In later years, holding forth to an interviewer or to an audience of aging fans at a comic book convention, Sam Clay liked to declare, apropos of his and Joe Kavalier's greatest creation, that back when he was a boy, sealed and hog-tied inside the airtight vessel known as Brooklyn, New York, he had been haunted by dreams of Harry Houdini. "To me, Clark Kent in a phone booth and Houdini in a packing crate, they were one and the same thing... It was never just a question of escape. It was also a question of transformation." [p. 1]
I've owned this novel, in paperback, since about 2003. When I first tried to read it, I couldn't connect: I neither knew nor cared about the early years of the American comics industry, or the superhero phenomenon, or the Comics Code.
Fast-forward a decade or so, past Iron Man and Avengers and the Coursera Comic Books and Graphic Novels course and the mainstreaming of comics culture ... and suddenly, yes, the time is right for me to read The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.
Sam Clay is a first-generation New Yorker, fascinated by comics and by science, scraping a living as an illustrator for a novelty products company. One October night in 1939, his cousin Josef Kavalier turns up: Joe's come from Prague, fleeing the rise of Nazism. A student of magic and escapology, Joe's own escape to America riffs on the story of the Golem of Prague. And when he and Sam get together and start talking about comics, they quickly come up with the idea of a superhero of their own: the Escapist.
The Escapist, 'Champion of Freedom', is reminiscent of Captain America, of Batman, of the Scarlet Pimpernel: he's violently anti-fascist (why, yes, he does punch Hitler) and works with the League of the Golden Chain to free the oppressed and imprisoned. In parallel, Joe uses his (paltry) earnings from the comic to fund travel for refugee Jewish children. His aim is to bring his young brother to America, but this ends tragically, and Joe enlists with the hope of fighting Nazis hand-to-hand. This does not work out as he planned.
Meanwhile, Sam (increasingly successful as a comics artist) is wrestling with relationships of his own. He's gay (illegal at the time) and his sexuality blossoms in a brief, glorious affair with the star of the Escapist radio series and movie, but ultimately Sam opts for the safety of marriage. Though it's not actually as simple as that.
A theme that permeates The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is father-son relationships. Chabon's response to Wertham's Comics Code -- which suggests that superheroes such as Batman have paedophilic relationships with their teenage sidekicks -- is that Robin, Bucky etc are looking not for sex but for father-figures. Joe and Sam both have complex relationships with their fathers; Joe's relationship with his own son (who he didn't know existed for many years) triggers resolution and reunites the eponymous pair.
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is a sprawling novel that eventually resolves all its characters and themes. It's occasionally very funny; more often, sad. I'm glad I didn't attempt to power through it before I was ready: I'm glad I still owned my copy when the time was right to read it.