“The Escapist- dazzling Master of Elusion, foe of tyranny, and champion of liberation! Operating from a secret headquarters under the boards of the Empire Theater, the Escapist and his crack team of associates roam the globe performing amazing feats of magic and coming to the aid of all those who languish in the chains of oppression.”
Having just finished the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (2001) novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay written by Michael Chabon, I was intrigued enough by the fictional comic book hero to find this metafiction graphic novel about The Escapist. To continue the charade that Kavalier and Clay were real men this parody recreates the supposed decades-long publishing history of the character, starting in the Golden Age of Comics. This companion book is a homage to the comics of past eras and showcases The Escapist (plus Luna Moth) in many different styles and moves forward chronologically to how comics are typically drawn today. The collection included a manga type story, a simply drawn gag style strip that would appeal to children, watercolors for Luna, plus all the Golden, Silver, Bronze and modern era types of illustrations and storytelling.
Some of my favorites:
The Passing of the Key– origin story as found in the novel. Written by Michael Chabon and illustrated by Eric Wright in a perfect Golden Era vibe.
300 Fathoms Down– an elderly Escapist still has it and shows amazing abilities to withstand water pressure. Written by Mike Baron and drawn by Val Mayerik, a favored artist of mine, who illustrated Of Dust & Blood and The Legion of Monsters.
Old Flame– Luna Moth has a battle of the wits with the Devil himself. Written by Kevin McCarthy with a lovely painterly approach by Dan Brereton.
The Lady or the Tiger– gritty what-if story about how the Escapist must forgo love to continue fighting crime. Very emo. Written by David Gold and illustrated evocatively by Gene Colan.
Taking on a life of its own, in another book by Chabon, his essay collection Book-Ends, author Brian K Vaughn (famous for Saga) writes a brief story of fictionally meeting an elderly Sam Clay at a comic convention, and how Clay inspired him to become the “comic book genius” he is today. Vaughn takes it further by writing the graphic novel series The Escapists.
But to understand ALL of this, you must first read the original novel (that I reviewed on Goodreads):
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay
How I struggled with this book! A few years ago this book was highly recommended to me by a co-worker who loved it and thought I’d connect with the two main characters who are creators of a famed comic book series. At 600+ pages, I choose to listen to it on audio but after listening to half of the discs, I set it aside and listened to two other audiobooks before coming back to it and finishing it. By the end, I was in such an apoplectic rage that I could not comprehend why it won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
The novel spans twenty years from the late 1930s to the mid-1950s and tells the tale of two cousins who are co-creators of a famous comic book character, The Escapist. The story begins in Prague as teen Joe Kavalier, who had trained to be an escape artist, immigrates to America, but not until he helps find and move the famed Golem of Prague (aside- a short story that Chabon wrote earlier about Joe’s childhood, The Hofzinser Club, was dropped into the novel and is now on season five of the LeVar Burton Reads podcast). Once in America, he joins his cousin Sam Clay and within a week both men have teamed together to create the famed Escapist comic. This was part of the novel I enjoyed the most, detailing how the men created the backstory for a very believable Golden Age hero. Success comes quickly for the duo, despite being screwed over for the rights by the fictitious Empire Comics, as it parallels what happened to so many young comic authors and illustrators back in this era. During this time Joe tries to help his younger brother Thomas and his parents immigrate but he is thwarted at every turn, and his anger shines through in the anti-Hilter storylines in the comics. When he falls in love with an artist named Rosa he feels guilty for finding love when his family is trapped in the Czech Republic. Sam gets the short shrift of the story for despite his personal struggles, his story is not developed, and that was a shame for I had began to hate Joe and hoped for more Sam. Tragedy occurs for the cousins, right as Pearl Harbor is bombed, and Joe makes a radical and very selfish decision.
After a brief interlude of Joe’s WWII experiences (which were just odd) a time jump occurs and we find Sam and Rosa married with a son named Thomas. At this point, I disliked every character in the novel, including the pre-teen. Joe’s prior disappearance is forgiven and swept under the rug, and the conclusion was very unsatisfying. The narrative thread of escape was effectively utilized throughout, but in fact, this story would have fared better with 100 fewer pages.
So why did I even stick it out? I did enjoy the behind the scenes look at how the comic industry got its start, the author could have a turn of phrase that I loved, there was a bit of a John Cheever vibe in the last third of the story, and I liked the mythology of The Escapist. In fact, The Escapist has taken on a life of its own and a metafiction comic anthology was created about the “history” of this comic book hero and an essay was written in another of Chabon’s books about Sam Clay. I’m glad I stuck it out, for I indeed liked a few parts myself, but as a whole, it was not for me at all.
Picture header from Tor.com