Amazing Adventures

Michael Chabon's best-selling 2001 novel "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay" is the story of two cousins, thrown together by fate in the 1930s, who create one of the first great comic-book superheroes: a master escape artist and champion of the downtrodden known as the Escapist. Chabon's novel is mostly about what happens to the cousins in the years following the birth of their greatest creation, but now the Escapist is finally free to tell his own tales. The first issue of a new quarterly devoted to his exploits, "Michael Chabon Presents: The Amazing Adventures of the Escapist," just hit the racks at your local comic-book store.

TV shows and movies are adapted into comic books all the time; Pulitzer Prize-winning novels, almost never. But "Kavalier and Clay" isn't your average resident of the halls of high literature. The book tells the story of the bond that develops between the cousins Josef Kavalier and Sam Clay, and the woman who becomes central to both their lives. But it's also an unabashed valentine to the comics, and a celebration of the real-life Kavaliers and Clays who created a new, vibrant and uniquely American art form.

The new Escapist comic takes this celebration to the next level. It begins from the conceit that Kavalier, Clay and their creation were all real, and the Escapist ("The Master of Elusion!") has just been unfairly forgotten in comics history. (Anyone fooled by this wouldn't be alone--readers have been seeking out nonexistent Escapist comics ever since Chabon's novel appeared.) By presenting the book's six short, self-contained stories as having been "culled from every epoch of the Escapist's strange and checkered career," this anthology ends up being a capsule history of comic books as well as a good read. Chabon's own contribution, for example, is the story of the origin of the Escapist and is written and drawn (by Eric Wight) in a style reminiscent of the comics' Depression-era "Golden Age," in which the original story would have appeared. Another story in the book, written and drawn by Jim Stanton, is nearly wordless and illustrated with '90s-style computer-rendered images. Between the two stretches the entire history of a genre, and the fact that they exist so comfortably under the same covers is a testament to the flexibility and range of a form long dismissed as kiddie stuff.

Chabon's "The Passing of the Key" is, not surprisingly, the strongest story in the collection. The story is taken--at times verbatim--from the pages of the novel. Comparing Chabon's two takes on the one tale is instructive: the comic misses some of the novel's virtuoso lyricism, but the novel misses the comic's ability to provide motion to even the most static passage of exposition through illustration, and the sheer immediacy of the storytelling. This short comic does a better job than any manifesto could of making an argument Chabon has made time and time again: literature cannot survive if it continues to deny itself the pleasures of thrillers, ghost stories, adventure tales, detective fiction and, yes, comics. "Escape and escapism, in art and literature, have received a bad name," he writes in his introduction to this collection. "It was given to them, I believe, by the very people who forged the locks and barred the doors in the first place."

Chabon is far from the only person making the case for comics: since Art Spiegelman won the Pulitzer for "Maus" in 1992, comics have become more and more mainstream. Even Harvey Pekar, as defiantly non-mainstream as it gets, recently saw his series of autobiographical comics turned into the Oscar-nominated movie "American Splendor." There's a graphic-novel section in most big bookstores, and Neil Gaiman recently put DC Comics on the hardcover best-seller lists for the first time with his "Endless Nights." But Chabon is the most prominent figure crossing over in the opposite direction, from so-called high art to comics, and, as a result, his arguments in favor of escapism may prove harder to dismiss as special pleading than those that have come before him.

Which is why it's hard not to wish that the argument were even stronger. "The Escapist" is an enjoyable collection--with the stellar group of comics' artists and writers assembled between its covers, it would almost have to be. The stories differ in voice and style, yet the Escapist himself and his band of sidekicks are consistent and likeable throughout. But in trying to introduce us to the comic's characters and fictionalized history, the collection almost forgets one of the most important things about Kavalier and Clay's work together: their openness to experimentation and innovation. In his novel, Chabon tells us that the cousins were inspired by repeated viewings of "Citizen Kane," and Joe Kavalier's chance meeting with Salvador Dali. He tells us that the Escapist at its best stretched the limits of comic-book storytelling. Yet for the most part the storytelling here is fairly straightforward. Only comics luminary Howard Chaykin comes close to capturing the "artfully disarranged, dislocated panels" that the novel tells us were the hallmark of the Escapist's best stories. Comics' history seems to have been given priority instead: Kyle Baker's homage to the jokier, more muscle-bound comics of the 1950s is a pitch-perfect delight, but it's not representative of the best either of the Escapist or Baker, whose "Why I Hate Saturn" is an indie-comics classic.

But in the end these are quibbles, and may even prove to be nothing more than first-issue stage-setting. Publisher Dark Horse is committed to the title, and to its eclectic cast of creators. The next issue will include the comics debut of novelist Glen David Gold ("Carter Beats the Devil") and paintings by innovative comics artist Bill Sienkiewicz. In May, there'll even be a book collecting the first two issues, in an attempt to reach readers who don't frequent comics stores. Maybe as the comic continues to mature, it will become a place where both novelists and comics creators can slip the bounds of their assigned places in the world of words and find common ground in their common interest in story. If that ends up being the case, it will be the Escapist's greatest rescue ever.

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