The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay

by Michael Chabon
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An Archetypical Hero Journey

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1496

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, by Michael Chabon, is a sweeping tale of grand proportions that uses some of the bold, over-the-top stylistic devices of comic books, such as archetypes. Critics have noted that Joe Kavalier, although quiet and hardworking, is also suave, competent, talented, and indestructible. Joe’s uncanny abilities are not overstated to the point of magic realism, but he is as supernatural and heroic as the characters he illustrates for his comic books. The work of Joseph Campbell, an expert in the fields of comparative mythology and comparative religion, was heavily influenced by psychologist Carl Jung. Campbell’s seminal text, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949), provides the following outline for the journey of the archetypical hero, a hero just like Joe Kavalier.

DEPARTURE
The Call to Adventure
Refusal of the Call
Supernatural Aid
The Crossing of the First Threshold
The Belly of the Whale or Rebirth

INITIATION
The Road of Trials
The Meeting with the Goddess or the Attainment
of Knowledge
Woman as the Temptress or Fear of Failure
Atonement with the Father
Apotheosis or Glorification
The Ultimate Boon

RETURN
The Refusal of Return
The Magic Flight
Rescue from Without
The Crossing of the Return Threshold
Master of the Two Worlds, Supernatural and
Human
Freedom to Live

The first part of Joe’s journey is simply getting out the door, that is, departure. Joe’s call to adventure is the encroaching Nazi presence in Czechoslovakia and his family’s decision to send him to his aunt in the United States. Joe’s mother sells her favorite emerald to help pay for Joe to leave. Saying good-bye at the train station, Joe blithely refuses the call with his foolish stoicism when faced with the heartbreak of his family who weep while he is impatient to leave. This is a refusal because Joe’s attention is on the enjoyment of travel rather than the seriousness of his family’s situation. When the authorities send him back to Prague, Joe cannot pretend he is having fun anymore. He goes to his former mentor, the retired performing escapist Bernhard Kornblum, for help. Kornblum, here and throughout Chabon’s novel, is Joe’s supernatural aid. Ever after, Joe has dream-like visions of Kornblum whenever he needs guidance.

The guardian of the first threshold is the Golem. (Golem is a creature from Jewish legend, created by Rabbi ben Loeb to protect the Jews of Prague from persecution.) With Kornblum’s aid, Joe passes this threshold by finding the Golem and preparing it for their passage to Lithuania. Joe enters the proverbial belly of the whale, a place of rebirth, when he hides inside the Golem’s casket and travels toward freedom. Emerging safe in Lithuania nearly two days later, Joe is reborn from the Golem’s dusty chamber. He can never return to the home he once knew because it no longer exists. Literally speaking, Joe’s family has been forced by the Nazis to move from their comfortable apartment. Figuratively, Joe is not a boy anymore. He has successfully completed the first part of his journey, and he is now a man, although still young.

The next stage is initiation. On the road of trials, Joe encounters many tests as well as helpers. In this part of his story, Joe successfully creates and establishes the Escapist, with the help of Sammy and against those who would hinder, redirect, or hold them back, i.e., Anapol, Ashkenazy, and Deasey. He survives numerous fights with various German people and struggles with Carl Ebling (including a bomb attack). Joe perseveres despite set backs such as his father’s death, difficulties with the German adjutant, and strident negotiations with his boss about money and artistic freedom.

In the meeting with the goddess, also sometimes called a marriage, the hero attains knowledge of life. Rosa is Joe’s goddess and his muse. Her influence in his life and their deep love for each other quell much of Joe’s anger and frustration that his family is still trapped in Prague. Rosa delivers hope that he may at least be able to rescue his brother. From within this new peace, Joe creates Luna Moth and stops fighting Nazis so that he can focus on his creative expression. He has chosen life/birth over death. He is less aware of worrying as his loved ones are absorbed into the chaos of war, beyond Joe’s reach. But when Thomas drowns at sea, Joe has a crisis of faith, and he is engulfed by his own fear of failure. He knows he can no longer reach his mother and grandfather, and now his father and brother are dead. This means Joe has failed in his original purpose in New York City, and he cannot forgive himself for being the one in his family who survives.

Joe flees Rosa and Sammy and takes his pain to Antarctica, where he is stationed by the navy and thus denied a chance to express his anger directly to Nazis. This exile leads to Joe’s atonement. He casts off ignorance and at last opens Rosa’s letters from the past three years. From them he discovers his love for her as well as a new opportunity for love: his son Tommy. Joe forgives Rosa and himself for his brother’s death. Just before leaving on his sworn mission to finally kill a German, Joe sends his victim a warning. This is his apotheosis or glorification because Joe, having forgiven himself, can return to life. Face to face with the German geologist, Joe desires only to make a human connection, for now he is grasping his ultimate boon, what Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces calls his “life-transmuting trophy” of love. When the geologist dies anyway, Joe, under the influence of his boon, is more heartbroken than he has ever been, even over the deaths of his family members.

Returning home is the final stage of Joe’s adventure and by far the hardest. He imagines Sammy, Rosa, and Tommy living happily ever after, and against the wishes of his own lonely heart, he forbids himself to return. At this critical point in the journey, the hero may opt to never complete his or her quest. The magic flight is Joe’s attempt to return, by degrees, to the life he once knew. It is, by definition, somewhat ridiculous. Joe takes up residence in an office near the top of the Empire State Building because he likes to be near the Escapist. He becomes a hermit and carries on a clandestine friendship with his son Tommy, who thinks Joe is his cousin.

Tommy senses Joe’s dilemma, senses that he wants to return but has forgotten how. Tommy is the one who rescues Joe by forcing him out into public where he can reunite with Sammy. Joe crosses the return threshold in his quiet homecoming to Sammy and Rosa’s house. He accepts their love and acknowledges that things are not as he thought they were. Sammy and Rosa have created a family that offers space for Joe; indeed, their strange marriage has been waiting for Joe’s return for a long time. He is needed; he is home.

The last two phases of the archetypical hero journey demonstrate the hero’s new powers. As master of two worlds (the supernatural and the human), Joe uses his million dollars to purchase the failing Empire Comics, enflamed by love of his character, the Escapist, and full of vigor for new work. Joe has no fear of failure or success because of the boon he brings with him, love, which now gains strength through reciprocation. In rediscovering Rosa’s love for him and his relationship with Tommy, Joe has the freedom to live. His strange quest is over, and he returns to ordinary life, older and wiser. Thus is a hero made. Sammy, at the end of the novel, departs for Los Angeles—but that is a different hero’s story for a different day.

Campbell’s thesis, as a Jungian mythographer, is that the hero journey lives within every human being and is an essential story for all humankind. People experience the hero journey in their dreams, which are transformed into stories; it is a pattern of timeless meaning. The hero, unlike the king and other roles which are merely assigned, is made through self-achievement. Joe Kavalier is a quietly fantastical character, but he is also, more importantly, a real-life hero: a performing magician, a brilliant illustrator of a popular comic book, a soldier, a father, and a man dedicated to the rescue of his family from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia. Joe’s qualities add up to larger-than-life proportions and distance him from readers as a sympathetic character—but like any celebrity, he is no less appealing to observe.

Source: Carol Ullmann, Critical Essay on The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, in Novels for Students, Thomson Gale, 2007.

