BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Two cousins ride the wave of the new comics art form with their creation of The Escapist for Empire Comics. Life happens to them along the way.
PROS: Strong, sympathetic characters and story, humorous and emotional writing, The Escapist should have been made into a comic book hero (see below).
CONS: The story’s second half is not as strong as the first and seems to wander to its conclusion.
BOTTOM LINE: A wonderfully engaging story about about life and dreams that uses comics as a springboard for its characters. If you want to venture outside of the SF genre, you could do a lot worse than this story.
I’d heard a lot of good things about The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, but what intrigued me most was the apparent focus on comics and superheroes. I picked this up and was pleasantly surprised.
Sam Clay lives in New York City and works for the Empire Novelty Company (think whoopee cushions). The year is 1939 and his heretofore unknown cousin, Josef Kavalier from Prague, makes an unexpected arrival at Sam’s house. Both Sam and Joe have desires to be artists, but Sam is better at storytelling and editing, while Joe is better at drawing and illustrating (he’s also a good magician and escape artist). The very first night together, they hit upon the idea of breaking into the comic book business with their new superhero, The Escapist. They convince Sam’s boss to give them a shot at creating the comic and in the process vault themselves into competition with Batman and Superman, as well as make themselves, and Empire Comics, a pile of money.
The story is much more than the creation of The Escapist. It’s also about two young Jewish men coping with a world on the brink of world war. Joe’s parents are stuck in Nazi controller Poland and just managed to smuggle him out to the US. Joe saves the money he makes with the hope that, one day, he will get his parents and brother out of Prague and into a new life in the US. As a result, The Escapist tends to make life very difficult for the Nazi villains he faces. Joe struggles with being a successful writer and also tries to discover his place, as a person, in the world. The story continues on from there for a lot longer, but part of the fun is discovering how their lives unfold.
Chabon has created a terrific cast of characters. Everyone of the main characters is a strong, memorable character. We feel we really now them and what makes them tick. Chabon infuses his writing, particularly in the form of Joe, with a strong sense of playfulness and humor. This serves as a stark reminder of easier times as we see each character through the tough and trying times of WW II and after. Chabon also has a knack for creating interesting superheros. In fact, the two main ones from this story should have had their own comic series, or, at the very least, a series of pulp novels could have been written detailing their exploits. They are that good. The first half of the book chronicles Kavalier and Clay’s rise to stardom in the comic business. But, as it is wont to do, life rears its ugly head and Joe runs off to fight in the war.
This is where, for me, the story lost something. The first half was tightly plotted, wound around K&C’s attempts to make something of their Escapist idea. Once Joe leaves for the war, the characters are separated and the story seems to lose some momentum. I found the second half not as good, or as tight, as the first. The characters are still strong, but they’ve lose their youthful idealism and replaced it with a weary pragmatism. Eventually K&C are re-united, but the story just seems to meander around for awhile before drawing to an end. Which is unfortunate, but the overall book is still a strong read.
The Escapist if a very strong and well written superhero and I felt he would have made an interesting comic. Well, Darkhorse Comics agrees, and they have created a quarterly anthology of The Escapist. There are currently five issues. I’ll have to check them out!