The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is rich with characters. The two protagonists of the title are fully supported by a cast that is vast and diverse, filled with fictional and historical figures alike. Indeed, the history in which the story situates itself is a character as well; historical events assist in shaping the path of the narrative and historical figures such as Orson Welles, Salvador Dali, Max Ernst, Eleanor Roosevelt, Estes Kefauver and many others make appearances of various significance in the novel, often to help make a point about Joe or Sammy or by coming to the plot's aid. Seeing the premiere of Citizen Kane and meeting Orson Welles prompts Joe and Sammy to transform the comic book genre and create a new form for the medium, essentially paving the way for the graphic novels we know today. Max Ernst appears at the moment Joe is deciding whether or not he should know Rosa better; Eleanor Roosevelt eliminates a very real obstacle that bars Tommy's passage. Estes Kefauver and his hearings allow Chabon to make a slight jab at the paranoia-fed persecution that was running rampant in the 1950s, while he also demonstrates the extent to which television played a part. Likewise, the real comic book makers themselves— Stan Lee, Gil Kane and Frank Pantaleone, are just three—make an appearance, offering keen insight into their own profession. The way in which all of these "real life" characters interact with the fictional ones creates a conversation between the novel and history, often providing a kind of critique, implicit or otherwise, of American culture and the people who participated in it, in this historical moment.
As for the fictional characters themselves, Joe and Sammy, at the center, balance each other in many ways. Sammy, son of immigrants, but born and bred an American, provides Joe, and consequently the reader, with a specific look into America of the 1940s and 1950s. He is a proud American, ready to assimilate, especially because he sees that as the first step toward making his fortune and a name for himself. One clear indication of Sammy's character is his favorite place in New York City—the former location of the World's Fair. Fitting for the kind of optimist he is, the fair, entitled "Building the World of Tomorrow," encapsulated the way in which the imagination could create a hope that the world could be a better place, a hope that seems to be very much alive in Sammy throughout most the book. Sammy often thinks ill of himself, unworthy of love, either from Joe or from Tracy Bacon, but he never doubts the chances that the world gives him; he does not squander the opportunities...
(The entire section is 1079 words.)
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Sheldon Anapol, an owner of Empire Comics and Joe and Sam’s boss for several years, is a businessman first and foremost and plays his historic role in cheating two naïve young men out of their multi-million dollar idea. But he is not without a conscience, having worked hard more than a decade at his own, less-successful novelty business. As co-owner of Empire Comics (with his brother-in-law Jack Ashkenazy), Anapol is subject to both its successes and its troubles. Even as Anapol is settling into a life made comfortable by lots of money, he is also receiving death threats from Nazi-sympathizers and a major law suit from the owners of Superman. While making deals for radio plays and movie shorts, Anapol tries to convince Sammy and Joe to stop beating up Nazis so that he can get a decent night’s rest. His relationship to the Escapist is purely business.
Jack Ashkenazy, the brother of Sheldon Anapol’s wife as well as Anapol’s business partner in Empire Comics, has bad taste in everything from literature to clothing. Ashkenazy’s success results from the intelligence and talent of the people around him, namely Anapol, Deasey, Joe, and Sammy. When he left Empire Comics in 1943, Ashkenazy tried out several other business ventures but they all failed.
Tracy Bacon, Sammy’s true love, lives life vigorously, working as an actor and rarely taking no for an answer. He has a mysterious, unpleasant history shrouded in a confusion of conflicting facts. Whatever has come before, he is undeniably happy with Sammy. He is handsome and charismatic—everything Sammy never thought he could have. Bacon’s name is a joke that plays upon the idea of forbidden fruit: as a Jew, Sammy is not supposed to eat pork. He knows famous people all over town, such as Orson Welles and Ed Sullivan, but he is guileless and does not seek fame so much as acceptance. Bacon knows he is gay and is not ashamed of it, but he cannot convince Sammy to feel the same way about himself. Bacon ultimately leaves for Los Angeles alone, just as the United States is entering World War II. He joins the Air Force and is shot down over the Solomon Islands in 1943.
Eugene Begelman is Tommy’s best friend. Tommy discovers his love of magic when playing with a set of magic tricks belonging to Eugene.
Bubbie, Sam and Joe’s grandmother, lives with her daughter Ethel and her grandson Sammy in Brooklyn. Bubbie dies peacefully in her sleep at age ninety-six.
See Rosa Luxemburg Saks
Sammy Clay, the everyday hero of Chabon’s novel, is a quiet Jewish boy from Brooklyn who chases his dreams—to publish comic books—and catches them. Sammy’s bravery and pluck are seen in his initial pitch to Anapol and later in how he stands up to Anapol, Ashkenazy, and Deasey to get what he feels he and Joe deserve for their talent. Some argue that Sammy is Joe’s sidekick, but that interpretation does not work. Joe and Sammy’s relationship is not that of a mentor and his student or a father and his son. They are fully partners, sharing in the creation of characters, the development of stories, and the negotiation of payment. Despite Sammy’s courage in the office, his real struggle is in seeking to accept his homosexuality. Sammy spends most of the novel in denial, even though nearly every other character seems to know he is gay just from meeting him. Tracy Bacon is Sammy’s great love, but Sammy turns his back on that relationship after he is sexually abused by another man. This denial nearly destroys Sammy’s spirit; when he and Joe are reunited after twelve years, Joe describes Sammy as haggard. But he is also tough and resilient. When he is publicly outed by Senator Hendrickson, Sammy realizes he has nothing to lose, and he finally buys his ticket to Los Angeles and gets on that westbound train he was supposed to be on with Bacon twelve years earlier.
Tommy is the son of Joe Kavalier and Rosa Saks, but Sammy Clay is father to him for the first twelve years of his life. He takes after Joe in looks and his interest in magic. Tommy successfully schemes to bring Joe back to his family when Joe has lost his way.
Surrealist painter Salvador Dalí is the guest of honor at Longman Harkoo’s party where Joe and Rosa are formally introduced. Joe saves Dalí’s life when Dalí’s diving suit malfunctions.
George Deasey, the editor of Empire Comics and a mentor to Sammy, is harsh but sincere. Although Deasey is management, several times he gives Joe and Sammy hints on how to effectively negotiate their contracts so they will not get short-changed by Anapol and Ashkenazy. He also introduces them to Harkoo.
Carl Henry Ebling
Carl Ebling is a mentally unstable Nazi-sympathizer whom Joe runs afoul of. Joe’s attack on Ebling’s office pushes Ebling over the edge. Ebling decides he is a super-villain named the Saboteur and Joe is the Escapist. Ebling plants a phony bomb at the Empire Comics office and later tries to blow up Joe and a roomful of guests at a bar mitzvah. People are spared because his incompetence far outweighs his enthusiasm for anti-Semitic activity. To the horror of his family who know he is mentally ill, Ebling is found guilty of terrorism...
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