In the theories of origin put forward by fans, critics, and other origin-obsessives, the idea of Superman has been accounted the offspring or recapitulation, in no particular order, of Friedrich Nietzsche; of Philip Wylie (in his novel “Gladiator”); of the strengths, frailties, and neuroses of his creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, of Cleveland, Ohio; of the aching wishfulness of the Great Depression; of the (Jewish) immigrant experience; of the mastermind stratagems of popular texts in their sinister quest for reader domination; of repressed Oedipal fantasies and homoerotic wishes; of fascism; of capitalism; of the production modes of mass culture (and not in a good way); of celebrated strongmen and proponents of physical culture like Eugen Sandow; and of a host of literary not-quite-Superman precursors, chief among them Doc Savage.Now, the "amazing" thing about Kavalier & Clay is that it puts forth evidence for about two-thirds of these theories, while describing how its young protagonists create superhero "The Escapist." Joe Kavalier, the artist, has just escaped Nazi-occupied Prague (the Nazis, of course, were inspired by Nietzsche) and wishes to create a character who can smash evildoers in a way that he himself is powerless to do. Sammy Clay, the writer, is a devoted reader of pulp fiction, a keen believer in American capitalism, and a repressed homosexual whose father works as a strongman. Yet it never feels like Chabon is laboring to prove, or disprove, these theories--but rather to dramatize this complicated stew of influences on the development of superhero comics, and make it interesting to people who haven't read comic books for their whole life.
Despite this, I suppose that both Joe and Sammy both have stereotypical, schematic elements to their characters--Joe the quiet, brooding Czech immigrant, Sammy the short, wise-guy Brooklyn kid. But they eventually gain depth as well. It is just heartbreaking to see Joe draw comic-book stories where the Escapist vanquishes thinly disguised Nazis, while in the real world he despairs that he can do nothing more to help the Jews of Europe. So, too, to see the compromises that Sammy must make because of his sexuality.
Kavalier & Clay uses superhero comics to get at a lot of themes--striving, success, entertainment, freedom, America--and one of the cleverest things Chabon does is to name Kavalier and Clay's trademark superhero "The Escapist." He is a Harry Houdini-inspired escape artist whose mission is to "free all who are bound by the Iron Chain, using his Golden Key!" First, the theme of escape resonates with both Joe and Sammy, two somewhat frustrated young men who want to escape to a world of limitless possibility. Second, "escapist" is like "escapism"--the most frequent charge leveled against superhero comics, that they are mindless entertainment with no redeeming value. But Chabon proves that they are a deadly serious matter, especially for a certain kind of young person. As he writes in the New Yorker article: "It was not about escape [...] It was about transformation."
Indeed, when I bought Kavalier & Clay, my mother dismissed it with a "Why'd you want to read about comic books?" but truth be told, I learned a lot from it, not just about the early years of the superhero comics industry, but from Chabon's detailed early-1940s setting (coincidentally, he said he picked up many of his flourishes from old New Yorker magazines). Besides, I used to be a devoted reader of fantasy books, and I'm not averse to a dose of whiz-bam-pow sci-fi on occasion. (I once went on a date with a guy who seemed amused to learn that I enjoyed the first two Spider-Man movies. I think he had pegged me as too "intellectual" for that. Pshaw!)
My copy of Kavalier & Clay is back in Poughkeepsie, otherwise I'd quote some examples of Chabon's gorgeous prose, which--like everything about his book--is expansive and intricate and a fresh perspective. Two metaphors in particular stick out: one where he compares the Manhattan skyline to a bridge--the way that there are high-rises in midtown and the Financial District, and a dip between them at Greenwich Village, like a swooping suspension bridge. And another where he compares the bridges of New York City to various other things: I especially remember his description of the Queensboro Bridge, "two tsarinas dancing, holding hands."
But what I love most about Chabon is his huge imagination--unafraid of kitsch and unafraid of grandeur. Sammy Clay has his first kiss atop the empty Empire State Building at two AM, with a handsome radio actor, during a thunderstorm--and Chabon makes you believe it. Or rather: even if you suspect it's too good to be true, the atmosphere, the slow-burn sexual tension, the sheer audacity of it is so compelling that you want to believe it. You want to shout, "Whoever said that books had to be about dull everyday people doing dull everyday things? Dammit, what are novels for, if not to make out-of-the-ordinary events feel vivid to the reader?" Back when I subscribed to McSweeney's, the first issue I received was the Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales, guest-edited by Michael Chabon, prefaced by his manifesto attacking "the contemporary, quotidian, plotless, moment-of-truth revelatory story." If that short-story collection was a minor skirmish, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is a major salvo in the quest to meld "literary" and "popular" genres. Chabon is a Maximalist, an Optimist, and probably a Great American Novelist. Hey, that sounds like the description of a new superhero...