The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay

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The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay
Michael Chabon

Author Biography
Plot Summary
Historical Context
Critical Overview
Further Reading


The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, by Michael Chabon, was published in 2000 to critical and popular acclaim. Some critics found Chabon's novel overly long, but all agreed that it is stylistically sound and well written. Kavalier & Clay took the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2001 and has drawn as much notice as Chabon's previous book, Wonder Boys, which was made into a feature film. Kavalier & Clay is an epic tale that is topically unique within Chabon's body of work but stylistically consistent with his distinctive, graceful use of language.

Drawing on his own love of comic books for Kavalier & Clay, Chabon deftly weaves historical facts and figures together with light touches of fantasy. The author's inspiration in part came from Superman's creators: two Midwestern Jewish boys, Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel, who sold their nascent superhero to the publisher of Detective Comics (DC Comics) for a hundred and thirty dollars. Kavalier & Clay follows two Jewish cousins in New York City, Joe Kavalier and Sammy Clay, who grow into adulthood during the onset of World War II. They experience fame, tragedy, love, and a little bit of magic. With its clever mix of literary self-consciousness and shameless adventure, Kavalier & Clay is one of those rare books which appeal to readers of both serious and popular fiction.

Author Biography

Michael Chabon (pronounced shay-bon) was born May 24, 1963, in Washington, D.C., to Robert and Sharon Chabon. His father worked as a lawyer, physician, and a hospital manager; his mother as a lawyer. His parents divorced when he was eleven years old. Chabon grew up in Columbia, Maryland, while most of that planned city was still being constructed. He was introduced to comic books as a child by his grandfather, who brought them home from the plant where he worked. Chabon earned a Bachelor of Arts in philosophy from the University of Pittsburgh in 1984 and a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing at the University of California at Irving.

Chabon has been a successful writer since the publication of his first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh (1988), which was his master's thesis and became a bestseller. His second novel, Wonder Boys (1995), was made into a feature film in 2000, starring Michael Douglas. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (2000) won Chabon the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. As of 2006, a film adaptation was reportedly in the works. With Summerland (2002), Chabon dabbled in the young adult market and won the 2003 Mythopoeic Fantasy Award. The Final Solution, a short novel about Sherlock Holmes, was published in 2004.

As of 2006, Dark Horse Comics, in conjunction with Chabon, was publishing a quarterly comic book edition of The Amazing Adventures of the Escapist, drawing on the fictional history of this superhero. The Amazing Adventures of the Escapist won the 2005 Eisner Award for Best Anthology. Chabon has also published two volumes of short stories and a number of screenplays, including part of the popular movie Spider-Man 2 (2004).

Chabon often writes about Jewish identity, homosexuality, and single parenthood.

Plot Summary

Part I: The Escape Artist

Chapter 1

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay begins in October 1939. Josef Kavalier has just arrived in New York City after escaping Nazi-occupied Prague. He hopes that his cousin Sammy Klayman can help him find a job because he needs money to free his family.

Chapter 2

In trying to leave Czechoslovakia, Josef is sent back to Prague on a paperwork technicality. Too ashamed to face his family, he asks his former mentor Bernhard Kornblum for help. Kornblum agrees so long as Josef will go by way of Lithuania.

Chapter 3

It is 1935 and fourteen-year-old Josef attempts a dangerous escape feat that results in his near drowning and that of his brother Thomas. They are saved by Kornblum. Thereafter, Kornblum ceases his escape artist instruction of Josef.

Chapter 4

Kornblum and Josef find where the Golem has been hidden and prepare it for travel disguised as the corpse of a giant. Josef smuggles himself inside the casket. Once in Lithuania, he secures papers to get him to San Francisco.

Part II: A Couple of Boy Geniuses

Chapters 1-3

Sammy and Josef pick grown-up, American names: Sam Clay and Joe Kavalier. Inspired by Joe's artistic skill, Sammy pitches a comic book idea to his boss Sheldon Anapol, who reluctantly accepts it. They have to develop a superhero character and a twelve-page story in three days. Joe and Sammy start planning right away. They run into Julius Glovsky, called Julie, and hire him on the spot. Julie takes them to his brother's apartment to work.

Chapter 4

Sammy remembers his father, the Mighty Molecule, a traveling circus performer. Four years before, Sammy hoped to travel with his father, but the Molecule left home without Sammy. He died in a performance accident the previous year.

Chapters 5-7

When no one answers the door, Joe breaks into Jerry's apartment and surprises a beautiful sleeping woman who runs out the door, crying. Sammy searches through her forgotten satchel—her name is Rosa Luxemburg Saks. Sammy settles in and Joe tells him about his training as an escape artist. Sammy in turn tells Joe about his father, the "World's Strongest Jew." From this discussion, the Escapist is born.

Chapter 8

This chapter tells the history of Tom Mayflower, also known as the Escapist, and provides the Escapist's inaugural story in Amazing Midget Radio Comics.

Chapters 9-11

Sammy declares that they are going to be very successful with this superhero and Joe's family will be freed with the money they make. Julie's brother Jerry returns home with his friends. Sammy talks up their comic book project, and the other boys get involved in the development as well. Sammy writes the scripts while the others either draw or ink. Joe paints a beautiful and violent cover of the Escapist punching out Adolf Hitler. Before they fall asleep early Monday morning, Joe tells Sammy that he wants to see Rosa again.

Chapter 12

Sammy and Joe deliver their comic book to Anapol. He calls in Ashkenazy and Deasey to consult, and they make a ridiculously modest offer to Joe and Sammy. Sammy tries to haggle with them, but the cover is the deal breaker. Anapol is uneasy with such a political cover, but Joe says they have to use that cover or the deal is off. Anapol tries to offer more money in lieu of the Hitler cover, and Joe and Sammy walk out of his office.

Part III: The Funny-Book War

Chapters 1-3

It is October 1940, a year later. The Escapist is a success, and Anapol and Ashkenazy are making ten times the income of Joe and Sammy. On his way to the German consulate, Joe detours to Hoboken to see a ship from Holland disembark. For a moment, he believes he sees his father. Later, Adjutant Milde tells Joe that his father has died from pneumonia. Shocked and angry, Joe gets on a train bound for Canada so that he can enlist in the Royal Air Force and fight Germans, but he realizes he still has family who need his help, and he turns back at Albany.

Chapter 4

Joe breaks into an office calling itself the Aryan-American League. It is just a one-man operation, but he trashes the place. Ebling, the owner, returns, and Joe says he is Tom Mayflower. They grapple until Ebling hits his head and is knocked out.

Chapter 5

Empire Comics receives a phony bomb threat from Ebling. When everyone returns, James Love and Anapol talk about doing an Escapist radio play. Deasey advises Joe and Sammy on how to bargain for a piece of the radio play.

Chapters 6-10

Deasey takes them to a party for Salvadore Dalí thrown by Longman Harkoo. After Deasey introduces them to Harkoo, the host takes the young men around the room. Eventually they come to Rosa Luxemburg Saks, Harkoo's daughter. Joe recognizes her but pretends he does not know her as he charms her.

A cry for help brings everyone to the ballroom where the breathing apparatus on Dalí's diving suit has failed and the wing nut of his helmet is stuck. Joe wrenches the nut free with the penknife Thomas gave him and becomes the hero of the party. He and Rosa go up to her studio/bedroom to look at her artwork. Rosa's room is a mess, and there are moths everywhere. They talk about art for a while before Rosa knocks Joe over and kisses him. Sammy appears just then and says he is leaving; he does not tell them, but he is disturbed to have come upon two men kissing in the kitchen pantry. Rosa makes Joe go after his cousin. Joe and Rosa plan to meet the next day at the agency where she is a volunteer, helping rescue Jewish children from Europe.

Chapters 11-12

At the Transatlantic Rescue Agency (TRA) offices, Joe convinces the owner, Hermann Hoffman, to put Thomas on board his ship by paying for Thomas and several other children. Joe also agrees to do a magic show at Hoffman's son's bar mitzvah celebration. Elated, Joe makes a dinner date with Rosa. When he leaves the TRA office and crosses Union Square, Joe sees a large iridescent green moth on the trunk of a tree. The luna moth reminds Joe of Rosa.

Chapter 13

This chapter introduces the story of the comic book character Luna Moth.

Chapters 14-15

Joe and Sammy convince Anapol to use their new character, Luna Moth. She is very sexy, but Anapol knows she will make a lot of money. The cousins bargain for a better contract, but Anapol wants them to stop Nazi-bashing. Joe and Sammy walk out on the deal. Deasey follows and shows them a letter: Anapol and Ashkenazy are being sued for copying Superman. Sammy decides he will offer to perjure himself to get what he and Joe want.

Part IV: The Golden Age

Chapters 1-2

It is 1941 and Sammy and Joe meet the cast of the Escapist radio show. Tracy Bacon plays Tom Mayflower/the Escapist; he looks exactly like Joe and Sammy have imagined their character. Bacon and Sammy go out for drinks and then Sammy takes him to Ethel's apartment for dinner. Sammy is aware he is bringing home "the world's largest piece of trayf," but Bacon and Ethel hit it off well. ("Trayf" is a Yiddish word which means a food item is unclean and forbidden, the opposite of kosher. Bacon is a pork product and therefore forbidden by kosher law.) Sammy tells his mother that he wants to meet someone and she gives him a strange look.

Chapters 3-4

The next day Joe is practicing for his evening magic performance. Rosa's father gives Joe a gift of a midnight blue suit with a gold skeleton key lapel pin. Joe is carrying around an unopened letter from his mother. In it she tells Joe to get on with his life and forget about her and his grandfather. At the reception, Joe ties on his mask and a waiter cries out and runs from the ballroom.

Chapters 5-6

The waiter is Ebling. He thinks he is a super-villain and Joe is the Escapist. Ebling plants a bomb, and Joe tries to prevent it from going off, but Ebling attacks him, and they are both slightly injured in the blast. That night Joe wakes up in a panic looking for his mother's unopened letter, but it is gone. "The true magic of this broken world lay in the ability of the things it contained to vanish, to become so thoroughly lost, that they might never have existed in the first place."

Chapter 7

In April 1941, Sammy is on the eighty-sixth floor of the Empire State Building as a volunteer sky watcher for the military. Bacon shows up unexpectedly, and he and Sammy share their first kiss as thunder and lightning occur outside the building.

Chapters 8-10

On May 1, 1941, Joe, Sammy, Rosa, and Bacon go to the cinema to see Citizen Kane. Sammy talks about going to Los Angeles to write for movies. Citizen Kane has a huge artistic impact on Joe who wants to pursue a new approach in his work, which Anapol interprets as comics for adults. Joe finally agrees with Anapol to stop fighting Nazis. The stories published by Empire Comics thereafter shift from warfare to everyday heroics and employ a radical new use of layout. Circulation for Kavalier and Clay titles continues to soar.

Chapter 11

In September 1941, Bacon is pushing Sammy to move to Los Angeles with him, but Sammy is not sure he wants to go. Sammy will not admit that he is in love with Bacon, but he believes his affection to be reciprocated. They visit the abandoned site of the World's Fair and break into the Perisphere and make love.

Chapter 12

The Ark of Miriam sails on December 3, 1941. Joe rents a nice apartment for Thomas and himself. Rosa gives Joe a painting she made of him, and Joe gives her a key to the apartment. She is touched but had secretly hoped for an engagement ring.

Chapters 13-14

On December 6, 1941, Joe has a performance and is planning to ask Rosa to marry him. Rosa is painting a mural for Thomas and learns that his ship has been lost at sea when she walks to the corner store. She rushes to the hotel and finds out that Joe attempted to drown himself during an escape and then fled the hotel when he was fished out the fountain.

Chapter 15

Sammy and Bacon are guests at Love's beach house. Ruth Ebling calls the police on them all when she finds a copy of the The Escapist. Sammy evades arrest but is found later by an FBI agent who sexually abuses him.

Chapters 16-17

Joe lands on Ethel's doorstep, frozen and drunk. She takes care of him until Rosa picks him up. When Rosa wakes in the morning, Pearl Harbor has been attacked and Joe has left to enlist in the navy. Sammy comes over and tells Rosa he is not going to Los Angeles; "he would rather not love at all than be punished for loving." Rosa tells Sammy that she is pregnant. Joe is the father, but he does not know—and they cannot tell him now.

Part V: Radioman

Chapters 1-2

Joe is stationed in Antarctica. On April 10, 1944, he and his dog companion Oyster barely survive carbon monoxide poisoning. The pilot, Shannenhouse, also survives. Joe and Shannenhouse recognize that they have more than enough supplies, but the real danger is the unnamable menace that lurks out on the Ice. "Antarctica was beautiful…. But it was trying, at every moment you remained on it, to kill you."

Chapter 3

Joe and Shannenhouse cannot leave Antarctica until September. Joe spends every waking hour monitoring radio waves. In July, he learns about a German station, Jotunheim, which is occupied by a lone geologist named Klaus Mecklenburg. In September, Joe and Shannenhouse decide to kill the German.

Chapter 4

Joe reads Rosa's letters and learns about her marriage to Sammy and about Tommy. Joe believes that he will not survive this mission, but if he does he does not want to ruin the happy life that they have. He burns Rosa's letters.

Chapters 5-6

Joe transmits a warning to Jotunheim before leaving. Shannenhouse's appendix bursts en route and he dies. Joe finishes the mission alone, crash landing near Jotunheim. Joe no longer wants to kill the German, but Klaus is scared and shoots at Joe. They grapple over the gun, and Klaus is fatally shot. "In seeking revenge, he had allied himself with the Ice." Klaus's death is more heartbreaking to Joe than anything else that has ever happened to him.

