Enthralling Books: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, by Michael Chabon

This is one in a series of essays about enthralling books. I asked my friends and colleagues to recommend a book that took over their life. I told them the book didn't have to be a literary masterpiece. The only thing that mattered was that the book captivated them and carried them into the world within its pages, making them ignore the world around them. I asked: "Did you shirk responsibilities so you could read it? Did you call in sick? Did you read it until dawn? That's the book I want you to tell us about!" See all the essays in the Enthralling Book series here. -- Mark

ChabonThe Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, by Michael Chabon

A smiling Amazon box arrived on the porch just in time for me to pack my new paperback copy of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay in my carry-on bag. As my ride to the 2008 San Diego Comic Con approached cruising altitude I opened the book that my wife recommend, and settled into a rare streak of four uninterrupted hours.

The tale begins at a comic book convention where Sam Clay speaks to fans in a panel discussion much like the ones I would soon be standing in line for. Sam is co-creator of the Escapist, a character whose popularity rivals Superman in Chabon’s alternate reality. The other half of the creative team is Sam’s cousin, Josef “Joe” Kavalier. The duo met in 1939 when they were teenagers, just days after Joe had escaped Nazi-occupied Prague and moved into Sam and his mother’s Brooklyn apartment.

In those days, Sam’s career was off to a slow start at Empire Novelties, a mail-order company where his duties sometimes entailed ad paste-ups and product illustrations for things like pocket cameras and midget radios. Again, I delighted in the way this paralleled my own life. At the time, I was the sole freelance graphic artist for the century-old S.S. Adams company, the outfit that pioneered the American prank and magic trick industry.

Sam, hoping to score a job for his cousin, asked him, “Can you draw the sound of a fart?” I perked up at the familiarity of this challenge. I’d been there myself, questioning the proper ratio of gas clouds, and the optimal number of stink waves. Josef’s solution: five horizontal lines sprinkled with stars and curlicues and broken musical notation. Absolutely beautiful.

While my role in the novelty biz was the miraculous manifestation of a childhood dream, Sam and Joe were eager to make the leap into the superhero game. “Big money” was Sammy’s goal whereas Josef was looking for a means to rescue his family from Hitler. Their creative process from concept to business plan to pitch meeting was a joy to listen in on. Their hero-making efforts turn out to be wildly successful, primarily because they understood that a character’s origin and motivation is more important than his costume and super powers.

This principle applies to the thrilling origin story of Josef himself, who possesses all the qualities of a great superhero. Not unlike heavyweights such as Batman and Spider-Man, Joe is driven by tragic family circumstances, and has an arsenal of powers which include sleight of hand, lock-picking, stealth, incredible courage,and the ability to draw perfect flatulence.

Between chapters I paused to stare at clouds through the rectangular window, and wallow in the affection I was feeling for the story. No doubt, my own travel-based excitement was tangled with my opinion, but this type of subject matter is not often handled by such capable hands and executed with such beauty, and attention to detail.

By the time my plane landed in California, Sam and Josef’s career was just taking off. I had yet to encounter the matters of love, failure, isolation, and family that ushered the book into Pulitzerland. But those first four hours perfectly matched the enthusiasm, hope, and sense of possibility that is often present when one begins an epic adventure, or embarks on a week at Comic Con.

Buy The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay on Amazon