By Michael Chabon
When 17 year old, Sammy Klayman, later Clay, meets his Czech cousin Josef Kavalier, for the first time in 1939 Long Island, it's a match made in comic book heaven. Recently escaped from Prague during the Nazi oppression, Josef finds an immediate friend in Sammy as the two share mutual interests in common such as a love of magic and escape artists like Harry Houdini and an interest in drawing. The love of drawing turns into a career in the comic books industry as Sammy talks his way into getting the two a job in a novelty products-turned-comic book company.
The boys ultimately revitalize the comics industry with their characters The Escapist, a mysterious individual who with his group, The Sacred Golden Key conspire to help people escape from Nazi Germany and Luna Moth, a female librarian turned superhero. The two reach success but not without the usual problems and difficulties.
Josef falls in love with Rosa Saks a bohemian artist (and the inspiration for Luna Moth), while trying to help get his family out of Prague. Sammy meanwhile is struggling through the ashes of a failed literary career and discovers his own sexuality after falling in love with radio actor, Tracy Bacon.
This story is a superb work of historical fiction combining a history of the Golden Age of Comics with the harsh difficulties of WWII- Europe and America, and the comfortable ennui of post-War suburbia in the later chapters. Of particular notice in the book is the history of the Comic Books industry. All of the high points are there including the 1938 creation of Superman which was followed by various other superheroes many of whom like Supes are still around to this day to the 1954 Kefauver Senate Hearings in which comic books and graphic novels were cited as reasons for
juvenile delinquincy. Any comic book fan would delight in the references and cameos by some of the Golden Age greats as Jerry Siegal, Jack Kirby, Bob Kane, Stan Lee and many others. Joe and Sammy are themselves possible stand-ins for Superman's creators, Jerry Siegal and Joe Shuster. Like Joe and Sammy they too were young Jewish teenagers when they created a character that had instant success and just like their fictional counterparts, they were swindled into selling the rights to their characters and being deprived of its residuals and royalties.
Joe and Sammy are wonderful characters throughout the book and their many struggles which make The Escapist's fights against Fascism seem minor by comparison. Joe is driven by his hatred of the Nazis and his motivation to rescue his family. The chapter when he discovers his little brother's fate and the chapters that follow are moving as they show a man who has reached his breaking point and teeters on the edge of sanity as he withdraws further into his fantasy world of magic and daring escapes.
Sammy too comes across as a strong character, particularly in his romantic scenes with Tracy Bacon. He is alternately flirtatious and charming with his lover and fearful of the consequences of being a homosexual, as in a striking scene when Sammy is a witness to an FBI raid at a gay club. This incident leads to years of self-denial and bitterness as he attempts to build a typical suburban life with Rosa leading only to frustration and despair.
Kavalier and Clay is the type of book that describes both a world of fantasy and a world of reality and describes them both very well.
Further Links For Discussion and Activity Suggestions
The Hero Factory- Have you ever wanted to create a superhero of your own? What would it look like? What would be its special powers? Its strengths and weaknesses? Here's your chance. Create a superhero then share some ideas about their adventures, in a comic strip, or a video, or a story detailing their daring adventures. Have fun and be creative.
Digital Comics Museum-This website shows the real-life Escapists and Luna Moths, characters and comics that were created during the Golden Age of Comic Books. Most are in the public domain and can be downloaded. Look through various graphic novels and comic books. Who are some of your favorite characters? Who do they fight? What do you like about them? Do you have a particular favorite story or version of them, perhaps the film version? Why do people like these characters so much? What do they say about us? Share some of your insights about the world of comics.
Literary Discussion Questions
1. The most prominent theme in this book is the desire to escape. What do Joe and Sammy want to escape from? How does the Escapist help them escape their difficulties? Do they succeed in escaping or are they still trying? Why do people turn to escapist literature such as fantasy, romance, or science fiction? Have you ever escaped into a world of fiction? Why were you drawn to it?
2. What kind of heroes are The Escapist and Luna Moth? What are their abilities, their strengths, and weaknesses? How are they magnified in the characters of Joe, Sammy, and Rosa? Some people believe that when people write fiction, they are putting parts of themselves into the characters. Do you think this is true of Sammy and Joe, why or why not? How do the characters go through various changes through the years, what inspirations led to these changes?