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Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2648

AUTHOR: Chabon, Michael; Chaykin, Howard; McCarthy, Kevin; Pekar, Harvey; Vaughan, Brian K.

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ARTIST: Eduardo Barreto (illustrator); Eddie Campbell (illustrator); Will Eisner (illustrator); Dean Haspiel (illustrator); Eric Wight (illustrator); Paul Hornschemeier (colorist); Dan Jackson (colorist); Michelle Madsen (colorist); Sean Konot (letterer); Tom Orzechowski (letterer); Brian Bolland (cover artist); Mike Mignola (cover artist); Chris Ware (cover artist)

PUBLISHER: Dark Horse Comics

FIRST SERIAL PUBLICATION: 2004-2005

FIRST BOOK PUBLICATION: 2004-2006

Publication History

The Amazing Adventures of the Escapist originated in Michael Chabon’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (2000), in which two Jewish cousins invent the superhero the Escapist during the Golden Age of comic books. After the success of the novel, Dark Horse Comics secured the rights to publish a real-life comic featuring Chabon’s metafictional character. Along with editor Diana Schutz, Chabon oversaw the production of The Amazing Adventures of the Escapist and also made occasional contributions. The bulk of the comic was created by an array of contemporary artists and writers.

Although The Amazing Adventures of the Escapist consists entirely of original material, it continues the novel’s pretense that the character was part of a hugely successful but now forgotten Golden Age franchise and that its creators actually existed. Various explanatory passages, written mostly by Chabon (sometimes under a pseudonym), contend that the series collects recently discovered documents from the Escapist’s history.

Dark Horse published eight quarterly collections of nonserialized Escapist stories during 2004 and 2005 before the series was canceled due to poor sales. The first six issues were collected in three trade paperbacks and published by Dark Horse Books. The last issue of The Amazing Adventures of the Escapist contained the first issue of The Escapists, an attempt to offset the commercially unsuccessful anthology character of the series through the inclusion of a continued narrative. The Escapists evolved into a six-issue spin-off series, also published by Dark Horse and later collected in graphic novel form.

Plot

The Amazing Adventures of the Escapist, a collection of stories with unrelated plots and without a particular reading order, tells the story of the eponymous hero and other characters created by Joe Kavalier and Sam Clay. In addition to superhero stories, the series also includes several short, often childlike comics. Acting as a sort of continuation of Chabon’s novel, the comic series repeatedly supplements its stories with essays that explain the fate of the franchise after the novel’s end in 1954, thus constructing an alternate history of comics centered on the Escapist.

The origin story, “The Passing of the Key,” is set in Empire City, a Gotham-esque version of New York City. The young Tom Mayflower is one of the assistants of his uncle Max, the escape artist Misterioso. During one of his performances, Max is shot and lies dying in the backstage area. In his final minutes, he tells Tom how he was recruited by The League of the Golden Key, an ancient secret society that has the mission of freeing captives and liberating the oppressed. The league’s prime enemy is the nefarious Iron Chain, an equally ancient society that is now covertly ruling Nazi Germany. Max gives Tom a magic key that he got from the league and thus passes the torch to his nephew, who begins to call himself the Escapist and fight the Iron Chain and other villains.

The first volume presents two different 1950’s incarnations of the Escapist. In “Are You Now or Have You Ever Been. . . .” he takes on a Joseph McCarthy-like witch-hunting senator who tries to hide his masochistic practices by killing the owners of incriminating material. In “Sequestered,” Tom Mayflower has to appear for jury duty and ends up freeing the defendant, who was framed by the Iron Chain. In “Prison Break,” he infiltrates a prison and uncovers the corrupt machinations of the prison management with the help of his archenemy, the Saboteur. An aged Escapist rescues a crashed submarine in “Three Hundred Fathoms Down,” while “Divine Wind” is an Escapist manga. In “The Lady or the Tiger,” the Escapist falls in love with a female Escapist but learns that she was created by the Iron Chain. The latter part of the first volume focuses on another major character of the Escapist universe, Luna Moth. A librarian by day and a flying superhero by night, she takes on a crazy villain (“The Mechanist”), a devilish creature (“Old Flame”), and Death himself (“Reckonings”).

Volume two begins with “Heil and Fear Well,” a story reminiscent of 1950’s horror tales published by EC Comics, in which surviving Nazis, headed by Josef Mengele, try to put Adolf Hitler’s mind into the brain of a U.S. senator. The story “The Escapist 2966” depicts a future Escapist on whom centuries of escaping and liberating have left an indelible mark of doubt. “Chain Reaction” is a further Escapist-versus-Saboteur story, while “The Boy Who Would Be the Escapist” depicts how a boy escapes his miserable state through fantasizing about the Escapist. “The Trial of Judy Dark” is a Luna Moth tale in which a good deal of her origin story is told, and “To Reign in Hell” shows how the Escapist’s assistant Big Al is tempted by an Iron Chain agent to defect.

