The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay

From Academic Kids

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is a 2000 novel by Michael Chabon. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2001, and was nominated for the 2000 National Book Critics Circle and PEN/Faulkner awards.

The novel follows the lives of the title characters, a Czech artist and a Brooklyn writer—both Jewish—before, during, and after World War II. Kavalier and Clay become major figures in the nascent comics industry during its "Golden Age"; many events in the novel are based on the lives of actual comic-book creators including Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster, Joe Simon, Will Eisner, and Jim Steranko. Other historical figures play minor roles, including Salvador Dalí, Orson Welles, and Fredric Wertham.

A major theme in the novel is the prominent role of Jewish writers and artists in not only the comic-book field, but fantasy fiction and American pop culture in general. Besides the pragmatic reasons for this (e.g., many Jewish illustrators ended up working in comic books because they were denied work in more "respectable" fields), Chabon suggests that comics and pulp fiction were crucibles for a uniquely American mythology that allowed outcasts and immigrants to dream of heroism, and that an aspect of Jewish tradition happened to fit well with this mythology; the novel's epigram, from Will Eisner, describes this aspect as "impossible solutions for insoluble problems".

Two of Chabon's published short stories consist of material that was apparently written for the novel but not included: "The Return of the Amazing Cavalieri" (in McSweeney's Quarterly, 2001) and "Breakfast in the Wreck" (in The Virginia Quarterly Review, Spring 2004). A film adaptation is planned, and Dark Horse Comics has published several Escapist comics based on the superhero stories described in the novel, partly written by Chabon.

The novel begins in 1939 with the arrival of Josef Kavalier as a refugee in New York City, where he comes to live with his 17-year-old cousin Sammy Klayman. Besides having a shared interest in drawing, the two are also fans of the Jewish stage magician Harry Houdini, and share several connections to Houdini: Kavalier (like Steranko) has actually studied escapology, which aided him in his departure from Europe, and Klayman is the son of the Mighty Molecule, a strongman on the vaudeville circuit.

Klayman gets Kavalier a job as an illustrator for a novelty products company which, due to the recent success of Superman, is attempting to get into the comic-book business. Renaming himself Sam Clay, Klayman starts writing adventure stories, and the two recruit several other Brooklyn teenagers to produce Amazing Midget Radio Comics (named to promote one of the company's novelty items). The magazine features their character the Escapist, an anti-fascist superhero who combines traits of (among others) Houdini, Batman, the Phantom, and the Scarlet Pimpernel; the Escapist becomes tremendously popular, but, as often happens, the writers and artists get a minimal share of the publisher's success. Kavalier and Clay are slow to realize that they are being exploited, as they have private concerns: Kavalier is trying to rescue his family from the Nazis, and has fallen in love with a bohemian girl with her own artistic aspirations, while Clay is exploring a secret homosexual life.

Kavalier is separated from his fiancee and from Clay when, driven by hatred of the Nazis, he enlists in the Navy. After a near-death adventure in Antarctica, he returns as a psychologically damaged recluse to New York; the remainder of the novel follows the three characters' attempts to reconstitute a family, and to find a new creative direction for comics.

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