To say that Geek has become Chic in recent years is a bit of an understatement. People of my age will remember when it was actually a stigma you wanted to avoid. Now it’s more of an aspiration, and has been popularized to the point where people actively argue about who is a real geek or nerd and who is just a poser (and then argue about the difference between geek and nerd).
The point is, there is a mainstream acceptance of what was once considered “nerdy” and one of the best examples of that is The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, a story set within the golden age of comic books. I say this because it won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2001, and it’s hard to receive a stronger literary validation than that. (While Art Spiegelman’s Maus won a Pulitzer in 1992, it was a true story told in comic book form, whereas this is a work of fiction set in the world of comics).
The story starts off in 1939 as young Josef Kavalier must escape Hitler’s Prauge and make his way to Brooklyn, New York, where he establishes a friendship and partnership with his cousin Sam Clay. The two of them end up creating a hit comic book hero: The Escapist—a kind of amalgamation of heroes from the era, such as The Shadow, Batman, or Captain America, along with traits from Harry Houdini.
During the course of the story you see the genesis and evolution of the character and the business as the times change, up to the McCarthy era where comics were accused of being subversive and the infamous Comic Book Code was imposed. While the Escapist comic and the cousins’ rise in the industry are pure invention on Chabon’s part, they nevertheless act as a mirror to reflect what was actually going on at the time. For a lover of comic book history, it will fit right in with what they already know.
But all this is simply setting. The real story is about Joe and Sam as they struggle to find success, find love, and battle their own demons. Joe’s escape from Europe has left him feeling guilt, which is only compounded as the war draws to a close. Sam has his own secrets, and a lifestyle that has to be kept out of the intolerant public’s eye. And the beautiful bohemian Rosa Saks, a woman with her own artistic aspirations (who inspires the character of Luna Moth, “The first sex object created expressly for consumption by little boys”), ends up tied to both of them—though in very different ways.
The book deals with a number of contemporary issues—anti-Semitism, censorship, women in the arts, homosexuality, and more, but never in a heavy handed way. It is simply a matter of the characters having to live through those realities. In fact, one of the best bits of historical perspective takes place during the McCarthy era, where comics are accused of promoting homosexuality (What’s Batman really doing with Robin? Why do all these male superheroes have boy sidekicks?) and that fallacy is brought into its proper perspective brilliantly.
From time to time we are brought into the world of comics again, being told short stories within the world of The Escapist, who is in many ways Joe’s means to fight his own sense of powerlessness against the Nazis. You’re given tantalizing looks into the mythos of an escape artist superhero who “comes to the rescue of those who toil in the chains of tyranny and injustice,” and find yourself wishing there actually had been an Escapist comic book.
Well, there was. Sort of. Dark Horse comics published two series of Escapist comics based on the superhero stories from the novel, some even written by Chabon, as well as a semi-sequel to the novel called The Escapists.
Much like last month’s review, Carter Beats the Devil, this is a fictional history that incorporates real historical figures. You will see cameos from people like Salvador Dali, Orson Wells and yes, true believers, Stan Lee. Unlike Carter, they do not play central roles (though occasionally pivotal ones), but at the same time their inclusions never feel gratuitous… which is more than can be said about Stan Lee’s real life cameos half the time.
This is a different approach to historical fiction, where the central story and characters are wholly invented, and simply living within an actual historical era, rather than trying to blend fact and fiction the way Carter did. Another unfortunate similarity is that this book has long been promised to be turned into a movie, and just like Carter has dwelled ever since in development hell.
Chabon’s literary style is not to be underestimated. It’s easy to fall in love not just with what he’s writing about, but how he writes it. It’s a long read at over 600 pages, but because of his almost poetic and breezy writing style, it is a surprisingly quick read.
Oiginally Published in KODT #208