Book Talk: 'The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay' by Michael Chabon - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Book Talk: 'The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay' by Michael Chabon

Alexander Wallace escapes.
We talk so much of superheroes, of Superman and Batman and Spiderman and Captain America, and how they are in many ways the encapsulation of society’s notion of heroism in the time and place they are written. Behind those capes and cowls lie our image of what a human being should be, with actual morality and a sense of justice and kindness our own leaders so often lack.

We also, sometimes, talk about the very real men (and, as time goes on, women) who have brought these heroes to life. They came into being in the interwar years, mostly in New York, in a culture that saw comic books as poorly written trash fit only for children. This was the time when the heroes were oftentimes ones we wouldn’t recognize, until DC comics shook things up, and then Marvel followed them up in the sixties. For those wanting a good nonfiction treatment of the latter period, there is Reed Tucker’s masterful book, Slugfest: Inside the Epic 50-Year Battle between Marvel and DC.

But that period has also been fictionalized, and has been so in a way that won the Pulitzer Prize - of all things! - in 2001. That is Michael Chabon’s doorstopper of a novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay. This novel is perhaps an example of what my colleague Colin Salt referred to as a ‘pop epic,’ combining many locations and a sense of grandeur with an intimacy and an aim to be accessible to a wide audience; his go-to examples are Sidney Sheldon and James Michener (I’d add Edward Rutherfurd and James Clavell). It is a novel that is almost ‘realistic,’ with only one element being possibly supernatural (Chabon leaves it vague). In this regard, it is not what I usually write about at Warped Factor.
‘Genre’ literature, usually meaning science fiction, fantasy, mystery, horror, and romance, is usually derided as pulpy trash by the literary establishment, even if they are oftentimes polite enough to couch the sentiment in softer language. Chabon, a writer who has regularly straddled the line between the two categories, inasmuch they can be said to exist at all, takes great care to show you how much value there is in entertainment that many think of as crass and shallow.

The book is titled for its two protagonists: Sammy Klayman (which he shortens to Klay), born in Brooklyn, and Joseph Kavalier, originally from Prague. They are cousins, both Jewish, living in the time when the Nazis were about to unleash their savage wrath onto Europe. Joseph flees Prague to New York, where he settles with Sammy’s family. In that environment, they are both drawn to superhero comics as a way of making a living. For Sammy, they are the first job. For Joseph, they are a new start in a new country.

The character that they create, the Escapist, is both an entertaining hero in his own right (you almost wish that he’d become as big as Batman or Superman) and a potent metaphor for the various sufferings of Joe and Sammy and a number of other characters too. It’s a comparison that becomes all the more powerful when you realize how common stories like this were in the early comics industry; Jerry Siegel, co-creator of Superman, was born to parents who had fled antisemitism in Lithuania (then ruled by Russia).

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay is a potent book. One that shows us why the comics and the novels and the movies and the shows and the games we at Warped Factor love matter so much. They help us through life, and carry us through our various travails. Chabon is one of the few ‘literary’ authors who gets that, and we owe him for that.

Alexander Wallace is an alternate historian, reader, and writer who moderates the Alternate History Online group on Facebook and the Alternate Timelines Forum on Proboards. He writes regularly for the Sea Lion Press blog and for NeverWas magazine, and also appears regularly on the Alternate History Show with Ben Kearns. He is a member of several alternate history fora under the name 'SpanishSpy.'

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