abandon, the story would seem too good to be true.
Once in New York, he meets his cousin Sam Klayman (pen name: Clay), and a partnership is born literally overnight: When Sammy wakes up the night after Josef’s (now going by the Americanized “Joe”) arrival and sees what his cousin has done to his drawings, he immediately resolves to get him a job.
Sammy has his own origin story regarding his absent father. More immediately important, though, is his grasp of comic books and superheroes. Joe is the artist, but it is Sammy who develops the “why” of their hero: the Escapist. The Escapist escapes from the bonds of evil, tyranny and oppression, and helps others get their freedom as well. Indeed, in Empire City—the thinly veiled New York City that the Escapist inhabits—the Statue of Liberty is known as the Statue of Liberation.
The Escapist offers hopes of liberation not only to the fictional citizens of Empire City, and the eventual readers of Kavalier & Clay’s comics, but to the creators themselves: The first cover that Joe draws is a beautifully rendered image of the hero punching Adolf Hitler in the face. When the publishers try to remove this political image from the comic, Sammy and Joe risk giving up their creation and refuse: “The Escapist fights evil; Hitler is evil.”
But, of course, Sammy and Joe need the Escapist to fight Hitler because they themselves cannot. It’s not just a question of artistic integrity, but of personal salvation. For Joe especially, who has left behind his whole family, Hitler is not some abstract “evil” that needs to be fought—he is a real threat that needs to be stopped.
The question of what Sammy and Joe are actually doing to stop him, though, is one that plagues each character throughout the novel. As the ascent of their creative partnership plays out like a fantasy, complete with material success, artistic stands, creative developments, and idyllic romance for each of them, it only does so with the Second World War lurking in the background. They try to comfort themselves, as most artists do, with the idea that their hero is helping turn the American public against Hitler. Ultimately, though, each of them knows this isn’t nearly enough.
As their careers and personal lives continue to flourish, though, it becomes easier for them to deal with this fact—until, that is, each of their personal lives is fundamentally derailed, sometime in early December of 1941. World War II arrives like an epic disruption, offering them the chance to fight Hitler for real, but at the cost of the comfortable and happy lives they’ve attained.
Chabon is concerned throughout the novel with what exactly made-up stories and superheroes provide to the real world; the plot runs through the Golden Age of the comic book, right through its decline, and Dr. Fredric Wertham’s publication of Seduction of the Innocent. This would seem to indicate that comic books were just a fad, that they offered mere escapism. But Chabon thinks this is what makes them so worthwhile. Escapism, after all, is both what defines the Escapist and what freed Joe Kavalier from Nazi-occupied Prague. Escapism lends hope of liberation, both from tyranny and evil, and from the darker parts of reality.
There is an unceasing humanity to Chabon’s prose that makes escapism seem not only forgivable, but desirable. The novel illustrates that escapism does not have to be a simple denial of reality, that it can instead be a way to reshape the way we see reality; it all depends on how we seek that escape. As Kornblum tells his student early in the novel, “Forget about what you are escaping from. Reserve your anxiety for what you are escaping to.”
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay explores all sorts of escapes: from reality, from war, from physical and emotional confines, from relationships, from the restrictions of sexual mores, from society in general, etc. Some of them lead to isolation and despair, but some of them offer hope, and bring people together. Fiction, it seems, is the best kind of escape: It’s not a way to hide from reality, but to examine the ideals and emotions that affect our reality. It is a way of understanding the world. And ultimately, that’s as good a Why as you can get.