Barbara Lane Interviews Michael Chabon

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3448

[Barbara Lane:] Talk a little bit about the story of the golem, which is central to this novel.

[Michael Chabon:] The golem is a character out of Jewish folklore, a myth that dates back thousands of years, before the time of Christ. The most famous legend is the one that deals with the golem of Prague, who was made by Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel. There were lots of other stories about different rabbis making golems, but for some reason, this is the one that caught the imagination, not just of Jewish listeners over the centuries, but of novelists.

A lot has been written about the golem of Prague; films have been made about this artificial man, formed from river clay, who is brought to life by spells and incantations. In some stories, he’s made merely to be a servant, to help clean up around the synagogue on Friday nights, to do menial jobs that somebody with a soul and brain would not want to do. In others, he’s made to be a protector of the Jews of the Prague ghetto. That is the version I’m most interested in, because I see those stories of creating a defender as a possible antecedent for the idea of the superhero. It was that aspect of it that first excited me.

Comic books fought the Second World War. I knew the Jewishness of the two characters was going to be important. Somehow, I decided to have Joe Kavalier be a refugee from a country that was occupied by the Nazis. In 1939, there was the annexation of Austria and then Czechoslovakia. Then, in September, we got the invasion of Poland that started the war. I’d been to Prague, so I chose Prague. He just gets off the boat, more or less. He shows up in New York, and the day he gets there, his crazy cousin says, “We’re going into the comic book business, and since you can draw, you can draw my Superman.” Joe has no idea what Superman is, what a superhero is, or even what a comic book is. So when he’s asked to draw a superhero, the only thing he can think of is a golem. When I was writing that, I began to feel that there was going to be more to this book than just superheroes, that somehow it was going to tie into a lot of other stuff having to do with Jewish folklore.

Did you ever discover why so many of the early comic book creators were Jewish?

That was one of my main questions when I started writing, one of the things that I thought I might answer for myself. It’s very striking; it’s an inescapable thing to notice, once you start doing research. Just to cite the most famous examples: Superman was created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster, two Jewish kids from Cleveland; Batman was created mostly by Bob Kane, with help from Bill Finger and Jerry Robinson, who were Jewish; Captain America was created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. So it was very apparent to me that something was happening.

I had a very key experience early on in the writing of the book. I was living in Los Angeles and flew up to Oakland to attend WonderCon, a big comic book convention held every year. One of the guests was going to be Will Eisner, one of the greatest comic book artists ever. He’s in his early or mid-80s and still working. One of the first questions I asked him was the question you just asked me: Why do you think, along with yourself, so many of the early comic book creators were Jews? He gave me what I think is the right answer. New York was the center of the publishing business and also the comic book and pulp magazine business.

The population of New York was fairly heavily Jewish. If you were a young, Jewish kid and wanted to make your living drawing, if you had an artistic ability and wanted to try to make money with your pen, you didn’t have that many options available to you. The really well-paying, prestigious fields of commercial art, illustration, and advertising art were closed. You wouldn’t get hired at the advertising agencies, but you could get hired by the comic book business. All these kids who thought they could draw, many of whom were somewhat mistaken in that judgment, were taken here. A lot of the comic book companies and pulp publishers were Jewish-owned businesses. In many cases, it was a familial thing.

Stan Lee, the famous Marvel Comics impresario whose name was originally Stanley Lieber, was the nephew of Martin Goodman, the owner of what later became Marvel Comics. It was an economic, demographic thing. But Eisner paused after he gave me that answer and said, “You know, I’ve often wondered if there wasn’t something else at work, if there wasn’t some other explanation. We have this history of impossible solutions to insoluble problems,” which became the epigraph for this novel. He said that we have this narrative history of trying to come up with ways of solving the problems of the world through various kinds of mystical means, such as the golem. Another person who inspired him—and you mention him in the afterwards to the book—is Jack Kirby, who did Spiderman and The Incredible Hulk. Can you talk about his influence?

Jack Kirby revolutionized comics twice in his career—first, in the 1940s by creating Captain America with his partner Joe Simon. Kirby was young when he started in comics—about 17. He was poorly educated—self-educated in the way that a lot of New York kids tended to be in this period, and the way that Sam Clay is in my book. He had this bursting, dynamic drawing style; it looked like his characters were barely contained by the panels. When someone got punched in a Jack Kirby comic, they came flying out of the panel. A lot of violence, but an almost pugnacious, New York kind of violence. Then, he did it all over again in the 1960s, participating in the Marvel Comics revolution with Stan Lee.

The idea of collaboration was always at the heart of comics—another thing I really wanted to write about in this novel. The best-known characters are probably the Fantastic Four, taking comics into a completely different realm. They aimed them at a much older readership—college students—and it was very successful. Kirby’s imagination was allowed to roam completely wild, creating these incredible pantheons of cosmic superheroes the size of planets.

I’m always fascinated by the image of an artist who lives this very mundane existence. Jack Kirby lived most of his life first on Long Island, then out in Thousand Oaks in the San Fernando Valley. He was this small, drab looking man. You never would have looked at him twice, but every night he went out to his studio and sent his imagination voyaging out into the universe and created characters like Galactus, the big devourer of worlds. The image of this person voyaging through the cosmos of his own imagination while everyone else is asleep is a potent one for me.

You mentioned that comic books have always played a role in war. In the Second World War, didn’t they have a jingoistic nature?

Absolutely. Comic books went to war before the United States did. Captain America dates from, I believe, May 1941. No villain was up to Superman. Kryptonite, in a way, is a substitute for Hitler, because Hitler was the ultimate villain. They fought the Japanese and demonized them, but this was what superheroes were made for. Comic book covers from the period are superheroes punching out U-boats, and tying anti-aircraft guns into knots. You have to remember that for the first several years of the war, it wasn’t going that well; it looked as though there was a good chance that the Allies might not win. There was a lot of very violent, potent, wish fulfillment going on there, and it did get expressed in very unattractive jingoistic, racially-offensive ways.

The flip side of that is that the comics were actually investigated by the feds; you have a scene about that towards the end of the book.

Comic books never pleased adults. Even when they were fighting in the Second World War, that didn’t get anywhere with the teachers and parents of America. It was still this forbidden, trashy kind of literature. The comics of the time—for all that they were toeing the standard line about being a good American and turning in your neighbors if you thought they might be Nazi spies—were being burned and banned.

The other thing that emerges as a theme in this book, and you’ve alluded to it already, is the idea of escape. Your comic book character is named The Escapist. We have the escape out of Prague. Everybody in this novel needs to escape from something.

Well, it was accidental. Theme is the last thing I worry about when I’m writing. I start with character and setting, and I try to figure out my story as quickly as I can. I actually pay no attention to theme at all during the first full draft of the novel. I had at some point decided to make Joe study escape artistry, and there were other little bits about the theme of escape, but I wasn’t aware of them at all. I didn’t notice them until I sat down with a first draft and read through it. At that point, I said to myself, What is this book about, besides being about Sammy, Joe, and comics?

If you’re paying attention, as a writer, to language and your characters and trying to see them in your imagination and know what they would be doing at a given moment, theme just emerges organically. At some point, you have to stop and gather up that residue. That’s the point at which I noticed that there was a lot to do with escape in the book. Comics have always been condemned as escapism. I wondered if there was some connection between escapism and literature, and it all just clicked into place. That’s when you know it’s working well, when that stuff starts happening and you didn’t really try to make it happen.