Chapter 7

Joe survives Antarctica by accident. He holes up at Augustaberg ten miles away and subsists on thirty-year-old rations and morphine until the navy picks him up. Joe leaves behind Thomas's drawing of Houdini. He recuperates at Guantánamo Bay until the war is over in 1945.

Part VI: The League of the Golden Key

Chapters 1-3

In April 1954, Sammy stops at the Excelsior Cafeteria and learns from his colleagues that someone claiming to be the Escapist is going to jump off the Empire State Building. Many people think that the jumper is Joe. In his office, Sammy pulls out the box with Bacon's Escapist costume and finds it empty.

Detective Lieber comes around, asking Sammy about Joe. Sammy has not seen Joe since he sailed for basic training in December 1941. Lieber wonders why Joe would not come home. Sam thinks Joe feels he has no home to return to with his family dead in Europe. Harkoo appears with Tommy, who has been caught playing hooky again.

Media Adaptations

  • The Amazing Website of Kavalier & Clay at is a fan site for Chabon's book created and maintained by Nate Raymond. It collects reviews, historical information, artwork, news, and more.
  • The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay has been adapted as an abridged audio book narrated by David Colacci. It was produced by Brilliance Audio in 2005 and was, as of 2006, available on both compact disc and cassette tape.

Chapter 4

When the Escapist does not appear at the Empire State Building, people think it is a hoax. Lieber figures out that Tommy wrote the jumper's letter. Sammy is disappointed that he will not see Joe, but Tommy insists that Joe is here. He takes them into the elevator.

Chapters 5-6

In July 1953, Sammy takes Tommy to Louis Tannen's for a birthday gift. Tommy sees Joe in Tannen's back room. Days later, Tommy spots Joe at Spiegelman's Drugs, and they finally meet—as cousins. Tommy asks Joe to come to dinner. Joe will not, but he helps Tommy with his card tricks. They meet every Thursday for seven months in Joe's office/apartment in the Empire State Building. Tommy realizes that Joe cannot figure out how to return home. Based on something Joe said, Tommy writes the infamous letter.

Chapters 7-9

Tommy leads Sammy, Lieber, Anapol, and Harkoo to Joe's office, but he is not there. He is on the observation deck, dressed in Bacon's old Escapist costume and wearing a harness of rubber bands. When Joe sees Tommy he realizes that he has failed to escape his own trap of fear and habit, which has kept him from returning to his family. He steps backward into thin air, but the rubber bands fail to hold him and he lands on a ledge two floors down. He assures everyone that he is all right. Sam rides with Joe to the hospital and the long-lost cousins reunite at last.

Chapters 10-12

In Joe's office/apartment, Lieber, Harkoo, Tommy, and Sammy find a vast amount of comic books and four to five thousand pages of a comic book Joe is drawing about the Golem of Prague. A man comes to the office and delivers a congressional subpoena to Sammy. Sammy, Joe, and Tommy return home. Rosa and Joe talk to each other as if nothing has happened. In bed that night, Sammy tells Rosa he convinced Lieber to drop charges against Joe. He and Lieber are going to have lunch together—a euphemism for a date. They talk about the Senate subcommittee hearing. Wertham's book has indirectly labeled Sammy a homosexual, and he believes this is why he is been summonsed.

Chapter 13

Joe still loves Rosa and finds her attractive. He feels guilty because he does not want to be a home-wrecker. Joe apologizes to her and they kiss briefly.

Chapters 14-16

Sammy looks through the epic Joe has drawn after Joe packs up his office. Sammy loves the book and wants to publish it. Anapol stops by to tell them that he has retired the Escapist character because he lost the Superman lawsuit. After Anapol leaves, Sammy and Joe talk about buying Empire Comics. Joe has nearly one million dollars in his old bank account. He stays up all night thinking about it, borrowing the Studebaker to drive around in the early morning. Joe winds up at Houdini's tomb where he takes a nap and dreams of Kornblum telling him to go home. While Joe is gone, a large, heavy pine box arrives at the Clay house from Nova Scotia. Joe returns and recognizes the Golem's casket but is dumbfounded as to how it found its way to him. The box is filled with silky silt from the banks of the Moldau. The Golem's soul has departed.

Chapters 17-18

Later that same day of April 22, 1954, Sam testifies before the Senate Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency. Senator Hendrickson all but accuses Sammy of homosexuality and promoting pedophilia through his use of sidekicks. Later, Sammy realizes that he feels liberated by his public outing and regrets his cowardice regarding his relationship with Bacon. He is ready to make a change and maybe go to Los Angeles and work in television.

Chapters 19-20

At the bottom of a crate of memorabilia, Tommy finds a strip of photos showing Joe and Rosa from when they were younger. They finally explain to him that Joe is his biological father. Tommy understands but is concerned about Sammy. Sammy returns home late at night with train tickets to Los Angeles. Rosa and Joe ask him to stay; Joe has bought Empire Comics and wants to work with Sammy again. Sammy says he can send his stories from Los Angeles, but he is definitely going this time. When they wake up in the morning, Sammy is gone.


Sheldon Anapol

Sheldon Anapol, an owner of Empire Comics and Joe and Sam's boss for several years, is a businessman first and foremost and plays his historic role in cheating two naïve young men out of their multi-million dollar idea. But he is not without a conscience, having worked hard more than a decade at his own, less-successful novelty business. As co-owner of Empire Comics (with his brother-in-law Jack Ashkenazy), Anapol is subject to both its successes and its troubles. Even as Anapol is settling into a life made comfortable by lots of money, he is also receiving death threats from Nazi-sympathizers and a major law suit from the owners of Superman. While making deals for radio plays and movie shorts, Anapol tries to convince Sammy and Joe to stop beating up Nazis so that he can get a decent night's rest. His relationship to the Escapist is purely business.

Jack Ashkenazy

Jack Ashkenazy, the brother of Sheldon Anapol's wife as well as Anapol's business partner in Empire Comics, has bad taste in everything from literature to clothing. Ashkenazy's success results from the intelligence and talent of the people around him, namely Anapol, Deasey, Joe, and Sammy. When he left Empire Comics in 1943, Ashkenazy tried out several other business ventures but they all failed.

Tracy Bacon

Tracy Bacon, Sammy's true love, lives life vigorously, working as an actor and rarely taking no for an answer. He has a mysterious, unpleasant history shrouded in a confusion of conflicting facts. Whatever has come before, he is undeniably happy with Sammy. He is handsome and charismatic—everything Sammy never thought he could have. Bacon's name is a joke that plays upon the idea of forbidden fruit: as a Jew, Sammy is not supposed to eat pork. He knows famous people all over town, such as Orson Welles and Ed Sullivan, but he is guileless and does not seek fame so much as acceptance. Bacon knows he is gay and is not ashamed of it, but he cannot convince Sammy to feel the same way about himself. Bacon ultimately leaves for Los Angeles alone, just as the United States is entering World War II. He joins the Air Force and is shot down over the Solomon Islands in 1943.

Eugene Begelman

Eugene Begelman is Tommy's best friend. Tommy discovers his love of magic when playing with a set of magic tricks belonging to Eugene.


Bubbie, Sam and Joe's grandmother, lives with her daughter Ethel and her grandson Sammy in Brooklyn. Bubbie dies peacefully in her sleep at age ninety-six.

Rosa Clay

See Rosa Luxemburg Saks

Sammy Clay

Sammy Clay, the everyday hero of Chabon's novel, is a quiet Jewish boy from Brooklyn who chases his dreams—to publish comic books—and catches them. Sammy's bravery and pluck are seen in his initial pitch to Anapol and later in how he stands up to Anapol, Ashkenazy, and Deasey to get what he feels he and Joe deserve for their talent. Some argue that Sammy is Joe's sidekick, but that interpretation does not work. Joe and Sammy's relationship is not that of a mentor and his student or a father and his son. They are fully partners, sharing in the creation of characters, the development of stories, and the negotiation of payment. Despite Sammy's courage in the office, his real struggle is in seeking to accept his homosexuality. Sammy spends most of the novel in denial, even though nearly every other character seems to know he is gay just from meeting him. Tracy Bacon is Sammy's great love, but Sammy turns his back on that relationship after he is sexually abused by another man. This denial nearly destroys Sammy's spirit; when he and Joe are reunited after twelve years, Joe describes Sammy as haggard. But he is also tough and resilient. When he is publicly outed by Senator Hendrickson, Sammy realizes he has nothing to lose, and he finally buys his ticket to Los Angeles and gets on that westbound train he was supposed to be on with Bacon twelve years earlier.

Tommy Clay

Tommy is the son of Joe Kavalier and Rosa Saks, but Sammy Clay is father to him for the first twelve years of his life. He takes after Joe in looks and his interest in magic. Tommy successfully schemes to bring Joe back to his family when Joe has lost his way.

Salvador Dalí

Surrealist painter Salvador Dalí is the guest of honor at Longman Harkoo's party where Joe and Rosa are formally introduced. Joe saves Dalí's life when Dalí's diving suit malfunctions.

George Deasey

George Deasey, the editor of Empire Comics and a mentor to Sammy, is harsh but sincere. Although Deasey is management, several times he gives Joe and Sammy hints on how to effectively negotiate their contracts so they will not get short-changed by Anapol and Ashkenazy. He also introduces them to Harkoo.

Carl Henry Ebling

Carl Ebling is a mentally unstable Nazi-sympathizer whom Joe runs afoul of. Joe's attack on Ebling's office pushes Ebling over the edge. Ebling decides he is a super-villain named the Saboteur and Joe is the Escapist. Ebling plants a phony bomb at the Empire Comics office and later tries to blow up Joe and a roomful of guests at a bar mitzvah. People are spared because his incompetence far outweighs his enthusiasm for anti-Semitic activity. To the horror of his family who know he is mentally ill, Ebling is found guilty of terrorism and attempted murder and put away in Sing Sing.

Ruth Ebling

Ruth Ebling, Carl's older sister, is a housekeeper at James Love's beach house estate in Pawtaw, New Jersey. Angered about her brother's imprisonment, she calls the police to raid Love's house after she finds a copy of the Escapist in Sammy's room.

FBI Agent

The second, unnamed FBI agent is the one who sexually assaults Dave Fellowes at Love's Pawtaw estate.

Dave Fellowes

Dave Fellowes hides with Sammy when the police raid Love's house in Pawtaw. Dave is sexually abused by the unnamed FBI agent. Dave is John Pye's lover.

Jerry Glovsky

Jerry Glovsky, Julie's older brother, shares a house with Marty and Davy. Jerry is a comic book illustrator and calls his place Palooka Studios. He lets Sammy and Joe use their place to work on the first issue of their Escapist comic book.

Julie Glovsky

Julius Glovsky, called Julie, is a childhood friend of Sammy's and also a comic book illustrator. Julie is the first artist Joe and Sammy hire to help them create the inaugural issue of the Escapist.

Marty Gold

Marty Gold, Jerry's housemate and an inker for comic books, works with Sammy and Joe on the first issue of the Escapist comic book.

Longman Harkoo

Longman Harkoo is Rosa's father and a wealthy surrealist art dealer living in an odd house in Greenwich Village. He renamed himself after he had a reoccurring dream about a Long Man of Harkoo. Harkoo is cheerful, quirky, and supportive of his daughter and her friends. He is very well-connected and enjoys using his connections to help people.

Joe's Grandfather

Joe's grandfather is a renowned operatic Czech tenor. He survives the war with Joe's mother until they are both sent to a death camp.

Dr. Anna Kavalier

Anna Kavalier is Joe's mother. She and Joe keep up a faithful communication until he enlists in the navy. She dies in a death camp along with Joe's grandfather.

Dr. Emil Kavalier

Emil Kavalier, Joe's father, dies from pneumonia less than a year after Joe leaves his family.

Joe Kavalier

Joe Kavalier is the central character of Chabon's book. The plot follows his life, recounting his late childhood in Prague, his arrival in New York City as a young man, his naval assignment in Antarctica, and eventually his return to his family in New York. Trained as an escape artist by one of the profession's unsung masters, Joe is incredibly adept at any task he takes on, making him somewhat larger than life. He is also a gifted artist and half of the genius behind the book's popular comic book superhero, the Escapist. Joe works closely with his cousin Sammy to create this superhero, which is inspired in equal parts by the unique backgrounds of these cousins. Despite Joe's repeated ability to escape and survive, he is incapable of saving even one of his family members from the war in Europe. The loss of his brother Thomas, en route to New York, nearly destroys Joe, but he cannot die, even when he wants to (this is repeated again in Antarctica, when he goes to Jotunheim). Joe's great love is Rosa Saks, and their affection for each other is not diminished though time, guilt, shame, and anger must separate them for twelve years. Joe tries to stay away from Rosa, Sammy, and Tommy after the war out of a misdirected sense of forfeiture, but the night that he at last reads Rosa's letters and learns about the birth of Tommy is a turning point for Joe, who at last stops fighting.

Josef Kavalier

See Joe Kavalier

Thomas Masaryk Kavalier

Thomas Kavalier is Joe's younger brother. Joe arranges to have Thomas transported to New York City on a ship carrying Jewish children refugees, but the ship is overcome by a U-boat and a sudden storm and all the children drown.

Alter Klayman

See The Mighty Molecule

Ethel Klayman

Ethel Klayman (née Kavalier), Sammy's mother and Joe's aunt, works as a nurse and is a very practical, no-nonsense woman. She thinks Sammy's dream of drawing comic books is ridiculous—even in the midst of his success, she considers it to be ephemeral. Her love is tough but not meager, and she gladly embraces Joe, Rosa, and even Bacon into her home. Ethel saves most of the money Sammy gives her. She dies of a brain aneurysm in the mid-1940s, shortly after retiring to Miami Beach.

