The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon
As I’ve mentioned, I’m not the greatest comic book reader. My diet consists of a comic book series about literature and keeping tabs on Harley Quinn. However, my brother owns a massive tome that I believe to be Marvel: The Characters and Their Universe. I flipped through it a lot as a wee lass, and so internalized a vague, dreamy conception of the Golden Age of comics, spanning from the late 1930s to the late 1940s–young illustrators leaning over massive draft boards, their hair falling into their face. That’s what came to me when I picked up The Adventures of Kavalier & Clay as I volunteered at the library this past summer.
The Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is, as advertised, the lives and times of Sammy Clay and Josef Kavalier. Joe escapes Nazi-occupied Prague with a bit of illusion inspired by Houdini. Sammy, a fan of comic books, dreams of making his living in that field. When the cousins meet in New York in the 1930s, their combined talents make Sammy’s dream come true. They invent The Escapist, a hero inspired by Harry Houdini, and, later, Luna Moth, a fantastical female champion by night, dowdy librarian by day. As World War II comes closer, The Escapist takes off, becoming immensely popular. The novel follows Clay, Kavalier, and Rosa Saks, the inspiration for Luna Moth, through the 1930s to the 1950s, when comics are accused of corrupting the innocent minds of American children.
This novel is immense. It covers fifteen years of busy history and three busy lives. The Golden Age of comics, World War II, The World’s Fair, Prague, illusions, Jewish mysticism, and even the plight of gays in the repressed atmosphere of the 1930s are all covered leisurely by Michael Chabon. For me, there’s an almost physical sensation when you realize you are in good hands when you’re reading a novel. When I was reading The Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, that feeling came on page four. His writing is fresh and thorough. I’ve learned more about the Golden Age of comics and the plight of soldiers in Antarctica than I ever thought I would. Even stray supporting characters are given the sort of fleshing out I wish main characters had in shorter novels. I’m definitely seeking out more Michael Chabon in the future.
Sammy and Joe, our leads, are at once cut from the same cloth and wildly different. Sent overseas by his family, Joe feels incredibly guilty that he is free while they are not, and spends every waking moment not devoted to comic books to rescuing them. Sammy is the idea guy, overseeing the comics, writing the scripts, and working out his sexual identity. Rosa, the third musketeer of the operation, is a bohemian with a heart of gold and a possessive streak concerning Joe. The way these three manage themselves into a family is one of the best things about The Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. I adore unconventional families, especially in period settings, and the Clays warm my heart.
This novel is firmly squared in history. Several of the actual Golden Age comic book artists and creators Chabon interviewed to research the novel make appearances as characters–Stan Lee even has a line or several. Joe rescues Salvador Dali at a party, and Joe’s mentor, the magician Kornblum, recalls watching Houdini perform. Even Eleanor Roosevelt makes a cameo! Chabon takes every historical detail he can and uses it to his advantage. The perspective is quite fresh–that of an observer from our time period. This makes for a rather unique form of foreshadowing, as The Adventures of Kavalier & Clay occasionally read like a historical piece on the cartoonists. Occasional footnotes mention period books the three main characters have read or been inspired by, and talk about the comic book industry. This novel is meticulously researched. Chabon’s author note at the end devolves into a bibliography.
While I was hoping for a bit more from the opening, which mentions Sammy at a fan convention, fan culture is only explored a little. A crazed pro-Nazi fan of the Escapist has a chapter where he imagines himself as the Saboteur, a villain seeking the destruction of the Escapist–in his mind, Joe. True, most of the fan culture developed after the Golden Age, but it would have been nice to see a little more. The portion of the novel where Joe, who has enlisted after a tragedy, serves in Antarctica is chilling and a little odd. While it makes Joe’s eventual return to true civilization have much more impact, I can’t forgive Joe for allowing his comrade to shoot and skin a dog who trusts him for a truly trivial reason. Joe is properly guilty over this, of course, but I’m not quite sure why that particular dog had to die. Still, it’s a small flaw in a such an overwhelmingly wonderful novel.
Bottom line: A sprawling overview of the Golden Age of comics through the eyes of two cousins in the field, The Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is thoughtfully and meticulously researched, making for a historical personal epic.
I rented this book from the public library.