“Kavalier & Clay” is a big, boisterous, purple-prose paean to American popular culture of the 40s and 50s. In particular, the book revives the Golden Age of the American comic book, an art form created and propelled by a largely Jewish group of artists, writers and publishers. The New York Times Book Review called the 37-year-old author’s book “a novel of towering achievement,” and Newsweek’s Susannah Meadows probably spoke for many others when she concluded that Chabon, whose 1995 “Wonder Boys” inspired the acclaimed Michael Douglas film now in re-release, “has pulled off another great feat.
“Title character Sam Clay, ne Klayman, is the polio-disfigured son of a Jewish circus strongman who, like so many other young squires ofFlatbush, dreams of escape. Sammy’s ticket out turns up in his very own bed one night in 1939 in the guise of his refugee Czech cousin, Joe Kavalier. Joe is a former art student, lock-picker and escape artist who eluded Hitler’s clutches, we learn, at the same time he spirited the actual Golem of Prague out of Europe in a coffin. He now hopes to use the more prosaic means of bribery to effect the release of his parents and younger brother.
Sammy, the teenage comic book maven and master of a thousand schlocky plots, and Joe, the would-be painter and comics neophyte, put their heads together, and over a single weekend come up with a superhero they hope will knock Superman down a peg or two, earn Joe some much-needed cash and help the effort to defeat Hitler. Equipped with a mask, cape, pair of blue tights and a golden skeleton key, their character, part Moses, part Houdini (and maybe a little Robin Hood and Albert Schweitzer thrown in for good measure), becomes the Escapist, a man charged with the archetypal task of freeing people from whatever bondage afflicts them. On the cover of the first issue, which they persuade Sam’s boss, a cheap novelty distributor, to publish, and which after the war will auction for some $ 42,000, the Escapist starts off modestly – he punches Hitler’s lights out.
Although the cousins (like Superman’s creators, Joe Shuster and Jerome Siegel) are eventually cheated out of ownership of their Escapist alter ego, Sammy and Joe create a whole line of second-string superheroes, whose earnings Joe sets aside to finance his family’s eventual resettlement.
Joe’s own efforts to bribe Nazi officials and gain their release prove no less fruitless than his fantasies of waging war against Hitler with a gaggle of imaginary superheroes. Despairing, he leaves his lover, the surrealist painter Rosa Luxemburg Sachs, and their unborn son, to cousin Sammy’s care, and enlists in the U.S. Navy. He is dispatched to an isolated base in Antarctica, where instead of wreaking revenge upon the Nazis, he continues to unravel.
After the war, Joe re-ensconces himself in his secret Empire State Building lair, where he seeks to revive the medieval tale of the Golem as a sort of graphic novel. In the historical backdrop, we have the publication of psychiatrist Frederick Wertham’s anti-comic book diatribe, “The Seduction of the Innocent,” and, later, in 1954, the Kefauver Congressional hearings on the supposedly deleterious effects of comics on juvenile readers (both resulting in actual book burnings on American soil). Left to hold down the fort, Sammy finds himself under siege not only because of his initially stalwart defense of the “men in tights” genre, but because his own homosexual inclinations may indeed have had some small bearing on that genre’s early aesthetics.
Chabon (it’s pronounced “Shay-bin”) argues that there’s a homoeroticism underlying the entire superhero genre, at the same time he acknowledges its presence in much of his own earlier work. In fact, the preponderance of gay characters in his work, combined with his pretty-boy looks, have led to a lot of speculation about his sexual orientation. He is, however, married, to Ayelet Waldman, an Israeli-born lawyer and mystery novelist, and the couple have a young daughter and son.
Chabon’s first novel, “The Mysteries of Pittsburgh,” an MFA thesis that became a national bestseller in 1988, abounded with bisexual grappling, and earned the 24-year-old writer comparisons with F. Scott Fitzgerald and John Cheever. A subsequent collection of short stories, “Werewolves in Their Youth,” suggested certain pulpish affectations, a Gothic bent and the author’s empathy for the fantasy worlds concocted and inhabited by boys.
Of Chabon’s jettisoned novel, “Fountain City,” one can only marvel at his ability, after five years and 1,500 pages, to bounce back and produce a book like “Wonder Boys.” A moving yet comic tale of an academic writer grappling with his own physical and mental dissipation, “Wonder Boys” is also as unabashed in its admiration for horror writers as “Kavalier and Clay” is for the purveyors of comic books. As Time Magazine would pronounce in its own review of that book, “He… seems to understand intuitively that in the U.S., popular culture is the culture, and there is no point pretending it is not.”