Samuel Klayman

See Sammy Clay

Bernhard Kornblum

Bernhard Kornblum, a retired performing illusionist who mentors the teenage Joe in escape tricks, helps smuggle Joe out of Prague when Nazi restrictions threaten to trap the boy. Thereafter Kornblum only appears to Joe in visions, offering advice.

Detective Lieber

Detective Lieber is assigned to the case of the Empire State Building jumper. He figures out that Tommy was the one who wrote the jumper's letter.

James Haworth Love

James Love is chairman of the board for Oneonta Mills and instrumental in getting the Escapist on the radio through his sock company's sponsorship. He invites Bacon and Sammy to his beach house in Pawtaw with a group of other gay men.

Klaus Mecklenburg

Klaus Mecklenburg, a German geologist stationed at Jotunheim, Antarctica, dies from a gun-shot wound after struggling with Joe for control of the weapon.

The Mighty Molecule

The Mighty Molecule is Ethel's husband and Sammy's father. He is a traveling strong man who survived hardship and imprisonment in Eastern Europe. After Sammy is afflicted with polio as a child, his father takes him walking to keep his legs strong. Although he does not live at home, he and Ethel love each other. The Molecule dies in 1938, crushed beneath a tractor he was attempting to lift.

Herr Milde

Milde is the adjutant at the German consulate in New York City. Joe visits him weekly, trying to find a way to get his family out of Prague. Milde is polite but unhelpful. He is the one who delivers the news to Joe that his father has died.

Davy O'Dowd

Davy O'Dowd is Jerry's housemate and one of the illustrators who work on the inaugural issues of the Escapist.

Frank Pantaleone

Frank Pantaleone is friends with Jerry, Marty, and Davy. He is a more experienced illustrator and also works on the inaugural issue of the Escapist.

John Pye

John Pye, Dave Fellowes's lover, is considered one of the most beautiful men in New York City.

Rosa Luxemburg Saks

Rosa Saks is salvation and muse. She and Joe fall madly in love in the way young people do. Rosa becomes indispensable to the cousins as she helps them with domestic affairs and with rescuing Thomas Kavalier from Prague. Rosa also inspires Joe to create the sexy superhero, Luna Moth. When Joe unknowingly leaves Rosa in the lurch, she and Sammy get married, thus saving each other from a world that does not yet accept deviance. Their marriage of convenience is not at all romantic, but it is not awkward because they have always been close, like siblings. Over time, Rosa and Sammy develop a strong partnership, churning out comic books the way Joe and Sammy did. Although Rosa is not directly responsible for Thomas's death, she feels guilty because of the role she played in placing Thomas on the doomed ship. She names her son after Joe's brother to honor Thomas's memory and possibly to keep a connection with the love of her life, from whom she is separated for twelve years. When Rosa and Joe are reunited, they easily pick up where they left off, happy and in love.

Siegfried Saks

See Longman Harkoo

Hal Spiegelman

Spiegelman is the proprietor of Spiegelman's Drugs in Bloomtown, New York. Tommy introduces Joe to him as his magic teacher.

Agent Frank Wyche

Agent Frank Wyche finds Sammy hiding at Love's house and sexually abuses him.



Chabon's overarching theme in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is escapism: escape from tyranny, escape from reality, escape from death. Joe Kavalier, trained as an escape artist by a master Ausbrecher has an ability to escape and survive that pushes the limits of reality, even a fictional reality. In the day-to-day grind, Joe escapes the painful reality of the growing war in Europe by battling Nazis on paper. His more dramatic escapes include the River Moldau, Nazis in Prague, the fountain of the Hotel Trevi, a happy life with Rosa, carbon monoxide poisoning, Antarctica and madness, Sammy and the rest of his family, and finally—the most difficult of all—his self-imposed exile. Joe is the novel's real-life escapist.

Sammy Clay, although much more grounded and practical than his cousin Joe, finds escape from his life in daydreams: traveling with his father; providing for his mother and grandmother; being a famous and respected publisher. Sammy's master feat of escape is from his own homophobia. After a few happy, clandestine months with his first and only love, Tracey Bacon, Sammy turns his back on romantic love and spends the next thirteen years in proverbial chains. These chains of shame burden Sammy. When Senator Hendrickson effectively springs the last lock and exposes Sammy's homosexuality in public forum, he is not humiliated but relieved. Bacon is gone from this world, but Sammy is finally ready to pick up where he left off and move to Hollywood.

Escapism is a precarious indulgence—too much and one is beyond rational judgment; too little and one is mired in real world minutia. Comic books from their inception were understood to offer a fantastical escape, generally geared toward young boys and girls full of hope to change their situation in some way. Joe and Sammy's superhero, the Escapist, is thus a metafictional device for comic books in general.


Guilt is a feeling of responsibility for wrong-doing. Sammy, reserved about spending money after growing up on modest means, feels guilty about indulging in the luxuries he and Joe can afford when they are at the height of their success. The excess money itself is a physical representation of guilt which must be experienced any time money is spent. Sammy buys a beloved and costly phonograph over which he never stops feeling guilt. Despite his weak legs, he rarely takes a taxi. More devastating is the guilt Sammy feels regarding his homosexuality. In the world of this novel, there is a strong taboo against homosexuality, which makes it even more difficult for Sammy to come to terms with his sexual orientation. The raid in Pawtaw and sexual abuse at the hands of the FBI agent only serve to justify Sammy's shame. But there is no denying human nature, and Sammy is fortunate to survive Wertham's trial by fire and thus free himself of this crippling guilt.

Joe suffers from survivor guilt during the three years he is first living and working in New York City. For two years he does not even allow himself to have fun or to spend any more money than is necessary. Joe spends all his spare time trying to safely extricate his father, mother, brother, and grandfather from Prague. One by one his immediate family is taken away from him even as he is building a new family in the United States. He finds love and happiness with Rosa, but his guilt over the accidental death of his brother Thomas drives Joe first to attempt suicide and then to run away from everyone who loves him. Having failed to protect his brother, Joe denies himself comfort and pleasure by leaving Rosa and Sammy. The war eventually ends, but Joe's guilt over abandoning them and fear of rejection obscure the way back to the only family he has left. It takes Joe ten years and the love of his son to overcome that last, difficult hurdle.


What makes up a family is a question explored throughout Kavalier & Clay. The most unusual arrangement occurs when Sammy and Rosa marry to raise Rosa and Joe's son, Tommy, as well as to hide Sammy's homosexuality. In Prague, Joe lives in an extended, or complex, family including his parents, his brother, and his grandfather. In New York City, Joe first lives with Sammy, his aunt Ethel, and his grandmother Bubbie; later Joe and Sammy move into their own apartment and Rosa unofficially lives with them part-time. When Joe leaves to enlist in the navy, Rosa and Sammy find themselves both in vulnerable situations with only each other to look to for security. What Chabon expresses through these

Topics For Further Study

  • Individually or in groups, create a superhero and write a story featuring him or her. Include a weakness along with a superpower, a villain, a secret identity, and sidekick or other supporters. For extra credit, illustrate your tale.
  • Science has traditionally been important to superheroes and their villains, either as a source of superpower or inventions to aid in fighting or causing crime. What area of science interests you? For example, biology, nuclear physics, astronomy, chemistry, geology, etc. Dream up an invention or application of technology within your field of interest that would be an aid to a superhero or villain. Create an illustrated poster demonstrating your idea.
  • Research a heroic figure from legend or history. Does this figure fit any of the superhero criteria such as a secret identity, superpowers, and an idealistic mission? Write a brief report to share with your classmates.
  • One of Rosa's artistic expressions is a dreambook. In her dreambook, Rosa uses collage, illustration, and text to tell the stories she experiences when she is dreaming. Find or make a blank journal and create your own dreambook based on a dream you have had.
  • The Holocaust took a terrible toll of loss and displacement on the groups targeted by the Nazis. Unfortunately, genocide still happens to this day. Research an incident of genocide that has happened in the recent past, examining why it was carried out and what can be done to stop future genocides.
  • Letter writing was an important form of communication before widespread use of email in the 1990s. Write a letter by hand (not computer) to a friend or family member whom you do not see often. Tell the person what is new in your life and any interesting stories that have happened to you. Enclose relevant photographs, drawings, or article clippings. After your teacher has checked that you have completed the assignment, mail your letter.
  • Joe spends most of a year stationed on Antarctica, monitoring radio waves for the U.S. Navy. Research current political and scientific activity relating to this unusual continent. Also look up information about Antarctica's climate and geography. Which countries have laid claim to portions of Antarctica? What scientific studies are being conducted there and why? Are there parts of Antarctica that have yet to be explored? How does the size of the land mass today compare to one hundred years ago? Write an essay about the current importance of Antarctica.
  • Under Judaic law, a boy reaches maturity when he turns thirteen and is made a bar mitzvah ("son of the commandment"). Girls are made bat mitzvahs ("daughters of the commandment") at twelve years of age. They are then responsible for following and upholding Jewish traditions, which is expressly a religious aspect of Judaism. Secular or ethnic Jews do not always choose to become a bar or bat mitzvah. What other rites of passage do you know? What time of life do they typically occur? Are they cultural, religious, or related to some other aspect of life? What are the components of the ritual? What are the conferred rewards and responsibilities? Prepare a presentation for your class using PowerPoint, slides, overheads, or other visual aids.
  • Prague is the capital of the Czech Republic and Joe's childhood home. What foods are particular to the Czech people? Research authentic Czech recipes, assemble a cookbook to distribute to each student in the class, have everyone select a different recipe to prepare, and then host a Czech food day. What are your favorite dishes? What flavors are unusual to you? Is there anything you would like to make again? Share your answers with your classmates as you enjoy this new cuisine.

unusual family assemblages is that family is a matter of what is in people's hearts and cannot and should not be limited to the group determined by blood relatives and marriage. Rosa, Joe, and Sammy struggle with this subtly when Joe finally returns to his family. They keep asking each other what they should do now that Joe has returned. They are wondering, without vocalizing it, how their unusual family fits together, with Joe as biological father and Sammy as surrogate father to Tommy. Tommy puts it best when, after Joe and Rosa explain that Joe is his real father, he asks them, "Only what about Dad?" This question succinctly expresses how a young child easily accepts two men as his fathers; one does not replace the other in Tommy's heart.

Joe struggles with the love and identity of his family throughout the novel: his cool farewell to his tearful parents, brother, and grandfather in Prague; his rebuff of Harkoo and Rosa the night Harkoo gives him the suit; coping with the deaths of his father, brother, mother, and grandfather; and the years spent coming to the realization that he has family in Rosa, Sammy, and Tommy and how important they are to him. Sammy's family identity is both more simple and more complex. He and his mother, Ethel, have a tough love sort of relationship in which they bicker affectionately almost all the time. In marrying Rosa and raising Tommy, Sammy is both expressing family love and slowly killing himself through the repression of his homosexuality. At the end of the novel, Sammy leaves for Los Angeles to discover a part of himself in both his career and personal life which he has denied for thirteen years. As his family, Rosa and Joe are sad to see him leave but support Sammy fully in what he feels he needs to do.



Allusion occurs when an author refers to people, events, symbols, or stories external to his or her story. Allusions may be only hinted or implied as the author assumes the reader understands the connection and what it means. Allusions are an economical device, permitting an author to introduce new ideas without a long explanation. Usually comprehension of an allusion is not critical to a basic understanding of a story, but the reader's experience is enhanced if he or she does recognize what the author is trying to say. The title of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is an allusion to common comic book titles. Joe Kavalier and Sammy Clay are an allusion to Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel, the creators of Superman. Tracey Bacon's name is an allusion to kosher law because he and his love is forbidden to Sammy, a good Jewish boy.

Chabon alludes to mythology when he compares Joe's leaving Prague with the legendary Jewish hero Golem. According to folklore, Golem, a larger-than-life automaton, was sculpted by Rabbi Loew in the sixteenth century from river mud pulled from the banks of the Moldau. Golem was created to protect the Jews of Prague and was awakened when need arose. Sammy Clay's name is an allusion to the Golem; when he is no longer essential at the end of the story, he leaves, having accomplished his task of helping Rosa, Joe, and Tommy.


Foreshadowing occurs when an image or event in a story gives information about what is going to happen later in the text. In Kavalier & Clay, the smuggling of the Golem out of Prague foreshadows doom for the Jews in Prague because the Golem, the legendary hero, is made unavailable when they need help the most. Joe and Thomas's near drowning in the River Moldau foreshadows Thomas's death by drowning six years later. Sammy's view of Joe at the top of the fire escape of Jerry's building, with the light slanting down on him out of a grey sky foreshadows the success of the Escapist, whom they create later that day. Joe's sighting of a man he mistakes for his father at the docking of the Rotterdam foreshadows his father's death. Joe's first attempt to leave New York City foreshadows his later, dramatic departure to the U.S. Navy when the United States finally enters World War II. Foreshadowing is an important literary device which adds cohesion to the plot and allows the reader to anticipate the future event without knowing exactly when it will happen.

Title Significance

The title of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is meant to evoke the excitement and glamour of an old pulp comic book. The title promises action on an epic level because "Adventures" is plural. "Amazing" and "Adventures" and "Kavalier" and "Clay" are alliterative words, which mean the initial sounds are the same within each word pair. Alliteration makes the title flow neatly off the tongue, adding to its energy and sense of smooth composition. The title introduces, from the front cover, the two main characters of the story, Joe Kavalier and Sammy Clay. The placement of Joe's last name before Sammy's subtly hints that Joe is a more important than Sammy.