People look at you, publishing your first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, which was actually a master’s thesis, at the age of 24, and think you’ve never failed. In fact, you did have a huge failure of a sort, although you turned it into a success. Tell us about the experience of Fountain City.

I suppose that’s an example of this method I just described not working. I started to write this novel around the time the first book was published. I thought it was going to be about architecture and an architect. There was a movement just beginning then in architecture called the “new urbanist” movement—the idea of restoring identity to the American city. If you’re building a new housing unit, it dictates that you shouldn’t try to build a suburban tract house, but actually craft a city with a downtown, a place where people can live and work.

That was in the air in the late ’80s; it interested me because I grew up in Columbia, Maryland, which had very much a utopian urban design scheme of the late 1960s—the idea of creating a perfect community, one that would be racially integrated. So, I just started to write about a guy that was doing something like this. I thought it was going to be this little, slender book, maybe 225 pages. Five and a half years later, I found myself with an 800- plus page monster—to use Spalding Gray’s phrase, a monster in a box—and somehow or another, baseball, French cooking, eco-terrorism, the plan that some religious Jews have to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem, and a lot of other things had all worked themselves into this thing. I allowed that organic process of just seeing what happens. Maybe one problem was that I never sat down and asked myself what this book was about. You might think that was sort of an obvious question that a writer would want to ask himself, but I think it eluded me.

You dumped Fountain City on the sly when your wife told you that she was going to take some days off to study for her bar exam. You snuck down to the basement and started a new book.

I was about to start the ninth draft of this novel. I was so sick and tired of it. I didn’t know how I was going to fix it or even what was really wrong with it. My then-fiancée said that she was going to take the bar six months earlier than she originally thought, so she wasn’t going to see me for six weeks. That night I made this decision. I decided to keep it a secret. The first night I think I wrote 12 pages. I had 25 pages in three days. I had 75 pages in two weeks. I hit on the voice of Grady Tripp, the narrator of that novel, instantly, as if he was waiting there for me to get to him. I never went back.

But you did use the experience of the novel that you couldn’t finish for Wonder Boys.

Grady Tripp had a very different experience than mine in that I did finish Fountain City a number of times, over and over. I never had that thing that Grady did where you’re endlessly adding, and when you think you’re getting close to the end, you’re only a quarter of the way done. What I did draw on from my own experience was the deep mortification and embarrassment of working on the same project for that long a period of time. By the fifth Thanksgiving that rolls around, you’re sitting with your family, and they ask about the book almost with dread.

Many people loved the movie, “Wonder Boys,” which had a strange marketing campaign. Aren’t you working with the same producer for the screenplay of “Kavalier and Clay”?

Yes, Scott Rudin and Paramount Pictures. When they first told me that they were going to make a movie of Wonder Boys, I asked why. Who do they think will go and see it? I trusted that they knew what they were doing, and they made what I think was a really good movie. It’s very well acted and directed, and the script is great. I really enjoyed it, and so did 17 other people. But it was tough; it’s hard to sell a movie about a pot-smoking, overweight English professor who carries a dead dog in his trunk and cheats on his wife. They did this great thing of re-marketing it six months after the initial release. They re-released it with a new poster and a new series of commercials on television. It still didn’t quite work. I thought they did a fair enough job the first time. It seemed like a tough sell. I hope that’s not going to be the same case with this novel.

Armistead Maupin was here recently and we were talking about, with a lot of laughter, how when The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, first came out, Newsweek came out with a story on the new generation of gay writers, among whom you were listed. Armistead was laughing about how it had finally become marketable to be a young, gay writer, because you brought a whole audience with you.

That was part of the problem, in a way. There was no real attempt by my publishers to define me as anything. There was nothing in the marketing of the book or the press kit that referred to my own sexuality. But, because of the subject, a lot of the readers, and especially the owners of some of the gay and lesbian bookstores around the country, assumed that I was gay, and that’s how I was being sold by my publisher. When they found out that I wasn’t gay, there was some resentment. It’s ironic that being a gay writer can be a marketable thing. The proof of it was that these booksellers actually imagined that my publishers would have passed me off as gay in order to sell more books. That was not the case.

At the time of writing Kavalier and Clay, did you realize that you would become the hero of comic book fans worldwide? How does it feel to have put this marvelous and unsung medium on the historical map?

I was skeptical that anybody would be interested in hearing about these guys and this world at all. Comic book fans, for all that we love the medium, go cringing into every situation where you talk about comic books. You try to be proud, but it’s hard, because the prejudice against them is still so strong. I love the superhero comic books. I think what Jack Kirby did qualifies as genuine art.

Did you see “Chasing Amy”?

Yes, I love that film. I never thought that I would be viewed as championing an art form, because I had that ambivalence myself. In the course of writing the novel, I came to this inescapable conclusion that some of these guys in the 1940s, and many artists since then, who were genuinely deserving of the name “artist,” put as much of their soul and ability into their comic book work as I put into writing novels. I hope that conviction permeates the novel enough to possibly begin to persuade other people, including some who have always been prejudiced against comic books, to take another look and reconsider the art form. We’re really behind the curve here in America on comic books. In Europe, comic books are given the status of art without any hesitation whatsoever. It’s silly and arbitrary to deny them that status.

You’ve written two collections of short stories, A Model World and Other Stories and Werewolves in Their Youth. I read somewhere that you got nervous when you wrote short stories. Why is that?

Failure. It’s so easy to blow a short story. It’s much harder to blow a novel. Novels I find are a much more forgiving form. You can write a great novel, and it can still have slow parts; look at Anna Karenina. Or, let’s talk about the little essay on Napoleon that closes War and Peace. Again, it’s not what you want to be reading at that point, but a novel can encompass that stuff. Short stories can’t. You start a short story with this sense that you have this pure, simple idea that you’re going to sketch out quickly and neatly, and from the first sentence you begin to go awry. You lose that purity. By the time you’re five or six pages into it, you often feel like you’re writing something totally different from what you thought you started out with. The consciousness of going wrong is always with me when I write short stories.

I’ve grown dissatisfied with my own short stories, to some degree, and with the short stories that I read in magazines. I just feel like I don’t know why I’m writing short stories. It’s not the form; it’s me. I need to find my way back to something. I am germinating a new approach to the short story for myself, but so far not much has come of it, except for one very strange story about a clown-murdering cult that was in The New Yorker.

To me, the roots of the short story come out of that kind of fiction. They go back to Edgar Allen Poe, to Balzac, to Kipling. These are writers that wrote what we would now tend to call more genre fiction—horror, detective, mystery, adventure. At the time they were writing, that is what a short story was. There was no genre; that was the genre. I guess I’m trying to work my way back towards that a little bit, and then hopefully toward a more contemporary, modern approach.

Source: Barbara Lane, “Interview with Michael Chabon,” in Commonwealth Club, October 9, 2001.

Review by Tom Deignan

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3236

It’s not hard to imagine the great works of American literature as comic books. Think of Huck and Jim diving into the Mississippi, in a colorful explosion of white foam and splintered wood, just as their raft is destroyed by a steamboat. Or think of Gatsby, a soft-focus silhouette at dusk, staring out at the harbor with its flashing lights. Such imagery is easy to imagine, not only because these are memorable and vivid archetypes, but because there have already been countless versions of “classic” comic book lit. In fact, as American as the comic book is, foreigners such as raging King Lear, or even suffering Job, have found their anguished words floating above their heads in white balloons.

