EDITOR’S NOTE: Y’ALL know what fuckin SUCKS? FOOD POISONING. Awful. I spent PRETTY MUCH all day yesterday EITHER VOMITING or asleep. As such I’D LIKE TO apologize to the READERS AND WRITERS for not posting THIS on time. I’ve bumped EVERYTHING A DAY back and promise NO FURTHER interruptions. WITHOUT further ADO, LET’S GET TALKIN!
When I first heard of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, it was described as a novel about comic books. After finishing/ loving the novel (and probably because of the artistic insecurities that accompany a chronic superhero comic book habit), I was against it being simplified as a novel about comic books. It is a novel about so many things! War, the immigrant experience, secret identities, family, the American dream, and love are all huge parts of the novel. For shame, America, to regard such a great work so shallowly, so tersely. Rereading the novel for Bookgum, I realized that being a novel about comic books and being a novel about any of those other things are not mutually exclusive. In fact, calling the novel a comic book novel is an appropriate way to describe Kavalier & Clay. It interacts with the real world much in the same way comic books interact with the real world. In his author’s note, Chabon explains, “I have tried to respect history and geography wherever doing so served my purposes as a novelist, but wherever it d not I have, cheerfully or with regret, ignored them.” Like creating superheroes to convey fantasies of escape, Chabon creates Josef Kavalier and Sammy Clay to convey the spirit of America around the Second World War.
It is kind of crazy to construct a novel about comic books without use of. The lack of images is one explanation for Chabon’s detailed prose. In a way, Chabon is drawing his own superheroes on the Bristol board of history (BOOOO). Painstakingly researched and incredibly detailed, Kavalier & Clay achieves a resemblance and reflection of reality that can never be actually reached. Josef Kavalier and Sammy Clay embody their time without the ability to impact their surroundings in a meaningful way.
The novel addresses this issue in Joe’s frustrations about the war Europe and his family. Upon arriving in America, Joe needs money for saving his family. His work ethic brings him success and he regularly visits the German consulate to inquire about his family, but his savings and persistence cannot help them as quickly as he wishes. Joe finds visceral satisfaction in physical altercations with New York’s German population. The steady accumulation of funds for his family does not compare with the feelings of his reckless altercations.
Eventually, Kavalier and Clay vent these frustrations in their work, but waging a war in four colors cannot save Joe’s family. The episodes with Carl and Ruth Ebling act as evidence that having the Escapist fight so hard against the Nazis only leads to trouble for Joe and Sammy.
As Joe becomes more successful and makes arrangements with the TRA for his brother’s passage to America, he becomes more willing to enjoy himself and take root in America. He is willing to give up the paper fight for the sake of the children he can save with money from the Escapist’s film serial. For much of the novel, Joe’s purpose is tied to the positive effect he can have for his family. Unfortunately, due to the novel’s deeply historical surroundings, Joe’s ultimate impact cannot be too great.
If Chabon were to break the reality of the novel, if Sammy Clay and Josef Kavalier’s Escapist was the biggest masked man of comics’ Golden Age, if Josef Kavalier was somehow able to go back in time and KILL HITLER, the novel would cease to be a reflection of America at the time. A section discussing comic characters the Four Freedoms describes how the heroes “attained the orgasmically impossible goal of killing Hitler, only to learn in the next issue that their victim had been merely a mechanical double.” There is catharsis in having costumed heroes beat up the Axis powers but those satisfactions cannot supersede the reality of the time.
Joe’s wartime position is an extension of that. Having Joe fight in the Pacific theater would be antithetical to Joe’s struggle in the novel. Sending him to Europe could give the character too much of an impact or justify revenging his family’s demise. His lonely tour in the Antarctic allows him an act of retribution (in his killing of Klaus Mecklenburg) that breaks his heart more than any other pain in his life. It makes Joe “feel like the worst man in the world.”
Sammy and Joe are successful in the comics business but not wildly so. The Escapist is a popular hero, but not as popular as Superman or Batman. They meet Orson Welles, Al Smith, and Salvador Dalí but do not maintain lasting connections with these figures. Keeping their successes and relations just short of iconic fits the characters into history as believable symbols of the American dream. Through hard work, Kavalier & Clay are able to weather difficult times and come through with a steady job, a family, and a house in the suburbs (as the narrative makes sure to point out, such goals are not so simply gained). Kavalier and Clay are everymen like Peter Parker and Clark Kent. They are all good-natured outcasts with extraordinary abilities of which the world is mostly ignorant.