Historical Context

Conflict in the Middle East

In the 1990s, tensions increased in Middle Eastern countries such as Israel and Iraq. Palestinian dissidents stepped up their efforts to separate from the State of Israel, and some of these protests escalated to terrorism, including bombing public places and shooting innocent people if they crossed into the wrong territory. On November 4, 1995, Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by an Israeli extremist because of Rabin's role in negotiating peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

Following the Gulf War in 1991, worldwide concern grew that Iraq was stockpiling weapons and possibly attempting to build nuclear weapons. The United States has historically taken a hard-line approach to dealing with Saddam Hussein, who was president of Iraq from 1979 until 2003. Hostility between Hussein and the United States threatened to escalate the problem of Iraq disarmament in the late 1990s, forcing United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan to step in and negotiate new arrangements, including U.N. inspectors to search Iraq for weapons of mass destruction. These arrangements did not last long. Paul Wolfowitz, a U.S. military analyst, called for more aggressive action, which presidents Clinton and Bush tempered with less hostile philosophies such as those proposed by then secretary of state Colin Powell.

Although there is no evidence connecting the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 (the 9/11 terrorists were citizens of Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt) and Iraq or Hussein, the Bush administration linked them. Overnight opinions in Washington changed in regard to the disarmament of Iraq and arguments were made for a U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Hundreds of thousands took to streets in the United States and in other countries to protest the aggression, to no avail.


Comic books have maintained a presence into the 1990s in the United States, but computers and video game consoles have replaced books and magazines as the major source of solitary entertainment available to young people. The wildly popular Sony PlayStation game console was first released in 1995, using more advanced technology than was previously available for similar systems. Other companies moved quickly to keep up with PlayStation, including the Nintendo 64 in 1996, Sega Dreamcast in 1999, PlayStation 2 in 2000, and the Microsoft Xbox in 2001.

Computer games for use on personal computers became more technologically advanced in the 1990s. First-person, three-dimensional shooter games were particularly popular, games such as Doom (five separate games released from 1993-1996), Quake (1996), and Half-Life (1998). Controversy over the violent content of these games and their connection to juvenile delinquency echoes arguments made about television and movie content—or Dr. Fredric Wertham's opinions about comic books in his book Seduction of the Innocents (1954).

Gay Rights

A decade after AIDS and HIV first appeared in the United States in 1981, this virus was still a major topic within gay and lesbian communities of the 1990s. In the early 2000s, much more was understood as to how AIDS is transmitted and can be treated, helping to reduce fear and give hope to living with the disease. Gay rights activists in the 1990s were increasingly concerned with marginalized groups such as those who are transgender or intersexual. Transgender individuals identify with a gender other than their birth gender and may undergo hormone therapy or surgery. An intersexual person is born with genitalia or secondary sexual characteristic that combine genders or are otherwise ambiguous. As with other minority groups, gay and lesbian activists seek social equality.


Y2K is an abbreviation for the year 2000. In the late 1990s, many people became increasingly concerned about the approaching millennium change. Businesses had to check their software to make sure that it was compliant with a rollover to the year 2000, resulting in costly upgrades and overhauls. Some people were worried about sudden shortages of energy, water, or other necessities (as a result of businesses not being prepared) and chose to stock up on supplies. Cults proclaiming the end of the world and other dramatic prophesies gained

Compare & Contrast

  • 1940s: World War II begins in 1939. The United States becomes directly involved in 1941. By the time the war ends in 1945, over 62 million soldiers and civilians are dead, marking this as the world's deadliest war to date.

    1990s: A series of civil wars and armed conflicts break out in the former Yugoslav republic in 1991 and lasts until 2001. Reported numbers of deaths vary but range between 100,000 and 200,000 civilians and soldiers on all sides.

    Today: The United States invades Iraq in 2003, beginning the Second Gulf War (also known as the Iraq War). As of 2006, approximately 3,000 Americans and perhaps as many as 500,000 Iraqis have been killed.

  • 1940s: In this Golden Age of comic books, the most popular superheroes are Superman, Batman, and Captain America.

    1990s: The Modern Age of comic books is sometimes also called the Gimmick Age, the Dark Age, or the Diamond Age, for a variety of reasons. The X-men team of superheroes enjoys resurgence in popularity. Anti-heroes such as Spawn and Venom also become trendy.

    Today: Japanese comic books called manga are extremely popular with readership comprising 60 percent women, a sharp contrast to the male-dominated readership of comic books. Popular series include Chobits and Doraemon.

  • 1940s: Levitt & Sons builds the first planned suburban community, named Levittown, on Long Island in New York, starting in 1947. Over 17,000 single-family dwellings are built in five years.

    1990s: In the United States, economic prosperity and cost-effective construction lead to suburban communities with exceptionally large, mass-produced houses on small plots of land. These look-alike houses are sometimes referred to as McMansions.

    Today: People are more interested in higher density living for the first time in over fifty years due to environmental concerns (pollution and destruction of wildlife habitat), rising gas prices, and health concerns (people in urban areas walk more). The majority of Americans still live in suburban areas.

  • 1940s: Letter writing and the telegraph are major forms of long-distance personal communication. The telephone is used primarily to communicate within a local area.

    1990s: Electronic mail, called email, grows in popularity, thanks in part to ubiquitous usage on college campuses and within businesses.

    Today: Cellular phones are a popular way for people to keep in touch as well as to express personal style. Email remains important as well.

  • 1940s: Prior to World War II, Jews in Prague number 50,000.

    1990s: Following the Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel, Jews in Prague number about 800.

    Today: With the fall of communism in Czechoslovakia in 1989, known as the Velvet Revolution, the population of Jews in Prague rises to 1,600.

  • 1940s: Reinhard Heydrich, the Nazi governor of the region and possible successor to Hitler, is assassinated by Czech soldiers in 1942. In 1945-1946, Czech citizens expel 3,000,000 Germans from their country in an effort to revolt against the Nazis. The Soviet Army invades in 1948 and establishes communist rule in Czechoslovakia.

    1990s: Czechoslovakia divides into the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993. The Czech Republic becomes part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1999.

    Today: The Czech Republic is part of the European Union. Prague is a popular city with tourists, businesses, and the film industry. The Czech economy grows but has a reputation for corruption.

some attention. The world celebrated a momentous and peaceful event the evening of December 31, 1999. Even though the millennial rollover affected businesses when moving from the year 1999 to 2000 and many people around the world believed the new millennium arrived then, others maintained that the new millennium did not arrive until January 1, 2001. The year 2000 was also the beginning of a mild recession in the United States, following a decade of strong economic growth. Thus the new millennium, for many, seemed to mark the passing of a golden age—much as Sammy feels in 1941, just before the United States enters World War II.

Rwandan Genocide

The Rwandan genocide involved two ethnic groups, the displaced Tutsis and the government-leading Hutus. Over the course of only four months in 1994, extremist Hutu militia murdered approximately one million Tutsis and Hutus. The genocide ended when Tutsi rebels finally overthrew the Hutu-led government and the Hutus fled the country. The number of people killed and how quickly they were killed was shocking. The Rwandan genocide is also significant because of the meager response of the United Nations, which failed to intervene to help prevent the genocide when mounting tensions in the region foreshadowed such an outcome. While in the early 2000s, Rwanda was still recovering from this brutal period in its history, ethnic wars continued to rage across Africa (particularly in the Democratic Congo, Burundi, and the Sudan), some motivated by continued aggression between Tutsi and Hutus.

Critical Overview

Chabon has been popular with readers and favored by critics since the publication of his first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, in 1988. His novels are distinct and imaginative. Tom Deignan and other critics have observed that, with The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Chabon has finally come into his own as a writer. Stewart O'Nan, writing for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, compliments Chabon's larger-than-life comic book style of writing but feels that the length makes this grandiose language exhausting for the reader: "At its best, Kavalier and Clay is a heady, frothy concoction, finely drawn and broadly comic, but in its own baroqueness … runs the risk of

collapsing of its own weight." In a review for the New York Times, Janet Maslin describes Chabon's third novel as "excitingly imaginative" with "loving if sometimes windy detail." Ken Kalfus, also writing for the New York Times, celebrates Chabon's "passionate, expressive language." He observes that this novel is "generously optimistic about the human struggle for personal liberation." John Podhoretz, in an article for Commentary, echoes the novel's sentiment that so much of what defines the American way sprang from the hearts and minds of recent immigrants. Podhoretz writes that Kavalier & Clay is an ambitious book, but it "does not have all that much of interest to say…. A wonderful book but, despite its scope, a small one."


Carol Ullmann

Ullmann is a freelance writer and editor. In the following essay, Ullmann applies JosephCampbell's model of an archetypical hero journey to Joe Kavalier's experience in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, by Michael Chabon, is a sweeping tale of grand proportions that uses some of the bold, over-the-top stylistic devices of comic books, such as archetypes. Critics have noted that Joe Kavalier, although quiet and hardworking, is also suave, competent, talented, and indestructible. Joe's uncanny abilities are not overstated to the point of magic realism, but he is as supernatural and heroic as the characters he illustrates for his comic books. The work of Joseph Campbell, an expert in the fields of comparative mythology and comparative religion, was heavily influenced by psychologist Carl Jung. Campbell's seminal text, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949), provides the following outline for the journey of the archetypical hero, a hero just like Joe Kavalier.

The Call to Adventure
Refusal of the Call
Supernatural Aid
The Crossing of the First Threshold
The Belly of the Whale or Rebirth

The Road of Trials
The Meeting with the Goddess or the Attainment of Knowledge
Woman as the Temptress or Fear of Failure
Atonement with the Father
Apotheosis or Glorification
The Ultimate Boon

The Refusal of Return
The Magic Flight
Rescue from Without
The Crossing of the Return Threshold
Master of the Two Worlds, Supernatural and Human
Freedom to Live

The first part of Joe's journey is simply getting out the door, that is, departure. Joe's call to adventure is the encroaching Nazi presence in Czechoslovakia and his family's decision to send him to his aunt in the United States. Joe's mother sells her favorite emerald to help pay for Joe to leave. Saying good-bye at the train station, Joe blithely refuses the call with his foolish stoicism when faced with the heartbreak of his family who weep while he is impatient to leave. This is a refusal because Joe's attention is on the enjoyment of travel rather than the seriousness of his family's situation. When the authorities send him back to Prague, Joe cannot pretend he is having fun anymore. He goes to his former mentor, the retired performing escapist Bernhard Kornblum, for help. Kornblum, here and throughout Chabon's novel, is Joe's supernatural aid. Ever after, Joe has dream-like visions of Kornblum whenever he needs guidance.

The guardian of the first threshold is the Golem. (Golem is a creature from Jewish legend, created by Rabbi ben Loeb to protect the Jews of Prague from persecution.) With Kornblum's aid, Joe passes this threshold by finding the Golem and preparing it for their passage to Lithuania. Joe enters the proverbial belly of the whale, a place of rebirth, when he hides inside the Golem's casket and travels toward freedom. Emerging safe in Lithuania nearly two days later, Joe is reborn from the Golem's dusty chamber. He can never return to the home he once knew because it no longer exists. Literally speaking, Joe's family has been forced by the Nazis to move from their comfortable apartment. Figuratively, Joe is not a boy anymore. He has successfully completed the first part of his journey, and he is now a man, although still young.

The next stage is initiation. On the road of trials, Joe encounters many tests as well as helpers. In this part of his story, Joe successfully creates and establishes the Escapist, with the help of Sammy and against those who would hinder, redirect, or hold them back, i.e., Anapol, Ashkenazy, and Deasey. He survives numerous fights with various German people and struggles with Carl Ebling (including a bomb attack). Joe perseveres despite set backs such as his father's death, difficulties with the German adjutant, and strident negotiations with his boss about money and artistic freedom.

In the meeting with the goddess, also sometimes called a marriage, the hero attains knowledge of life. Rosa is Joe's goddess and his muse. Her influence in his life and their deep love for each other quell much of Joe's anger and frustration that his family is still trapped in Prague. Rosa delivers hope that he may at least be able to rescue his brother. From within this new peace, Joe creates Luna Moth and stops fighting Nazis so that he can focus on his creative expression. He has chosen life/birth over death. He is less aware of worrying as his loved ones are absorbed into the chaos of war, beyond Joe's reach. But when Thomas drowns at sea, Joe has a crisis of faith, and he is engulfed by his own fear of failure. He knows he can no longer reach his mother and grandfather, and now his father and brother are dead. This means Joe has failed in his original purpose in New York City, and he cannot forgive himself for being the one in his family who survives.

Joe flees Rosa and Sammy and takes his pain to Antarctica, where he is stationed by the navy and thus denied a chance to express his anger directly to Nazis. This exile leads to Joe's atonement. He casts off ignorance and at last opens Rosa's letters from the past three years. From them he discovers his love for her as well as a new opportunity for love: his son Tommy. Joe forgives Rosa and himself for his brother's death. Just before leaving on his sworn mission to finally kill a German, Joe sends his victim a warning. This is his apotheosis or glorification because Joe, having forgiven himself, can return to life. Face to face with the German geologist, Joe desires only to make a human connection, for now he is grasping his ultimate boon, what Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces calls his "life-transmuting trophy" of love. When the geologist dies anyway, Joe, under the influence of his boon, is more heartbroken than he has ever been, even over the deaths of his family members.

Returning home is the final stage of Joe's adventure and by far the hardest. He imagines Sammy, Rosa, and Tommy living happily ever after, and against the wishes of his own lonely heart, he forbids himself to return. At this critical point in the journey, the hero may opt to never complete his or her quest. The magic flight is Joe's attempt to return, by degrees, to the life he once knew. It is, by definition, somewhat ridiculous. Joe takes up residence in an office near the top of the Empire State Building because he likes to be near the Escapist. He becomes a hermit and carries on a clandestine friendship with his son Tommy, who thinks Joe is his cousin.

Tommy senses Joe's dilemma, senses that he wants to return but has forgotten how. Tommy is the one who rescues Joe by forcing him out into public where he can reunite with Sammy. Joe crosses the return threshold in his quiet homecoming to Sammy and Rosa's house. He accepts their love and acknowledges that things are not as he thought they were. Sammy and Rosa have created a family that offers space for Joe; indeed, their strange marriage has been waiting for Joe's return for a long time. He is needed; he is home.

