Friday, May 21, 2010

Trade Waiting - The Escapists

Michael Chabon wrote the novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay which discussed two fictional characters creating a fictional comic book character. Then, in the comic book The Escapists, written by Brian K Vaughan, we see a tale about three fictional characters bringing back this fictional comic book character. If you can’t see the genius of that, on so many levels, then you certainly need to hit the jump to have your eyes cleared on the subject.

And it might not hurt to go back and look at my review of Chabon's book, then my review of two specific chapters in the book, and also my review of the Escapist anthology collection of stories.


The introduction from Michael Chabon is the perfect way to begin our blend of fictional tales. He tells us of a young Brian K Vaughan meeting Sam Clay at a convention back in the day. It’s a cute and simple tale, told in the always excellent voice of Chabon, and it sets the tone instantly. Every reality is real, so long as you make it so. Vaughan met Clay, this is now fact, and it is documented as such. I almost want to see someone update Vaughan’s Wikipedia page to reflect this. The interesting thing is, Vaughan’s life works into the fictional scene perfectly. The matches of escape artistry backgrounds overlap completely; Vaughan has a childhood love of escape artistry and magic, and his character Yorick Brown from Y: The Last Man was afflicted with the same interest, then Chabon created Joseph Kavalier with an escape artist background (based on Jim Steranko) and Kavalier then gave this trait to his superhero, The Escapist. It’s purely cyclical, just like the reality contained within these pages.

Entering The Fantasy

The very first page only shows us three establishing shots of Cleveland, but it also name drops Superman, Siegel, Shuster, Crumb, Pekar, Bendis, and Azzarello. This comic is firmly planted in the fanboy day-to-day that we all know and share. And we can understand the excitement, below the sadness, when Maxwell Roth is given the key to his father’s basement upon his death. Within the basement is nearly every single piece of Escapist paraphernalia known to this reality. Here, The Escapist was a comic creation and Kavalier and Clay are the real characters, just historic names like Stan Lee and Martin Goodman.

It’s the ultimate nerd fantasy come true, a stock pile of every comic you ever wanted. It seems that Max’s father was an Escapist aficionado and collector all his life. He even has Amazing Midget Radio Comics #1, which features the first ever appearance of The Escapist. Max inherits the entire back catalog of the superhero defined by a key when he himself is given a key. This is just one obvious parallel that BKV uses within the series.

Pages Within Pages

There is a three page Ben-Day dotted sequence of The Escapist fighting one of his foes but all of the dialogue is instead Max’s recount of the history of The Escapist and his own torrid childhood affair with the character and the connection to his father. It’s a simply executed sequence that tells so much in a dynamic and unique way. The eyes take in all of the different art while the brain fills in years of history that would otherwise be didactic to absorb in many other ways. It’s effective and turns out to be quite a cinematic device. Like narration spoken through characters, almost directly to the screen.

We get another three page scene of Max’s first meeting with Denny Jones, a jock at his high school. Max is being bullied, as most acned, tubby, comic nerds are in school, and Denny comes in to save the day. It’s not heroic, it’s simply a jock using his social power for good instead of evil. Max faces us, the viewer, in the next page and over four panels is slowly drawn for us while he plays with a Chinese finger trap. It’s like we’ve slowly assembled the parts that make him whole, we've seen him inside and out, and now can move on, but we must be aware that he’ll always be struggling with something. Another interesting departure for BKV to script in.

Two events finally set off the main premise of the series; Max meets Case Weaver, punk rock-looking artist extraordinaire, as he rescues her from a stuck elevator (the repair of which is his job, and a nice nod to escape artistry as he’s now affecting the escape of others), and then Max’s mother passes away, leaving him a dense inheritance. Max sees the opportunity and buys up the long dusty rights to The Escapist as no one else is using him. He thinks this is his chance to crack the four colour world.

The Spark of Creation

Max hits up his oldest friend, and his newest, to draw and letter the stories that he’ll write. It’s a relaunch of a once global icon on an indie scale and Max has worked out the best way to promote such a bold move. He’s going to make The Escapist real, with a little help from the broader shoulders of Denny. They create the first issue of the comic and then they place their plan into action. Denny is to dress up as The Escapist and make a statement by freeing some local employees who are locked into their building to work at night.

It’s nothing serious, the usual viral marketing ploy for attention not action. Until Denny, in full costume, stumbles into a real robbery. Then realities merge, as we see what the urban myth becomes, through the phenomenal artwork of Jason Shawn Alexander (who does all of Case Weaver’s pages too), with The Escapist coming to life and knocking the criminals around without abandon. The real footage is eventually leaked, and we can see that Denny’s victory was merely a comedy of errors luckily falling his way, but no one lets the truth get in the way of a good yarn. The buzz is already out and that sort of thing can never be put back.

