The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, by Michael Chabon

The ruddy temper, the hammer
Of red and blue, the hard sound–
Steel against intimation–the sharp flash,
The vital, arrogant, fatal, dominant X.
–Stevens, “The Motive for Metaphor”

Those of us who were boys once like comic books and superheroes. The comic book has transformed itself through the graphic novel to become something grander in scope–an attempt to costume the paneled story in respectable wear.

This is not a graphic novel; it’s instead a novel about the comic book business. The two cousins of the title, Joe Kavalier and Sam Clay (Klayman), become a comic-book writing team in the forties after Joe escapes from German-occupied Prague. Joe is the artist, and Sam is the writer. The novel is most interesting in the first few chapters, set in Prague, where young Josef learns the art of escapism from a master, Bernard Kornblum. Josef makes his escape to the free world hidden inside a coffin carrying the Golem of Prague (dressed as a dead gentile in full mortuary finery).

There’s a girl, Rosa Luxemburg Saks, who becomes the love interest of both, though she ends up with Joe. Sam has an adventure in which he pursues the actor playing his creation, the Escapist, but eventually suppresses his unconventional desires in order to marry the pregnant Rosa when Joe disappears into the U.S. Navy. There is eventually a return, and a later departure–someone lights out for the territory.

The author is not shy about draping the metaphor of the Escapist superhero over both Joe and Sam, each of whom tries to escape his chains at one time or another. This may be clumsiness by the author, but I doubt it; instead, it’s the way a comic book tells its story–with big bold letters and redundant punctuation marks. The style is lively and witty, though most of the characters are flat. Joe and Sam receive nearly all the attention; the exception may be young Tommy Clay in the last section of the book. Rosa inexplicably, though of course not uniquely, moves without complaint from Manhattan party girl to Long Island housewife. Like so many comics, even those with heroines (such as Luna Moth, based on Rosa), it’s a young man’s fantasy world, not any realer world, that makes you turn the pages.

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