Thursday, May 20, 2010

Trade Waiting - The Amazing Adventures of the Escapist


The Escapist is a fictional comic character, as created in the novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon, of which I've reviewed, and then looked in depth at two chapters this week. After the success of Superman, comic publishers are looking for lightning to strike twice and so two struggling young creators come up with Tom Mayflower, the Escapist. A liberator of those who cannot so easily shrug their own shackles in this world.

This collection was released four years after the novel and shows ‘actual’ old strips of Escapist fun and glory. Chabon adds some mythos to the pile, as do Howard Chaykin, Kyle Baker, Jim Starlin, Dan Brereton, Gene Colan, Bill Sienkiewicz, and Kevin McCarthy. It’s an anthology series of the Escapist through the years.

Continuing the love I am giving the Escapist this week, alongside my discussion of the book and then a look at two chapters in particular, we now look at the character as he finally and truly steps into the four colour world.

Introduction

By Michael Chabon

Chabon loves to talk about the creation that his creations, Kavalier and Clay, made as if it were all real history. He blends the line so perfectly with little nuggets of information that make it feel so real and like it’s just a story from his youth he’s imparting.

We learn of Chabon’s first discovery of an Escapist comic. It’s the usual old cardboard box passed down from one fun living cousin to another as we all grow out of these things but love to infect those younger than us with it all. Chabon describes being hooked but then unable to locate enough more to sate his new urges. It’s a passion that stays with him for the rest of his life and he hopes that those reading this volume appreciate the opportunity they are being afforded by having so much centralized within this trade.

It’s the perfect kick off for such a volume of history and fact/fiction blending writing.

The Passing Of The Key

Story by Michael Chabon
Art by Eric Wight

This is an pleasurable and very faithful adaptation of Chabon’s origin chapter from the book into a comic flow. Eric Wight brings this series of events to glorious light by pacing the pages well and allowing a little artistic merit to slip in with fantastic montage pages and easily relatable characters. He’s smart enough not to get in the way of Chabon’s words while also giving a little something extra in most panels. This story is an interesting slice of testing just how effective Chabon had been in his prose. Turns out he had been quite successful in setting the mood and so this trade opens us up to who the Escapist is.

Escapism 101

By Malachi B Cohen

Cohen pens a comprehensive and detailed account of the publishing history of the Escapist over the years. This is like the equivalent of a historical documentary on the extras of a great movie, or a precise commentary with a loquacious scholar of the subject matter. Cohen is able to condense decades of print history into just a few pages. We learn of the Escapists pure, almost erudite, beginnings but discover that he slowly faded into camp obscurity. Almost forgotten, he’s given a mild resurgence by a drunkard who manages to get luminaries in the field like Frazetta, Siegel, and Ditko to churn out few tales before the character is once more lost to the purgatory of unknown ownership issues. The Escapist manages to churn through some good stock in the late 60’s and early 70’s but is again lost into the waves of the lost until the mid-80’s bring about a revival of collected editions that are now rare to find. This essay is easily readable, as we are given insight into the many real and unreal characters behind the character, and the letters of the essayist’s name are interesting in that they form an anagram of another famous author’s name.

“Are You Now Or Have You Ever Been…”

Story & Art by Howard Chaykin

This Chaykin tale simply didn’t sit easily with me. It follows the Escapist coming up against a terrible Senator who is looking into the possible Communist connections of Miss Plum Blossom. This doesn’t sit well and so the Escapist sets out to foil the Senator and eventually is about to through his discovery of a terrible secret about the man; hint, it involves diapers, sexual fetishes, and plenty of nasty mental images.

This is a simple tale, quick and to the point, and you could see Chaykin easily having drawn Tom Mayflower back in the day but the writing in the end falls flat with me. This one looks the part but doesn’t feel it completely.

