‘The Escapists’ does Michael Chabon’s novel justice, with a meta-fiction storyline set in the world of comic book creation.
After my freshman year of college, I was completely out of the comic book game. Pouches, convoluted stories, and odd artwork were more important than ever, so it felt like a good time to step out. Also, I was pretty broke, and beer wasn’t cheap so something had to give.
In the year 2000 something outside of the comics world managed to draw me back into collecting. Michael Chabon released The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, a novel that examined the origin of the superhero comic through the prism of World War, immigration, escape artistry, and secret lifestyles.
Joe Kavalier, a Jewish escapee of the Nazi regime and artist, and his American cousin and writer, Sammy Clay, sat down and created their own perfect superhero based on Houdini, an escape artist and fellow Jew. The Escapist was born in the same mold of Superman, and Chabon’s novel details both the comic world and the politically and morally charged world of 1940s and ’50s New York City.
This book is remarkable in that it both won the Pulitizer Prize for fiction, but also managed to create a superhero character that actually has page appeal. Many a creation of modern day comicdom is immediately tossed back into obscurity, but here we were given an instant sensation in the rich setting of World War II, and not a single page of art had been inked.
It wasn’t too surprising that soon after the book became a hit, some initial volumes of Escapist comics began to be released. Tales set both in the 1940s with the original character, told in a meta style of having discovered the lost scripts of the fictional creators, or in an updated reboot where the mantle had been passed on to a new generation, Flash or Green Lantern style. These comics were well received, and helped build the buzz around the character for further inclusion in pulp depictions.
This all brings us to today, The Escapists, and Brian K. Vaughan. It would be an understatement to say that this book shares the meta layer that the original volumes of comics did, along with the confusion of which “real world” we’re in at any given time. This comic does not dive back into the fictional world of the Escapist himself, like the earlier volumes did. Instead, it stays in Kavalier and Clay’s “real world,” and substitutes the standard hero journey of self discovery for one of comic creation and publication.
The verdict? This book is a hell of a lot of fun.
Our protagonist is a young boy from Cleveland — the birthplace of Superman — and after his father’s death he realizes that he is now the owner of a basement full of Escapist memorabilia. As a path to something meaningful in his life, and as a way to honor his late father’s obsession, he buys the rights to the character and starts to create a new and updated tale for today’s audience.
If you’re a comics fan and you’re looking for the action of a normal book, with punches and skin tight outfits, this might be a departure for you. As I said above, this is really more about the journey of the comic creation more than any true heroic ideal. There are scenes of that normal hero slug-fest, as we get to see the Escapist comic that is being created and released, but it’s far from the main angle of the story. The plot truly is about the act of creation, and the pitfalls that come along with writing, drawing, and as you’ll see, doing publicity for the book.
The artwork I feel fits both aspects of this plot incredibly well. The normal “real world” storyline has an almost cartoon feel, which Steve Rolston ties in nicely with the adolescent, what-the-hell-are-we-doing-with-our-lives setting. These are kids taking huge risks, and seeing them depicted as almost cartoonish in their looks makes sense given they truly are unmoored and silly in most of their decision making.
The Escapist artwork is a 180 degree turn from that style, pulling in panels that feel sketchy, dangerous and mysterious. The art feels painted, hurried, and frenzied — like the life and death situations the hero finds himself in constantly. His escape from a ticking time-bomb, or a locked room always carries a time limit, and Jason Shawn Alexander’s art captures that frenetic feel perfectly.
In short, I loved this book. It’s not hard to figure out why, as we’re talking about Chabon, one of my favorite novelists, and my absolute favorite comic writer Brian K. Vaughan combining like Voltron. Michael’s novel kicked off my interest in comics again, and BKV’s Y: the Last Man made me feel like the medium had finally moved beyond tights and capes. If you’re looking for an indie comic that talks about real people with real problems, and still has a little room for a few bad guys to get a punch in the chops, you could do far worse than The Escapists.