“Everything Was A Long Time Ago”: Reflectin Comics & History in Kavalier & Clay

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!

by Bookface

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.

Random Thoughts:

  • 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!
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17 Responses to “Everything Was A Long Time Ago”: Reflectin Comics & History in Kavalier & Clay

  1. UNRELATED BUT I couldn’t figure OUT HOW TO change the size of THE TEXT. WHEN I COPY/PASTED IT WordPress was autoformating it at SUCH A SMALL size. I’ve never HAD THIS ISSUE AND if anyone knows A FIX I’D BE greatly appreciative!

  2. Gina says:

    Great write up Bookface!

    I don’t have much to add except that I loved this book, and normally I would have never read something like this, or would have given up after the first 100 pages (which took me about two weeks to get through for some reason), but it pick right up in part two and I’m so glad I stuck it out. Thanks, Bookgum!

    One thing I kept thinking about through the book was the huge growth that Chabon has went through. I read Mysteries of Pittsburgh recently and kind of hated it. It was really self-indulgent and definitely seemed like a 20-something wrote it, and not in a good way. To go from that to something as epic as Kavalier & Clay is pretty impressive.

    • hotspur says:

      Gina! I read “Model World” years ago which I think was the book Chabon wrote just before or after “Mysteries” and yeah, he was hard to take back then. His prose felt like… a guy trying real hard to write prose — and that was the reason I avoided K&C until now. But K&C felt relaxed, like he was having fun with it (at least up until WWII ended), and that made it a great read.

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  4. thepurplemonk says:

    The tale of the Golem was meant to draw parallels to what K&C are doing with The Escapist. In both ancient societies and today, man attempts to conjure something more powerful than himself in order to influence things that he cannot.

    The parallel continues when The Escapist has no influence on the War or America’s involvement in it. It is telling that later, once both Sammy and Joe have stopped clinging to the idea of comics as an agent of change, the golem returns as nothing but mud. Comics may be something of great importance to K&C, just as the Golem was to the Jews of Prague, but they are no longer imbued with the power to influence the world.

    • Patrick M says:

      Some interesting Golem/Comic-and-other-Pop-Culture-Crossovery stuff here:

      • thepurplemonk says:

        Facsinating stuff. This passage from the article struck me: “Often the Golem does save the Jews from destruction, but while doing it, becomes a creature of destruction himself that must be destroyed by removing the spark of life from it or divine word thus rendered back into inert clay.”

        Did Sammy & Joe’s creation need to be destroyed? And is that why the golem was?

    • babbycakes says:

      The golem arriving in Levittown was pretty intense. I think I read it as both an indication that they had stopped believing comics could change the world, as you say, and also as proof they had stopped thinking about the past as more real than the present. When the golem is a memory (memory=regret/nostalgia/history/narrative &c), it had form, and yet weighed nothing. When it arrives in their living room, it has no form, but it has physical weight. So their past has “form”, i.e. a narrative form, but their present has weight, i.e. emotional connection to their own lives. And they have to choose one or the other, which brings it back to what you said.

      Also it could be a pretty sad indictment of the life of a writer. Either you have the form or you have the weight, but never both. So you live your life, or you create the shape of a life. Does a book about writers, by a writer, really end on such an anti-writing cautionary note? It’s a very hopeful ending for the characters, but not for writers!

      • thepurplemonk says:

        I didn’t see the ending as entirely hopeful. Yes, Sammy decides to live life as an open gay man and Joe and Rosa are reunited, but it was definitely bittersweet. There’s definitely an implication that Sammy & Joe won’t have contact again. And Tommy (was that his name?) has to deal with this fatherly switch, which can’t be easy for him. I felt like an air of sadness hung over the whole ending despite the fact that every character has achieved some sort of fulfillment. Maybe that’s a commentary on the imperfection of people versus the perfection of the heroes in comics?

