The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay
Michael Chabon, 2000

People had been recommending this book to me pretty much ever since it came out — a natural enough suggestion given that it's a history-conscious novel about comic books and therefore falls into several of my wheelhouses. One reason I put it off for so long (aside from the fact that I'm too busy to read much) is that, from what I'd heard, it sounded like the sort of thing that would be fresh and interesting to others, but not so much to me. I was already well aware that the first wave of superheroes, those brawny slabs of all-American whitebread, were created by nebbishy Jews, and that if you think about it for a minute, you find that the fantasy behind Superman is that a bespectacled geek could secretly be able to overpower anyone who tried to hassle him and that someone of an alien race could nevertheless win acceptance and adulation. And indeed all of this is in the book. But there's a lot more to it than that — way more than I can address here. So instead I think I'll limit myself to a couple of observations and call it an article.


First, there's the part that the account above left out: Superman is more than just a superhuman, i.e., more than just a power fantasy — he's a super hero. One of the things that has bugged me about recent generations of superheroes, from the Powerpuff Girls to the Incredibles, is that they take it for granted that a superhero's job description is to "save the world," i.e., to fend off any supervillains or alien invasions that should threaten the planet. It's quite eye-opening to read Action Comics #1 and see that this sort of thing was not what Superman himself was originally about. In his first appearance, Superman does the following: saves an innocent prisoner from the electric chair; takes revenge upon a wife-beater; apprehends a thug who'd kidnapped a woman who'd turned him down; and, in the dramatic finale, tackles a greasy lobbyist. He's concerned not with Lex Luthor and Darkseid, but with corruption in Washington, flaws in the legal system, domestic violence, assholes who won't accept that no means no. The fantasy is not having powers because it'd be cool and no one could pick on you, nor merely being able to fend off existential threats, but having the ability to do something to fight the injustice endemic in society.

What The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay adds to this is that, while by 1942 a whole legion of superheroes had made careers out of Nazi-fightin', Superman made his debut in 1938. And in the 1930s, the Nazis were viewed less as an existential threat than as perpetrators of injustice, persecutors of a helpless minority. It was therefore natural, the book suggests, that members of that minority would be particularly sensitive to injustice, to the extent that it would become the focus of the new genre they were inventing. The first two-thirds of the novel is about a pair of cousins, the diminutive Sam Clay (né Samuel Klayman) of Brooklyn and recent Czech émigré Josef "Joe" Kavalier, who create a successful line of superhero characters such as the Escapist and Luna Moth (pictured above). These characters do a fair amount of Nazi-fightin' — the cover of the very first Escapist comic depicts the Escapist punching Hitler in the face — but, as it is 1939 and the U.S. is not at war with Germany, this sort of thing makes the publishers nervous and they repeatedly attempt to get the two cousins to knock it off. But Joe, who barely escaped the Nazis and whose family is still in terrible danger back in Prague, is obsessed with conducting his own war in the pages of his comic, spending a couple of years monomaniacally cranking out page after page of superheroes throwing Panzers around and tying knots in Axis artillery; when forced to take a break, he wanders around town picking fights with Germans (and losing). When (among many, many other plot threads) the Nazis sink the ship carrying his little brother to join him in America, Joe can't take it anymore and joins the Navy so he can kill some Nazis in real life, not just in the pages of comic books.

And the novel, which had been about Sam and Joe's careers in the nascent comics industry and their innovations in the medium, abruptly spends its next fifty pages on Joe's stint in the military, posted to a base in... Antarctica. Which raises the question: wtf?

A while back I was listening to House to Astonish, an audio webcast on comics that I really enjoy, and Paul O'Brien was tearing into a series called Prelude to Schism: "It's basically four issues of utterly random flashback that tells you precisely nothing, with characters speaking about some incredible, dangerous threat that's coming — but we're now told by Jason Aaron and by Nick Lowe that in fact the incredibly dangerous threat that Prelude spends four issues building up to (a) is not in Schism and (b) apparently is not in anything else either. It's not important, you see — it's thematic." It became a bit of a running joke on the show: so, the comics we reviewed this week seemed like they had nothing to do with each other... ah, but there was a thematic link! Try it the next time you encounter a non-sequitur. "What time do you think you'll be home tonight?" "You know, I really like oatmeal." "...And what does that have to do with anything?" "There's a thematic link!"

But as Scott McCloud points out in Understanding Comics, there may not be such a thing as non-sequitur in a wrought artwork:

By jumping from Kavalier & Clay in the world of Golden Age comics to Joe in Antarctica, Chabon seems to be presenting a challenge to the reader: "Hey, reader, in case you didn't pick up on it before, I'm going to make it really clear for you — this story is not about comic books. Can you figure out what it is about?" The seeming non-sequitur forces the reader to look for, yes, the thematic link. And what I found staring me in the face was that The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is, above all else, about impotence. Superman and the Escapist and all the rest are fantasies about having the power to make the change you want to see in the world — a very pleasant fantasy to escape into. Joe even has a meta-fantasy about these fantasies he's drawing, imagining that they will become so popular that eventually Hitler himself will check out an Escapist comic and feel the force of Josef Kavalier's hatred. But once he finishes an issue, Joe's brief moment of exhilaration gives way to despair, as he knows he's not really accomplishing anything. It's like in The Sopranos when A.J. goes off on a rant about solipsism in the face of apocalypse, which his friend Jason finds so inspirational that he's ready to enlist: "Let's join up, go kill some fuckin' terrorists!" Jason says, to which A.J. approvingly replies, "It's more noble than watching these jack-off fantasies on TV of how we're kicking their ass." Joe Kavalier is drawing the jack-off fantasies about kicking Nazi ass, but the sentiment is the same. He makes an abortive attempt to join the R.A.F. in Canada, but then finally does reach his breaking point and join the Navy...

