Last Updated on March 16, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1223
Joe, Sammy, and Julie relax in the flat they broke into. Joe and Sammy lie down and light cigarettes, and Joe tells the story of Kornblum, the Golem, and his escape. This sparks in Sammy the idea of “the Escapist,” a superhero who is “here to free the world.” The boys are both enthused by the concept but find themselves returning to the question of the character’s essential motivations.
Alois Berg—Big Al, who is over eight feet tall—is in the theater where his act is performing. The accoutrements of his craft are backstage, where his young assistant, Tom Mayflower, has put them. There is a problem with the water tank, which Tom needs to fix.
Omar, a turbaned man defined by his “stealth,” arrives. Tom asks why Al and Omar why the two of them have been behaving oddly all day. He also asks what the “Iron Chain” is. They do not answer his question. Tom succeeds in fixing the tank—or so he thinks.
Five minutes after eight, Tom knocks on the dressing room door of his uncle, Max Mayflower, who is uncharacteristically late. He tells Max not to take the crowd for granted, and Max goes onstage as Misterioso, his stage act. After he emerges from the water tank, however, he is bleeding, and there is a bullet hole through the tank. Max declares that “the show must go on,” gives Tom a gold key, and tells him he must do “the coffin.” This means that Tom will be bound and chained inside a coffin from which he must escape. He succeeds and receives overwhelming applause, which cheers him until he realizes that his uncle is dying.
Before Max dies, he explains that he was once a playboy from a wealthy family, but when he ran up huge gambling debts, he was taken prisoner and held for ransom. He tried and tried to escape but could not. He dreamed—while awake—that a man in a white suit entered and unlocked him. A gangster then arrived and shot the man. Max incapacitated the gangster and found that the mysterious man was dying. The man gave Max his golden key, which Max then spent years trying to find a lock for. His years of work with locksmiths led to his becoming Misterioso, an illusionist persona who specializes in unlocking himself.
Max found the Ogre, a moniker for Big Al, chained in a sideshow in Canada and purchased his freedom with the golden key. Then another man in white appeared and told him that he—and the mysterious man who had freed Max—belonged to the League of the Golden Key, a group who roamed the world to procure others’ freedom. They were opposed by the Iron Chain. Max explains to Tom that it is the Iron Chain who have orchestrated Max’s death.
Tom realizes that all current members of the company, including Tom himself, are people who have been liberated by Max. Max charges Tom to repay his “debt of freedom. You have the key.” Tom then swears that he will fight the Iron Chain as “the Escapist.”
Joe and Sammy have been walking for hours, inventing the Escapist. Joe says he wishes the character were real. He imagines Tom wiping out the whole “nest of Iron Chain vipers” and defeating the Nazis.
Sammy says he’s convinced that he and Joe will make a huge amount of money from the Escapist, and that the character will become so powerful that he will, in a sense, be real. Sammy has also acquired some Czech-language newspapers for Joe, in case they contain any helpful information about what is happening to the Jewish community in Czechoslovakia.
The actual occupants of the broken-into apartment—Jerry Glovsky, Marty Gold, and Davy O'Dowd—return around ten with food and wine. They refer to the apartment as “Palooka Studios.” Jerry is displeased to find Julie and his friends there; he asks how they got in and why they are using the art materials in the flat. Sammy lies, saying that Rosa, Jerry’s girlfriend, let them in. Jerry argues that she is not his girlfriend.
Davy peruses the work Sammy and Joe have done and finds that it is impressive. Frank agrees, and Sammy introduces Joe as the chief artist of the piece. Julie, meanwhile, has been working on his own strip, “The Black Hat.” Sammy posits that to make one magazine, he would need three additional twelve-page stories, each featuring a masked hero. To entice the older men to join in and draw too, he suggests they will have more work than they can handle if they do. One by one, the three agree to join the enterprise.
The group of comic artists work steadily for two days, drinking coffee and not sleeping. Of all of them, Sammy is the least talented. He quickly decides Joe should draw the Escapist on his own, but he offers Joe other comic books to use as guides, saying that the stories are compelling. Storytelling is Sammy’s area of real talent, and he helps the others ascertain the motivations of the characters they are creating. He names Davy’s “the Swift,” a man whose synthetic blood allows him to fly but is also what keeps him alive. The others are impressed and ask for his help.
Eventually, the book is finished, and Joe is overwhelmed by the result. Jerry’s hero is called the Snowman; Frank’s is called Radio Wave. There is also Julie’s Black Hat. The cover is a painting by Joe that features the Escapist throwing a punch at Hitler.
Exhausted, Sammy and Joe fall asleep, and when Marty Gold comes upstairs, he finds them there “half in and half out of each other’s arms.” Marty normally dislikes people sleeping in the flat, but he simply covers them with a blanket.
On Monday, Sammy and Joe return to Anapol's office with their completed book. Sammy declares that he wants the book to be the first in a series called “Masked Man Comics.”
Anapol declares that he isn’t sure about the front cover and doesn't understand the Escapist. However, he congratulates the boys on having worked so hard and invites in George Deasey, who is to be the editor. George and Jack both arrive, and Anapol introduces Sammy and Joe to George.
George is at once impressed by Joe’s work and hires him on the spot. Although he feels the work is “trash,” he also declares that “trash sells.” He offers to pay $150 for the rights to the Escapist and $85 for the rights to all the others, and he offers to take on Sammy and Joe. Sammy will earn $75 per week, Joe $6 per page, and their associate artists $5 per page. However, the editors would like a new cover, because the USA is not at war with Germany.
Joe and Sammy reluctantly decline to take the offer unless they use the original cover. Anapol counters by raising the page rates, but Sammy declares that “every publisher in town wants in on this thing” and suggests that they will take the book elsewhere. In the elevator, Joe asks whether Sammy’s statements were simply a ruse. Sammy himself does not know.