Comic books can be an immersive art form. Readers can dive into an entire universe, filled with characters and ideas that can’t be fully grasped in reality. So it makes sense that Michael Chabon’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay,” a story about two young men in the Golden Age of comic books, is just as immersive.
While I personally don’t read comic books, I was still exhilarated by the world in which the story takes place. The story features Samuel Klayman, a Jewish teenager growing up in New York City in the early 1940s. His lifelong dream is to write comic books, but he lacks the artistic skills. Meanwhile, his Czech cousin Josef Kavalier moves in with him after escaping from the Nazis in Prague. Sam learns that Josef is an amazing artist, and together they decide to create their own comic book hero, The Escapist, a young Jewish superhero with the ability to pick any lock and escape from any situation. The comic attracts attention when the cover of the first issue has The Escapist punching Hitler in the face and breaking his jaw.
The story that follows depicts the rise of Sam and Josef in the comic book world, as the Escapist becomes a nationwide sensation, and the effect it has on their professional and personal relationship over the course of more than 20 years.
Michael Chabon’s writing style may be off-putting at first, since it can be a bit dense and even whimsical on occasion. But he does an incredible job of establishing time and place, and creating a gallery of unique characters that the reader will deeply care about. New York City in the 1940’s through the ‘50s is a vivid setting for the story, with intricate details about American life during the Second World War (there are even cameos by Salvador Dali and Orson Welles). All of Chabon’s books are filled with ideas, especially this one, with the mythology of superheroes, survivor’s guilt, Jewish mysticism and sexual identity. But Chabon’s amazing storytelling skill brings everything together to create a story that never slows down over nearly 700 pages.
But the best thing about “Kavalier and Clay” is the relationship between the two main characters themselves. Sam is idealistic and wants to break free from his humble surroundings in New York, and is also finding difficulty dealing with his oppressed homosexuality (a theme in several books by Chabon). Josef had dreams of being an escape artist like his hero Harry Houdini before running away from the Nazis, and hopes to one day help the rest of his family come to America as well, with some tragic results. The two men later meet a free-spirited woman named Rosa Saks, who serves as their creative muse and almost tears the two men apart. Even as the events in their lives become more outlandish over the course of the book, their bond remains its driving force. That is what makes “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay” such an incredible achievement from one of America’s greatest writers. It is available in Penfield Library under the call numbers PS3553.H15 A82 2000 on the third floor. This book is a must-read whether you’re a comics expert or a complete novice.