      • hotspur says:

        babby, I liked that part too. It was a little mysterious in that I think he also says the golem only has weight when it has a soul. So I took it to mean (partly) that this kind of day-to-day suburban life is far from the heroism we think we were born for but also that it is what’s most real. So the real adventure is just life together in a family. But that felt kind of like a cop-out to me, too, because I so much more enjoyed the earlier parts of the book where they were climbing in windows and saving Dali’s life and falling in love at the top of the Empire State Bldg. Is Chabon saying the “soul” of your life isn’t in those shenanigans — even though he seemed to have fun writing them? And if you spend your later life missing those days, thinking “Everything was a long time ago,” then you’re missing out on your soul? Maybe that’s the reason the narrative ends where it does — because the characters stop longing to be superheroes and they accept that they just will live life, and therefore like the golem life acquires weight but loses its form. There can be no more narrative from there on. There is just life. Maybe?

  5. Anchor Management says:

    Very interesing write-up. As a former comic nerd, I empathized with that part of the story. I did find the Escapists as a comic very possible, there were heroes with much less credible powers back then, even now. What is less believeable is the fact that not only is he a trained magician and escape artists, Joe is also a great artist. In that sense, you could say that Joe himself is somewhat of a superman.

    • babbycakes says:

      I think Joe was always supposed to represent the ideal, and Sam the imperfect human. “Kavalier” is a state of mind, and “Clay” is well, clay. So Joe often seemed to good to be true… but if they are taken together as two halves of a person, they seem very believable.

      • Patrick M says:

        Clay’s novel-in-the-drawer while he churned out issues and issues of comics content reminded me of the Robert Graves poem:
        He found a formula for drawing comic rabbits:
        This formula for drawing comic rabbits paid,
        So in the end he could not change the tragic habits
        This formula for drawing comic rabbits made.

      • Grinth says:

        It is also reminded me a bit of Jack Torrance obsessively writing the novel that turns out to be “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” over and over again.

        That being said, I don’t see Sam as imperfect or Joe as ideal. The more I think about it, if I was to make this sort of comparison it would be that Sam is the hero and Joe is the sidekick, despite Sam wondering at one point if all he wants to be is a sidekick.

        Sam’s tragedy is that he never realizes that he is the hero and not the sidekick. The epiphany Sam has that Batman is a stand in for the absent father is also a statement about Sam himself. Sure, these heroes and sidekicks belie Sam’s childhood being largely without his father, but they also mirror his relationship with both Joe and Rosa. He takes Joe under his wing. Joe follows his lead. Joe loves and misses taking orders from Sam. Sam essentially runs Empire comics. He ends up taking care of multiple other comic companies. Sam is the driving force behind everything but Joe’s art. Sam is the father figure he didn’t have, and in the case of Tommy, this is quite literally the truth.

        Sam and Joe each put their worries, fears, personal issues etc into the comics. They transformed them into a myth. A myth so powerful that all of that worry, fear and personal issues seemed light as a feather. Each of them reached a place where they no longer needed the myth to move forward with their life. The comic is canceled. The Golem returns destroyed, no longer a mythical creature but dirt of the earth (which is why I think it is referred to as being soulless. As a Golem it isn’t real. Much like the Escapists fictional escapades against Hitler did not carry the weight the real conflict, the dirt did not weigh what it should when it held a mythical shape). Like Sam realizing how heavy it had been to live his whole life bent into one lie or another only after he was freed from it, the real weight of the Golem only became apparent when it was cast off, no longer needed, its mythical qualities destroyed leaving only the dirt it was made of.

        And I’ll stop. It’s late and I’m rambling.

  6. babbycakes says:

    Grinth, I like that about Sam being the driving force. I think you absolutely can/should? see them that way, with “Clay” representing real things, tangible, and therefore more powerful, and Kavalier less powerful. I guess it depends on how much you things ideas can effect the world, and Chabon’s answer to that seems more of a no than a yes.

    I could just keep talking about their names forever. How Clay is actually Klayman? Removing his “man”-hood in order to seem more gentile? Hooboy. Or how Rosa’s married name, assuming the identity of Sam, allows her to be part of the iconic “Kavalier & Clay” at the end? What the hell is that saying? Also, which K&C is the book’s title referring to? It could be the Amazing Soccer-practice Adventures of Joe & Rosa, yet to come.

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