Sam Clay was a street-smart Jewish kid from New York City. His cousin Joe Kavalier escaped to New York after the Nazis invaded Prague. Joe's training as an artist, a magician, and an escape artist helped them create a masked superhero known as The Escapist.
Together, they sold the idea to a publisher and began writing comic books.
Michael Chabon's "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay" takes us through 15 years in the lives of the two cousins.
Kavalier, Clay, and the Escapist have their own story, set against the backdrop of the early comic book industry. Numerous storylines concern their involvement in this industry. Their publisher applies pressure to stop portraying Nazis as villains because America has not yet entered the war, and they wish to sell comics in Germany. The publishers of Superman sue The Escapist's team, claiming they stole the character idea, which leads to a lengthy court battle. And, as in the real world, the creators of popular comic book heroes share in very few profits generated by their creation.
As someone who collected and read comic books well into adulthood, I loved the references to the medium's history. We saw the rise of superheroes during World War II, the decline in popularity after the war, and the attacks blaming comics for juvenile delinquency and homosexuality. This era was the Golden Age of Comics, which began with Superman's 1939 debut and ended when Fredric Wertham's 1954 book "Seduction of the Innocent" prompted Senate hearings, which blamed comic books for juvenile delinquency and hedonism.
But this is more than a comic book story. Chabon's story gives us a love triangle, a family lost to the war, friendship, and men struggling with their sexuality.
The author expertly uses the comic book heroes as a metaphor for the struggles of ordinary people; the Escapist as a metaphor for those trying to escape the persecution of the Nazis; and magic as a metaphor for the illusions of everyday life.
Joe is the most compelling character in this novel. His fictional hero succeeds in battling Hitler's power, but he longs to contribute more tangibly to this fight - to kill Nazis and rescue his family trapped in Czechoslovakia. When he falls short, the reader feels his pain.
This is one of the most enjoyable books I have read this year. I could not wait to get to the next chapter.