The last two phases of the archetypical hero journey demonstrate the hero's new powers. As master of two worlds (the supernatural and the human), Joe uses his million dollars to purchase the failing Empire Comics, enflamed by love of his character, the Escapist, and full of vigor for new work. Joe has no fear of failure or success because of the boon he brings with him, love, which now gains strength through reciprocation. In rediscovering Rosa's love for him and his relationship with Tommy, Joe has the freedom to live. His strange quest is over, and he returns to ordinary life, older and wiser. Thus is a hero made. Sammy, at the end of the novel, departs for Los Angeles—but that is a different hero's story for a different day.

Campbell's thesis, as a Jungian mythographer, is that the hero journey lives within every human being and is an essential story for all humankind. People experience the hero journey in their dreams, which are transformed into stories; it is a pattern of timeless meaning. The hero, unlike the king and other roles which are merely assigned, is made through self-achievement. Joe Kavalier is a quietly fantastical character, but he is also, more importantly, a real-life hero: a performing magician, a brilliant illustrator of a popular comic book, a soldier, a father, and a man dedicated to the rescue of his family from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia. Joe's qualities add up to larger-than-life proportions and distance him from readers as a sympathetic character—but like any celebrity, he is no less appealing to observe.

Source: Carol Ullmann, Critical Essay on The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, in Novels for Students, Thomson Gale, 2007.

Barbara Lane

In the following interview, Chabon discusses the golem folklore and the various themes in his book, the process involved in his writing, the relation between World War II and comics, and the comic book creators who inspired him.

[Barbara Lane:] Talk a little bit about the story of the golem, which is central to this novel.

[Michael Chabon:] The golem is a character out of Jewish folklore, a myth that dates back thousands of years, before the time of Christ. The most famous legend is the one that deals with the golem of Prague, who was made by Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel. There were lots of other stories about different rabbis making golems, but for some reason, this is the one that caught the imagination, not just of Jewish listeners over the centuries, but of novelists.

A lot has been written about the golem of Prague; films have been made about this artificial man, formed from river clay, who is brought to life by spells and incantations. In some stories, he's made merely to be a servant, to help clean up around the synagogue on Friday nights, to do menial jobs that somebody with a soul and brain would not want to do. In others, he's made to be a protector of the Jews of the Prague ghetto. That is the version I'm most interested in, because I see those stories of creating a defender as a possible antecedent for the idea of the superhero. It was that aspect of it that first excited me.

Comic books fought the Second World War. I knew the Jewishness of the two characters was going to be important. Somehow, I decided to have Joe Kavalier be a refugee from a country that was occupied by the Nazis. In 1939, there was the annexation of Austria and then Czechoslovakia. Then, in September, we got the invasion of Poland that started the war. I'd been to Prague, so I chose Prague. He just gets off the boat, more or less. He shows up in New York, and the day he gets there, his crazy cousin says, "We're going into the comic book business, and since you can draw, you can draw my Superman." Joe has no idea what Superman is, what a superhero is, or even what a comic book is. So when he's asked to draw a superhero, the only thing he can think of is a golem. When I was writing that, I began to feel that there was going to be more to this book than just superheroes, that somehow it was going to tie into a lot of other stuff having to do with Jewish folklore.

Did you ever discover why so many of the early comic book creators were Jewish?

That was one of my main questions when I started writing, one of the things that I thought I might answer for myself. It's very striking; it's an inescapable thing to notice, once you start doing research. Just to cite the most famous examples: Superman was created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster, two Jewish kids from Cleveland; Batman was created mostly by Bob Kane, with help from Bill Finger and Jerry Robinson, who were Jewish; Captain America was created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. So it was very apparent to me that something was happening.

I had a very key experience early on in the writing of the book. I was living in Los Angeles and flew up to Oakland to attend WonderCon, a big comic book convention held every year. One of the guests was going to be Will Eisner, one of the greatest comic book artists ever. He's in his early or mid-80s and still working. One of the first questions I asked him was the question you just asked me: Why do you think, along with yourself, so many of the early comic book creators were Jews? He gave me what I think is the right answer. New York was the center of the publishing business and also the comic book and pulp magazine business.

The population of New York was fairly heavily Jewish. If you were a young, Jewish kid and wanted to make your living drawing, if you had an artistic ability and wanted to try to make money with your pen, you didn't have that many options available to you. The really well-paying, prestigious fields of commercial art, illustration, and advertising art were closed. You wouldn't get hired at the advertising agencies, but you could get hired by the comic book business. All these kids who thought they could draw, many of whom were somewhat mistaken in that judgment, were taken here. A lot of the comic book companies and pulp publishers were Jewish-owned businesses. In many cases, it was a familial thing.

Stan Lee, the famous Marvel Comics impresario whose name was originally Stanley Lieber, was the nephew of Martin Goodman, the owner of what later became Marvel Comics. It was an economic, demographic thing. But Eisner paused after he gave me that answer and said, "You know, I've often wondered if there wasn't something else at work, if there wasn't some other explanation. We have this history of impossible solutions to insoluble problems," which became the epigraph for this novel. He said that we have this narrative history of trying to come up with ways of solving the problems of the world through various kinds of mystical means, such as the golem.

Another person who inspired him—and you mention him in the afterwards to the book—is Jack Kirby, who did Spiderman and The Incredible Hulk. Can you talk about his influence?

Jack Kirby revolutionized comics twice in his career—first, in the 1940s by creating Captain America with his partner Joe Simon. Kirby was young when he started in comics—about 17. He was poorly educated—self-educated in the way that a lot of New York kids tended to be in this period, and the way that Sam Clay is in my book. He had this bursting, dynamic drawing style; it looked like his characters were barely contained by the panels. When someone got punched in a Jack Kirby comic, they came flying out of the panel. A lot of violence, but an almost pugnacious, New York kind of violence. Then, he did it all over again in the 1960s, participating in the Marvel Comics revolution with Stan Lee.

The idea of collaboration was always at the heart of comics—another thing I really wanted to write about in this novel. The best-known characters are probably the Fantastic Four, taking comics into a completely different realm. They aimed them at a much older readership—college students—and it was very successful. Kirby's imagination was allowed to roam completely wild, creating these incredible pantheons of cosmic superheroes the size of planets.

I'm always fascinated by the image of an artist who lives this very mundane existence. Jack Kirby lived most of his life first on Long Island, then out in Thousand Oaks in the San Fernando Valley. He was this small, drab looking man. You never would have looked at him twice, but every night he went out to his studio and sent his imagination voyaging out into the universe and created characters like Galactus, the big devourer of worlds. The image of this person voyaging through the cosmos of his own imagination while everyone else is asleep is a potent one for me.

You mentioned that comic books have always played a role in war. In the Second World War, didn't they have a jingoistic nature?

Absolutely. Comic books went to war before the United States did. Captain America dates from, I believe, May 1941. No villain was up to Superman. Kryptonite, in a way, is a substitute for Hitler, because Hitler was the ultimate villain. They fought the Japanese and demonized them, but this was what superheroes were made for. Comic book covers from the period are superheroes punching out U-boats, and tying anti-aircraft guns into knots. You have to remember that for the first several years of the war, it wasn't going that well; it looked as though there was a good chance that the Allies might not win. There was a lot of very violent, potent, wish fulfillment going on there, and it did get expressed in very unattractive jingoistic, racially-offensive ways.

The flip side of that is that the comics were actually investigated by the feds; you have a scene about that towards the end of the book.

Comic books never pleased adults. Even when they were fighting in the Second World War, that didn't get anywhere with the teachers and parents of America. It was still this forbidden, trashy kind of literature. The comics of the time—for all that they were toeing the standard line about being a good American and turning in your neighbors if you thought they might be Nazi spies—were being burned and banned.

The other thing that emerges as a theme in this book, and you've alluded to it already, is the idea of escape. Your comic book character is named The Escapist. We have the escape out of Prague. Everybody in this novel needs to escape from something.

Well, it was accidental. Theme is the last thing I worry about when I'm writing. I start with character and setting, and I try to figure out my story as quickly as I can. I actually pay no attention to theme at all during the first full draft of the novel. I had at some point decided to make Joe study escape artistry, and there were other little bits about the theme of escape, but I wasn't aware of them at all. I didn't notice them until I sat down with a first draft and read through it. At that point, I said to myself, What is this book about, besides being about Sammy, Joe, and comics?

If you're paying attention, as a writer, to language and your characters and trying to see them in your imagination and know what they would be doing at a given moment, theme just emerges organically. At some point, you have to stop and gather up that residue. That's the point at which I noticed that there was a lot to do with escape in the book. Comics have always been condemned as escapism. I wondered if there was some connection between escapism and literature, and it all just clicked into place. That's when you know it's working well, when that stuff starts happening and you didn't really try to make it happen.

People look at you, publishing your first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, which was actually a master's thesis, at the age of 24, and think you've never failed. In fact, you did have a huge failure of a sort, although you turned it into a success. Tell us about the experience of Fountain City.

I suppose that's an example of this method I just described not working. I started to write this novel around the time the first book was published. I thought it was going to be about architecture and an architect. There was a movement just beginning then in architecture called the "new urbanist" movement—the idea of restoring identity to the American city. If you're building a new housing unit, it dictates that you shouldn't try to build a suburban tract house, but actually craft a city with a downtown, a place where people can live and work.

That was in the air in the late '80s; it interested me because I grew up in Columbia, Maryland, which had very much a utopian urban design scheme of the late 1960s—the idea of creating a perfect community, one that would be racially integrated. So, I just started to write about a guy that was doing something like this. I thought it was going to be this little, slender book, maybe 225 pages. Five and a half years later, I found myself with an 800-plus page monster—to use Spalding Gray's phrase, a monster in a box—and somehow or another, baseball, French cooking, eco-terrorism, the plan that some religious Jews have to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem, and a lot of other things had all worked themselves into this thing. I allowed that organic process of just seeing what happens. Maybe one problem was that I never sat down and asked myself what this book was about. You might think that was sort of an obvious question that a writer would want to ask himself, but I think it eluded me.

What Do I Read Next?

  • Tales to Astonish: Jack Kirby, Stan Lee and the American Comic Book Revolution (2004), by Ronin Ro, covers the life and career of influential comic book artist, Jack Kirby.
  • Superman Chronicles, Volume 1 (2006) is a collection by the original Superman creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. In this graphic novel, they reprint all of Superman's early appearances, beginning in 1938.
  • The Final Solution: A Story of Detection is Michael Chabon's 2004 novel about an aged Sherlock Holmes engaged in solving one last mystery.
  • Houdini!!! The Career of Ehrich Weiss (1996), by Kenneth Silverman, is an acclaimed biography of the world's most famous escape artist. It contains more than a hundred photos, many of them rare and previously unseen.
  • Maus: A Survivor's Tale (Volume I, 1986; Volume II, 1991), by Art Spiegelman, is a graphic novel memoir with comic-like drawings about Spiegelman's father and how he survived World War II and the Holocaust. Maus won many awards, including the 1992 Pulitzer Prize Special Award.
  • A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2001), by Dave Eggers, is a critically acclaimed memoir about Eggers's life as a single-parent to his younger brother after the death of both of their parents. Eggers is the editor of McSweeney's, a publishing house to which Chabon has strong ties.
  • A Model World and Other Stories (1991), by Michael Chabon, is the author's first collection of short stories. These stories are about quirky individuals in ironic situations.

You dumped Fountain City on the sly when your wife told you that she was going to take some days off to study for her bar exam. You snuck down to the basement and started a new book.

I was about to start the ninth draft of this novel. I was so sick and tired of it. I didn't know how I was going to fix it or even what was really wrong with it. My then-fiancée said that she was going to take the bar six months earlier than she originally thought, so she wasn't going to see me for six weeks. That night I made this decision. I decided to keep it a secret. The first night I think I wrote 12 pages. I had 25 pages in three days. I had 75 pages in two weeks. I hit on the voice of Grady Tripp, the narrator of that novel, instantly, as if he was waiting there for me to get to him. I never went back.

But you did use the experience of the novel that you couldn't finish for Wonder Boys.

Grady Tripp had a very different experience than mine in that I did finish Fountain City a number of times, over and over. I never had that thing that Grady did where you're endlessly adding, and when you think you're getting close to the end, you're only a quarter of the way done. What I did draw on from my own experience was the deep mortification and embarrassment of working on the same project for that long a period of time. By the fifth Thanksgiving that rolls around, you're sitting with your family, and they ask about the book almost with dread.

Many people loved the movie, "Wonder Boys," which had a strange marketing campaign. Aren't you working with the same producer for the screenplay of "Kavalier and Clay"?

Yes, Scott Rudin and Paramount Pictures. When they first told me that they were going to make a movie of Wonder Boys, I asked why. Who do they think will go and see it? I trusted that they knew what they were doing, and they made what I think was a really good movie. It's very well acted and directed, and the script is great. I really enjoyed it, and so did 17 other people. But it was tough; it's hard to sell a movie about a pot-smoking, overweight English professor who carries a dead dog in his trunk and cheats on his wife. They did this great thing of re-marketing it six months after the initial release. They re-released it with a new poster and a new series of commercials on television. It still didn't quite work. I thought they did a fair enough job the first time. It seemed like a tough sell. I hope that's not going to be the same case with this novel.

Armistead Maupin was here recently and we were talking about, with a lot of laughter, how when The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, first came out, Newsweek came out with a story on the new generation of gay writers, among whom you were listed. Armistead was laughing about how it had finally become marketable to be a young, gay writer, because you brought a whole audience with you.

