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Book Review: "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay"

Updated on April 6, 2015
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In The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay the gifted novelist Michael Chabon explores an obscure but fascinating subject: the creation of the comic book as an entirely new art form by New York City’s male Jewry in the 1930’s.

The novel chronicles the lives of two cousins, Samuel Klayman (a.k.a. Clay) and Josef Kavalier, from their first meeting in Brooklyn in 1939; their collaboration in the development of a comic strip character known as “The Escapist”; their meteoric rise to prominence before U.S. entry into World War 2; through their wartime estrangement and subsequent reunion in 1954. Parallel to the theme of art and commerce lie other subjects: the suppression of homosexuality in prewar America as well as the latent homosexuality of early comic book storylines; the sublimation of Jewish anxiety during the rise of Nazism in the form of art; the alienation from mainstream society of returning war veterans; and the effect of absentee fathers on the development of young boys during the war years and after.

A strange Jewish epic for an underappreciated and at times maligned art, the story is above all a celebration of Semitic heritage and culture. Chabon, a Jew himself, has one of his characters tell us:

“What, they’re all Jewish, superheroes. Superman, you don’t think he’s Jewish? Coming over from the old country, changing his name like that. Clark Kent, only a Jew would pick a name like that for himself.” (Part VI, Chapter 14)

Plot Summary

The book begins in Brooklyn when 17 year-old Samuel is told his cousin Josef, about the same age, is making a round-the-world trip from Prague to immigrate to America. Spurred by the popularity of a new character called Superman, the boys quickly develop a mutual ambition to invent a character of their own.

While in his native Prague, Josef has served as an apprentice to Bernard Kornblum, an escape artist on the order of Harry Houdini who specializes in picking locks and extricating himself from boxes, chains and underwater burials. In flashback we are told the remarkable story of Josef’s tutelage under Kornblum: his near-drowning death with his brother Thomas while attempting to perform an escape from a laundry bag in Prague’s Moldau River before being rescued by Kornblum himself; his mastery of picking locks; and his careful escape from Prague in a coffin with a “golem”, a large folkloric statue of Jewish legend, which is shipped to Latvia with Josef hiding next to it.

Once in New York, young Joe, a gifted artist, begins drawing pictures of a fictitious hero in a tight-fitting outfit. Sam, who writes the storyline for Joe’s drawings, calls their new character “The Escapist”. The boys negotiate with Sheldon Anapol, the head of Empire Comics, who agrees to buy the character from them but to keep all of the rights, paying the duo only a token salary for their work. On the coattails of Superman and Batman, “The Escapist” quickly soars to mass popularity. Though comfortably paid, Sam and Joe reap none of the fortune generated by The Escapist’s comic books and look to find alternate sources of revenue in radio.

When the radio adaptation of their Escapist stories appears, Sam meets Tracy Bacon, a handsome actor who provides the voice for his character. While Joe begins spending his spare time with a pretty young artist named Rosa Saks whom he has met through a comic book colleague, Sam grows lonely and turns to Tracy for companionship. After a wild sexual encounter with Tracy at the abandoned site of New York’s World’s Fair, Sam realizes his homosexuality and makes plans to move to Los Angeles with Tracy. In the meantime, Joe has been trying to arrange to get visas for his parents and younger brother Thomas to escape from Prague and get citizenship in America before the Nazi takeover of Prague is complete.

The Escapist becomes ever-increasingly political as thinly-disguised Germanic and Nazi-like villains become prominent in Joe’s drawings. Sam and Joe are pressured to rework their stories and remove obvious references to Hitler. Joe briefly tries to enlist in the Canadian army to fight against the Germans who are terrorizing his family back home. He occasionally revives his lock-picking and chains-escaping act at bar mitzvahs and receptions.

When Joe hears news that his father has died and later that a rescue boat that he had financed to carry his brother and others from Portugal has been shot down by the Germans, he abandons pregnant Rosa and enlists in the military after the Pearl Harbor attack. At the same time, Sam and Tracy are caught in a police raid with other men in a beachside retreat and arrested on sodomy charges. Sam is released but never again sees Tracy, who ultimately dies in wartime combat.

During the war, Joe serves in the nightmarish wasteland of Antarctica, where he coordinates the aerial bombing of a secret German research site. By letter he receives word that Rosa has born their son Thomas and, expecting that he will never return, married Sam, who has renounced homosexuality. As the lone survivor from his post, Joe recuperates in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Years pass and Joe, living the life of an outcast after the war, is renting office space in the Empire State Building to draw thousands of pictures in the image of a new golem. In the meantime, Sam and Rosa live the apparently normal life of a married couple with 11 year-old Thomas in a tract suburban house on Long Island. The era of popularity for comic book superheroes has passed and Sam struggles for money.

Longing to meet his son and Rosa, whom he still loves, Joe begins appearing at a magician’s store in Manhattan where he happens to see Thomas, a boy that he suspects is his son. He eventually reveals himself as Thomas’s cousin and arranges to perform a jump from the Empire State Building to impress his son. Suspended by rubber bands, he makes the jump but is injured. The stunt reveals his identity to Sam and Rosa, previously unaware of his whereabouts, and they invite him to stay in their home and become acquainted with his son, who does not yet know of his paternity.

Joe and Sam consider rekindling their partnership and reworking The Escapist in adult themes, but a copyright infringement lawsuit by a rival company that owns Superman forces them to abandon the character. Joe uses money from a dormant bank account to buy Empire Comics from Anapol. But Sam, realizing homosexuality is his identity, leaves Joe, Rosa and their son on Long Island and goes to Los Angeles.

Assessment

The polished and ornate literary style of Chabon, his passion for his subject and pride in his own Jewishness are the most notable features of Kavalier and Clay. Along the way we learn many fascinating things that are not widely known: that Jewish male duos produced many of the great popular comic strip figures of the Golden Age of the medium (i.e. Siegel and Shuster for Superman; Kane and Finger for Batman; Simon and Kirby for Captain America), that Seduction of the Innocent, a popular book of the 1950’s which attributed juvenile delinquency to comic book violence, was taken so seriously that it resulted in a U.S. Senate investigation and self-censorship by the industry; that the proliferation of male sidekicks, tight-fitting outfits and muscular male physiques in popular comic strips may have been a subliminal expression of homosexuality during repressed times.

An intriguing question is: why have Jewish men had such a dominant role in American artistic life, particularly in the early years of the 20th century, a period when anti-Semitism in Europe gave rise to Nazism? While the Holocaust was incubating in Europe the giants of American music were named Berlin, Gershwin and Hammerstein; the Vaudevillians and radio stars were George Burns, Milton Berle and Jack Benny; the slapstick comedians were the Marx Brothers and the Three Stooges; and the Hollywood kingpins and producers were the likes of Jack Warner, Samuel Goldwyn and Irving Thalberg.

For this, Chabon himself provides the best answer. An outnumbered people, burdened by the weight of centuries of persecution and oppression, and facing the approach of its cruelest enemy ever, found its ultimate escape in art:

“It was the expression of a yearning that a few magic words and an artful hand might produce something—one poor, dumb, powerful thing—exempt from the crushing strictures, from the ills, cruelties and inevitable failures of the greater Creation.” (Part VI, Chapter 14)

© 2015 James Crawford

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