The purpose of comic book “classics” is obvious: to make literature more accessible to kids. It’s the literary version of sneaking vitamins into Yoo-Hoo or Hi-C. But there’s an unquestioned assumption here, that the comic book form is inherently “low.” The best we can seem to do, since the kids are hopelessly hooked, is use this “low” form for positive ends. That is, to feed the kids what’s ultimately good for them.

Don’t try any of this on best-selling author Michael Chabon. Captain America, Superman, Spiderman, Wonder Woman—all those literally cartoonish figures who’ve been devoured by generations of American boys are doing just fine, he says, when it comes to challenging the youthful intellect and imparting wisdom.

“He’s truly the Shakespeare or Cervantes of comic books,” Chabon told the New York Times Book Review recently, referring to Marvel comics legend Jack Kirby, who created the Incredible Hulk and many others. If there’s any doubt regarding the sincerity of Chabon’s comparisons, pick up his new novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. At nearly seven hundred pages, it is an epic treatment of the “golden age” of American comics—and America itself, from the 1930s to the 1950s. The novel has many aspirations: historical, political, sexual. One aim is to show that precisely because the best comics appeal to kids, they are on par with great literature in several ways.

As the very elusive third-person narrator in Amazing Adventures puts it, comic books are to be appreciated

for their pictures and stories they contained, the inspirations and lubrications of five hundred aging boys dreaming as hard as they could for fifteen years, transfiguring their insecurities and delusions, their wishes and their doubts, their public educations and their sexual perversions, into something that only the most purblind of societies would have denied the status of art.

High and low
The book (Chabon’s fifth, after two novels and two story collections) is the latest skirmish in the ongoing battle between “high” and “low” culture. To some, Chabon may seem particularly baby boomerish (though he’s only 37) in his need to intellectualize comic books, a topic laden with nostalgia.

Maybe there’s some merit to this killjoy view of things. But The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is still a slam-bang accomplishment, dazzling and profound, cerebral and yet wonderfully touching. Always a stunning stylist, Chabon has come up with some of his most impressive prose yet in this book. But first, a minor question—is this novel, at least in some respects, roughly a decade too late?

The Brooklyn-born Sammy Clay, one of the two Jewish male protagonists, wonders at one point: “What if . . . they tried to do stories about costumed heroes who were more complicated, less childish, as fallible as angels.” Who can’t help but think of Tim Burton’s fantastic Batman movie from 1989—or even the blockbuster X-Men, released just a few months after Chabon’s novel. Both departed from the Superman comic book movie of the 1970s, which played up the special effects and damsels in distress and played down the dark psychology evident in Burton’s film. Meanwhile, these days, so-called graphic novels like Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth and Daniel Clowes’ David Boring literally combine comic book art with literary narratives. One reason this is more than a quibble is Chabon’s mysterious narrator, who—in scattered footnotes or the main text—discusses present-day events, from a 1990s, ultra-omniscient perspective. Since the novel presents a brief but learned history of the American comic book as both art and commerce, one would expect some commentary on how the comic book hero, at the mass level, has attained the semi-serious stature that Chabon’s characters seem to covet.

Again, taking such things so seriously may be just another sign of the “devolution of American culture,” as one jaded, self-loathing comic book executive puts it. Either way, the narrator problem could be the only off-key note in this otherwise brilliant symphony of a novel.

Hitler’s rise
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay begins with Hitler’s ascendancy in Europe. It concludes with America’s postwar era, when unprecedented comfort and wealth combined with a latent paranoia that surfaced in bizarre Senate hearings on the potentially harmful effects of comic books on America’s youth.

All these global doings—as well as parental neglect, corporate ruthlessness, cinema, sex (gay and straight), memory, magic, and suicide—find their way, in suffused form, into the Technicolor pages churned out by Empire Comics. This fictional company rises (and falls) thanks to the diligent work of the novel’s title characters.

“Houdini was a hero to little men, city boys, and Jews,” Chabon writes. “Sammy Louis Klayman was all three.” (“My professional name is Clay,” he later explains.) A talented, ambitious teen fond of Houdini (and Jack London), Sammy Clay “dreamed the usual Brooklyn dreams of flight and transformation and escape.” Which is to say, Sammy’s problems are those of many American boys, especially of modest backgrounds—distant parents, a limited worldview, a certain claustrophobia.

But Sammy also has a fierce, highly American optimism, one that makes the reader inevitably think of him as an undersized Augie March. Sammy “dreamed with fierce contrivance, transmuting himself into a major American novelist, or a famous smart person . . . or perhaps into a heroic doctor,” Chabon writes.

All this is in stark contrast to Josef Kavalier, Sammy’s cousin from Prague, who has made a long, dark journey from a Europe slowly yielding to fascism. Josef’s dreams of escape are haunted by persecution and death. Though he fled Europe, his family is not so lucky. The specter of the Holocaust will haunt him his entire life.

But Joe is in America now. And he and Sammy can draw. And when spilled onto the comic book pages, the traumas and contrasting personalities of this dreaming American and brooding exile will captivate a generation of American youth.

Magic and escape
“Forget about [what] you are escaping from. . . . Reserve your anxiety for what you are escaping to.” Josef recalls this nugget of wisdom from his Czech mentor in magic, Bernard Kornblum—an “Ausbrecher, a performing illusionist who specialized in tricks with straitjackets and handcuffs—the sort of act made famous by Harry Houdini.”

Needless to say, escape and imprisonment are crucial themes in this book. In Prague, Kornblum, Joe, and the rest of the middle-class, educated Kavalier family are profoundly aware of the Nazi threat. Yet they must also go about the daily business of work—and play. “Josef had become interested in stage magic right around the time his hands had grown large enough to handle a deck of playing cards,” Chabon writes. Yet even the seemingly innocent business of cultivating magic skills exposes vulnerability. To Kornblum, “Josef was one of those unfortunate boys who become escape artists not to prove the superior machinery of their bodies against outlandish contrivances and the laws of physics, but for dangerously metaphorical reasons.”

Joe nearly kills himself trying to impress Kornblum with a perilous escape. Later, both pupil and teacher must combine their talents to pull off two tricks: relocating the legendary Golem of Prague (a protective giant out of Jewish lore) and making Josef disappear to America. That they accomplish the former feat by posing as undertakers and the latter by stowing Josef in a coffin suggests the grim brutality hovering over these scenes.

The Czech scenes are impressive but wordy. There are informative but lengthy digressions on how Josef met Kornblaum and Prague’s rich tradition of illusionists and sleight-of-hand artists. Generally, though, Chabon bails himself out with shrewd plot twists, such as when Josef, concealed in his escape coffin, is nearly discovered by Nazis.

The big money
When Sammy discovers that Josef is a brilliant artist who spent two years at Prague’s Academy of Fine Arts, he does what any enterprising American boy would do: “Josef, I tell you what. I’m going to do better than just get you a job. . . . I’m going to get us into the big money.” Josef has just one question: “What is a comic book?”

It’s a multi-layered question, though, not just a joke about Josef’s ignorance of American culture. The narrator gives a historical answer of sorts, in a discursive essay. At one point, we read: “Then, in June 1938, Superman appeared. He had been mailed to the offices of National Periodical publications from Cleveland, by a couple of Jewish boys.” Fittingly, that’s what Sammy’s bosses want when he pitches them a comic book idea—another wildly popular superhero to help sell their novelty trinkets to kids.

