Plot Leaves Chabon's Escapist in a Bind

In his 2001 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Michael Chabon spun a riveting tale of superheroics’ glory days, 1939 to 1954, through the tale of Kavalier and Clay, two Jewish comic-creators and their spectacularly successful creation, The Escapist.

But the story hasn’t ended with the novel’s conclusion. The narrative’s fantastic success and Chabon’s continued interest in exploring comics—seen in his screen story credit on Spider Man 2—inspired Dark Horse Comics to commission The Amazing Adventures of the Escapist, a sporadically published anthology of comics. A sixth issue emerges from Dark Horse in April.

Here’s the premise: after the end of Chabon’s novel’s plot, Kavalier and Clay drop the Escapist project and leave the comic in the hands of other writers. The creation bounces around from firm to firm—but each company that takes on the project soon finds itself filing for bankruptcy. Perhaps there is something inherently flawed in the idea of a character who is a cut-rate Houdini knockoff representing an organization called The Golden Key battling the evil forces of The Iron Chain.

This creative premise allows the Escapist to reflect comic styles as they evolve over time.

Each story is preceded by a brief introduction written by a real-life expert on comic book history, placing the subsequent story in its comic and historical context.

At one point during the 1960s, an Afro cream producer acquires the rights to the character and begins to produce a black Escapist, although the gig doesn’t fly.

No matter the context, however, and these are particularly context-heavy, whether or not someone will read these collections comes down to the content of the story. And on that front, the verdict is definitively…mixed.

Here’s the problem: the anthology’s meta-setup focuses on a continuously unsuccessful comic strip. So the comics cannot successfully match their respective eras’ tones—or else, the Escapist’s incarnations might be financially viable, and the project’s plot would be ruined.

Much of the material does not age well—in original or in imitation. The series’ most consistent contributor, Kevin McCarthy, has a particular knack for producing believably B-rate work. He makes his stories too simplistic to appeal to modern readers, but does not authentically emulate the era of his story.

However, some of the new twists on old genres are vibrant enough to make the project worthwhile. Perhaps predictably, these stories are from the best-known creators—including Brian K. Vaughan (Ex Machina and Y: The Last Man), bestselling novelist Glen David Gould (Carter Beats the Devil) and legendary graphic novel creator Will Eisner (A Contract With God), whose last story before his recent death recounts a meeting between The Escapist and Eisner’s own The Spirit.

Vaughn’s story, “To Reign in Hell,” follows the Escapist’s helper Big Al as he is bribed by The Escapist’s rival, a nefarious organization known as The Iron Chain. In the end, Big Al helps the Escapist triumph, but there is the clear indication that maybe, for a strongman like himself, evil might have been the right path. By adding moral ambiguity to a classically structured narrative, Vaughn makes the comic compelling even to modern audiences.

The series’ first-ever installment, by übermensch Chabon himself, shows the passing of the golden key that confers powers from the Escapist to a protégé who takes on his mentor’s mantle. Again, the creator utilizes a familiar form in an unconventional fashion in order to mock conventions while still honoring them.

The anthology’s most successful stabs will appeal even to readers who have not read Chabon’s original novel. And the anthology doesn’t need to be read chronologically—in fact, several sections are better skipped. But ultimately, comic readers will be pleased that Chabon plucked the Escapist from the pages of his prose and rendered him anew in living color. And for those who first fell in love with the Escapist and his creators in the context of Kavalier and Clay, the adventure continues….

—Staff writer Scoop A. Wasserstein can be reached at wasserst@fas.harvard.edu.