That was part of the problem, in a way. There was no real attempt by my publishers to define me as anything. There was nothing in the marketing of the book or the press kit that referred to my own sexuality. But, because of the subject, a lot of the readers, and especially the owners of some of the gay and lesbian bookstores around the country, assumed that I was gay, and that's how I was being sold by my publisher. When they found out that I wasn't gay, there was some resentment. It's ironic that being a gay writer can be a marketable thing. The proof of it was that these booksellers actually imagined that my publishers would have passed me off as gay in order to sell more books. That was not the case.

At the time of writing Kavalier and Clay, did you realize that you would become the hero of comic book fans worldwide? How does it feel to have put this marvelous and unsung medium on the historical map?

I was skeptical that anybody would be interested in hearing about these guys and this world at all. Comic book fans, for all that we love the medium, go cringing into every situation where you talk about comic books. You try to be proud, but it's hard, because the prejudice against them is still so strong. I love the superhero comic books. I think what Jack Kirby did qualifies as genuine art.

Did you see "Chasing Amy"?

Yes, I love that film. I never thought that I would be viewed as championing an art form, because I had that ambivalence myself. In the course of writing the novel, I came to this inescapable conclusion that some of these guys in the 1940s, and many artists since then, who were genuinely deserving of the name "artist," put as much of their soul and ability into their comic book work as I put into writing novels. I hope that conviction permeates the novel enough to possibly begin to persuade other people, including some who have always been prejudiced against comic books, to take another look and reconsider the art form. We're really behind the curve here in America on comic books. In Europe, comic books are given the status of art without any hesitation whatsoever. It's silly and arbitrary to deny them that status.

You've written two collections of short stories, A Model World and Other Stories and Werewolves in Their Youth. I read somewhere that you got nervous when you wrote short stories. Why is that?

Failure. It's so easy to blow a short story. It's much harder to blow a novel. Novels I find are a much more forgiving form. You can write a great novel, and it can still have slow parts; look at Anna Karenina. Or, let's talk about the little essay on Napoleon that closes War and Peace. Again, it's not what you want to be reading at that point, but a novel can encompass that stuff. Short stories can't. You start a short story with this sense that you have this pure, simple idea that you're going to sketch out quickly and neatly, and from the first sentence you begin to go awry. You lose that purity. By the time you're five or six pages into it, you often feel like you're writing something totally different from what you thought you started out with. The consciousness of going wrong is always with me when I write short stories.

I've grown dissatisfied with my own short stories, to some degree, and with the short stories that I read in magazines. I just feel like I don't know why I'm writing short stories. It's not the form; it's me. I need to find my way back to something. I am germinating a new approach to the short story for myself, but so far not much has come of it, except for one very strange story about a clown-murdering cult that was in The New Yorker.

To me, the roots of the short story come out of that kind of fiction. They go back to Edgar Allen Poe, to Balzac, to Kipling. These are writers that wrote what we would now tend to call more genre fiction—horror, detective, mystery, adventure. At the time they were writing, that is what a short story was. There was no genre; that was the genre. I guess I'm trying to work my way back towards that a little bit, and then hopefully toward a more contemporary, modern approach.

Source: Barbara Lane, "Interview with Michael Chabon," in Commonwealth Club, October 9, 2001.

Tom Deignan

In the following review, Deignan explores Chabon's characters, the various themes—especially escapism, the comic book empire and the legitimacy of comics, and puzzles over the identity of the narrator in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.

It's not hard to imagine the great works of American literature as comic books. Think of Huck and Jim diving into the Mississippi, in a colorful explosion of white foam and splintered wood, just as their raft is destroyed by a steamboat. Or think of Gatsby, a soft-focus silhouette at dusk, staring out at the harbor with its flashing lights. Such imagery is easy to imagine, not only because these are memorable and vivid archetypes, but because there have already been countless versions of "classic" comic book lit. In fact, as American as the comic book is, foreigners such as raging King Lear, or even suffering Job, have found their anguished words floating above their heads in white balloons.

The purpose of comic book "classics" is obvious: to make literature more accessible to kids. It's the literary version of sneaking vitamins into Yoo-Hoo or Hi-C. But there's an unquestioned assumption here, that the comic book form is inherently "low." The best we can seem to do, since the kids are hopelessly hooked, is use this "low" form for positive ends. That is, to feed the kids what's ultimately good for them.

Don't try any of this on best-selling author Michael Chabon. Captain America, Superman, Spiderman, Wonder Woman—all those literally cartoonish figures who've been devoured by generations of American boys are doing just fine, he says, when it comes to challenging the youthful intellect and imparting wisdom.

"He's truly the Shakespeare or Cervantes of comic books," Chabon told the New York Times Book Review recently, referring to Marvel comics legend Jack Kirby, who created the Incredible Hulk and many others. If there's any doubt regarding the sincerity of Chabon's comparisons, pick up his new novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. At nearly seven hundred pages, it is an epic treatment of the "golden age" of American comics—and America itself, from the 1930s to the 1950s. The novel has many aspirations: historical, political, sexual. One aim is to show that precisely because the best comics appeal to kids, they are on par with great literature in several ways.

As the very elusive third-person narrator in Amazing Adventures puts it, comic books are to be appreciated

for their pictures and stories they contained, the inspirations and lubrications of five hundred aging boys dreaming as hard as they could for fifteen years, transfiguring their insecurities and delusions, their wishes and their doubts, their public educations and their sexual perversions, into something that only the most purblind of societies would have denied the status of art.

High and low

The book (Chabon's fifth, after two novels and two story collections) is the latest skirmish in the ongoing battle between "high" and "low" culture. To some, Chabon may seem particularly baby boomerish (though he's only 37) in his need to intellectualize comic books, a topic laden with nostalgia.

Maybe there's some merit to this killjoy view of things. But The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is still a slam-bang accomplishment, dazzling and profound, cerebral and yet wonderfully touching. Always a stunning stylist, Chabon has come up with some of his most impressive prose yet in this book. But first, a minor question—is this novel, at least in some respects, roughly a decade too late?

The Brooklyn-born Sammy Clay, one of the two Jewish male protagonists, wonders at one point: "What if … they tried to do stories about costumed heroes who were more complicated, less childish, as fallible as angels." Who can't help but think of Tim Burton's fantastic Batman movie from 1989—or even the blockbuster X-Men, released just a few months after Chabon's novel. Both departed from the Superman comic book movie of the 1970s, which played up the special effects and damsels in distress and played down the dark psychology evident in Burton's film. Meanwhile, these days, so-called graphic novels like Chris Ware's Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth and Daniel Clowes' David Boring literally combine comic book art with literary narratives.

One reason this is more than a quibble is Chabon's mysterious narrator, who—in scattered footnotes or the main text—discusses present-day events, from a 1990s, ultra-omniscient perspective. Since the novel presents a brief but learned history of the American comic book as both art and commerce, one would expect some commentary on how the comic book hero, at the mass level, has attained the semiserious stature that Chabon's characters seem to covet.

Again, taking such things so seriously may be just another sign of the "devolution of American culture," as one jaded, self-loathing comic book executive puts it. Either way, the narrator problem could be the only off-key note in this otherwise brilliant symphony of a novel.

Hitler's rise

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay begins with Hitler's ascendancy in Europe. It concludes with America's postwar era, when unprecedented comfort and wealth combined with a latent paranoia that surfaced in bizarre Senate hearings on the potentially harmful effects of comic books on America's youth.

All these global doings—as well as parental neglect, corporate ruthlessness, cinema, sex (gay and straight), memory, magic, and suicide—find their way, in suffused form, into the Technicolor pages churned out by Empire Comics. This fictional company rises (and falls) thanks to the diligent work of the novel's title characters.

"Houdini was a hero to little men, city boys, and Jews," Chabon writes. "Sammy Louis Klayman was all three." ("My professional name is Clay," he later explains.) A talented, ambitious teen fond of Houdini (and Jack London), Sammy Clay "dreamed the usual Brooklyn dreams of flight and transformation and escape." Which is to say, Sammy's problems are those of many American boys, especially of modest backgrounds—distant parents, a limited worldview, a certain claustrophobia.

But Sammy also has a fierce, highly American optimism, one that makes the reader inevitably think of him as an undersized Augie March. Sammy "dreamed with fierce contrivance, transmuting himself into a major American novelist, or a famous smart person … or perhaps into a heroic doctor," Chabon writes.

All this is in stark contrast to Josef Kavalier, Sammy's cousin from Prague, who has made a long, dark journey from a Europe slowly yielding to fascism. Josef's dreams of escape are haunted by persecution and death. Though he fled Europe, his family is not so lucky. The specter of the Holocaust will haunt him his entire life.

But Joe is in America now. And he and Sammy can draw. And when spilled onto the comic book pages, the traumas and contrasting personalities of this dreaming American and brooding exile will captivate a generation of American youth.

Magic and escape

"Forget about [what] you are escaping from…. Reserve your anxiety for what you are escaping to." Josef recalls this nugget of wisdom from his Czech mentor in magic, Bernard Kornblum—an "Ausbrecher, a performing illusionist who specialized in tricks with straitjackets and handcuffs—the sort of act made famous by Harry Houdini."

Needless to say, escape and imprisonment are crucial themes in this book. In Prague, Kornblum, Joe, and the rest of the middle-class, educated Kavalier family are profoundly aware of the Nazi threat. Yet they must also go about the daily business of work—and play. "Josef had become interested in stage magic right around the time his hands had grown large enough to handle a deck of playing cards," Chabon writes. Yet even the seemingly innocent business of cultivating magic skills exposes vulnerability. To Kornblum, "Josef was one of those unfortunate boys who become escape artists not to prove the superior machinery of their bodies against outlandish contrivances and the laws of physics, but for dangerously metaphorical reasons."

Joe nearly kills himself trying to impress Kornblum with a perilous escape. Later, both pupil and teacher must combine their talents to pull off two tricks: relocating the legendary Golem of Prague (a protective giant out of Jewish lore) and making Josef disappear to America. That they accomplish the former feat by posing as undertakers and the latter by stowing Josef in a coffin suggests the grim brutality hovering over these scenes.

The Czech scenes are impressive but wordy. There are informative but lengthy digressions on how Josef met Kornblaum and Prague's rich tradition of illusionists and sleight-of-hand artists. Generally, though, Chabon bails himself out with shrewd plot twists, such as when Josef, concealed in his escape coffin, is nearly discovered by Nazis.

The big money

When Sammy discovers that Josef is a brilliant artist who spent two years at Prague's Academy of Fine Arts, he does what any enterprising American boy would do: "Josef, I tell you what. I'm going to do better than just get you a job…. I'm going to get us into the big money." Josef has just one question: "What is a comic book?"

It's a multilayered question, though, not just a joke about Josef's ignorance of American culture. The narrator gives a historical answer of sorts, in a discursive essay. At one point, we read: "Then, in June 1938, Superman appeared. He had been mailed to the offices of National Periodical publications from Cleveland, by a couple of Jewish boys." Fittingly, that's what Sammy's bosses want when he pitches them a comic book idea—another wildly popular superhero to help sell their novelty trinkets to kids.

But the bosses are ultimately skeptical of Josef's ideas. "To me, this Superman is … maybe … only an American Golem," Josef says. Even Sammy comments: "Joe, the Golem is … well … Jewish." It's the classic story of ethnic assimilation—the fear that (in this case) you'll appear too Jewish. So imagine how the bosses feel when Sammy and Joe come up with their first cover, on which their hero—the Escapist—is punching Adolf Hitler in the face. (Also consider Sammy's last name, and that he, like the Golem, is a "clay man.")

As The Escapist evolves—enriching Sammy and Joe but their bosses much more so—each creator dumps his emotional baggage into the storyline. With Josef, of course, it's his family's doom in Europe. With Sammy, it's his dead father, who spent long stretches of time on the road as a performer. For Chabon, however, the true magic happens when these ingredients are savored by thousands of frightened, lonely, and passionate young readers. Josef is more skeptical. Hell-bent on using the comics as propaganda to ultimately crush Hitler, he at times wonders if "all they were doing … was indulging their own worst impulses and assuring the creation of another generation of men who revered only strength and domination."

But later, looking back, Joe concludes:

Having lost his mother, father and brother, and grandfather, the friends and foes of his youth, his beloved teacher Bernard Kornblum, his city, his history—his home—the usual charge leveled against comic books, that they offered merely an escape from reality, seemed to Joe actually to be a powerful argument on their behalf…. The escape from reality was, he felt—especially right after the war—a worthy challenge.

The next generation

Somewhere in the middle of Amazing Adventures—the 1940s, basically, recorded in parts 4 and 5—the focus drifts. To be fair, tackling this decade would have required an additional 150 pages. Important things do happen: Josef leaves his lover Rosa and joins the military to fight the Nazis; Sammy has a love affair with a man. But at 200 pages, these sections feel baggy. Only when a child appears (who may either be Sammy's or Josef's) does Chabon recapture the intimacy and intensity that mark the book's most impressive sections.

Comfortable in suburbia, with Josef seemingly lost to the world, Rosa and Sammy have gotten married. They are also raising a son—one who loves comics and skips school too often, despite his guardians' best efforts. "Another escape artist," quips a detective, aware that the once-famous, now vanished Josef Kavalier is a relative.

Quite a few people are interested when Josef—or at least his most famous creation, the Escapist—is ready to leap back into the public consciousness. Literally. From the Empire State Building perhaps, according to a letter that appears in a 1954 edition of the Herald-Tribune. The letter also notes that Sammy and Josef were vastly underpaid by their bosses.

It's still a best-seller, but Kavalier and Clay have ceased their affiliation with The Escapist. The quality of the product has declined. So when fans and family alike gather at the Empire State Building for a supposed Escapist appearance, it touches a nostalgic chord. For Sammy, though, it could mean that his troubled cousin has finally lost it.

