Pulp Escapism Gets A Literary Face Lift, Then Falls Flat On Its Face
In recent years, there’s been a movement in American literature to re-examine the old pulpy comic books from the ‘40s and early ‘50s as a legitimate art form and a bona fide source of cross-disciplinary artistic inspiration. Author Michael Chabon arguably has been at the forefront of this cultural reappraisal in the mainstream, as evidenced by his well-crafted 2000 book, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, which examined the deeply complex relationship between two fictitious comic book authors who “produced” revolutionary comics more than a half century ago. This book more or less communicated a growing belief in the comic book world that comics and high literature can and should belong on the same shelf to a brand new audience: the American literary community. Needless to say, this idea has gone over in a fairly big way with the literati.
Not only was Chabon’s ambitious, clever and entertaining book awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, other big-wig authors have since started to jump on the pulp-comics-are-high-art bandwagon in the intervening years. In 2003, Jonathan Lethem published a sprawling novel called The Fortress of Solitude, and if that title wasn’t enough of a dead giveaway to its inspirational genesis, a plot point involving a magic ring that allowed its wearers to become invisible or fly pretty much says it all. Dave Eggers, author of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, even turned over editing duties of his literary magazine, McSweeny’s to writer/illustrator Chris Ware of Jimmy Corrigan fame for a recent special comics issue (No. 13, May 2004).
These connections are worth mentioning because both Lethem and Eggers have been tapped to pen stories for upcoming volumes of Chabon’s latest pet project, The Amazing Adventures of the Escapist, a series of anthologies based on the superhero “created” by the fictional Kavalier and Clay duo a lifetime ago. (Ware, by the way, drew the wraparound cover of the May trade paperback collection of The Escapist).
The Escapist project is a sprawling, ambitious form of comic-book meta-fiction that bounces back-and-forth between rediscovered potboilers from the ‘40s to ‘80s and scholarly essays offering context and academic takes on these works. The comics themselves detail various escapades of the Escapist and his hanger-ons, including the luscious Luna Moth, who owes some debt to Wonder Woman and Sophie Bangs from Alan Moore’s Promethea (even though Luna clearly “existed” before either character in Chabon’s parallel universe). While Chabon only is credited for the first story in volume one, a rather hokey “origin” story about the Escapist’s beginnings, he is, as the book credits list him, the series’ “house manager”.
Unfortunately, while one would think that this project has a lot less going for it based on its literary and comics-world progeny—this series is notable in that it’s the first series that Howard (American Flagg!) Chaykin has worked on in seven years—it fails to really get off the ground for the following reasons:
1) The stories in these collections are pretty short, and often peter out after only eight or 10 pages. They feel quite underdeveloped or, in at least one cloying case, end on an unresolved cliffhanger. This ending is sort of an allusion back to the original novel, but those who never read it just probably will feel frustrated. Or cheated. Or maybe both.
2) Chabon and company hop back and forth between Escapist “stories” from five different decades, so readers get only bits and pieces of the Escapist’s story in an out-of-order postmodern fashion. So far, neither volume has given any indication how the overall continuity of the fictitious series worked or how the character’s mythology evolved over time in the series. To compensate, readers are stuck with a two-part essay on the business/publishing history of the comic. Zzzzzzz.
3) This might seem like a real nit-picky criticism, but for a graphic novel that purports to be an authentic re-printing of long lost comics, there is an awful lot of computer-assisted art. It’s particularly noticeable in the Luna Moth story, “Reckonings”. Yes, I know—nothing gets done without computers in the comic book production process in order to meet deadlines these days. Still, it would have been nice to see these comics be completely hand drawn in order to strive for authenticity and help suspend the reader’s disbelief a bit more.
4) Quite frankly, The Escapist is a boring superhero. Not only does he have a great big dorky-looking skeleton key on his chest for a logo, he has no special powers, aside from the fact that he can effortlessly ‘escape’ Houdini-like from any situation. And I mean effortlessly—put him in chains in panel one, and he’ll throw them off in panel two. While this means there’s a refreshing lack of overt violence (making these books suitable for older children and teenagers), even Superman had his Kryptonite. He had it for a reason: a hero with an Achilles’ heel simply makes for a more compelling, well-rounded character. It’s no coincidence, then, that arguably the very best story in either of these volumes is the one in which The Escapist walks into a scenario he cannot so easily escape from—jury duty. It’s obviously a gag story, too, which leads one to wonder if these comics would have been better if the writers didn’t take the project so darn seriously.
5) Sometimes, Chabon and company arguably get a little too overzealous in their rewriting of comic book history. There’s actually a sentence in one of the faux essays found within the second issue that begins with the words, “With the birth of the independent comics scene in the late ‘80s….” Late ‘80s? Um, Robert Crumb, anyone? Dave Sim? Will Eisner??? I know this is an alternative universe, and writers can obviously take liberties with real world history. It just seems like an unintentional oversight given that Chabon seems to know a thing or two about comics, and that an apparently independent company, Dark Horse Comics, is publishing this title. (Or is it a matter of Dark Horse trying to rewrite the history books? Hmmm.)
Overall, the Escapist volumes are an obvious disappointment to those familiar with Chabon’s novel, though the series certainly had good intensions. It’s really hard to knock anything that tries to bridge the gap between the pulp origins of comics and highbrow, mainstream literary art, and maybe change a minor slice of the general public’s perception about the former. However, Chabon takes great pains in his novel to treat these faux Escapist comics as something truly special—something that, in another universe, revolutionized the way comics were read or seen by audiences and critics. It’s really hard, judging from the evidence he and his illustrators give here, to see what the big deal would have been about had these works really existed 20 to 50 years ago.
Interested readers should probably first spend their pocket change on The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay instead before deciding if they’re interested in catching a curious glimpse of what the comics described within the novel would have looked like. The Amazing Adventures of The Escapist is an ambitious addition to the original novel, but it feels, at best, like an unessential curio coming with seemingly nepotistic baggage that does little to shed much light on a story that was worth a Pulitzer. It’s unfortunate, but it’s a real problem this reviewer just can’t unshackle—a problem that has yet to reveal a hidden key.