Upon brainstorming Stuff We Love ideas with my editor, after she explained that books count as stuff too, my stuff-loving brain immediately conjured up an image of the Empire State Building looming gloriously above the Golden Age skyline of NYC on the cover of Michael Chabon’s magnum opus, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. After having been subjected to a whole lot of literature in college and beyond, it was the very Pulitzer Prize winning novel I needed to get me squarely back into comics.
The novel magically takes you inside the lives of two Jewish cousins – Josef “Joe” Kavalier, a Czech immigrant who can draw anything and miraculously escaped the Nazis in a coffin meant for the Golem of Prague, and Sammy Clayman, the Brooklyn native who can kind of write but has a helluva mouth – as they navigate NYC before, during, and after World War II, and the Golden Age of Comics unfolding around them.
Thanks to some talent and a whole heap of chutzpah, our dynamic duo flourishes in the comics biz, while piggybacking on the popularity of Superman, and inspired by Sammy’s Vaudevillian father The Mighty Molecule, Joe’s bohemian muse Rosa Saks, their fellow Jew Harry Houdini, as well as Captain America, Batman, the Phantom, and the Scarlet Pimpernel. Alas, all that flourishing comes against the backdrop of the murderous holocaust unfolding overseas where Joe’s family seems trapped beyond his reaches, as well as Sammy coming to grips with his homosexuality in the face of illegality, all of which trickles its way onto the pages of their comic series starring The Escapist.
Chabon also fluidly fills up the pages with the adventures of real-life Golden Age heroes like Jack Kirby (to whom the K&C is dedicated), Bob Kane, Stan Lee, Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster, Joe Simon, Will Eisner, and Jim Steranko, among many other historical figures. Indeed, the drama unfolds alongside the history of the era, and is eruditely informed by it, all the way up through 1954 and the Kefuaver hearings of the United States Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency regarding the “decency” of comics.
As demonstrated in poetry dripping passage after passage, few command the English language as mightily as Chabon, who had been mastering his skills on previous books-turned-movies The Mysteries of Pittsburgh (1988) and Wonder Boys before Kavalier & Clay (1995) came out in 2000. But while his Golden Age masterpiece seems made for the Silver Screen, every attempt at an adaptation fizzled out, even though huge names have been rumored, including “Tobey Maguire as Sam Clay,” “Jamie Bell as Joe Kavalier,” and “Natalie Portman as Rosa Saks,” as Chabon blogged in 2005.
However, there has been some continuation of this story I love, most notably in the pages of Dark Horse Comics’ The Escapist series, based on Joe and Sammy’s beloved character, and contributed to by Chabon himself, as well as Brian K. Vaughan’s K&C inspired series, The Escapists. All of which only helps further one of the book’s main points, that art can be powerfully uplifting, educational, and transformative, no matter what the medium.