Visions of Paradise

Saturday, July 03, 2004

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay

I am not certain if Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay will appeal to all readers of Visions of Paradise as much as it appealed to me, but I also suspect that those of you who do like it will love it as much as I did. It is a truly wondrous book which combines several aspects successfully: a coming of age novel about two young men growing up in Brooklyn at the outset of World War II; the story of an immigrant struggling to make the adaptation to a new land, an adaptation made even more wrenching by the knowledge that his Jewish family was still trapped in Czechoslovakia during the Nazi reign of terror; a love story about a romantic triangle among three people who all love each other deeply; and what really made the novel special to me was its main focus, the story of two young men who are the writer and artist for a comic book entitled The Escapist.

In the rush of money-grubbing publishers jumping on the suddenly lucrative comic book bandwagon soon after the introduction of Superman in 1938, the creators of The Escapist sign away all their rights and most of their profits to the character, not unlike Siegel and Shuster, the creators of Superman. The book lovingly describes the creation of The Escapist by the two boys, how they market him to a publisher, how the monthly comics are produced by a team of equally-young, equally-inexperienced writers and artists, how the comic grows in popularity to become a radio show and then a movie, and what that success does to the comic’s creators. We follow their lives during and after World War II when the writer leaves comic writing for “serious” writing until financial circumstances force him back into comics, while the artist participates in World War II and we see the aftermath of its traumatic events on his life.

Besides the main foçi, the novel has several minor threads which are equally well-done. The artist is an amateur magician, devoted to the life and talents of Harry Houdini–from which the original idea for the Escapist arises–and we are immersed in that world briefly. The writer struggles with homosexuality, and we follow him through those trials and their resulting effects on his life.

It’s a cliché that every science fiction fan has a different Golden Age, but my personal Golden Age overlapped my twin discoveries of comic books and science fiction, and I still have warm and fuzzy feelings about both my first sf magazines–primarily Pohl-era Galaxy–and such comic book heroes as Green Lantern, Hawkman and Justice League of America. Kavalier and Clay recalls those memories and the corresponding warm feelings, but does so as one facet of a wonderful story with delightful characters wrapped in such exquisite writing that the language itself was a total delight. I recommend this book to everybody, but even moreso to those of you who grew up on comic books as I did. I suspect that some of the Pulitzer Prize voters must have been secret comic book readers as children, since why else would such a stodgy committee select this wonderful book as their winner for fiction a few years ago?

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