“BOYS AT WHOM COMIC books have been aimed,” Chabon told The Report, speaking by phone from his home in Berkeley, California, “have always been filled with feelings of attraction to members of their own sex. The comics tapped into, or generated, feelings that I think are common to all men at all times of their lives. But this was so obvious that after a while, it was no longer helpful or applicable. Much more germane is that Batman and Robin are, in reality, father and son. To some degree, sons are always looking for their fathers, who have a kind of secret, or hidden emotional life.
“An exploration of the world of the father lies very much at the heart of “Kavalier and Clay,” and accounts in part for Chabon’s enthusiasm for the world of Golden Age comic books, and his fascination with that very particular time and place that spawned them. Chabon’s father, who was born in Brooklyn in 1938, and who eventually became a physician as well as a lawyer, was exposed to comic books through his own father, who worked at a printing plant that produced several different lines.
As a result, he explains, “my father thought that comic books were extremely worthy reading material. I remember being 7 or 8 and having these long, detailed, serious discussions with him on the clinical effects on Superman of different kinds of Kryptonite.”
Meanwhile, Chabon recounts, “I was reading these huge, hundred-page comics that consisted of a new story and a lot of reprints. And I realized at some point that I was actually reading the comics my father had read when he was 10.” The family was living in Columbia, Maryland, “which during the late 60s was this kind of planned quasi-utopian, multiracial interfaith suburb located between Baltimore and Washington. These comic books, though, offered me my first direct access to the fabulous world of my father’s youth.
“That much of this world was Jewish went without saying, even for a boy growing up in a deliberately multicultural environment. That the brash new universe of American comic books would, like the movies or Tin Pan Alley before it, prove no less Jewish, one could discern not only from the names of the people listed on their mastheads, but from the distinctive and often peculiar conventions they embraced.
“It’s tempting and attractive to make the argument that comics are, or were, a Jewish-derived art form, at least to some degree,” confides Chabon. Or as Sammy queries Joe, “Superman, you don’t think he’s Jewish? Coming over from the old country, changing his name like that. Clark Kent, only a Jew would pick out a name like that for himself.”
“This whole business of having a dual identity,” says Chabon, “of changing your name and wearing a mask, of assimilating and reinventing yourself – it’s impossible not to see these things as allegorical of the immigrant experience.”
But what are we to make of his use of that prototypical Jewish superhero, that dumbstruck protector, the Golem? Was he, as Chabon seems to suggest, the dutiful template for an entire genre of characters with scarlet capes and feet of clay, sworn protectors of humanity who, like the “X-Men,” are feared as its potential scourge?
Maybe it’s no accident that Chabon had actually been commissioned by Fox to try his hand at an early treatment for Bryan Singer’s recent feature adaptation of Marvel’s “X-Men” comic book series. The result, purportedly restrained, thoughtful and intellectually challenging, rendered it immediately inappropriate for a summer popcorn movie.
“I think it’s pretty clear in the book,” Chabon told the Report, “that the Golem is a son, a kind of Pinocchio, who was always a variant on the Golem story.” Indeed, for Chabon himself, the Golem functions as a stand-in for artistic creation that have the potential for turning on their creator. In a short essay on his web site called “The Recipe for Life,” Chabon wrote of the Golem as pure literary construct:
“Sometimes I fear to write, even in fictional form, about the things that really happened to me, about things that I really did, or about the numerous unattractive, cruel or embarrassing thoughts that I have at one time or another entertained. Just as often, I find myself writing about disturbing or socially questionable acts and states of mind that have no real basis in my life at all, but which I am afraid, people will quite naturally attribute to me when they read what I have written.
“Even if I assume that readers will be charitable enough to absolve me from personally having done or thought such things – itself a dubious assumption given my own reprehensible tendency as a reader to see autobiography in the purest of fictions – the mere fact that I could even imagine someone having thought or done them, whispers my fear, is damning in itself.
“The legendary comic artist Will (“The Spirit”) Eisner once told Chabon that the Jews have a history of producing impossible solutions to insoluble problems. Chabon believes that as long as his books continue to make him uncomfortable, he must be doing something right. Now that he has been commissioned by Paramount and Scott Rudin to adapt “Kavalier and Clay” as a screenplay, one can only hope that the task keeps him awake at night. For it is then, as we now all know, that men in tights do some of their best work.