“To me, Clark Kent in a phone booth and Houdini in a packing crate, they were one in the same thing. You weren’t the same person when you came out as when you went in.”
– Sam Clay, “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay”
“The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay” by Michael Chabon is a novel about escape and transformation. It begins with the literal escape of Josef Kavalier from Nazi occupied Prague, with the help of his escape artist teacher. Joe (as Josef quickly calls himself in America) eventually lands in the Long Island home of his cousin, Sammy Klayman (who uses the professional name “Sam Clay”).
With Joe’s artistic talents, Sammy sees the chance to embark on his dream of creating comic book superheroes in the vein of the recently introduced Superman. They create “The Escapist,” who becomes successful enough that the two establish a veritable comic empire, and rub elbows with the cultural elite (Orson Welles and Salvador Dali make appearances, among others).
The book embraces all the conventions of comic books and pulp novels – devious villains, dashing heroes, improbable escapes – but the reality always falls short of their ideals. Our heroes survive to fight another day, but not without scars. Joe and Sammy fight Hitler and the Nazis in their comic books, but this isn’t enough for Joe and he enlists to fight for real – only to end up in Antarctica, which he bravely, absurdly, and tragically defends from the Germans.
The plot whirls and spins like any outsize superhero adventure, but always stays tethered to the reality of the war-torn world. Chabon captures the crackling energy of 1940s New York, and charts the history of comic books from the initial, unpromising starts through the repressive congressional hearings of the 1950s. Joe and Sammy struggle with business, romance, families, and themselves. They long for escape, but don’t always know from what or to where.
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