Volume three opens with a meeting between the Escapist and one of his most important role models, the Spirit. Then, in “The Death of the Escapist,” a present-day Escapist plants the germ of liberation in an Asian dictatorship by feigning his own death. “Liberators” shows a postwar Escapist team up with former Resistance members in the attempt to salvage art, only to learn that parts of the group work for the Soviet Union. In “A Fair to Remember,” the Iron Chain plots against the 1939-1940 New York World’s Fair but is stopped by the Escapist, while the Escapist’s assistant Omar uses his hypnotic powers to bring down the villain in “Doc Hypnosis vs. The Escapist.” “Another Man’s Escape,” which shows an undisguised Tom Mayflower as a soldier in Vietnam, precedes the troubling “Electricity,” in which the only connection to the Escapist is Sam Clay, who supposedly penned the story. The 1960’s “The Siren Song of Circe O’Shaughnessy” puts the Escapist in New York bohemia, while the 1980’s indie-style “The Escapist Escapes Again!” depicts another failed plan of the Iron Chain to capture the Escapist. A Bronze Age story about euthanasia, “The Final Curtain” concludes the volume on a somber note.

Issue 7 consists of only one story, written by Chabon and not featuring the Escapist. “Arms and the Man I Sing” features Mr. Machine Gun, a marginal character in the Escapist universe. Equipped by mad Nazis with a mechanical arm that can transform into a machine gun, he becomes an instrumental weapon in World War II and the Korean War. Now, during the 1970’s, he is a U.S. senator, but the weapon takes increasing control of his actions and turns him into a brutal avenger of the night.

Along with the Harvey Pekar-penned “Escape from the Hospital,” a war story titled “Powder Burns,” and the carnival story “The Escapist at the Royal Festival of Magic,” issue 8 contains the first episode of The Escapists. In this spin-off, a young comic fan, son of the most ardent collector of Escapist memorabilia, teams up with two other teenagers to revive the comic book.

Volumes

The Amazing Adventures of the Escapist, Volume 1 (2004). Collects issues 1-2, featuring the Escapist’s origin story and several stories about Luna Moth. With multiple stories taking place in the 1950’s, this volume focuses on a corrupt, witch-hunting senator and the nefarious activities of the Iron Chain.

The Amazing Adventures of the Escapist, Volume 2 (2004). Collects issues 3-4, highlighting the origin story of Luna Moth and features an Escapist-versus-Saboteur story, “Chain Reaction.”

The Amazing Adventures of the Escapist, Volume 3 (2006). Collects issues 5-6, featuring “The Escapist and the Spirit,” Will Eisner’s last work. The volume also includes stories of the Escapist set in the 1960’s and the 1980’s.

Characters

Tom Mayflower, a.k.a. the Escapist, the protagonist, is a young man with a lame left leg. He was rescued from an orphanage in central Poland by Max Mayflower and raised as his nephew. After receiving the golden key, he loses his physical impediment and becomes the agile Escapist. With his domino mask and occasional hat, team of assistants, magic key that helps him out of traps and desperate situations, and suit with a key symbol, he is essentially a pastiche of several pulp and comics figures.

Max Mayflower, a.k.a. Misterioso, is a Harry Houdini-like escape artist and Tom’s uncle. He was abducted as a rich, irresponsible young man, but he was then freed by the League of the Golden Key and given the golden key, which he gives to Tom shortly before his death.

Dr. Alois Berg, a.k.a. Big Al, is one of the Escapist’s assistants. Endowed with incredible strength and intellect, he was kept in a cage as a circus freak until liberated by Max Mayflower. The mustached Big Al is eight feet tall and constantly wears a bowler hat. Reciting from works by William Shakespeare and Sir Isaac Newton while engaging in fisticuffs, he resembles the X-Men’s Beast in character.

Omar is the turban-clad Asian assistant of the Escapist. Also freed by Max, he is a former slave of the sultan of Khurvistan. Omar is a taciturn character who occasionally uses his hypnotic powers to help the Escapist.

Miss Plum Blossom is the third major assistant in the series. Like Big Al and Omar, she was freed by Max Mayflower, in her case from a sweatshop in Macau. A submissive and silent figure, she is responsible for creating the Escapist’s masks and wardrobe.

Judy Dark, a.k.a. Luna Moth, is the latest avatar of the Cimmerian moth goddess Lo. A shy librarian at the Empire City Public Library, she becomes the voluptuous Luna Moth after she is shot to death during the exhibition of the mysterious Book of Lo. She closely resembles a gender-inverted version of Clark Kent/Superman.

Officer Francis O’Hara is a hapless police officer. He dates Judy Dark but is secretly enamored of her alter ego, Luna Moth, who repeatedly has to rescue him.

The Saboteur is the only villain to appear in more than one story. In his maniacal attempt to rule over Empire City, he engages in several plots against the Escapist but also fights the Iron Chain, since he claims Empire City for himself.