...and then is promptly sent to fuckin' Marie Byrd Land, as far from the action as it's possible to get without a rocket ship! It's deeply demented, and I mean that in the best possible way — an O. Henry twist that highlights the pitch-black comedy of the universe at the same time that it underscores the theme of impotence. Here it is the middle of World War II, and the lengths Joe has to go to just to get one shot at a Nazi... in any event, the transition from the world of Empire Comics to the Ice is a startling left turn out of the blue, and very likely to be what I remember about this book when I've forgotten everything else.


Joe's editor George Deasey is concerned about him. He sees the fervor which Joe pours into these tales of taking on the Nazis, and suggests that Joe might have other ambitions for his work than merely earning some money. Joe replies that, yes, of course he does. To which Deasey replies, "This kind of work is the graveyard of every kind of ambition, Kavalier. Take my word for it. Whatever you may hope to accomplish, whether from the standpoint of art or out of... other considerations, you will fail." He calls the output of Empire Comics "powerless" and "useless" to make the sort of difference Joe hopes to make. And he says something else that struck a deep chord with me:

"There is only one sure means in life," Deasey said, "of ensuring that you are not ground into paste by disappointment, futility, and disillusion. And that is to ensure, to the utmost of your ability, that you are doing it solely for the money."

In Marvel Age #100, the late Mark Gruenwald, editor of just about every comic I collected as a kid, wrote a list of a hundred observations about life, of which #4 was: "If your hobby becomes your profession, find a new hobby." Until quite recently, I never had any trouble making the distinction. Yes, teaching test prep could be fun at times, and I was quite fond of many of the kids I'd tutored over the years, but ultimately I was doing it for the money. And yes, writing could be lucrative at times, but when I made a sale it was always of something that I would have written anyway. All that changed when I started writing for Hollywood.

I'm not sure exactly how much detail I'm allowed to go into, so I'll err on the side of being vague. A few years ago the film rights to something I wrote were optioned and I was invited to work on the screenplay; that project wound up becoming a casualty of the 2008 economic collapse, but on the basis of my work on that script, in the summer of 2010 I was given the opportunity to contribute to a middle draft of a script for a big studio film. That wound up being a lot of fun and the money was quite good, so a few months later when I had a chance to get in on the ground floor of another studio project that was just starting up, I jumped at it — plus, unlike the summer movie, which was part of a franchise I knew virtually nothing about, this new one was for a property I was already a fan of and for which I already had lots of ideas. However, on all these projects, I was working in a junior capacity: I was able to offer ideas about the direction of the story, but ultimately the calls were all made by the senior writer, who in turn was working under a tight set of strictures laid down by the studio. It wasn't long before I was quite frustrated, as it quickly became clear that the script would be nothing like what I'd originally envisioned, and that we'd be working in a way that was diametrically opposed to my own artistic process. At which point the senior writer explained to me that I was miscategorizing our endeavor. As I said, it'd never been hard for me to distinguish job time from art time; job time was when I taught 16-year-olds about exponents and comma splices, and art time was when I turned on my computer and decided what imaginary people should say. Now I was still turning on my computer and deciding what imaginary people might at least provisionally say — but nevertheless, he explained, this was not art time and my artistic fulfillment or lack thereof was irrelevant. This was a job, and the job was not to compose a script that would make me happy but one that a studio would deem worth spending $200 million on to turn into a movie.

And for a while, the situation seemed a lot clearer. What was I working on this project for, if not artistic fulfillment? If it was a job, then the answer was money — and that was all the motivation necessary, because the job was paying enough that once I was done, I'd be able to spend a couple of years on my own work, work that I could do my way, work that would be a product of what made me happy. Now, that didn't mean that I could just half-ass my way through the job at hand, which was mainly to flesh out scenes that were outlined to me over the phone; for one, I felt it incumbent upon me to justify my employer's faith that I could do so with more skill than someone chosen at random out of the phone book, and for another, I'm simply no good at half-assing what I write. I can't dash off approximations of what I want to say — I sit there paralyzed until I come up with phrasings that click for me. But I did start to think of myself sort of like a freelancer building web sites to order. I had read a few bulletin board threads in which web site designers swapped stories about their jobs, and I found that in retrospect I could relate. Take the story of the client who sets forth a bunch of specifications that you have reservations about, but you can't talk him out of them, so you reconcile yourself to the fact that this is the job and do the best you can despite your misgivings... you take a few runs at it and come up with something that, much to your surprise, you're actually pretty pleased with... and then the client says that he'd given it some thought and now wants to go in a completely different direction. This had once been a tale from an alien profession; now it was the story of my life. But so long as my motivating factor was supposed to be the paycheck, I could accept this sort of thing with at least some equanimity.

The problem was that every so often I would field a call and get asked a question like, "In your heart of hearts, what sort of arc would you like to see for this character?" And I'd want to reply, no fair — that kind of question demands that I think about the project as an artistic endeavor rather than as a job, and feel the impact of all those lost battles, all those frustrating studio dictates. I don't know how people can ensconce themselves in an "industry," whether it be the movie industry or the comics industry, in order to do their artistic work rather than merely to finance it — it seems to me like a surefire way to be, as George Deasey puts it, ground into paste. Especially given that they're unlikely to find bosses as fundamentally decent and un-Hollywood as mine. But then again, I don't know too many jobs that don't grind people into paste in one way or another. Maybe they figure that this flavor of paste is as good as any other.

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