First Chabon spirals back in time (by page 500 we're used to this) and outlines how Josef came to know the young boy who is his nephew … or son. All the principal characters and their dilemmas are drawn into this slightly absurd hoax, which, as it turns out, must be taken seriously. And yet, when the episode is resolved, the troubles have only begun for Sammy, Josef, and Rosa, now under the same roof.

Chabon is a deft chronicler of love and other domestic troubles who manages to explore politics and the nature of art. Familial problems hold the later sections of Amazing Adventures together as the rise of Sammy and Josef does the earlier parts. With neither sentimentality nor cynicism, Chabon allows his characters to confront their past, present, and future.

Seduction of the innocent

And what prose! Here's Josef exploring his regrets, as he stays under the same roof as his one-time lover Rosa, now married to Sammy.

After their initial conversation in the kitchen, he and Rosa seemed to find it hard to get a second one started … he attributed her silence to animosity. For days, he stood in the cold shower of her imagined anger, which he felt entirely deserved. Not only for having left her pregnant and in the lurch, so that he might go off in a failed pursuit of an impossible revenge; but for having never returned, never telephoned or dropped a line, never once thought of her—so he imagined that she imagined—in all those years away. The expanding gas of silence between them only excited his shame and lust the more. In the absence of verbal intercourse, he became hyperaware of other signs of her—the jumble of her makeups and creams and lotions in the bathroom, the Spanish moss of her lingerie dangling from the shower curtain rod, the irritable tinkle of her spoon against her teacup.

Before this knot of regret and sex can be untangled, politics will intervene. Sammy Clay is called before the Senate Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency, prompted by Dr. Frederic Wertham's classic anticomic study The Seduction of the Innocent.

In Chabon's fictional re-creation, a reactionary senator goes for Sammy's secret.

"Isn't it true," an unnerved Sammy is asked during televised hearings, "that you have a reputation in the comic book field for being particularly partial to boy sidekicks." And that, "[T]he relationship between Batman and [Robin] is actually a thinly veiled allegory of pedophilic inversion?"

But to Sammy—humiliated, now determined to make a fresh start (out in the new world of California, of course)—his comic book work was indeed worthy of psychoanalysis. Just not on a predatory level. "Dr. Wertham was an idiot; it was obvious that Batman was not intended, consciously or unconsciously, to play Robin's corrupter: he was meant to stand in for his father, and by extension for the absent, indifferent, vanishing fathers of the comic-book-reading boys of America."

This is fitting, of course, given Sammy's troubles with his own dad. In exploring the comic book hearings, however, the novel is on more sensitive turf, as it's far too easy to critique the concerned senators. After all (like Chabon), they knew there was something deep going on with comics, didn't they? In one insightful scene, Josef is offered money to draw a nude—indicating that whatever "escapist" wonders comics are capable of, they can also be used to indulge baser fantasies of sex, violence, or whatever. It's not that the senators should have pursued the comic book "threat" with more vigor. But as Chabon makes clear, comic books, in a lot of ways, are playing with kiddie dynamite, in the psychological sense. Unfortunately, we can't all expect to see the ignition here as a strictly positive one. Anyway, Chabon doesn't linger very long on the senators. The episode is mainly used to prod Sammy to an epiphany—an "escapist" one at that.

The narrator

What finally remains is the book's narrator question. Who's telling this story in (roughly) the year 2001? "In later years, holding forth to an interviewer or to an audience of aging fans at a comic book convention" are the novel's first words. Off the bat, we know this is a narrator who can see it all. Knowledgeable factoids pretty much rule out an aged Sammy or Josef, since we learn things they do not know. Perhaps the narrator is the boy who, at different times, was their son. Why Chabon has chosen to sprinkle the text with contemporary insight is ultimately unclear. It's entertaining and enlightening but also distracting. It sets off alarms, given the many narrative experiments we've seen in recent novels.

Is the storyteller simply Michael Chabon, comic book lover? Maybe—but the narrator is hardly authoritative. (Recall that the recent Batman movies are never mentioned, nor for that matter are the many 1930s and '40s artifacts of antifascist pop culture that Sammy and Joe could have used to defend their leanings.) Readers can be forgiven for questioning why things are handled this way.

One other minor flaw here: Though it's intriguing to consider "Citizen Kane"'s influence on all forms of popular art, a cameo by Orson Welles (as well as Salvador Dali) feels unnecessary. But on the whole Chabon has produced a great and very American novel, which feels both intimate and worldly. It is funny and dramatic, deeply researched yet freewheeling. Some could even say that Amazing Adventures is downright patriotic, despite its jabs at comic-burning senators. It defends polyglot American pop culture on both an aesthetic and political level. Comic books, with all their crudities, also seem to be symbols of freedom.

When Josef Kavalier, the Holocaust-haunted immigrant, realizes he is about to be paid handsomely to draw comics, he thinks:

All this has conformed so closely to Joe's movie-derived notions of life in America that if an airplane were now to land on Twenty-fifth Street and disgorge a dozen bathing suit clad Fairies of Democracy come to award him the presidency of General Motors, a contract with Warner Bros., and a penthouse on Fifth Avenue with a swimming pool in the living room, he would have greeted this, too, with the same dream-like unsurprise.

This is, of course, just a moment of euphoria. But not for nothing does one character later say: "I wasn't aware that Nazis read comic books."

That's just it—they don't.

Source: Tom Deignan, "Playing with Kiddie Dynamite," in World and I, Vol. 16, No. 2, February 2001, p. 220.

Lee Behlman

In the following excerpt, Behlman explains how comics offered escapism and an effective distraction from memory for Jewish immigrants to the United States in the 1930s and 1940s, some of whom entered the comics industry and prospered.

Michael Chabon's Comic Book Americans and the Golem of Prague

Near the end of Everything is Illuminated, Alex, the fledgling Ukrainian writer, composes a letter in his own inimitable, thesaurusized English, in which he tells his friend Jonathan about a precious fantasy:

[I]f we are to be such nomads with the truth, why do we not make the story more premium than life? It seems to me that we are making the story even inferior. We often make ourselves appear as though we are foolish people, and we make our voyage, which was an ennobled voyage, appear very normal and second rate. We could give your grandfather two arms, and could make him high-fidelity…. [I]t could be perfect and beautiful and funny, and usefully said, as you say…. I do not think there are any limits to how excellent we could make life seem. (pp. 179-180; emphasis in original])

Alex fantasizes about eluding the terms of his own history and healing the physical and emotional wounds of both his and Jonathan's families. The new fiction that could result might well be fantastical itself, with a miraculous set of happy reversals and revisions of the past. Alex expresses this wish for an escape from an uncomfortable reality, if only for a few moments, near the end of the story, and his perspective is not clearly endorsed by a narrative that more typically uses fantasy to give shape to ugly truths.

While in Everything is Illuminated this wish to escape through fiction appears only briefly and as a subterranean desire, it is very much the main subject of Michael Chabon's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (2000). Through its sweeping narrative about two young Jewish comic book artists making their careers in New York during the "Golden Age" comics era of the late 1930s and 1940s, Kavalier & Clay explores the use of fantasy not as a means of giving shape to the documentary facticity of the Holocaust, not as a set of stage properties surrounding the real, but as a potential means of "escape" from the past. Chabon's novel explores a major moral and aesthetic issue which is only partially addressed in the Holocaust fictions I have discussed thus far: the fact that fantasy itself, no matter how disruptive, no matter how "unsentimental" it may be, can give pleasure to an artist and an audience, and that pleasure may be a distraction from the past. What's more, and this is where Chabon is most surprising, his novel guardedly presents the idea that that distraction may be itself be a valid response. Kavalier & Clay is an extended meditation, with comic books as its central subject, on the value of fantasy as a deflective resource rather than a reflective one.

Escapism is a prominent characteristic of American popular art forms, and this quality, when it is found in Hollywood entertainment, episodic television, or mass-market fiction, is often dismissed by critics as essentially shallow or trivial. Without denying the trashiness of much American popular culture, Chabon issues an aesthetic and ultimately moral defense of escapism as it is found in one of America's only original contributions to world culture (along with jazz music), superhero comic books. Through its exploration of this form, the novel is remarkable for the intimate ways it shows how much pleasure and value may be found in producing and reading fantasy. Chabon's intent in exploring superhero comics is not to issue a postmodern critique of the "real" and realistic art forms, nor a populist anti-intellectual assault on "elites" and their art, but to show, in a phenomenological way, how fantasy feels, and how it may assuage pain. With this comforting gesture may come the admittedly problematic, quintessentially American phenomenon of forgetting.

Kavalier & Clay announces from its beginning a fracture between the distanced American experience of the Holocaust and the events of the Holocaust themselves. In what is in some respects a classic Jewish immigrant narrative, Josef Kavalier, a teenage art student from Prague, travels to America and makes his way in this new world at the side of his American cousin and partner in comics, Sam Clay (formerly Klayman) of Brooklyn. The novel begins almost immediately with the meeting of these two characters and then flashes back in a series of episodes to Josef's early life in Prague, where we learn of his secular, upper-middle-class Jewish family's increasing difficulties under the Nazi regime in the late 1930s, and of his eventual lonely escape to America. As an adolescent, Josef had learned the skills of escape artistry under the guidance of Kornblum, an ausbrecher [escape artist] of Eastern European origin, and Josef comes to use these skills in his escape from Prague. The rest of the novel takes place in America and follows Josef and Sam's career as they invent and further develop their character "The Escapist," a superhero who, like Houdini, can escape from any restraint and, like Captain America and the Human Torch, can fight whole divisions of Nazi soldiers single-handedly. The comic book itself becomes the key means of imaginative escape for Josef, who works constantly to effect the physical escape of his brother, Thomas, from occupied Prague to America.

The recent history of comic books—particularly the longer-form "graphic novels" produced by such artists as Will Eisner, Daniel Clowes, and Chris Ware—has demonstrated the vast storytelling potential of the form beyond the limitations of the superhero genre. Many critics and "serious" comic book artists alike seek to draw aesthetic distinctions between such recent work and the now sixty-year history of stories about men and women in tights. Art Spiegelman has confronted the connotations of triviality often associated with both artists and fans of superhero comics by popularizing an alternate term, "comix," which stands for a "co-mix" of images and words. Yet in Kavalier & Clay, Chabon embraces the superhero comic book in its earliest incarnation, with its crude drawing style, monotone dialogue, and unlikely plots, as a rough but vivid and fertile form. Unlike Clowes and Ware, who in some ways embrace the form but also tend to put ironic quotes around their referencing of superheroes, Chabon is notable for his enthusiastic endorsement of this by now rather "square" art form. In a bravura section beginning on page 74, Chabon's narrator describes the early history and aesthetics of comic books with a kind of learned enthusiasm not unlike that found in Melville's discussion of whale facts and statistics in the "cetology" chapter of Moby Dick. Chabon's narrator does such things as compare the relative artistic merits of superhero comics covers and their inside material, and in doing so he can also be quite critical, with the wonkish air of any enthusiast, about the limitations of the form:

In 1939 the American comic book, like the beavers and cockroaches of prehistory, was larger and, in its cumbersome way, more splendid than its modern descendant…. [Yet] as with all mongrel art forms and pidgin languages, there was, in the beginning, a necessary, highly fertile period of genetic and grammatical confusion…. [T]he men tended to stand around in wrinkleless suits that looked stamped from stovepipe tin and in hats that appeared to weigh more than the automobiles, ill at ease, big-chinned, punching one another in their check-mark noses…. Consequently, the comic book, almost immediately upon its invention, or soon thereafter, began to languish, lacking purpose or distinction. There was nothing here one could not find done better, or cheaper, somewhere else (and on the radio one could have it for free).

Then, in June 1938, Superman appeared.

Inspired by the extraordinary success of the Man of Steel, Siegel and Schuster's crude but portentous invention, Sam (with Josef in tow as his artist) proposes a new superhero comics line for Sheldon Anapol's Empire Novelties Company. Anapol agrees to let them produce a sample issue, which leaves them in the position of having to come up with a hero to build their comic book around over a single weekend. In a witty scene that follows, complete with in-jokes about later comic book inventions, we witness Sam and Josef struggle to come up with a new comic book hero, and we are told that many such conversations were simultaneously blooming in New York in the post-Superman year of 1939. Sam argues that the problem involved in creating a new superhero is not centrally about what powers he will have, but about his motivation.

"This is not the question," he said. "If he's like a cat or a spider or a f—— wolverine, if he's huge, if he's tiny, if he can shoot flames or ice or death rays or Vat 69, if he turns into fire or water or stone or India rubber. He could be a Martian, he could be a ghost, he could be a god or a demon or a wizard or monster. Okay? It doesn't matter, because right now, see, at this very moment, we have a bandwagon rolling, I'm telling you. Every little skinny guy like me in New York who believes there's life on Alpha Centauri and got the s—— kicked out of him in school and can smell a dollar is out there right this minute trying to jump onto it, walking around with a pencil in his shirt pocket, saying, "He's like a falcon, no, he's like a tornado, no, he's like a g——d—— wiener dog." Okay?

… The question is why."

Over the next 48 hours, Sam and Josef toil with a group of young fellow artists to create a set of superheroes for a new series called Masked Man Comics, and among the heroes will be their main creation, the Escapist, a figure who combines the ausbrecher talents of Houdini with the dark, secret history of the Shadow, along with the prodigious but limited physical strength of the early Superman. In the time before America enters the Second World War, the Escapist fights the Nazis—even, on the cover of the first issue, putting the kibosh on Hitler himself. But Chabon does not just describe Sam and Josef's co-creation of the character—he inserts a full chapter in which the origin tale of the Escapist is told as a short story, in prose that manages to combine sophisticated narrative and descriptive material with the gee-whiz dialogue of Sam Klay's comic book. The comic book story, then, is transmuted in the narrator's hands into a kind of literary hybrid. It becomes a purely textual short story that includes a level of physical detail and even psychological sophistication that would never appear in a comic book of this era; yet it is also clearly a comic book story, with all the trappings of its fantasy world: a lame boy who can suddenly walk, secret evil societies, men from the East with arcane knowledge. With this "origin" tale, as well as that of a later character Sam and Josef create—the mousy-librarian-turned-super-heroine "Luna Moth"—Chabon gives life to the pulpy energy, excitement, and crude imaginative power of superhero comics without a trace of condescension.

