The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay
by Michael Chabon
Published by Random House
639 pages, 2000
Buy it online
Where There Is Icing
Reviewed by Claude Lalumière
The dawn of the comics industry is a fascinating slice of history. It's an essential chapter in the annals of pop culture, but it's also an important part of American history. For comics aficionados, the details of this history are legendary: the struggles of Siegel and Shuster to get Superman in print, the pageant of talent -- from Jack Kirby to Jules Feiffer -- that passed through the doors of Will Eisner's studio, the disputed origins of Batman, the shameful and exploitative treatment of writers and illustrators, the infamous congressional investigation, the legal war between the publishers of Superman and Captain Marvel, the exploits of Simon and Kirby. Although millions of people read the comic books of the 1930s, 40s, and 50s every month, the stories behind the stories remain bits of trivia known only to a select audience.
Michael Chabon incorporates most of these events in his historical novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, and alludes to the others. He creates a fictional scenario in the midst of real history and, with this act of fiction, reveals deeper truths and mysteries that any compilation of facts ever could.
In Prague, Josef Kavalier is a young apprentice to an aging escape artist. As Nazi occupation intensifies, Josef, with the help of his mentor, smuggles himself out of Nazi territory. He eventually makes it to New York City, home of the newborn comics industry. He comes to live with his Aunt Ethel, where he hooks up with his visionary and ambitious cousin, Sam Klayman. The boy geniuses decide to pour their synergistic talents into comic books. They change their Jewish names to Joe Kavalier and Sam Clay. Thus rechristened (so to speak), they create their first comic-book superhero: The Escapist.
Joe Kavalier and Sam Clay are fully imagined fictional characters who are not simply doppelgangers of real people. Yet, Kavalier and Clay do evoke the two great Jewish duos of the early days of comics: Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster (the creators of Superman), and Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. Like Siegel and Shuster, the pair signed over the rights to their creation for a paltry sum, while the publishers made a fortune off it. The style of The Escapist comics ranges from early Jack Kirby ("It was Joe's battle scenes -- the type of panel or sequence known in the trade as a slugfest -- that first got his work noticed, both in the business and by the boggled young manhood of America. These scenes have been described as wild, frenetic, violent, extreme, even Breughelian.") to Spirit-era Will Eisner ("the daring use of perspective and shading, the radical placement of word balloons and captions and, above all, the integration of narrative and picture by means of artfully disarranged, dislocated panels that stretched, shrank, opened into circles, spread across two full pages, marched diagonally toward one corner of the page, unreeled themselves like the frames of a film"). Kavalier, not only a groundbreaking visual storyteller who never doubts his own genius but also a practicing prestidigitator, has more than a little of Orson Welles about him. But such references are just icing -- albeit delicious.
This is the cake: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is a magical novel. Its recreation of the golden age of the comics industry is, although cloaked in fiction, picture perfect. Its characters -- Joe and his struggle to bring his family to America; Sam and his complex relationship to his father; Rosa and the depths of both her talent and compassion -- are gripping. This novel's epic sweep is constructed with tender moments of heartfelt intimacy. The story itself is, in many ways, the story of the USA itself: the Depression, the American dream, isolationism, the dichotomy of racism and integration, sexual repression, the Second World War, the paranoid 1950s, nostalgia for often-imaginary golden ages. Not only do the characters live through this history, but their own lives are reflections of these conflicting, schizoid visions of America.
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is that elusive holy grail, The Great American Novel. Here, the dreams of that mythical yet all too real land are related, with unerring confidence and great depths of emotion, through the history of its most maligned art form, the comic book, and its even more maligned creators. The novel's main characters, and even some of the secondary ones, explore the potential and limits of their own personal version of the American dream, finding success and failure, adulation and betrayal, vindication and disillusionment, as well as love and persecution. At the heart of the novel is the story of two friends who believe in their imagination and its power to change their lives and the world -- and of how the course of their lives affects that faith.
Lending the novel yet more poignancy is the fact that Jack Kirby's ghost haunts the whole book. Kirby's imagination has always been an important part of my life. I sensed a kindred soul in Chabon. The novel, despite some superficial similarities between Kavalier and Kirby, is not the story of the late Kirby's life. Nevertheless, one could say that it is the story of Kirby's spirit, from his no-holds-barred hatred of fascism to the relentless and intuitive artistic inventiveness that pushed him to create some of the world's greatest comics. Throughout the book, Kirby's presence is so palpable that, every time I turned a page, I kept expecting him to show up. He is referred to twice, but never appears. And then I read the author's afterword. The last paragraph was, especially after having read Chabon's beautifully uncompromising novel, both illuminating and moving, "Finally, I want to acknowledge the deep depth I owe in this and everything else I've ever written to the work of the late Jack Kirby, the King of Comics." | January 2001
Claude Lalumière is a January Magazine contributing editor and the comics columnist for Black Gate. He founded popular 1990s Montreal bookshops danger! and Nebula. His published criticism can be found on his Web site.