But the bosses are ultimately skeptical of Josef’s ideas. “To me, this Superman is . . . maybe . . . only an American Golem,” Josef says. Even Sammy comments: “Joe, the Golem is . . . well . . . Jewish.” It’s the classic story of ethnic assimilation—the fear that (in this case) you’ll appear too Jewish. So imagine how the bosses feel when Sammy and Joe come up with their first cover, on which their hero—the Escapist—is punching Adolf Hitler in the face. (Also consider Sammy’s last name, and that he, like the Golem, is a “clay man.”)

As The Escapist evolves—enriching Sammy and Joe but their bosses much more so—each creator dumps his emotional baggage into the storyline. With Josef, of course, it’s his family’s doom in Europe. With Sammy, it’s his dead father, who spent long stretches of time on the road as a performer. For Chabon, however, the true magic happens when these ingredients are savored by thousands of frightened, lonely, and passionate young readers. Josef is more skeptical. Hell-bent on using the comics as propaganda to ultimately crush Hitler, he at times wonders if “all they were doing . . . was indulging their own worst impulses and assuring the creation of another generation of men who revered only strength and domination.”

But later, looking back, Joe concludes:

Having lost his mother, father and brother, and grandfather, the friends and foes of his youth, his beloved teacher Bernard Kornblum, his city, his history—his home—the usual charge leveled against comic books, that they offered merely an escape from reality, seemed to Joe actually to be a powerful argument on their behalf. . . . The escape from reality was, he felt—especially right after the war—a worthy challenge.

The next generation
Somewhere in the middle of Amazing Adventures—the 1940s, basically, recorded in parts 4 and 5—the focus drifts. To be fair, tackling this decade would have required an additional 150 pages. Important things do happen: Josef leaves his lover Rosa and joins the military to fight the Nazis; Sammy has a love affair with a man. But at 200 pages, these sections feel baggy. Only when a child appears (who may either be Sammy’s or Josef’s) does Chabon recapture the intimacy and intensity that mark the book’s most impressive sections.

Comfortable in suburbia, with Josef seemingly lost to the world, Rosa and Sammy have gotten married. They are also raising a son—one who loves comics and skips school too often, despite his guardians’ best efforts. “Another escape artist,” quips a detective, aware that the once-famous, now vanished Josef Kavalier is a relative.

Quite a few people are interested when Josef—or at least his most famous creation, the Escapist—is ready to leap back into the public consciousness. Literally. From the Empire State Building perhaps, according to a letter that appears in a 1954 edition of the Herald-Tribune. The letter also notes that Sammy and Josef were vastly underpaid by their bosses.

It’s still a best-seller, but Kavalier and Clay have ceased their affiliation with The Escapist. The quality of the product has declined. So when fans and family alike gather at the Empire State Building for a supposed Escapist appearance, it touches a nostalgic chord. For Sammy, though, it could mean that his troubled cousin has finally lost it.

First Chabon spirals back in time (by page 500 we’re used to this) and outlines how Josef came to know the young boy who is his nephew . . . or son. All the principal characters and their dilemmas are drawn into this slightly absurd hoax, which, as it turns out, must be taken seriously. And yet, when the episode is resolved, the troubles have only begun for Sammy, Josef, and Rosa, now under the same roof.

Chabon is a deft chronicler of love and other domestic troubles who manages to explore politics and the nature of art. Familial problems hold the later sections of Amazing Adventures together as the rise of Sammy and Josef does the earlier parts. With neither sentimentality nor cynicism, Chabon allows his characters to confront their past, present, and future.

Seduction of the innocent
And what prose! Here’s Josef exploring his regrets, as he stays under the same roof as his onetime lover Rosa, now married to Sammy.

After their initial conversation in the kitchen, he and Rosa seemed to find it hard to get a second one started . . . he attributed her silence to animosity. For days, he stood in the cold shower of her imagined anger, which he felt entirely deserved. Not only for having left her pregnant and in the lurch, so that he might go off in a failed pursuit of an impossible revenge; but for having never returned, never telephoned or dropped a line, never once thought of her—so he imagined that she imagined—in all those years away. The expanding gas of silence between them only excited his shame and lust the more. In the absence of verbal intercourse, he became hyperaware of other signs of her—the jumble of her makeups and creams and lotions in the bathroom, the Spanish moss of her lingerie dangling from the shower curtain rod, the irritable tinkle of her spoon against her teacup.

Before this knot of regret and sex can be untangled, politics will intervene. Sammy Clay is called before the Senate Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency, prompted by Dr. Frederic Wertham’s classic anticomic study The Seduction of the Innocent.

In Chabon’s fictional re-creation, a reactionary senator goes for Sammy’s secret.

“Isn’t it true,” an unnerved Sammy is asked during televised hearings, “that you have a reputation in the comic book field for being particularly partial to boy sidekicks.” And that, “[T]he relationship between Batman and [Robin] is actually a thinly veiled allegory of pedophilic inversion?”

But to Sammy—humiliated, now determined to make a fresh start (out in the new world of California, of course)—his comic book work was indeed worthy of psychoanalysis. Just not on a predatory level. “Dr. Wertham was an idiot; it was obvious that Batman was not intended, consciously or unconsciously, to play Robin’s corrupter: he was meant to stand in for his father, and by extension for the absent, indifferent, vanishing fathers of the comic-book-reading boys of America.”

This is fitting, of course, given Sammy’s troubles with his own dad. In exploring the comic book hearings, however, the novel is on more sensitive turf, as it’s far too easy to critique the concerned senators. After all (like Chabon), they knew there was something deep going on with comics, didn’t they? In one insightful scene, Josef is offered money to draw a nude—indicating that whatever “escapist” wonders comics are capable of, they can also be used to indulge baser fantasies of sex, violence, or whatever. It’s not that the senators should have pursued the comic book “threat” with more vigor. But as Chabon makes clear, comic books, in a lot of ways, are playing with kiddie dynamite, in the psychological sense. Unfortunately, we can’t all expect to see the ignition here as a strictly positive one. Anyway, Chabon doesn’t linger very long on the senators. The episode is mainly used to prod Sammy to an epiphany—an “escapist” one at that.

The narrator
What finally remains is the book’s narrator question. Who’s telling this story in (roughly) the year 2001? “In later years, holding forth to an interviewer or to an audience of aging fans at a comic book convention” are the novel’s first words. Off the bat, we know this is a narrator who can see it all. Knowledgeable factoids pretty much rule out an aged Sammy or Josef, since we learn things they do not know. Perhaps the narrator is the boy who, at different times, was their son. Why Chabon has chosen to sprinkle the text with contemporary insight is ultimately unclear. It’s entertaining and enlightening but also distracting. It sets off alarms, given the many narrative experiments we’ve seen in recent novels.

Is the storyteller simply Michael Chabon, comic book lover? Maybe—but the narrator is hardly authoritative. (Recall that the recent Batman movies are never mentioned, nor for that matter are the many 1930s and ’40s artifacts of antifascist pop culture that Sammy and Joe could have used to defend their leanings.) Readers can be forgiven for questioning why things are handled this way.