Sequestered

Story by Kevin McCarthy
Art by Kyle Baker

Kyle Baker’s art absolutely make this piece. The Escapist most often looks like a fair bit of a goon and the cartoony extravagance of the fight sequences are of a high quality and this lifts the interesting tale a little higher than it might otherwise have gotten. In this tale, Tom Mayflower is sequestered into jury duty that he can’t manage to inappropriately yell his way out of. He soon stumbles upon a set up by the lawyers and the judge to have the defendant put away and it’s all a big scam for the big bad of the Escapists life, The Iron Chain. It ends on an interesting beat, right after the Escapist socks a really old man right in the kisser, and you feel like you almost want to go straight back and read it from the start again just to enjoy the Mad Magazine-esque style that Baker brings to every panel.

Prison Break

Story by Kevin McCarthy
Art by Steve Lieber

Lieber’s Mayflower dyes his hair red and infiltrates a prison system to help liberate a behind the scenes man who needs to be taken out of his current situation. Mayflower gets in fine and then slowly unravels the mystery of the prison and those around him. It’s a pretty standard tale, with a helper soon turning out to not be exactly what he supposed to be and Mayflower able to figure it out with the help of a man who was once a foe. This tale is pretty good, and makes with a surprise bit of ultra-violence in one head-slammed-into-bars panel.

300 Fathoms Down

Story by Mike Baron
Art by Val Mayerik

A tale of the Escapist in his later years, here we see an aged Mayflower being called into go under water and find out why a sub is stranded on the bottom of the water and who would have caused this to happen. As per usual, the Escapist is able to figure it all out a fraction quicker than we do, but that’s half the fun. We get a great underwater fight from Mayerik and it’s all in a days work for Tom Mayflower.

Divine Wind

Story by Kevin McCarthy
Art by Tony Leonard Tomai

This story is interesting in that it represents the time that Japan decided to catch Escapist fever and create their own licensed property. This Escapist is a Japanese kamikaze who can’t manage to get it right, he’s constantly escaping death at the last minute. We eventually learn that this is because of his father’s past job as a chemical engineer for bacterial warfare research for the army. The art style here is very manga influenced, obviously, and has a separate tone to the rest of the book. This inclusion is fascinating because of its juxtaposition to the usual historical styles many readers are used to in comics. It’s an enjoyable tale of redemption and family.

“Divine Wind” Post Script

By Kevin McCarthy

McCarthy quickly takes a page to fill the readers in on the, possibly, true author behind much of the Escapist’s Japanese adventures; it was none other than Escapist co-creator, Sam Clay. It’s a cool little piece that only better helps to solidify this collection as a pastiche of Escapist history.

The Escapegoat

Story and art by Kevin McCarthy

This strange little two-page ditty has a cartoony anthropomorphic goat dressed up as the Escapist and then getting into some quick hi-jinks with a genie in a bottle and an annoying kid from down the street, a veiled reference to the Iron Chain. It amusing to see how something serious, like the Escapist, can be subverted and bubble-gummed into something appearing so wholesome and carefree as this. I like the commentary of this piece a lot more than I like the pages themselves, and I actually did like these pages.

Introduction to Luna Moth

Uncredited

A one-page essay, uncredited to any author (perhaps it was Malachi B. Cohen again…?), details the publication history of Luna Moth. They set her up as being a cosmic comic delight throughout her many years on the four colour page and this only whets the appetite to quickly read some of her stories.

The Mechanist

Story by Kevin McCarthy
Art by Bill Sienkiewicz

Sienkiewicz is in fine form here with elongated heads and crazy designs for killer robots and a very heroic lady in a moth costume. We see her go up against perennial foe, The Mechanist. He creates the robots to get her and she usually destroys them. This time he has managed to defeat her but it is only to lure her in to work her magic on his daughter. It’s a strangely sweet tale that shows you no good deed will ever go unpunished. It’s a pretty cool story but again the art elevates it slightly above what it may have been.

Reckonings

Story and art by Jim Starlin

Starlin’s art here is sublimely simple, clean, and macabre. We follow a silent trip into the world between our many worlds and a deal is made for one last embrace. I found myself slowly taking in the panels because there were no words to get in the way and the art is a sight to behold. This looks quite beautiful and well worth the time to slowly enjoy the trip. In a collection which has many styles openly aping the wordy era of shinier metals gone by it was kind of nice to just have some art tell the story and not have to worry about the verbosity of everything else. This works well because of its difference to all that surrounds it. And that's what I want to see from this trade, as many different Escapist styles as possible.