In telling the story of Sam and Josef's creative career, Chabon sets them within a larger story of the development of "Golden Age" superhero comics, a story populated largely by Jewish men. Most of Sam and Josef's fellow artists are New York Jews, and real-life Jewish comic creators such as Jack Kirby and Siegel and Schuster are referenced (Stan Lee even makes a cameo appearance). Perhaps the most important influence on the novel's conception of Jewish comic book artists in this period is the life and autobiographical comic book fiction of Will Eisner, an innovative early comic artist and, more recently, theorist and inventor of the graphic novel form. The connection between Jewish artists and their comic book creations is frequently alluded to in the novel, as when Sam says, "What, they're all Jewish, superheroes. Superman, you don't think he's Jewish? Coming over from the old country, changing his name like that. Clark Kent, only a Jew would pick a name like that for himself."

In some respects, Kavalier & Clay aims to be a novel of social realism, capturing the working environments of late depression-era New York, but despite its attempts at a hard-edged depiction, the novel more often slips into a sentimental view of this period and setting. For much of the middle section of the novel, Chabon describes in loving detail several different New York milieus, including the lower-middle-class home of Sam's mother in Flatbush, Brooklyn, and the Greenwich Village intellectual set of Josef's girlfriend, Rosa Saks Luxemborg. But the main emphasis is on the workplace, Sheldon Anapol's "Empire," where the Jewish comic book artists are usually under-paid and overworked under their Jewish boss. In its representation of the rough world of commerce of the time, Chabon doesn't approach the gruff realism of Saul Bellow's Chicago in The Adventures af Augie March. For example, in an unlikely development, Sam and Joe manage to leverage from their employer a percentage of profits on certain Escapist-related products (including the Escapist radio show)—this during a period in which comic book artists were almost always cut out of a share of any profits that accrued from their creations.

It is understandable that Sam and Josef's New York lives are told in a somewhat broad and even sentimental manner, for these two characters must carry a great symbolic weight in Kavalier & Clay. They represent the divided experience that is the story of Jewish American life at this time and in our time, for they are both American and Other, native-born and refugee, newly-formed and unsettlingly old. Josef stands, in many respects, for a particular Jewish American notion of the dark but romantic Mittel-european past, with his serious intellectual bearing, his background of suffering and stoicism, and his masculine and slightly mysterious aura; Sam, on the other hand, is the short, clever, fast, funny, and ambitious New York Jew, a man who "[l]ike all of his friends … considered it a compliment when somebody called him a wiseass." Neither character conforms perfectly to these archetypal roles—for example, Sam's closeted homosexuality adds considerable complexity to his portrayal—but instead, like Dickens' greatest creations, each is both a finely delineated, idiosyncratic human figure and a caricature or type.

In Sam and Josef's story, Chabon represents a familiar Jewish American conception of America as the place of Jewish creativity and hope, the place to escape to, and of Europe as the place of Jewish history and death, the place to escape from. The Jewish story, in this telling, seems at first to end in the Holocaust but is, at least to an extent, revived in America, and this is nowhere so evident as in Chabon's use of the Golem legend. In the early chapters of the novel, Chabon describes how Josef's escape is made possible by the rediscovery of the body of Rabbi Loew's famous Golem of Prague. This giant immobile figure, formed from the clay of the River Moldau, has long been kept hidden in an unmarked, sealed-off room in an apartment house near the Alneuschul (the Old-New Synagogue), but it is eventually retrieved by Josef and Kornblum (his ausbrecher tutor) and becomes the literal vehicle for Josef's escape out of Europe. Josef and Kornblum disguise the Golem as a "dead goyische giant", secret Josef away in its casket, and send it eastward, out of Nazi-controlled territory and into Lithuania. Once he escapes from the confines of the Golem's casket, Josef manages to make his way halfway around the world through the Soviet Union and Japan, and finally to America and (physical) salvation.

The Golem in this story represents both the dead hope of Jewish life in Europe and the ever-living promise of Jewish creativity, which can be transferred to the new world. It is a predecessor, then, as an artifact of Jewish fantasy, to the new Jewish fantasy-creation, the comic book hero. Chabon makes this connection between Golems and comic books clear early in the novel, when Josef sketches a Golem in his first effort at representing a superhero. (Upon seeing it, his future boss, Sheldon Anapol, is confused and exclaims, "‘Is that the Golem? … My new Superman is the Golem?’") The connection is made even more explicit late in the novel, in a fascinating passage:

The shaping of a Golem, to [Josef], was a gesture of hope, offered against hope, in a time of desperation. It was the expression of a yearning that a few magic words and an artful hand might produce something—one poor, dumb, powerful thing—exempt from the crushing strictures, from the ills, cruelties, and inevitable failures of the greater Creation. It was the voicing of a vain wish, when you get down to it, to escape. To slip, like the Escapist, free of the entangling chain of reality and the straitjacket of physical laws. (emphasis added)

The Golem represents the dream of "escape," which in this passage involves a flight from both the physical bondage of the Nazis and the imaginative bondage that may limit the expression of any artist. As such, the Golem is commensurate with comic book superheroes and with comic books themselves as artifacts of "escapist" Jewish creativity in the fecund commercial world of American pop culture.

The Ethics of Escapism

We arrive, through the figure of the Golem, at comic books as the central signifier and singular fetish of Kavalier & Clay, and with it the central issue of this essay, which is the question of how these young Jewish American writers understand the nature and efficacy of fantasy in the context of the Holocaust. Comic books, in Chabon's hands, represent a form of Jewish fantasy markedly different from Englander's Chelm legends and Foer's magical-realist shtetl, Trachimbrod: while these two authors indirectly give shape to the reality of the Holocaust through these fantastical devices, to an unusual degree Chabon uses comic books as a recourse or alternative to shaping that reality. The Escapist, like America itself, is always set in contrast to the Holocaust experiences of Josef, and is never used as vehicle for the depiction of those experiences, indirect or otherwise.

Through their deliberately broad, even crude vocabulary, the Escapist storylines and layouts provide an opportunity for Josef to mobilize anti-Nazi sentiment in the period before America would enter the war, and to provide for himself a dose of short-lived imaginative revenge. Josef furiously wants to believe that if he and Sam "could not move Americans to anger against Hitler, then Joe's existence, the mysterious freedom that had been granted to him and denied to so many others, had no meaning," and yet he is also aware that his persuasive powers will always be limited, for "[t]he Escapist was an impossible champion, ludicrous and above all imaginary, fighting a war that could never be won." While the Escapist fulfills the fantasy of protecting the persecuted (much like Rabbi Loew's Golem patrolling the streets of Prague) and even goes further to visit active retribution upon Hitler and his cronies, still, the effectiveness and the satisfactions of such a creative consolation are seriously curtailed by an awareness of what is actually happening in Europe. Josef also realizes the fact that superhero comics may promote dangerous fantasies of the kind of violent revenge that fuel the Nazi assault on Jews. Chabon thus acknowledges through Josef's experiences the problem of the extreme incommensurateness between fantasy and reality, most intensely in the scene where Josef discovers that, despite his great efforts to save his brother, Thomas, the boy has been killed along with a ship full of other Jewish refugee children by a German U-Boat.

Near the end of the novel, Chabon does make some efforts to reconcile the American impulse to escape through fantasy with the memory of the European Jewish past and of the Holocaust itself. He seeks to achieve this reconciliation by bringing the Golem, and its evocation of the lost, pre-Holocaust Jewish European past, into the present, so that it no longer just prefigures American comic books but becomes their subject. After finding out about Thomas's death, Josef leaves to become a U.S. serviceman and cuts off contact from Sam and his pregnant girlfriend, but years later. he returns to their lives and reveals that he has been spending time secretly writing a 2,256-page comic book based loosely on the Golem legend. It is both a superhero story and a Golem story, a "long and hallucinatory tale of a wayward, unnatural child, Josef Golem, that sacrificed itself to save and redeem the little lamplit world whose safety had been entrusted to it." For Josef, it seems that this new, breakthrough work is "helping to heal him" of his wounds, not by erasing his memory of the pre-American Jewish past, but by recasting them in comic book form, and having European Jewish fantasy mingle with the American variety. In a similar gesture at acknowledging the "pastness" of the European Jewish past and yet seeking to recall it into memory, Chabon has the long-lost casket of the Golem reappear in Josef's life at the very end of the novel. Whereas before the Golem was fully formed but nearly weightless, now it is but a heap of dust; yet it is heavy now, perhaps with the souls of the lost European Jews.

But despite Chabon's efforts in applying a kind of thematic reconciliation to match the characters' scenes of reconciliation at the end of the novel, the reincursions of the Golem into the conclusion of the novel seem a sudden and therefore somewhat clumsy and unconvincing narrative device, particularly for a writer who is usually so consummately in command of his plot. While this device seeks to place the burden of the Jewish European past—the burden of the Holocaust itself—into an American narrative, and therefore to give more heft and relevance to the superhero comic book dream of escape, it's not clear that the concept of escapism itself can properly assume such a weight. What is assumed, in any case, is not the memory of the past, nor the direct experience of the Holocaust, but an idea of it, one that is, in Chabon's account, necessarily abstracted by American distance. James E. Young discusses this phenomenon in the context of distinguishing U.S. Holocaust memorials from their European counterparts:

Where European memorials located in situ often suggest themselves rhetorically as the extension of the events they would commemorate, those in America must gesture abstractly to a past removed in time and space. If memorials in Germany and Poland composed of camp ruins invite visitors to mistake them for the events they represent, those in America inevitably call attention to the great distance between themselves and the destruction…. In this sense, American memorials seem not to be anchored in history so much as in the ideals that generated them in the first place.

According to Young's description, American engagements with the Holocaust never gain full purchase on its history because they tend to turn facts into abstracted "ideals," a practice characteristic of American distance (as well as a Protestant-influenced messianic optimism). Chabon's novel struggles with explaining this impulse to abstract the Holocaust from an American-Jewish present, and with describing the very real pleasures to be gained from submitting those abstractions to a fantastic set of reversals and escapes. The novel is most vivid and ultimately most convincing in its defense of fantasy not as a device that gives shape to the real but as one that is inevitably, hopelessly, and yet somehow hopefully distant from it. As the narrator says of Josef in the novel's strongest defense of escapism,

Having lost his mother, father, brother, and grandfather, the friends and foes of his youth, his beloved teacher Bernard Kornblum, his city, his history—his home—the usual charge leveled against comic books, that they offered merely an easy escape from reality, seemed to Joe actually to be a powerful argument on their behalf. He had escaped, in his life, from ropes, chains, boxes, bags, and crates, from handcuffs and shackles, and regimes…. The escape from reality was, he felt—especially right after the war—a worthy challenge.

By noting that escapism is "especially" worthy for survivors immediately after the war, Chabon is careful to mark out escapism's limitations, but the fact remains that even in the short term, escapism is a turn away from history. It is a safe refuge from the memory of the Nazi genocide and not a sufficient means of representing it directly—something that, to its credit, the novel never attempts. Though Englander and Foer use fantastic elements of Jewish folklore as a vehicle for memorial, Chabon shows, through his meditation on the thoroughly Jewish-American medium of early superhero comics, how fantasy may also act as an interruption to memory, a holding action against the incursions of the past.

Source: Lee Behlman, "The Escapist: Fantasy, Folklore, and the Pleasures of the Comic Book in Recent Jewish American Holocaust Fiction: Michael Chabon's Comic Book Americans and the Golem of Prague," in SHOFAR, Vol. 22, No. 3, Spring 2004, pp. 61-71.


Campbell, Joseph, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Princeton University Press, 1968, p. 193.

Chabon, Michael, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Picador, 2000.

Kalfus, Ken, "The Golem Knows," in New York Times Book Review, September 24, 2000, p. 8.

Maslin, Janet, "A Life and Death Story Set in Comic Book Land," in New York Times, September 21, 2000, pp. B10, E10.

O'Nan, Stewart, Review of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, in Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, September 17, 2000, p. G8.

Podhoretz, John, Review of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, in Commentary, Vol. 3, No. 6, pp. 68-72.

Further Reading

Amundsen, Roald, The South Pole, Cooper Square Press, 2001.

This book gives a first-hand account of Amundsen's 1911 expedition to the South Pole.

Chabon, Michael, and others, Michael Chabon Presents: The Amazing Adventures of the Escapist, Vol. 1-3, Dark Horse Comics, 2004-2006.

This series of graphic novels reprint the Escapist comic books along with original content. Dark Horse Comics launched The Amazing Adventures of the Escapist following the popularity of Chabon's novel.

McCloud, Scott, Reinventing Comics: How Imagination and Technology Are Revolutionizing an Art Form, Harper, 2000.

This book, told in McCloud's boldly black and white comic style, examines the Internet as the next frontier for the comic book industry.

———, Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, Kitchen Sink Press, 1993.

McCloud examines comics as art and as communication media. Although his arguments are rigorous, the content is laid out as a black and white comic book.

Singer, Isaac Bashevis, The Golem, illustrated by Uri Shulevitz, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1982.

Nobel laureate Isaac Singer retells the story of the legendary Golem of Prague. This is one of Singer's most famous short stories.

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