Richard Worth 17th November 2018
In 2000, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay hit bookshops, earning literary darling Michael Chabon a Pulitzer Prize. If you’ve been under a rock since 2000, firstly welcome to our dystopian future, and secondly, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay follows the lives of two young Jewish creators during the Golden Age of Comics and beyond. It’s very good.
The pages of reviews and analysis of the novel would take infinitely longer to read than the book itself and besides, what could be said about the cult classic that hasn’t been said before? Sam Clay will still break your heart, Josef Kavalier will still be brilliant and furious, the Escapist will still dodge death just in the nick of time, the Radioman segment will always feel like a short story trapped in the amber of history and the line “They were children. We were wolves” will still send a chill down your spine.
Chabon may be focused on the upcoming Jean-Luc Picard based Star Trek spin-off but, while we wait for that, it’s worth taking a second look at his magnum opus. Not only because Kavalier and Clay has turned 18 — making it legally an adult — but also, Chabon has got some sidekicks now. The Folio Society has released one of their fancy af editions featuring art by former TwArtist and currently Marvel maestro Chris Samnee and colours by Matt Wilson of the so-hip-it-hurts The Wicked + The Divine fame.
In the past, there have been various comic tie-ins, fanfics and sequels to Kavalier and Clay that are a mixed bag. One of the problems is that it’s practically impossible for artists to live up to the hype of fictional Joe Kavalier. Will Eisner did the best job in his very last strip featuring his character The Spirit alongside Chabon’s The Escapist, but then again, the Oscars of the comics world is named for him.
Luckily, Samnee and Wilson have won a few Eisners between them.
Samnee’s style is perfect for this book. It is simple and certain. If the goal of a cartoonist is to express the most information with the fewest lines possible, Samnee is your guy. His inks are confident and never unnecessary. The weight and dynamism of his pages aren’t unlike Jack Kirby — who is in part the inspiration for Joe Kavalier — but it lacks the otherworldliness. But this isn’t a Kirby story; it’s a Chabon story and it takes place squarely in a real, a visceral universe.
Samnee’s art must be a gift to colourists and Wilson doesn’t over complicate. He keeps the colours efficient and effective complimenting Samnee’s heavy inks and chiaroscuro. His palette is earthy, sepia-esque, and he adds a level of texture to the pages that give them a newsprint feel. Combined with Samnee’s classicist style this really showcases the era the book is set in.
The layouts do a great job of the mingling of fact and fiction, capturing the moments in the novel where life starts to imitate art, while threading the line of visually interesting and realistically unbelievable — which is fitting given Chabon’s material does exactly the same thing.
Comics have always been made by outsiders and minorities who stood up for what is right
While The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay has remained the same as it reaches adulthood, the world it was born into has changed to become more like the world the book portrays. Life imitates art again. Comic book characters, antisemitism, the rise of Nazism, sexuality and the anger of young men as much a part of the landscape in 2018 as they are a part of Kavalier and Clay.
The novel’s focus on the origins of comic books gives it a refreshed relevance. As a principally Jewish art formed in large by second-generation immigrants in New York, comics have always been made by outsiders and minorities who stood up for what is right — something that parts of comics fandom can forget.
The sub-plot about a mentally unstable Nazi who is obsessed with the Escapist but hates his creators certainly has some illusions to the fandoms dominated by white young men who have a destructive relationship with the properties they love.
Though it isn’t in the same style as the Angry Young Men movement — Kavalier and Clay being a Great American Novel with pulp undertones rather than a kitchen sink drama about how crap being Northern is — it does tap into the same doubt, displacement, power and rage that young men can feel.
A lot of Chabon’s work asks uncomfortable questions about manhood. What does it mean to be a son, a brother, a father? How does a man love? How does a man deal with success and disappointment, and feeling unable to change their lot in life? Kavalier and Clay is no different. Sam and Joe, hold contradictory thoughts, make stupid mistakes and take their frustration out on themselves and their impossible to reach enemies. What’s powerful about the book is that we see these characters grow from ceasing to be boys and truly becoming men. They don’t remain trapped in adolescence.
The more young men feel isolated — potential recruits for extreme and hateful groups — the more Kavalier and Clay becomes helpful as a way of demonstrating the different way one can be a man. Having written most of the good parts of Spider-Man 2 (the Raimi one) Chabon is more than familiar the late, great Stan Lee’s (who cameos in the book) greatest gift to mankind, “With great power, there must also come great responsibility”. No doubt Chabon thinks that is true but he never shies away from the complexities or frustrations that make that moral code difficult to live by.
It’s exactly that approach that gives a universality to the novel. The protagonists may be young Jewish men, but that frustration appeals to a broader, male psyche outside of religious boundaries and experience. Sam and Joe are compelling, complex, contradictory and well-constructed characters. Young men will still identify with some part of them, and find threads of their own stories tied up in them. Reading about characters in fiction who have vastly different backgrounds while at the same time being relatable and intimate, and seeing ourselves in them helps us to better understand ourselves, our world and others. In short, it help’s us to grow up.
At 18 years old, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay still has a lot to offer, especially to boys who were born after it’s publication. One of the major benefits of the new edition, other than the great artwork is that it gives those who have matured with the book a chance to pass on their old copy to someone who may need it more than they realise, someone who might need it as a guide for their own amazing adventures.
The Folio Society edition of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon, introduced by Michael Moorcock and illustrated by Chris Samnee, is available exclusively from www.FolioSociety.com.
Featured Image ©2018 Chris Samnee from The Folio Society edition of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay
Richard Worth 17th November 2018