Stan Lee, the founder of Marvel Comics and one of the most significant figures in bringing the Technicolor world of super heroes to its current state of cultural domination, died on November 12th. Whilst superheroes might be worth big money now, partially down to some of Lee’s own creations, they’re cultural cachet is a pale shadow of the cultural influence they held back in the so-called ‘golden age of comics’ in the 30s and 40s; in Charbon’s own words “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay” by Michael Chabon ostensibly deals with two young WWII-era artists creating a caped crusader in the lost cosmopolitan boiling pot, However its appeal is far broader than the kind of geeky special interest that description might suggest. The story zeroes in on the symbolic importance of those larger than life muscle bound avengers to a world that was putting up a desperate rearguard action against totalitarian regimes whose evil was inconceivable.
The novel opens in 1939 as Sam Clay (nee Klayman) of Brooklyn, N.Y., a glorified errand boy and an aspiring comic artist, meets his long-lost cousin, Josef Kavalier, who was smuggled out of Hitler’s Prague thanks to his apprenticeship as a Houdini-like escape artist. Inspired by Kavalier’s drawings and Klayman’s enthusiasm for the burgeoning art form of comics, the two devise “The Escapist” a groundbreaking serial featuring a Houdini-like superhero who “vows to free all who toil in chains.” In this violent new dreamscape, the cousins fight their own war against the Nazis; the dynamic first cover shows Hitler taking a roundhouse to the jaw, but, nervous about America’s lack of involvement, corporate forces work to compromise their art.
In Chabon’s hands, the duo’s adventures are outsized and immensely entertaining, with absurd meetings with luminaries like Orson Welles and Dali, but he also weaves in darker themes about American anti-Semitism, the impotence of money, and the contradictions that can arise from creating popular art. As Kavalier inks 200 pages a month of “wholesale imaginary slaughter,” he’s faced with the reality that his fortunes can’t liberate his family and that the vengeful brutality he serves up to the public, while righteous in intent, carries an undeniable fascist element. Chabon’s multi-layered story piles on subplots and asides, but he’s ultimately interested in looking at how the developing medium, cast aside as unsophisticated kids’ stuff, actually captured the tenor of the times. Whilst the subject matter might repel a prospective reader whose sick to the eye teeth of brightly coloured capes, but the public outpouring over the death of Stan Lee was based in a far more real societal memory than simple stunted adulthood. Kavalier & Clay reveals that sometimes the horrors generated by popular artists can both reflect and ricochet.