The series goes on to look at the act of creation as such a personal thing and that creators cannot forgo living their personal lives in order to simply say something personal. Max falls for Case but it seems much more obvious that she would be after the physical specimen of Denny than the brains of the Jewish kid who always hid behind a book. Max wants the book to succeed no matter what but in the end his life needs to be a success as well.


There is a great scene set in Willard Park, where two artists were hired to fill an area with oversized replicas of everyday items, and there Denny discusses his relevance to the project of the comic and how he thinks Case and Max will be fine without him for one issue. He wants a silent issue so his words aren’t needed on the page, and his presence also is unnecessary in the studio. He’s helping Max find the success that he can’t, or won’t, hunt for himself. The conversation runs against Max’s captioned love of one piece of art behind him and how he feels it shows that art can be lifted with the inclusion of language. That’s the entire argument for comics, that it’s a collaboration and both are necessary to create the unique beast we love each Wednesday.

BKV does another great job of having an incidental word in the image elevate the scene and present the subtext on a platter, for those willing to see it. An industry powerhouse wants to buy the rights to the Escapist back and at the same time the similar look of Denny and the man who dressed up as The Escapist who stopped a robbery are put together, especially as Denny is openly working on the comic. The entire world is cinching round tight on the trio and a stenciled word in one panel says it all. It’s, again, simple yet so highly effective.

The Ongoing Serial

Interestingly enough, the comic within this comic juxtaposes certain themes as The Escapist is led astray and betrayed by someone he thought he should trust. He lands in danger also and has to find his own way out. The spell is broken, on page and in reality, with a simple kiss that shows the two realities converging. It’s a fantastic page and interesting that BKV doesn’t clutter up this image with a single word because the picture tells us as many different things as there are shards of broken glass flying around. The writer sometimes doesn’t need to get in the way of his art if it’s set up correctly, and BKV always seems to set his artist up with just the right idea.

The comic written by Maxwell Roth and illustrated by Case Weaver ends on an intriguing and exciting moment, as does the story in general for this trio. Life gets in the way and there is no neat and happy ending for us to record. People move on, this is the way of the world and the way we knows things to really be. It’s sad, and bittersweet, and even then, not the end.

The Escapist comes back, whether you like it or not, and so do our trio. In both cases, things have changed, people have moved on, as has the world, but there’s always a sense, a hope, that things might go back to normal. Or even better, things might just get better. And so the series leaves us on a simple final image, another example of great writing not blocking art for the sake of it but rather each complementing the other and neither meaning anything on their own. We get not an ending but a closing, of this chapter, and a promise that there will always be more. Life means always having more, be it good or bad, but at least there’s an opportunity. That’s the important lesson.

Verdict - Must  Read. The Escapists is a smartly written comic that never seems to pander to the easy play, or the obvious. There may be clich├ęd plot points but the bold expression of these instances make sure you feel like you’ve never come across them before. Everything feels fresh and for the first time, everything feels like it matters and is for keeps. It’s a bold comic and the art, in the many different forms, is absolutely gorgeous. I’d recommend buying and reading this series if you’ve read the source novel or not. You’ll enjoy smart writing and fantastic art no matter what your understanding of this continuity.

This review will thus mark the final review in what has been a fantastic week of posts, thanks for coming along to enjoy the show and I hope a few of you will go out and check some of this reading material out, it truly is amazing.

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Servamdp Gomez said...

I read this before thinking that The Escapist was actually a real Golden Age Hero> It's pretty hilarious in retrospect but I have to say that this is my favorite BKV penned comic. Runaways is a close second though.

And again Ryan, you one upped my suggestion of reviewing The escapist with the Kalivier and Clay total coverage.

Ryan K Lindsay said...

@Gomez - dude, I can remember when you mention The Escapists I already had the review written, just been waiting for the proofed and polished versions of my articles to be ready, and then needed a quiet week in which to upload them. These 4 have been in the pipeline for ages, glad you could finally get to enjoy them.

That I love this comic so much and yet BKV still bettered it with Y amazes me, but this would be right up there. Just smashingly perfect.

Anonymous said...

I wonder if any of the other comic book characters created in the novel will ever be used down the line. I remember there being a couple of analogies with various other characters Clay and Kavalier had to come up with.

mrpeepants said...

bkv is damn good in this book. arguably his best.

Ryan K Lindsay said...

I would rate this up there with Pride of Baghdad as some of BKV's best stuff.

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