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Val Mayerik

The Amazing Adventures of the Escapist

“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.

-Nancy

Picture header from Tor.com

Of Dust and Blood: The Battle at Little Big Horn

The 1876 Battle of the Little Bighorn, aka Battle of the Greasy Grass, is featured in this beautifully illustrated graphic novel.

The reader is witness to the days preceding the battle, and the battle itself through the eyes of a scout for the 7th Calvary named Greenhaw and a Lakota Sioux warrior named Slow Hawk. Author Jim Berry, hoped to give an equitable viewpoint of the battle in this piece of historical fiction, so he framed the narrative to be from two fictional men from either side, and who interact with the real historical figures of Sitting Bull, General Custer and Crazy Horse. Berry introduces the story with information about how he collected the historical research and how he reached out to the Native American community for translation assistance and fact checking. A map, art gallery and bibliography round out the book.

We first meet Greenhaw, who is penning a letter to his lady love Rose. Many of Custer’s scouts were Native American, or were of mixed ancestry and could translate for him, but that is never addressed in the story. While brave, he just wants to make it out of the battle alive, and be reunited with Rose.  Slow Hawk is a Lakota Sioux, who wishes to avenge the death of his brother and parents. In the panel below we see him replicate his brother’s war paint on himself, in order to honor him. When Crazy Horse gifts a new horse to Slow Hawk, he is ready for battle and will do what ever it takes to win. The chaos of battle is evocatively shown, and you are thrown in the middle of the battlefield, as leaders are making split second decisions that aren’t always the best. You will root for both Greenhaw and Slow Hawk to survive, but in war nothing is certain.

The art is a wonder in this story. Val Mayerik, who has illustrated for other graphic novels such as Conan and is the co-creator of Howard the Duck, completely elevates this story. He should branch out in his art career as the way he depicts war scenes and moving horses was just outstanding! While this story is certainly an abbreviated version of the battle, Mayerik’s art helped tell much of the tale. His strong coloring and care in which he drew the Native Americans and landscapes gave an authenticity to the entire narrative.

As a history fan, as soon as I saw this graphic novel listed on NetGalley I knew that I wanted it. The device of using fictional protagonists worked, as there are other novels about the leaders on either side of the battle, and this format allowed for balanced and sympathetic portrayals of both sides.  However, there were a few choices by the author that I questioned. In the introduction, a casual mention is made of a Native American descendant of Custer, as oral tradition says that Custer had a child with a Cheyenne woman – yet this fact is disputed, so giving a small explanation should have been included for those who are not aware of the story. I applaud that the Lakota language was used in the narrative, but a dying soldier speaking Italian with no translation was also shown, to jarring effect. I came away knowing that the author really did his research and wanted to give an accurate portrayal of this controversial battle. I recommend this book, both for the historic representation and the gorgeous art!

-Nancy

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