Ben Vanderslice, a.k.a. Mr. Machine Gun, is the heir of an arms empire and was captured by Nazis while working as an Office of Strategic Services (OSS) agent in World War II. Through the Nazis’ implantation of a machine-gun hand, he becomes the invincible Mr. Machine Gun, a strategic asset for the United States; however, he resigns after a massacre during the Korean War. During the 1970’s, he works as a pacifist senator and is an advocate of gun control. When his machine-gun hand takes control of his mind and turns him into a brutal avenger at night, he nearly kills himself to become free of the gun.

Artistic Style

Given the large group of contributors, the breadth of artistic styles on display in The Amazing Adventures of the Escapist is extensive. Realistic drawings of the Escapist alternate with highly hypertrophied renditions of him, and perfectly conventional superhero styles are supplemented by stories drawn as children’s comics, manga, or in anthropomorphic styles. Crude artwork is contrasted with highly ornate stories in lush watercolors or even computer-rendered panels. Contemporary styles are sometimes contrasted and sometimes integrated with older styles from earlier ages. Nonetheless, the various artistic approaches share one common denominator. Every story is evocative of a certain artist, style, genre, or historical period; however, hardly ever does the art recreate the historical styles verbatim. Rather, the series depicts a precarious combination of contemporary, state-of-the-art illustrations, panel structures, and colorings with classic styles. Thus, the series both plays with nostalgia and belies its own historical context. Still, this playful reconstruction of comics history often creates impressive pastiche work. More explicit cases of quotation can also be seen, as, for example, on the cover of issue 3. Drawn by Mike Mignola, it shows the Escapist punching Hitler in the jaw, a clear allusion to Captain America, issue 1.

Themes

The linchpin of both The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and The Amazing Adventures of the Escapist is the metaphorical usage of the terms “escape” and “liberation.” On one hand, the series continues the novel’s broad interrogations of literal and symbolic escapes, featuring a shell-shocked G.I. who has become the prisoner of his mind, a terminally ill man for whom death means escape, a depressive Pekar, and the Escapist, who sometimes wishes nothing more than to be able to escape from his own destiny.

On the other hand, the series continues the novel’s engagement with the superhero. In the novel, this is closely linked to the Jewish background of the comic book’s creators. Mirroring the Jewish subtext of many other superheroes, the Escapist is rendered as a therapeutic attempt by Kavalier to assuage his inability to rescue his family from the Nazis and their ultimate fate in the Holocaust. With The Amazing Adventures of the Escapist, the reader witnesses a slight change of emphasis. Rather than primarily examining the relation between superheroes and Jewish identity, it examines the relationship between superheroes and comics history. The series’ work with history and genre highlights the superhero’s central features and muses on the nature of the respective genres. The sincere take on the genre as a whole, which already characterized the novel, allows for an affectionate portrayal of the Escapist’s fate throughout the decades as well as an analysis of the history of comics. Also, through its depiction of the obscure ownership history of the Escapist and the role several publishers play in its demise, it also pleads for the escape of comics artists from the debilitating control of copyright-owning publishers.

Impact

The Amazing Adventures of the Escapist is unique in origin, as a fictional hero from a literary novel became real on the pages of a comic book. However, given mixed reviews and overall weak sales, the project was rather short-lived. Although it did result in the publication of the six-issue spin-off The Escapists, neither series caused any significant trend.

However, the impact of The Amazing Adventures of the Escapist cannot be gauged without considering the novel that spawned the comic book. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is an influential literary engagement with the comic medium and has proven to be a factor in the increasing cultural respectability of and academic interest in comics. The Amazing Adventures of the Escapist continues Chabon’s original project insofar as it calls for an understanding of comics that highlights the artistic and intellectual potential of the medium while embracing formerly denigrating terms such as “escapist entertainment”. For Chabon, these are the factors that make comics what they are, and it would be detrimental to the form if the reader forgot about them in favor of “serious” work alone.

Further Reading

  • Chaykin, Howard. American Flagg! (1983-1989).
  • Eisner, Will, et al. The Spirit (1941-1952).
  • Vaughan, Brian K., et al. The Escapists (2005-2007).

Bibliography

  • Behlman, Lee. “The Escapist: Fantasy, Folklore, and the Pleasures of the Comic Book in Recent Jewish American Holocaust Fiction.” Shofar 22, no. 3 (Spring, 2004): 56-71.
  • Chabon, Michael. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. New York: Picador, 2000.
  • Chute, Hillary. “Ragtime, Kavalier and Clay, and the Framing of Comics.” Modern Fiction Studies 54, no. 2 (2008): 268-301.
  • Harvey, Robert C. The Art of the Comic Book: An Aesthetic History. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1996.
  • Amazing Adventures of the Escapist, TheCritical Survey of Graphic Novels: Heroes & Superheroes, First Edition Bart H. Beaty Stephen Weiner 2012 Salem Press

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