The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is a novel that is set during the golden age of comic books. The eponymous heroes Kavalier and Clay team up to create their own series of comic books that features The Escapist, a superhero that has powers of escape and liberation. These superpowers are drawn from the creators’ own desires and fantasies to escape their own chains: Joe Kavalier wants to free his family in the Nazi-dominated Europe while Sammy Clay wants to free himself from the bigotry of the New York City of that decade. Written in a compelling language that manages both to be profound and geeky, this is one book that every comic book lover who has a knack for good writing should not miss.
Joe Kavalier meets his cousin Sammy Clay in the latter’s bedroom one night after he successfully escapes from Prague at the cusp of the WWII. This meeting allows the two to discover each other’s interest in magic tricks and drawing. Joe’s illustrating talent and Sam’s narrative gift allow them to convince the latter’s boss to invest on comics and introduce a new superhero to the already booming comic book history. With the boss’s nod, The Escapist is born.
And the adventures begin. But what else are borne out of this team up? What struggles and successes await the cousins? What does The Escapist mean to Kavalier and Clay? What are they escaping from?
The Escapist who reigned among the giants of the earth in 1941 was a different kind of man. He was serious, sometimes to a fault. His face was lean, his mouth set, and his eyes, through the holes in his head-scarf, were like cold iron rivets. Though the was strong, he was far from invulnerable. He could be knocked cold, bludgeoned, drowned, burned, beaten, shot. And his missions were just that–his business, fundamentally, was one of salvation. The early stories, for all their anti-fascist fisticuffs and screaming Stukas, are stories of orphans threatened, peasants abused, poor factory workers turned into slavering zombies by their arms-producer bosses. Even after the Escapist went to war, he spent as much time sticking up for the innocent victims of Europe as he spent as he did taking divots out of battleships with his fists. He shielded refugees and kept bombs from landing on babies. Whenever he busted a Nazi spy ring at work right here in the U.S.A. (the Saboteur’s, for example), he would deliver the speeches by which Sam Clay tried to help fight his cousin’s war, saying, for example, as he broke open yet another screw-nosed “armored mole” full of lunkish Germans who had been trying to dig under Fort Knox, “I wonder what that head-in-the-sand crowd of war ostriches would say if they could see this!” In his combination of earnestness, social conscience, and willingness to scrap, he was a perfect hero for 1941, as America went about the rumbling, laborious process of backing itself into a horrible war.
Every superhero has a tragic story hidden behind the mask or slipped under the tights. The novel, despite its lighthearted humor, does not forget to reveal this underlying tragedy. Joe, a survivor of the Holocaust, carries a deep remorse for merely surviving, as if it were a grave sin to survive. The Escapist, with his uppercuts connecting to the jaws of Joe’s illustrated version of Hitler, and his general anti-Nazi propaganda in his comic book battles and adventures, help him earn a lot of money, money which he puts away to take his family away from the impending war in Europe.
But it’s not enough. It is frustrating not to be able to get something when you have the money to pay for it. Not even The Escapist can help him and his family escape. So as a result of the rage that is built up within him and that is caused by the world events that the Jews are suffering from, he goes out attacking anything that is remotely German, which is something that almost leads him to self-destruction.
Sam, on the other hand, has to deal with his sexuality. He realizes that he is not like most men are, that he is someone whom people in those days would call a fairy. This slow realization is consummated at the height of his career not without the disdainful attitude of bigoted people towards homosexuals and the almost unbearable pain of letting go of a love that is deemed forbidden.
Appearances from various big men in the comic book industry are interspersed in the novel with gusto, and such stuff is something that will be relished by the comic book fan as if it were the definitive source of the industry’s history. The reader is also given some insight on the ins and outs of this industry, particularly the heydays that are often accompanied with the ruthlessness quietly unleashed by the big people behind it.
There is also the myth of the golem, an artifact created by a rabbi centuries ago that is believed to save the Jews from its oppressors. But will this giant made out of mud actually bring deliverance to the Jews from the Holocaust, or will it just remain forever hidden and send signals to people in distress to help them escape or, more importantly, find personal freedom?
There is geekdom. There is magic. There is artistry. There is pop culture and world history. There is fame and heartbreak. These are the amazing adventures of Kavalier and Clay.
Dates Read: March 3 to 12, 2012
No. of Pages: 639
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars