Thursday, May 24, 2012
The Thursday Review: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay
I read this in about December 2000, though I forget why I bought it or how it came to my attention. Probably from looking around on Amazon or something. Anyway, this was one of those rare books I just devoured. I mean it was the kind of book I just sat around reading pretty much all day, stopping only when nature called. I've read it about a half-dozen times since then and it never fails to amaze me--pun intended.
The story takes place starting at the dawn of the Golden Age of comic books, about 1939. Young Samuel Clayman is living in Brooklyn with his mom when his Czech cousin Joe Kavalier comes to visit late one night. Joe has taken a very circuitous journey from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia through the Soviet Union to Japan to America with the help of a magician and a golem. The rest of Joe's family remains in Prague, though he hopes to buy their freedom.
Sam promises to get Joe a job at the novelty company where he works. Then he sees how well Joe can draw and the idea comes to him that they should make a comic book, something that has become all the rage with Action Comics thanks to Superman. Sam and Joe pitch the comic book to Sam's boss, who eventually decides to give it a shot. There's just one problem: Sam and Joe need a character.
After a lot of brainstorming and such they create The Escapist, a hero who has the power of being able to escape from things, kind of like Harry Houdini in a union suit and mask. Since comics back then were really long, they recruit some of Sam's friends to create a stable of other characters.
As you'd expect, the comic book becomes a smash hit. Sam and Joe get some cash for it, but not as much as they should. While they're making hundreds of dollars a month, the publisher is making hundreds of thousands and refuses to cut Sam and Joe in on it. Which is good advice to read the fine print of contracts.
A couple of years later World War II ramps up and like many comics, the Escapist takes on the Nazis and Japanese. But after a while that isn't enough for Joe, whose family is still in Czechoslovakia, so he decides to join the Navy and winds up in Antarctica. (Which really didn't make sense to me. If you want revenge on the Nazis, why not join the Army or Marines? Or even the Army Air Force. Why the freaking Navy?)
I really love this first half of the book. It is a great take on the old concept of the American Dream and all that entails. It's full of that old-school optimism and nostalgia while not being too sappy or hokey. Plus as a writer it's really interesting to see how Sam, Joe, and others come up with their characters and stories.
The last third I don't like as much. It gets more into soap opera-ish territory with a sort of love triangle. This is one of those books that's an epic saga though, spanning about 15 years, from the Golden Age into the Silver Age of comics. Even if you don't like comic books or superheroes it's still a great story about dreams and how those can be realized or go unfulfilled. And did I mention it won the Pulitzer back in 2000? Yeah, so it's not just my opinion here. Though be warned that it features gay people and gay sex (gasp!) not to mention bad language and adult situations. Ooooh, scary. I know Chabon has written at least one movie script but I don't think it's ever reached production yet. Which in a way is too bad because I'd love to see a movie of it.
A fun fact is that the character of Emma Earl probably owes a little to this book, particularly the origin story of the Luna Moth character. In that substory a shy young woman working in an obscure department of the library finds a magic book that allows her to become an ancient superhero known as Luna Moth. Change the library to a museum and magic book to a case of armor and Luna Moth to Scarlet Knight and there you have it. Though to be honest Chabon probably took that from other superhero stories. We're all standing on the shoulders of giants, right?
Have a safe Memorial Day weekend. Come back Tuesday for another thrilling Two-Fer!