One other minor flaw here: Though it’s intriguing to consider “Citizen Kane”’s influence on all forms of popular art, a cameo by Orson Welles (as well as Salvador Dali) feels unnecessary. But on the whole Chabon has produced a great and very American novel, which feels both intimate and worldly. It is funny and dramatic, deeply researched yet freewheeling. Some could even say that Amazing Adventures is downright patriotic, despite its jabs at comic-burning senators. It defends polyglot American pop culture on both an aesthetic and political level. Comic books, with all their crudities, also seem to be symbols of freedom.

When Josef Kavalier, the Holocaust-haunted immigrant, realizes he is about to be paid handsomely to draw comics, he thinks:

All this has conformed so closely to Joe’s movie-derived notions of life in America that if an airplane were now to land on Twenty-fifth Street and disgorge a dozen bathing suit clad Fairies of Democracy come to award him the presidency of General Motors, a contract with Warner Bros., and a penthouse on Fifth Avenue with a swimming pool in the living room, he would have greeted this, too, with the same dreamlike unsurprise.

This is, of course, just a moment of euphoria. But not for nothing does one character later say: “I wasn’t aware that Nazis read comic books.” That’s just it—they don’t.

Source: Tom Deignan, “Playing with Kiddie Dynamite,” in World and I, Vol. 16, No. 2, February 2001, p. 220.

Comics and Jewish Immigrants

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4241

Michael Chabon’s Comic Book Americans and the Golem of Prague
Near the end of Everything is Illuminated, Alex, the fledgling Ukrainian writer, composes a letter in his own inimitable, thesaurusized English, in which he tells his friend Jonathan about a precious fantasy:

[I]f we are to be such nomads with the truth, why do we not make the story more premium than life? It seems to me that we are making the story even inferior. We often make ourselves appear as though we are foolish people, and we make our voyage, which was an ennobled voyage, appear very normal and second rate. We could give your grandfather two arms, and could make him high-fidelity. . . . [I]t could be perfect and beautiful and funny, and usefully said, as you say. . . . I do not think there are any limits to how excellent we could make life seem. (pp. 179–180; emphasis in original])

Alex fantasizes about eluding the terms of his own history and healing the physical and emotional wounds of both his and Jonathan’s families. The new fiction that could result might well be fantastical itself, with a miraculous set of happy reversals and revisions of the past. Alex expresses this wish for an escape from an uncomfortable reality, if only for a few moments, near the end of the story, and his perspective is not clearly endorsed by a narrative that more typically uses fantasy to give shape to ugly truths.

While in Everything is Illuminated this wish to escape through fiction appears only briefly and as a subterranean desire, it is very much the main subject of Michael Chabon’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (2000). Through its sweeping narrative about two young Jewish comic book artists making their careers in New York during the “Golden Age” comics era of the late 1930s and 1940s, Kavalier & Clay explores the use of fantasy not as a means of giving shape to the documentary facticity of the Holocaust, not as a set of stage properties surrounding the real, but as a potential means of “escape” from the past. Chabon’s novel explores a major moral and aesthetic issue which is only partially addressed in the Holocaust fictions I have discussed thus far: the fact that fantasy itself, no matter how disruptive, no matter how “unsentimental” it may be, can give pleasure to an artist and an audience, and that pleasure may be a distraction from the past. What’s more, and this is where Chabon is most surprising, his novel guardedly presents the idea that that distraction may be itself be a valid response. Kavalier & Clay is an extended meditation, with comic books as its central subject, on the value of fantasy as a deflective resource rather than a reflective one.

Escapism is a prominent characteristic of American popular art forms, and this quality, when it is found in Hollywood entertainment, episodic television, or mass-market fiction, is often dismissed by critics as essentially shallow or trivial. Without denying the trashiness of much American popular culture, Chabon issues an aesthetic and ultimately moral defense of escapism as it is found in one of America’s only original contributions to world culture (along with jazz music), superhero comic books. Through its exploration of this form, the novel is remarkable for the intimate ways it shows how much pleasure and value may be found in producing and reading fantasy. Chabon’s intent in exploring superhero comics is not to issue a postmodern critique of the “real” and realistic art forms, nor a populist anti-intellectual assault on “elites” and their art, but to show, in a phenomenological way, how fantasy feels, and how it may assuage pain. With this comforting gesture may come the admittedly problematic, quintessentially American phenomenon of forgetting.

Kavalier & Clay announces from its beginning a fracture between the distanced American experience of the Holocaust and the events of the Holocaust themselves. In what is in some respects a classic Jewish immigrant narrative, Josef Kavalier, a teenage art student from Prague, travels to America and makes his way in this new world at the side of his American cousin and partner in comics, Sam Clay (formerly Klayman) of Brooklyn. The novel begins almost immediately with the meeting of these two characters and then flashes back in a series of episodes to Josef’s early life in Prague, where we learn of his secular, upper-middle-class Jewish family’s increasing difficulties under the Nazi regime in the late 1930s, and of his eventual lonely escape to America. As an adolescent, Josef had learned the skills of escape artistry under the guidance of Kornblum, an ausbrecher [escape artist] of Eastern European origin, and Josef comes to use these skills in his escape from Prague. The rest of the novel takes place in America and follows Josef and Sam’s career as they invent and further develop their character “The Escapist,” a superhero who, like Houdini, can escape from any restraint and, like Captain America and the Human Torch, can fight whole divisions of Nazi soldiers single-handedly. The comic book itself becomes the key means of imaginative escape for Josef, who works constantly to effect the physical escape of his brother, Thomas, from occupied Prague to America.

The recent history of comic books—particularly the longer-form “graphic novels” produced by such artists as Will Eisner, Daniel Clowes, and Chris Ware—has demonstrated the vast storytelling potential of the form beyond the limitations of the superhero genre. Many critics and “serious” comic book artists alike seek to draw aesthetic distinctions between such recent work and the now sixty-year history of stories about men and women in tights. Art Spiegelman has confronted the connotations of triviality often associated with both artists and fans of superhero comics by popularizing an alternate term, “comix,” which stands for a “co-mix” of images and words. Yet in Kavalier & Clay, Chabon embraces the superhero comic book in its earliest incarnation, with its crude drawing style, monotone dialogue, and unlikely plots, as a rough but vivid and fertile form. Unlike Clowes and Ware, who in some ways embrace the form but also tend to put ironic quotes around their referencing of superheroes, Chabon is notable for his enthusiastic endorsement of this by now rather “square” art form. In a bravura section beginning on page 74, Chabon’s narrator describes the early history and aesthetics of comic books with a kind of learned enthusiasm not unlike that found in Melville’s discussion of whale facts and statistics in the “cetology” chapter of Moby Dick. Chabon’s narrator does such things as compare the relative artistic merits of superhero comics covers and their inside material, and in doing so he can also be quite critical, with the wonkish air of any enthusiast, about the limitations of the form:

In 1939 the American comic book, like the beavers and cockroaches of prehistory, was larger and, in its cumbersome way, more splendid than its modern descendant. . . . [Yet] as with all mongrel art forms and pidgin languages, there was, in the beginning, a necessary, highly fertile period of genetic and grammatical confusion. . . . [T]he men tended to stand around in wrinkleless suits that looked stamped from stovepipe tin and in hats that appeared to weigh more than the automobiles, ill at ease, big-chinned, punching one another in their check-mark noses. . . . Consequently, the comic book, almost immediately upon its invention, or soon thereafter, began to languish, lacking purpose or distinction. There was nothing here one could not find done better, or cheaper, somewhere else (and on the radio one could have it for free).