Towards the end of the novel, Chabon notes, “Sammy had always argued, the character of Superman itself represented the amalgamation of ‘a bunch of ideas those guys stole from somebody else.’” Chabon blurs the lines between creation and historical allusion throughout the book. Sammy and Joe are even amalgamations of other comic book creators. Their deal with Empire Comics recalls the trouble between DC Comics and Superman’s creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. Joe’s surrealist impulses and illusionist background resemble the life of artist Jim Steranko. Joe’s journey from Prague to America recalls Superman’s journey from Krypton to Kansas. Kavalier and Clay are both creators and created.
Kavalier and Clay are important figures in the funnybook business, but not important enough to be named directly in Frederic Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent. The strands Dr. Wertham’s real book fights against are reflected in Sammy’s creations. As the Golden Age of comics closes, as the Escapist retires, as Sammy sets out for California, there is a feeling that superheroes are finished. The intensity with which National (the precursor to DC Comics) tries to corner the market on characters resembling Superman wears down the competition. In predicting the future of comics, Kavalier & Clay does not make a place for the superhero (oddly enough, the demise of superheroes is greatly overstated at the end of the novel. The real consequences of Seduction of the Innocent and the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency come to fruition in the establishment of the rigid Comics Code Authority. The regulatory body actually hurts horror and crime comics that had become popular). Eventually, superheroes will flourish again when people need to escape the Cold War.
When preparing to move his comic book collection, Joe reflects on the dismissal of comic books as “merely an easy escape from reality.” In his mind, the power of comics, the power of art hinges on that ability to take its audience away from reality. Joe finds fault not with a world created for escape but with the world that so easily dismisses its power. Even Sammy Clay comments on how comic books are inferior to “real” art. Tracy Bacon, from a place of love, is able to pinpoint the true motivation behind such a statement. The comic book creator feels the work is inferior to real art because the comic book creator feels inferior to real artists. The novel makes a convincing argument that comic books are capable of “real” art and cultural importance.
The episodic structure of the novel reflects the usual points of a superhero’s journey. There is the origin, there are villains, there are allies, and there are wanderings. The novel most resembles a comic book adventure in that sense. Our heroes have a “why” that drives them but is not easily answered. Like Superman, Captain America, or the Escapist, the world in front of Sammy Clay and Josef Kavalier is a sprawling landscape filled with adventure, opportunity, and peril. While Chabon does not depict his characters graphically, he still develops the feel of a superhero adventure by relying on comic tropes and themes.
- Did y’all think an understanding of comic book history was essential or at least beneficial in getting the most out of the novel? Did any of you without comic knowledge feel alienated by some of the references?
- The Radioman section sort of reminds me of the Cass Mastern section of All The King’s Men. Not so much in style, structure, or theme but more as an interesting digression that brings the rest of the novel together.
- Did the Escapist seem fake? I run into the problem when reading fiction about musicians and actors where their creative output, obviously being the work of the author, does not match my expectations for reality. Could the Escapist have realistically existed in our world?
- Does Chabon’s establishment of myth and mysticism with the tale of the Golem make the comic heroes seem more or less powerful? I thought the line drawn from the mythical to the superheroic was handled to make both seem meaningful and valid, but maybe some see it as make the superheroic an imitation of more important myths.
- Mr Xenophon walks us through conceptions OF GOD AND spirituality in K&C
- Grawlsy will DELIVER A WRITEUP about something!
- And lonelygirl15 will ILLUMINATE THE pulpy UNDERPINNINGS OF K&C
- AGAIN, I’D like to apologize to ALL INVOLVED FOR HOW disorganized THIS MONTH’S WRITE UP has been. FUCKIN DREADFUL. And don’t FORGET THAT we’re talking about HEARTBREAKING WORK soon, and we STILL NEED writers so EMAIL ME AT ANAMPATRIOT@gmail.com!