Samuel Klayman is in his Brooklyn bedroom one night in 1939 when his mother introduces him to his cousin, Josef Kavalier, newly arrived from Prague, who will be staying with them, having escaped Europe and the Nazis. Samuel is initially suspicious of Josef, but agrees to try to help him obtain employment at the company where he works, Empire Novelties.
The son of two Jewish doctors, Josef had become interested in the art of escape and studied with Bernard Kornblum, a famous escape artist. To safeguard him, Josef’s parents arranged to send him out of the country, but he was thrown off the train because of a change in regulations. In desperation, he begged Kornblum to help him flee. Kornblum had already contracted to arrange the shipment to Vilna of Rabbi Loew’s golem (a giant clay man said to come to life to protect Jews) in order to protect it, and he agreed to secrete Josef with the golem, allowing him to escape.
The morning after Josef’s arrival, Samuel awakes to find him drawing on a comic panel and is very impressed by his work. Josef reveals that he studied for two years at Prague’s Academy of Fine Arts. Samuel asks Josef to draw a portfolio to show his employer, Sheldon Anapol. The cousins meet with Anapol and propose that they create a new hero similar to Superman. Anapol agrees to entertain the idea if they can come up with a good sample comic. They leave to begin work and Samuel reminisces about his father, the “Mighty Molecule,” a strongman on the vaudeville circuit who abandoned the family during Samuel’s childhood. He returned when Samuel was a teenager and promised to take him along on the circuit, but left in the middle of the night and died soon afterward.
Samuel and Josef go to the apartment where several of Samuel’s artist friends live; they all begin creating characters for the sample comic. Samuel and Josef create The Escapist, whose real name is Tom Mayflower. Mayflower trains with a famous escape artist and takes over his role as helper of the innocent when the older man is killed. They present their work to Anapol, suggesting that he start a company called Empire Comics. Anapol agrees to finance the project, but only if his employee George Deasey is editor. He asks Josef to change the cover art for the first issue, which shows The Escapist punching Adolph Hitler. Josef refuses to compromise, feeling that the anti-Nazi artwork is an important element in his quest to bring attention to the plight of Jews in Europe. Anapol agrees to let them keep the cover, and Empire Comics is born.
The Escapist is a huge success, and Anapol becomes extremely wealthy, while Samuel and Josef earn good salaries. Now known as Joe Kavalier and Sammy Clay, the team creates many successful characters, with Samuel writing the stories and Josef providing the art. Josef is continually trying to get his family out of Prague. He learns that his father has died, prompting him to consider joining the Canadian air force. Eventually, he rejects this plan and redoubles his efforts to save his mother and brother.
Distraught, Josef breaks into the office of the Aryan-American League, run by Carl Ebling, an anti-Semite. Ebling catches him, but he escapes. Ebling later places a fake bomb in the Empire Comics offices, prompting an evacuation of the Empire State Building, though Josef refuses to leave. Deasey, a disillusioned Columbia University graduate who feels comics are beneath him, but who nevertheless needs the money and admires Josef, warns the partners that Anapol is selling The Escapist as a radio serial. He advises them to press Anapol for more money.
Josef begins a relationship with Rosa Saks, whom he meets at a party given by her father, Longman Harkoo. At Harkoo’s party, Josef saves Salvador Dali’s life and Samuel witnesses two men kissing romantically, which surprises and intrigues him. Rosa introduces Josef to Hermann Hoffman, who runs the Transatlantic Rescue Agency, dedicated to rescuing Jewish children from Europe. Josef enlists Hoffman’s help in rescuing his brother Thomas. Josef and Samuel create a new...
(The entire section is 1660 words.)