The Amazing Adventures of the Escapist
by Michael Chabon, et al
Published by Dark Horse Books
159 pages, 2004
Houdini in Tights
Reviewed by David Abrams
The Escapist cannot leap tall buildings in a single bound or outrun speeding bullets. He doesn't turn green when angry. He doesn't fly an invisible plane or swoop across Metropolis on strands of spun silk.
He wriggles. That's about the extent of his superpowers. He wriggles out of chains, handcuffs and straitjackets. Imagine Houdini with a cleft chin and a Charles Atlas chest and you'll come close to the superhero Michael Chabon first introduced in his Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. That book was, among other things, a love letter to the golden age of comics when great artists like Will Eisner, Bob Kane, Lou Fine and Jack Kirby inked imaginations of young minds everywhere and pulp pages teemed with heroes like the Green Arrow, the Whip, Aquaman, the Spectre and Blue Bolt. In the pages of Chabon's novel, Sammy Clay and Joe Kavalier dream up the concept of a comic book hero "coming to the rescue of those who toil in the chains of tyranny and injustice. Houdini, but mixed with Robin Hood and a little bit of Albert Schweitzer."
Since the novel's publication in 2000, the Escapist has taken on a life of his own, fueled by fans of literary fiction and Golden Age comic books -- guys who tremble with sexual ecstasy at the mere sight of a wind-rippled cape and whose first thoughts when you mention the letters "DC" are not of the nation's capitol. Chabon gave permission for those lit-nerds to come out of the closet. Comics have always been cool, but with Kavalier and Clay it was suddenly okay to talk about superheroes out in the open at previously snooty literary gatherings. Comic book fanatics could be seen rubbing elbows with tweedy Joycean scholars.
Okay, maybe that's going a little too far.
I don't want to exaggerate my case, but I do believe Chabon's book and its attendant popularity helped create a mini-renaissance in muscular men in tights, at least among fic-lit-hipsters. With increased interest in Chabon's creation came a demand for more adventures of the Escapist. And now, thanks to Dark Horse Books, the fabricated comic books have become the real thing. Open up Dark Horse's The Amazing Adventures of the Escapist and you'll get an eye-popping tour of a world that originated inside Chabon's head.
The volume, which collects previously published Escapist adventure comics into one book, depicts the origins of the Escapist in the episode "The Passing of the Key," where young Tom Mayflower inherits bond-slipping powers from his uncle Max, also known as Misterioso. When Uncle M is shot during a performance, it's up to Tom to don the black tights (with the large emblem of a key on his chest) and become a "master of self-liberation." As a member of the secret society of the League of the Golden Key, the Escapist goes about freeing captives, slaves and victims of oppression. His nemesis is a sinister organization known as the Iron Chain (a thinly-disguised Nazi Germany) which has infected every level of society. It's up to the Escapist to "work for the liberation of all who toil in chains, whether of iron or ideas." This is the thinking man's caped crusader: long on existentialism, short on lightning bolts and X-ray vision.
The stories and dialogue in The Amazing Adventures of the Escapist are hokey to the point of pastiche. It's hard to read the words in the balloons with a straight face, unless you're seeing them for what they are: a fond tribute to the black-and-white morality of the 1940s and 50s. The Cold War made everything so much easier to understand. Our superheroes had villains who were easy to define -- they were the ones with European accents or who favored the color red.
In one episode, the Escapist must rescue a nuclear submarine trapped on the ocean floor with only ten hours of oxygen remaining; in others, he exposes a corrupt member of a jury, infiltrates a prison gang and, with the help of Luna Moth, rescues some kidnapped children buried alive.
Ah yes, Luna Moth -- every young boy's wet dream of a superheroine. Comely bookseller Judy Dark by day; busty, leggy Luna Moth by night. In this volume, the Escapist's partner in justice (and romantic foil) gets four episodes in which she literally and figuratively busts crime.
The Amazing Adventures of the Escapist is an anthology of Escapist tales, each written and drawn by a different artist. In addition to the first story, written by Chabon, other talent on these pages includes writers/artists Howard Chaykin, Kevin McCarthy, Jim Starlin, Gene Colan and novelist Glen David Gold whose Carter Beats the Devil was also a literary love letter to the early 20th century published around the same time as Chabon's book.
While the writers independently manage to come up with a history of the Escapist using a variety of styles which present a timeline of comic book art from the 1940s through modern-day manga, the stories themselves are weak, like they were truncated in order to squeeze more into the volume. On the one hand, I appreciated their loving parody of "golden era" comics; on the other hand, some of the episodes are akin to badly edited film with important frames missing. I wanted to take my time with the Escapist, rather than rushing through the plot like it was written on a telegram.
That said, the artwork on these pages is beyond fantastic. The lines and colors are so vibrant as to take on a ripply, bulging life of their own. At one point, while reading about the adventures of Luna Moth, I had to hold the book away from me for fear that her torpedo breasts would fly off the page into my face (on second thought, maybe that's not something I should have been afraid of). As a special bonus, there's a gallery of images at the back of the book which I'd pay good money to have framed on my wall.
The Amazing Adventures of the Escapist might not break the chains of bland storytelling, but it explodes with all the colors and textures that made great Golden Age comic books leap imaginations in a single bound. | June 2004
David Abrams is a January Magazine contributing editor. He has written for Esquire, Glimmer Train Stories, The Greensboro Review, The Readerville Journal and other literary magazines.