Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay – Book Review

In 2000 Michael Chabon, author of Wonder Boys and The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, released what I would easily call the greatest fictional novel about comics ever written. The tale of cousins Sam Clay and Josef Kavalier is one of enduring passion, heart break, self-discovery, and very well executed florid prose.

It is also the fictional tale of how two men in 1939 created the greatest comic character to have ever graced the four colour world, The Escapist. I rate it as my favourite book of all-time and this is why.

The story starts off simply enough, Josef Kavalier escapes Nazi infiltrated Prague to end up sharing a room with his cousin in New York. They are both young and want the world at their feet, and with youth they expect it to be waiting idly for them to set their first tentative steps down. It’s fate as both have a passion for story-telling and one of them has an in with a soon to be comic book publisher. Not everything is completely easy but it is nice to see some things work out for the pair, at least in the start.

To cut a review down the middle, the two men go on to create a character and then life gets in the way. There is a World War raging outside the panels of their funny book and there are dangers of violence and love around corners they didn’t even see up ahead. The tale spirals out of control as both men can’t give in to the secrets that drive them and so are consumed within the fiery abyss of themselves. It might sound a bit dramatic but this book covers the spectrum of emotions in a way that no comic book ever could, even if it employed the colour spectrum of emotions for easy charting. These characters are flawed and the decisions they make can’t help but sometimes make things worse, yet we still know they have to be done. A man must first be true to himself, and what he is.

Chabon deftly creates men that we care about and want to understand more as the story develops. You want to find the light of their lives and if not then be given the ability to shine it in for them. The surrounding characters that either illuminate or darken the world of our two creators are perfectly cast and play their parts to perfection. The entire world that forms the stage for this play feels so real, and this is helped because Chabon spent hours discussing the craft with real comic creators from years gone by, and read many books to best inform how these men truly were in an age where creation often needed to come before inspiration. There is a depth of vision here that is usually not afforded most stories.

The actual creation, Tom Mayflower as the Escapist, is interesting and worthy of his own real comics were he not a fictional creation. However, being the reality blending tale that this is, there have now actually been comics about the Escapist, and even about further creators of the character. Later this week I’ll be reviewing an anthology of ‘discovered and uncovered’ Escapist tales from many names across the comic field, The Amazing Adventures of The Escapist, and I’ll also review Brian K Vaughan’s gorgeous valentine to the entire mythology of Chabon’s creation in his trade collection of The Escapists. I’ll also be looking at two specific chapters from Chabon’s novel, one deals with the origin story of the Escapist, pitch perfectly written as if it were Golden Age prose, and the other then being the origin tale of his femme compatriot, Luna Moth. Both chapters are stellar examples of how exactly Chabon is able to infuse the comic world into his prose writing.

This book isn’t simply about comics, and that’s possibly the ultimate triumph. This isn’t a fanboy book by any degree this is a piece of literature that won the Pulitzer Prize. It is also a book where Stan Lee is a character alongside Nazi sympathising bomb makers, Salvador Dali, an insane army pilot skinning dogs in the Antacrtic, Orson Welles, and the love of absolutely everybody’s life, Rosa Saks. This might deal with comics but it earns its praise for the way in which it does so. No high hat mentions of this bastard medium built on the souls of easily corrupted children but rather another form of expression that held its place with everything else in the world that starts with one man wanting to tell as many others as he can about something he has inside him.

The book eventually splashes its tale across multiple decades but I don’t want to recap too much for you. A good novel, like a mob hit, should always be walked into blind and then leave you on the floor. You don’t need to know which actors are playing the roles and you don’t need to know what to expect to still have a good time. You just need to have a little faith.

Verdict - Must Read. If you are a fan of comics, and you have any faith in my review-fu, then I think you should check out The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. It is phenomenal on so many levels that I’d need the internet 7.0 to completely be able to review it digitally with any true grace. And if you have read the novel can you please post some testimonials below so that others shall be convinced to what they may have sadly missed out on already. I don’t say this lightly but it’s the greatest novel I have ever read. Hands down.

I hope this has enlightened your outlook on life for the minute and that you appreciate the other reviews coming very soon.

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humie said...

i agree with everything you said. even if i had no interest in comic books, this is a brilliant book written in beautiful prose.

TheDonAbides said...

This became my favourite book quickly upon reading it. After that Chabon became the third in my now trifecta of writers. Chabon, King, Crichton.

This book swells humanity. Rarely can a writer create people, human beings, that the reader can so readily identify with, feel on the page.

After reading this book the first time, I could not write anything for several weeks. Chabon's talent makes almost anyone else's look like crayon on sidewalk.

You've said it all. This book makes me feel in a way most never could. It took something we are all passioante about and made it real to the world. It took the idea of comics and made them seem legitimate to the literature world.

If you have this book, read it again. If you haven't read it, go get it now.

Boy did I geek out there for a bit. I just really fucking love this book.

Radlum said...

I must admit I only read the first chapters because I rarely have enough time to read anything longer than a short novel, but what I managed to read was simply great. I fully recommend this book, obviously us comic book fans will enjoy it a bit more, but Chabon's talent should be read by everyone, I'm happy that you acknowledged the talent expressed in this book

Drew said...

This book would have been amazing even without my knowledge of comic books.

It's a wonderfully crafted tale that made me crave more and more and more. Unfortunately, I read it on my trip to Ireland and I have troubles separating where the Chabon begins and the Ireland ends.

Ryan K Lindsay said...

Glad a few people agree. I can only hope that some people will race out and give this tome a shot. It's so bloody worth it. My wife just picked it up the other night, she loved the start of it.

Ivan said...

Sounds great. I might give it a shot once I get the time.

Anonymous said...


I know it may have nothing to do with this post but I really love the Stephen King works and am thinking in buy some comics based on the dark tower series. Do you guys recommend me to read them or are not worth (the comic books) ?

mrpeepants said...

oops meant to post in this topic -

will try to post more but I forget unless I do it now. I read this after reading The Escapists by BK Vaughn and a recommendation from a friend. fantastic book. Chabon is aces.

Ryan K Lindsay said...

Hey anonymous7 - I've read all Dark Tower books and most of the Dark Tower comics. I rate the books highly, but there are seven of them and it'd be over 3000 pages of stuff to get through, so it might not be for everyone.

As for the comics - they are pretty bloody good, the art is awesome and the writing is well done. I'd tell anyone curious to drop a dollar and see, I think they'd like it, and the same goes for The Stand adaptation, I love the book but it's big, there will be heaps of Stand minis by the time it finishes but it does read really well and Mike Perkins does a hell of a job putting it all together.

And, yeah, that had nothing to do with the post. But it was tangentially related by way of looking at authors and comics, and we here at TWC love to answer any sort of questions. Never a problem.

Fan4Fan said...

I tried starting The Amazing Adventures a couple of times, but I actually found the prose a bit precious for my tastes. It probably doesn't help that I have zero interest in the Golden Age.

mrpeepants said...

@anon - i'm midway through the Dark Tower novel series. I remember reading that the comics were topsellers and well received.

Ryan K Lindsay said...

@Mrpeepants - yeah, Dark Tower comics launched in the top ten but have slowly slipped as they just keep on going. It's a pretty big investment and with The Stand and Talisman King is getting a bit saturated on the stands so I guess people dropped off.

However, the books are phenomenal and I hope you slug your way to the end, I rated the conclusion as one of the best I'd read in a long time, especially considering there were 7 books of lead up to it.

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