Then, in June 1938, Superman appeared.

Inspired by the extraordinary success of the Man of Steel, Siegel and Schuster’s crude but portentous invention, Sam (with Josef in tow as his artist) proposes a new superhero comics line for Sheldon Anapol’s Empire Novelties Company. Anapol agrees to let them produce a sample issue, which leaves them in the position of having to come up with a hero to build their comic book around over a single weekend. In a witty scene that follows, complete with in-jokes about later comic book inventions, we witness Sam and Josef struggle to come up with a new comic book hero, and we are told that many such conversations were simultaneously blooming in New York in the post-Superman year of 1939. Sam argues that the problem involved in creating a new superhero is not centrally about what powers he will have, but about his motivation.

“This is not the question,” he said. “If he’s like a cat or a spider or a f—— wolverine, if he’s huge, if he’s tiny, if he can shoot flames or ice or death rays or Vat 69, if he turns into fire or water or stone or India rubber. He could be a Martian, he could be a ghost, he could be a god or a demon or a wizard or monster. Okay? It doesn’t matter, because right now, see, at this very moment, we have a bandwagon rolling, I’m telling you. Every little skinny guy like me in New York who believes there’s life on Alpha Centauri and got the s—— kicked out of him in school and can smell a dollar is out there right this minute trying to jump onto it, walking around with a pencil in his shirt pocket, saying, “He’s like a falcon, no, he’s like a tornado, no, he’s like a g——d—— wiener dog.” Okay?

. . . The question is why.”

Over the next 48 hours, Sam and Josef toil with a group of young fellow artists to create a set of superheroes for a new series called Masked Man Comics, and among the heroes will be their main creation, the Escapist, a figure who combines the ausbrecher talents of Houdini with the dark, secret history of the Shadow, along with the prodigious but limited physical strength of the early Superman. In the time before America enters the Second World War, the Escapist fights the Nazis—even, on the cover of the first issue, putting the kibosh on Hitler himself. But Chabon does not just describe Sam and Josef’s co-creation of the character— he inserts a full chapter in which the origin tale of the Escapist is told as a short story, in prose that manages to combine sophisticated narrative and descriptive material with the gee-whiz dialogue of Sam Klay’s comic book. The comic book story, then, is transmuted in the narrator’s hands into a kind of literary hybrid. It becomes a purely textual short story that includes a level of physical detail and even psychological sophistication that would never appear in a comic book of this era; yet it is also clearly a comic book story, with all the trappings of its fantasy world: a lame boy who can suddenly walk, secret evil societies, men from the East with arcane knowledge. With this “origin” tale, as well as that of a later character Sam and Josef create—the mousy-librarian-turned-super-heroine “Luna Moth”—Chabon gives life to the pulpy energy, excitement, and crude imaginative power of superhero comics without a trace of condescension.

In telling the story of Sam and Josef’s creative career, Chabon sets them within a larger story of the development of “Golden Age” superhero comics, a story populated largely by Jewish men. Most of Sam and Josef’s fellow artists are New York Jews, and real-life Jewish comic creators such as Jack Kirby and Siegel and Schuster are referenced (Stan Lee even makes a cameo appearance). Perhaps the most important influence on the novel’s conception of Jewish comic book artists in this period is the life and autobiographical comic book fiction of Will Eisner, an innovative early comic artist and, more recently, theorist and inventor of the graphic novel form. The connection between Jewish artists and their comic book creations is frequently alluded to in the novel, as when Sam says, “What, they’re all Jewish, superheroes. Superman, you don’t think he’s Jewish? Coming over from the old country, changing his name like that. Clark Kent, only a Jew would pick a name like that for himself.”

In some respects, Kavalier & Clay aims to be a novel of social realism, capturing the working environments of late depression-era New York, but despite its attempts at a hard-edged depiction, the novel more often slips into a sentimental view of this period and setting. For much of the middle section of the novel, Chabon describes in loving detail several different New York milieus, including the lower-middle-class home of Sam’s mother in Flatbush, Brooklyn, and the Greenwich Village intellectual set of Josef’s girlfriend, Rosa Saks Luxemborg. But the main emphasis is on the workplace, Sheldon Anapol’s “Empire,” where the Jewish comic book artists are usually underpaid and overworked under their Jewish boss. In its representation of the rough world of commerce of the time, Chabon doesn’t approach the gruff realism of Saul Bellow’s Chicago in The Adventures af Augie March. For example, in an unlikely development, Sam and Joe manage to leverage from their employer a percentage of profits on certain Escapist-related products (including the Escapist radio show)—this during a period in which comic book artists were almost always cut out of a share of any profits that accrued from their creations.

It is understandable that Sam and Josef’s New York lives are told in a somewhat broad and even sentimental manner, for these two characters must carry a great symbolic weight in Kavalier & Clay. They represent the divided experience that is the story of Jewish American life at this time and in our time, for they are both American and Other, native-born and refugee, newly-formed and unsettlingly old. Josef stands, in many respects, for a particular Jewish American notion of the dark but romantic Mittel-european past, with his serious intellectual bearing, his background of suffering and stoicism, and his masculine and slightly mysterious aura; Sam, on the other hand, is the short, clever, fast, funny, and ambitious New York Jew, a man who “[l]ike all of his friends . . . considered it a compliment when somebody called him a wiseass.” Neither character conforms perfectly to these archetypal roles—for example, Sam’s closeted homosexuality adds considerable complexity to his portrayal—but instead, like Dickens’ greatest creations, each is both a finely delineated, idiosyncratic human figure and a caricature or type.

In Sam and Josef’s story, Chabon represents a familiar Jewish American conception of America as the place of Jewish creativity and hope, the place to escape to, and of Europe as the place of Jewish history and death, the place to escape from. The Jewish story, in this telling, seems at first to end in the Holocaust but is, at least to an extent, revived in America, and this is nowhere so evident as in Chabon’s use of the Golem legend. In the early chapters of the novel, Chabon describes how Josef’s escape is made possible by the rediscovery of the body of Rabbi Loew’s famous Golem of Prague. This giant immobile figure, formed from the clay of the River Moldau, has long been kept hidden in an unmarked, sealed-off room in an apartment house near the Alneuschul (the Old-New Synagogue), but it is eventually retrieved by Josef and Kornblum (his ausbrecher tutor) and becomes the literal vehicle for Josef’s escape out of Europe. Josef and Kornblum disguise the Golem as a “dead goyische giant”, secret Josef away in its casket, and send it eastward, out of Nazi-controlled territory and into Lithuania. Once he escapes from the confines of the Golem’s casket, Josef manages to make his way halfway around the world through the Soviet Union and Japan, and finally to America and (physical) salvation.

