Weaving a fictional story into the origins of Golden Age comics, a single book and an afternoon with comic legend Jim Steranko captivates me still today
Have you ever wanted to feel as if you were standing there when the classic creators of the 40s and 50s began framing the history of the comic book industry many still love (and collect) today? How many books (not talking the sequential kind this time) have you read over the last few years that you simply could not put down? How many books have you read that not only promise epic adventure, but also deliver a layered story that adapts real history and mixes in fictional characters bringing even more life to the story? If your answer is zero, read on because I have a book that may not be unknown to comic fans, but is one I can recommend without reservation. It not only opens a fully realized window into a moment in American history when the comic book was born, but shares a story that will grab hold and pull you along.
Back in October of 2005 I found myself in Washington, D.C. sharing an afternoon with comic legend Jim Steranko at the Washington DC Comic-Con. Jim is an amazing individual. I consider him part renaissance man and part minister of wonder, yet his story is almost as interesting as the comic work he’s done over the years. Though known for his iconic, early ties to the Nick Fury character, Steranko really made his mark on the comic industry during its Silver Age (roughly 1956 to 1970). During this period he’s given credit for changing the visual landscape by rolling in surrealism, op art, and strong graphic design within his work. His visual style was and is bold, and reshaped many ideas about comic art creativity.
As we talked, he dropped Michael Chabon and the Escapist into the conversation asking me how much I knew. The name Chabon rang a bell, but beyond seeing the movie Wonder Boys I hadn’t had a chance to take in any of his written work. Steranko is a very interesting and energetic storyteller and the tale he wove for me seemed almost too much to be real. He explained how he spent years working as an escape artist (of the Houdini variety) and served as the inspiration for both the Escapist character and DC’s Mister Miracle. The Escapist is a key element in Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay and Steranko explained how his life was, in part, the model for the Kavalier character within the book.
I would later learn that there was truth to his claims but at that moment, he absolutely succeeded in piquing my curiosity to learn more about this story. Always open to a good book, I wandered into a Dupont Circle bookstore on my way back to my hotel, picked up a copy of Chabon’s book and started reading.
From there, the world went into a blur shortly after I opened that first page. I barely know where the next two days went. I devoured this book, missed some of a conference I was attending and had a blast. When it ended I was both sad to see it done and, surprisingly, excited by the possibility of reading it a second time (which for me is rare). It wasn’t just the best book I had read that year, it has since become one of the best books I’ve ever read and I’ve been following Chabon’s work as a fan from that point forward.
Through the eyes of Brooklyn-born writer Sam Clay and Czech artist Joe Kavalier, the lead characters of this tale, we walk through comic history and beyond. Through these pages you not only see a layered story of what it was like to be a Jewish immigrant coming to America, but you get that history laced into the birth of the American comic book. There is action, and at times a frenetic pace, but the story weaves together a pair of lives and wraps it all up in humor, sadness, and excitement in such a seamless and beautiful way that the story simply will not let go. Within you see the Golden Age (roughly 1938 to 1950) of comics and the forces that helped shape the Superman and Bat-Man and Marvel characters that came out of it. The novel’s story happens just after the debut of Superman and takes the reader through the years leading to the Kefauver Senate hearings (two events which often serve as bookends to the Golden Age).
I’ve read historical accounts of this period, but the interweave of fiction and fact here gave me a deeper feel of what life may have been like for Jerry Siegel, Joseph Shuster, Joe Simon, Bob Kane, Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and, of course, the great Will Eisner. These legends birthed a generation of heroes that would fill adult and child alike with wonder for decades to come. These people made comics what they are today and this book lets you feel like you were there when it all started. Better yet, that comic angle is only part of what really does turn out to be an amazing adventure that is the life story of two individuals.
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay debuted in the fall of 2000 to critical success. Its achievements to date include a Notable Book of 2000 by the American Library Association, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, the PEN/Faulkner Award, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, the New York Society Library Prize for Fiction, the Bay Area Book Reviewers Award, the Commonwealth Club Gold Medal, and a little award called the Pulitzer Prize. Let’s just say this book has street cred in addition to entertainment value and American novelist, screenwriter, and short story writer Bret Easton Ellis isn’t alone when he declared the novel “one of the three great books of my generation”.
The writing here is magnificent. I believe Justin McIntosh writing for ColumbusAlive about an upcoming Chabon speaking engagement said it really well…
“His written sentences are similar [to his speaking style], somehow both dense and accessible, easy to follow and a thrill to untangle. As soon as one seems to end, it’ll expand and reveal something new and surprising, like a house with secret passageways and rooms. And these beautiful constructs are littered with words and references you’ll feel compelled to immediately look up.”
Since the novel’s debut, Dark Horse Comics has published a series of Escapist comic books (some written by Chabon) based on the superhero stories alluded to in the novel. They even went on to publish a sequel to the novel, The Escapists, written by Brian K. Vaughan. You know, that guy I was bragging about not long ago for writing Saga.
Though there has been talk of a film for over 14 years, it became stuck in development hell and was never made. Despite that fact, the book is a masterpiece and may be better left alone as this amazing adventure in novel form. In the end though, I humbly ask that you don’t do me a favor, but rather do yourself one, by going out and reading The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. Whether you are a comic fan or not, you will find marvels to enjoy, but I do advise you to carve out a day or two just in case it takes hold of you like it did me.