Old Flame

Story by Kevin McCarthy
Art by Dan Brereton

Brereton draws a dense and detailed page and McCarthy’s story is quite interesting. Miss Judy Dark is working hard decommissioning library books and she stumbles across one interesting tome. She ignores the book to go on a date with her paramour, the handsome police officer, but at the end of the night he becomes ensnared by the Handsome Devil within the book, who purports to be an old flame of Luna Moth’s. Being a legacy character he no doubt was at some stage but not with this incarnation. This story shows that Luna Moth might just be as exciting a character as the escapist, if not perhaps more so. Brereton infuses the librarian alter ego with a little too much librarian hotness for my liking, but when that’s your biggest complaint then you’re onto something good.

Preface: “The Lady Or The Tiger”

By Glen David Gold

The preface to the last tale tells us that this story nearly never saw the light of day. It was all set to be published and then a fill in artist came through with the pages the next week. The story then never came and fans were left wondering who the dark woman was who was to be next revealed. Twenty years later the pages were unearthed and finally presented to us now. It’s a great way to set up a story, and I would kind of like to see another series like this build up its own history within itself in this manner.

The Lady Or The Tiger

Story by Glen David Gold
Art by Gene Colan

Colan brings us some smokey pages almost reminiscent of his Tomb of Dracula days. The Escapist finally finds true love but soon works out it is not as it seems. A villain has dreamed up the plan that the best way to take the Escapist off the board was to give him eternal happiness, then he’d have no more reason to fulfill his duties. It’s a sad deconstruction of the inner turmoil it takes to constantly don the tights and rescue strangers for a non-living. This tale is poignant and meaningful and a fitting end to this chapter of the Escapists life. There will always be good stories to tell but a good jumping off point is so rarely attained. It is nice to have one here. And this might just be my favourite story of the lot.

Gallery

Each man in the gallery gives us a different type of Escapist to look at. It’s all quite pleasant, though far too short. I was going to say Chris Warner’s was my favourite but then I turned the page to see Jeff Parker’s brilliant poster of the great hero. Jae Lee’s modern pin up really sings and Brereton’s Luna Moth is a lovely goodbye image to leave us on.

Back Cover

Trade Dress by Chris Ware

The entire back cover reads better than some entire trades do. There are plenty of in-jokes and little zingers to hunt out. Ware's presentation style is like a literary Where's Wally? of high brow humour mixed with much of the low so deviously that many will never notice it. I'd suggest you take a moment to really soak up the back cover and appreciate the effort that went into it. Your effort in looking through it all will be duly paid.



Verdict – Check it. I wouldn’t say this comic was perfect, it probably works better as someone who wants to see all of the sides of the escapist in action, though prose, meta-commentary, and actual application. The writing does tend to leave plot holes in some areas, and though that can be said to reflect the time of which they were aiming to have written it for it really is not excuse for rushing too much. The art is varied and there is no doubt going to be a few pages that you absolutely love. Each story is pleasing, in it’s own way, but nothing stands out as being seriously genius. I preferred a lot of the essays and commentary of how the source material was supposedly made, but I’m usually a real geek for that sort of stuff so it might not appeal to all.

I’d say if you’re already a fan of the Escapist then you should check this out. If this is your first exposure you might be fooled into thinking it’s a lot lamer than it is. You should go and read Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay first. Then come back and enjoy some of the subtleties.


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8 comments:

Servando Gomez said...

I must say Ryan L. you are quickly displacing Rupe (my fellow texan) as my favorite blogger here = D with all these post. Not to mention, you one up my original suggestion of a BKV review of The Escapist but that of the Book and Anthology comic.

I tip my hat to you good sir... though i'm still waiting for BKV comic review. Then again, i don't think we could be friends if you give it than a "Drop what you're doing and buy it now" rating.

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