In his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, author Michael Chabon pens a powerful love letter to comics (as well as a fascinating exploration of Jewish writers/artists within the modern creative economy). A lifelong aficionado himself, Chabon achieved nerd glory by creating his own character, The Escapist, a Mister-Miracle-meets-The-Phantom type that’s since leapt from the novel onto the pages of actual comics.
Dark Horse has collected 26 of those resulting stories (with six never-before-published) into one massive trade paperback, and the result is mightily impressive. Not only because they’re great pulp-y stories, but this TPB offers tackles some great ideas. Like the validity of comics as literature, the ways we share archetypes and mythos, and how canons are formed (and even reconfigured/obliterated). To the Escape-Copter!
Aside from Chabon’s story (“The Passing of the Key”), the book features a slew of other artists perpetuating The Escapist’s mighty legend. That lengthy list includes Mike Baron, Kevin McCarthy, Brian K. Vaughan, Howard Chaykin, Stewart Moore, and Harvey Pekar, among others. On the one hand, that list of A-listers alone provides some powerful legitimacy to this character, forcing people to get excited and engaged as their favorite wordsmiths put out new stories on a “new” character ripe with possibilities.
But pairing Chabon, this massive literary darling, with comic royalty adds a new level to the comics-as-literature debate. I’ve long believed that anyone who disagrees with comics having true artistic merit probably ate paint chips as a child. Yet now we’ve got a real writer turning to comics to tell new stories and “legitimize” his character. It’s Pekar, Chaykin, et al. that expand the idea of The Escapist and what the character can represent, translating him into a medium where he can become more than a literary device and evolve as a real and true character.
And oh what a hero he proves to be. With a no-limits approach, each creator gets to tell their own story, providing a truly mixed bag. There’s the gritty anime of “Divine Wind,” the cerebral, Euro-centric “Double or Nothing,” the quaint pop art of “The Boy Who Would Be The Escapist,” and the ultra indulgent dweeb-ery of “The Escapist 2966.” Funny or kitschy, violent or just blatantly bizarre, the book runs the emotional and creative gamut, and all of it’s real.
For some readers, this intro approach may prove complicated. However, there’s something freeing about this open-ended vibe and commitment to exploring stories however they may land. It helps that there’s at least some consistency between these multi-faced stories — not just the general arc or repeating themes, but the way reality and fantasy interplay, and a sheer dedication to balancing nostalgia (an escape-themed hero) with modern musings on culture, politics, humanity, etc.
In his awesome 2016 book The Caped Crusade: Batman and the Rise of Nerd Culture, critic Glen Weldon talks about the massively convoluted canon of the Bats. Specifically, every story is true and real because Batman is a powerful and accessible character who operates in a way that he can be both grim defender and costumed buffoon. The Escapist is very much on the same level because of how he’s portrayed in this book. The creators have built such a dense and nuanced canon that it all feels real. As if the character has always existed, and we’ve grown up with tales about, say, fighting giant robots or getting hypnotized into marrying his archenemy.
A huge chunk of that success is the stories and the accompanying bonus material (namely, extensive histories and heaps of artwork), but it’s also in the basic portrayal. The Escapist mirrors so many archetypal ideas of superheroes that he can be anything we want him to be. And what he ends up becoming is this great vehicle to explore a whole galaxy of ideas, from the role of women in comic books to our fascination with space travel and progressive technology to basic race relations and the ideals of a true hero (comic or otherwise).
The Escapist serves as a mirror of our own ideas and feelings, and we can gleam better understandings of ourselves by placing him in these weird situations, with different aesthetics, character goals, and general tones. The Escapist both belongs to everyone, and yet stands alone. The fact that he’s achieved this status is all in the expert planning and managing by the authors/artists, and the commitment to pushing stories into new levels of literary exploration while maintaining that core sense of comic-ness (i.e. the general vibe and structures).
As tends to happen, there were a few key stories that stood out. Not necessarily because they’re “better” than other entries, but they exemplify the book’s most effective components:
- “Prison Break”: Here, that aforementioned balancing act feels most essential — a great midway between the joyful, overwrought comics of yesteryear and the grit and heady seriousness of modern books. A great story that feels whimsical without foregoing that rough edge that keeps the story moving and pulsing with life.
- “Rescue On The Rooftops”/”The Trap”: As far as wacky satire goes, this yarn’s a winner. It all boils down to the inherent humor and weirdness to The Escapist canon. It might not be the most popular or direct interpretation, but it still manages to maintain a connection through adhering to those exaggerated threads of The Escapist.
- “Changes”: There’s no denying comics of the ’50s and ’60s fumbled with meaningful portrayals of female characters. In this unique send-up of the era, we get great satire mixed with a powerful dose of female empowerment. Not to mention a great way to expand the idea of The Escapist as an every-person hero type that can fill different molds and basic needs, adding to his Batman-ian effectiveness.
Whether you’re a Chabon-ite, or a devotee of any other creator, there’s something to find in this tome. The best comic books have always provided not just a form of simple escapism, but a way to explore different feelings, events, and ideals. If nothing else, you now have more proof for your mom that you’ve been reading actual literature all these years.