Michael Chabon Presents the Amazing Adventures of the Escapist, No. 1

By Burns, Robert | Phi Kappa Phi Forum, Summer 2004 | Go to article overview

Michael Chabon Presents the Amazing Adventures of the Escapist, No. 1


Burns, Robert, Phi Kappa Phi Forum


MICHAEL CHABON. Michael Chabon Presents The Amazing Adventures of The Escapist, No. 1. Milwaukee, OR: Dark Horse Books, 2004.80 pages. $8.95.

Imagining The Escapist

The Escapist is one A of the oddest comic books I have ever read, and that is saying a lot from a fan who has collected comic books off and on for sixty years. It purports to be an anthology of early comics stories featuring one of comics history's most notable characters, and it possesses all the trappings of the conventional superhero genre - an idealistic and muscular costumed hero with a secret identity, a sinister international organization that plots to enslave humanity, and a colorful setting for the Escapist's adventures, Empire City in the 1940s and 50s, that matches up precisely with Superman's Metropolis or Batman's Gotham City. Furthermore, this first issue, "80 Pulse-Pounding Pages" splashed across its cover, leads off with the obligatory origin story that describes the mystical transformation of a crippled lad into the "Master of Illusion" who swears a sacred oath to "work for the liberation of all who toil in chains, whether of iron or ideas."

Why then "odd?" The answer lies in its provenance, hinted at by its full title - Michael Chabon Presents The Amazing Adventures of The Escapist, Volume 1. Chabon is the noted author of several novels including Wonder Boys, which was made into successful film starring Michael Douglas and Tobey Maguire, and the Pulitzer Prize winning The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and clay. In this latter book, set at the outset of World War II, Chabon has his two young protagonists, Joe Kavalier and Sammy clay, create an exciting character and comic book named The Escapist, which quickly becomes a publishing sensation. Kavalier, who himself had just made a daring escape in a coffin from Nazi-occupied Prague, conceived of his title character as a liberator of the world's oppressed. Chabon explains that The Escapist "has been trained in the ancient art of escape and is a master of locks, chains, ropes, ties, knots, and fastenings of all kinds. Prison walls, iron bars, steel restraints, such things are child's play to him. In addition, thanks to the mystic power of the Golden Key (the symbol emblazoned on his black costume), he has greater than normal strength and agility."

The novel is a knowing and fascinating look at what is known as the Golden Age of comic books (roughly 1940-60) when such classic superheroes as Superman, Batman, Captain Marvel, Wonder Woman, Captain America, Flash, and Hawkman were created, and their books dominated the industry. Millions of comics were published each month and, at ten cents each, were regularly devoured by America's youth. The vast majority were poorly written, and the artwork was often rushed and badly produced, although there were notable exceptions. Chabon wants us to understand that The Escapist was such an exception. Not only were the stories remarkable for their breadth of concern and depth of characterization, their visual representation made a dramatic breakthrough in comics storytelling inspired by the radical film techniques of Welles's Citizen Kane. This new graphic style is described in a text "history" of the early Escapist comics:

All of these forays into chopping up the elements of narrative, in mixing and isolating odd points of view, in stretching, as far as possible in those days of the limits of comic book storytelling, all of these exercises were, without question, raised far beyond the level of mere exercise by the unleashed inventiveness of Joe Kavalier's pencil. …

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