The Golem in this story represents both the dead hope of Jewish life in Europe and the ever-living promise of Jewish creativity, which can be transferred to the new world. It is a predecessor, then, as an artifact of Jewish fantasy, to the new Jewish fantasy-creation, the comic book hero. Chabon makes this connection between Golems and comic books clear early in the novel, when Josef sketches a Golem in his first effort at representing a superhero. (Upon seeing it, his future boss, Sheldon Anapol, is confused and exclaims, “‘Is that the Golem? . . . My new Superman is the Golem?’”) The connection is made even more explicit late in the novel, in a fascinating passage:

The shaping of a Golem, to [Josef], was a gesture of hope, offered against hope, in a time of desperation. It was the expression of a yearning that a few magic words and an artful hand might produce something— one poor, dumb, powerful thing—exempt from the crushing strictures, from the ills, cruelties, and inevitable failures of the greater Creation. It was the voicing of a vain wish, when you get down to it, to escape. To slip, like the Escapist, free of the entangling chain of reality and the straitjacket of physical laws. (emphasis added)

The Golem represents the dream of “escape,” which in this passage involves a flight from both the physical bondage of the Nazis and the imaginative bondage that may limit the expression of any artist. As such, the Golem is commensurate with comic book superheroes and with comic books themselves as artifacts of “escapist” Jewish creativity in the fecund commercial world of American pop culture.

The Ethics of Escapism
We arrive, through the figure of the Golem, at comic books as the central signifier and singular fetish of Kavalier & Clay, and with it the central issue of this essay, which is the question of how these young Jewish American writers understand the nature and efficacy of fantasy in the context of the Holocaust. Comic books, in Chabon’s hands, represent a form of Jewish fantasy markedly different from Englander’s Chelm legends and Foer’s magical-realist shtetl, Trachimbrod: while these two authors indirectly give shape to the reality of the Holocaust through these fantastical devices, to an unusual degree Chabon uses comic books as a recourse or alternative to shaping that reality. The Escapist, like America itself, is always set in contrast to the Holocaust experiences of Josef, and is never used as vehicle for the depiction of those experiences, indirect or otherwise.

Through their deliberately broad, even crude vocabulary, the Escapist storylines and layouts provide an opportunity for Josef to mobilize anti-Nazi sentiment in the period before America would enter the war, and to provide for himself a dose of short-lived imaginative revenge. Josef furiously wants to believe that if he and Sam “could not move Americans to anger against Hitler, then Joe’s existence, the mysterious freedom that had been granted to him and denied to so many others, had no meaning,” and yet he is also aware that his persuasive powers will always be limited, for “[t]he Escapist was an impossible champion, ludicrous and above all imaginary, fighting a war that could never be won.” While the Escapist fulfills the fantasy of protecting the persecuted (much like Rabbi Loew’s Golem patrolling the streets of Prague) and even goes further to visit active retribution upon Hitler and his cronies, still, the effectiveness and the satisfactions of such a creative consolation are seriously curtailed by an awareness of what is actually happening in Europe. Josef also realizes the fact that superhero comics may promote dangerous fantasies of the kind of violent revenge that fuel the Nazi assault on Jews. Chabon thus acknowledges through Josef’s experiences the problem of the extreme incommensurateness between fantasy and reality, most intensely in the scene where Josef discovers that, despite his great efforts to save his brother, Thomas, the boy has been killed along with a ship full of other Jewish refugee children by a German U-Boat.

Near the end of the novel, Chabon does make some efforts to reconcile the American impulse to escape through fantasy with the memory of the European Jewish past and of the Holocaust itself. He seeks to achieve this reconciliation by bringing the Golem, and its evocation of the lost, pre- Holocaust Jewish European past, into the present, so that it no longer just prefigures American comic books but becomes their subject. After finding out about Thomas’s death, Josef leaves to become a U.S. serviceman and cuts off contact from Sam and his pregnant girlfriend, but years later. he returns to their lives and reveals that he has been spending time secretly writing a 2,256-page comic book based loosely on the Golem legend. It is both a superhero story and a Golem story, a “long and hallucinatory tale of a wayward, unnatural child, Josef Golem, that sacrificed itself to save and redeem the little lamplit world whose safety had been entrusted to it.” For Josef, it seems that this new, breakthrough work is “helping to heal him” of his wounds, not by erasing his memory of the pre-American Jewish past, but by recasting them in comic book form, and having European Jewish fantasy mingle with the American variety. In a similar gesture at acknowledging the “pastness” of the European Jewish past and yet seeking to recall it into memory, Chabon has the long-lost casket of the Golem reappear in Josef’s life at the very end of the novel. Whereas before the Golem was fully formed but nearly weightless, now it is but a heap of dust; yet it is heavy now, perhaps with the souls of the lost European Jews.

But despite Chabon’s efforts in applying a kind of thematic reconciliation to match the characters’ scenes of reconciliation at the end of the novel, the reincursions of the Golem into the conclusion of the novel seem a sudden and therefore somewhat clumsy and unconvincing narrative device, particularly for a writer who is usually so consummately in command of his plot. While this device seeks to place the burden of the Jewish European past—the burden of the Holocaust itself—into an American narrative, and therefore to give more heft and relevance to the superhero comic book dream of escape, it’s not clear that the concept of escapism itself can properly assume such a weight. What is assumed, in any case, is not the memory of the past, nor the direct experience of the Holocaust, but an idea of it, one that is, in Chabon’s account, necessarily abstracted by American distance. James E. Young discusses this phenomenon in the context of distinguishing U.S. Holocaust memorials from their European counterparts:

Where European memorials located in situ often suggest themselves rhetorically as the extension of the events they would commemorate, those in America must gesture abstractly to a past removed in time and space. If memorials in Germany and Poland composed of camp ruins invite visitors to mistake them for the events they represent, those in America inevitably call attention to the great distance between themselves and the destruction. . . . In this sense, American memorials seem not to be anchored in history so much as in the ideals that generated them in the first place.

According to Young’s description, American engagements with the Holocaust never gain full purchase on its history because they tend to turn facts into abstracted “ideals,” a practice characteristic of American distance (as well as a Protestant-influenced messianic optimism). Chabon’s novel struggles with explaining this impulse to abstract the Holocaust from an American-Jewish present, and with describing the very real pleasures to be gained from submitting those abstractions to a fantastic set of reversals and escapes. The novel is most vivid and ultimately most convincing in its defense of fantasy not as a device that gives shape to the real but as one that is inevitably, hopelessly, and yet somehow hopefully distant from it. As the narrator says of Josef in the novel’s strongest defense of escapism,

Having lost his mother, father, brother, and grandfather, the friends and foes of his youth, his beloved teacher Bernard Kornblum, his city, his history—his home—the usual charge leveled against comic books, that they offered merely an easy escape from reality, seemed to Joe actually to be a powerful argument on their behalf. He had escaped, in his life, from ropes, chains, boxes, bags, and crates, from handcuffs and shackles, and regimes. . . . The escape from reality was, he felt—especially right after the war—a worthy challenge.

By noting that escapism is “especially” worthy for survivors immediately after the war, Chabon is careful to mark out escapism’s limitations, but the fact remains that even in the short term, escapism is a turn away from history. It is a safe refuge from the memory of the Nazi genocide and not a sufficient means of representing it directly—something that, to its credit, the novel never attempts. Though Englander and Foer use fantastic elements of Jewish folklore as a vehicle for memorial, Chabon shows, through his meditation on the thoroughly Jewish-American medium of early superhero comics, how fantasy may also act as an interruption to memory, a holding action against the incursions of the past.

Source: Lee Behlman, “The Escapist: Fantasy, Folklore, and the Pleasures of the Comic Book in Recent Jewish American Holocaust Fiction: Michael Chabon’s Comic Book Americans and the Golem of Prague,” in SHOFAR, Vol. 22, No. 3, Spring 2004, pp. 61–71.

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Critical Overview