The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay
by Brian Lupo, http://neovox.cortland.edu, November 24, 2009
There have been many times in my life when I wanted to believe so badly in the existence of superheroes. The thought that there could be people out there who have abilities beyond those of normal humans is something that I think everyone wonders about. If our own ability to overcome trouble and danger is not enough, our only choice is to believe in the extraordinary. That's why the creation of the superhero is more than just a myth; superheroes are the reflection of ordinary humans being capable of doing the extraordinary.
I remember growing up and watching the Batman films by Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher and wanting to have a Batcave of my own. After my dad took me to see X-Men when I was 11-years-old I would have done anything to have my own unique mutant ability. Then came September 11th and I wished so badly for a real life superhero to exist. And all these things never left my brain; I still believe that there should be superheroes in real life.
Of course there have been countless heroes and superheroes written about since the Golden Age of Comics. But it is hard to find a story that portrays heroes as well as The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon. Now, don't get me wrong, I still think characters of the Marvel and DC franchises are staples of American youth, culture, and art. But I have yet to read any adaption of their stories that truly humanizes their characters in the way that Kavalier and Clay humanizes comic book heroes.
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is a testament to the Golden Age of Comics, a period before and during World War II in which comic books were as popular to American youth as video games are today. It tells the story of Joe Kavalier, a Jewish youth who escapes Nazi-occupied Prague, leaves his family behind, and moves in with his cousin and soon-to-be-partner, Sammy Clay. Joe is a talented artist who knows the bare-minimum about American culture when he arrives in New York City. When Sammy introduces Joe to the world of Comic Books, the stage is set for a lifetime of big-business-deals, artistic breakthroughs, and relationships of hope, love, and lust.
In order to compete with the successful comic heroes of the day, Joe and Sammy brainstorm to create a hero that is unique enough to get recognition, yet believable enough for readers to empathize with. Joe recalls his childhood to bring back memories of when he attempted to be an escape artist, inspired directly by Harry Houdini. Joe also wants the hero they create to be the type of hero that would save his family from the tyranny of the Nazis. That is when they come up with their first hero: The Escapist. The creation of the Escapist becomes a way for Joe to relive his childhood fantasy, and at the same time create a world in which a hero exists to help save those in need of escape from the chains of oppression. This is not the only comic they create, but it is the most important.
Once the Escapist hit shelves Sammy and Joe become made men in the comic book industry. They live in a world where they start calling the shots, and the people above them start allowing them the creative freedom they deserved. Through this lifestyle the two young men earn themselves enough money to start enjoying the finer things in life. Joe and Clay soon meet Rosa Saks, a beautiful young lady who plays a central role in the life of both protagonists and is a direct inspiration for their female heroine, Luna Moth.
All these characters work to create a structure that is nearly perfect. Joe Kavalier is a man that shows what loss can do to a person. Should Joe have chosen to turn down a path of bitterness for the rest of his life and at many times he almost does, he would have become the story's antagonist. But Joe overcomes his loss and disappointment in order to help those around him.
Joe is not the only character who must deal with personal defeat. Sammy Clay's life is also filled with hardship. Although he was on the path to success, his struggles with his sexuality lead him to a life of secrecy. Because Sammy lived in an era where it was socially unacceptable to be a gay man he must live a double-life.
Rosa Saks is the archetype of an outstanding female lead. She has a steadfast love for Joe that makes her character seem weak at times, but ultimately she is not. She is a strong willed woman who is intelligent, sexy, and wonderful throughout. I can't imagine this story told without her being a part of it.
These characters complete the story because by understanding who they are, the reader also understands the comic book characters they create. If not for Joe's background as an amateur escape artist there would be no Escapist. If Sammy didn't use his comic books as an outlet for his frustration over his personal struggles, he may not have created anything great. And without Rosa Saks, there would be no Luna Moth, and no female lead to complement the excellent protagonists.
The book's biggest strength does not come from its characters, it comes through how well this book is written. Michael Chabon seems like the type of author who knows exactly what his readers want him to say. This novel is filled with details that go beyond the readers' imagination, but at the same time do not bore at all. The dialogue is well executed, and his use of foot notes to help describe his euphemisms is almost unprecedented. Another thing about this work that is great is the historical accuracy. This book takes place in New York City between the late 1930's and early 1950's and I could not find one inaccurate reference anywhere. Seriously, I could not find one thing that seemed like it didn't belong. This is one of the more well-researched novels in recent years. My biggest criticism is the length. This book is a little over 600 pages. I felt Chabon could have omitted some parts, specifically Joe's war story, and the novel would not have been hurt in any way.
Anyone who is a fan of comic books needs to read Kavalier and Clay. There have been many works in the last 20 or so years that have a central focus on having the audience relate to superheroes in ways that haven't been seen before. When it comes down to it Kavalier and Clay is the cream-of-the-crop of these works. If there is anything that comes close to how good The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is at humanizing its characters and superheroes, I will be thoroughly impressed.
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