An exquisitely strange novel by Michael Chabon, published in September of 2000 and awarded the Pulitzer Prize in April of 2001. I suppose you could summarize it as "Czech refugee boy comes to the USA, collaborates on comics with American cousin; story of their partnership." But it's both more and less than that. More: several aborted left-turns toward magical realism, a very good dovetailing of the history of comic books in America with the history of the pre-war and WWII and McCarthy eras, an interesting female character attached to both protagonists. Less: coming-of-age cliches, very sketchy detailing of a major sexual identity subplot, gratuitous gore in the middle of the book, and overuse of the word "masturbatory."

It's strange to me that I was able to accept the presence of the golem more than I was able to accept the weird detour into madness and death in Antartica. Both seemed out of place to me, but I suppose that's because I'm just not refined enough to grasp all of the ideas in Nobel and Pulitzer books. The critics (who loved this book) say these departures make the book "larger than life," like the superheroes that the protagonists, Joe Kavalier (the Czech) and Sam Clay (the American), write and draw. I have no response to that. I guess I could have asked Michael last week, but I hadn't read it at that point.

This brings us to the best thing about the book: the ring of authenticity that (to me) is lacking in the exploration of homosexuality, is fully present in the passages about the trials and triumphs of the comic book industry. From brainstorming and artist's block all the way to exploitation and fame, Chabon has nailed the life of a comic book artist. You'll even note a reference to Wondercon in the opening paragraph. This is because Michael is a cool guy, not a literary snob, and regularly attends Wondercon, the Alternative Press Expo, and so on. He's a fan.

If the rest of the book were as consistent as the parts dealing with comic books (okay, and with kids' fascination for stage magic and escape artistry), it would have been an excellent book. As it is, I'll dare say it's very much flawed; too consciously trying to be "High Art about low art." Most of the reviews I've read don't mention the incredibly dark tone of the book; so it's possible that I was somehow overly sensitive to the dark portions. That said, I would recommend this only to those who like to keep up with award-winning books, or with a serious interest in the history of English-language comic books.
Almost every kid who's ever gotten into comic books, once it's acknowleged that their favorite superhero is "just a story", has fantasized about meeting the artist of their favorite title. Usually, this fantasy involves a trip into New York City, where, after a suitably colorful passage through the streets of mid-town Manhattan, the child-fan finds themselves in a dazzling Art Deco/Beaux-Arts skyscraper, full of stylized lightning bolts and angular reimagings of the Greco-Roman pantheon, where, wafted skyward in a swift elevator, they cross the threshold of the Kingdom of Wonder.

Quite naturally, the offices are equal or even more dazzling than the entrance. Giving their name to a receptionist, she raises her head, slightly, from the paperwork she's doing and...omighod! she looks exactly like the pretty Cheongsam, Wonderman's Oriental assistant! (That she knows you've noticed is acknowleged by a suitably enigmatic smile as she presses the intercom button.) Staring at the fortress-like marble walls and alabaster sculpture group of Wonderman, surrounded by his fellows in crimestopping, in a niche, the dazzled fan knows that they are, at last, in the presence of the Sublime. At last, Cheongsam, or her equivalent, murmurs "Mr. Rosell will see you now.", and ushers the fan down the hall into the sanctum of The Artist.

He sits, in solitary splendor, at a drawing board at one end of a large, lofty room. Here and there, Persian carpets, drapery, and potted palms share space with a variety of arcane props, obviously used to sketch from life, interspersed with many, many sheets of paper, bearing the visage of Wonderman, grinning, frowning, fighting, flying...

"Mr. Rosell?" the fan says, somewhat uncertainly. Rosell mutters something, and slowly turns to deal with the intruder.

He's a BIG man, with wavy black hair, powerfully muscled, square of jaw, broad of shoulder, in an Oxford-cloth shirt with sleeves rolled up to the elbow and khaki pants, with braces. Although a momentary annoyance might wrinkle his brow for a second, his face breaks into a broad grin as he sees the fan.

"Hi, kid." He puts out his hand. "Come to see me working?" His voice is deep, resonant, with a bit of a musical quality underneath.

There, on the drawing board, is the Magnum Mysterium, the Ark of the Covenant, the Holy Grail the next installment of Wonderman's struggle with the Forces of the evil Black Viper. "Want to see how it's done?" The next half an hour is spent in a wonderful blur of watching Wonderman and his cronies emerge from a vague cloud of geometric forms, to an expressive penciled outline, to a dramatically inked black-and-white version, somehow more precious for being uncolored, to the familiar four colored version, complete with speech balloons. Suggestions made about the story, "...though I wouldn't want to tell you what to do.", are taken attentively. Further pleasant shocks ensue as it's revealed that various others of the office staff are dead ringers for respectively, the hero's team members, secret-identity boss and so forth, and even (in the person of an office boy only a few years older than the fan) Wonder Lad, the kid sidekick.

A tentative inquiry about the artist's personal life brings forth wistful tales of a childhood spent daydreaming under apple trees on his parents' farm while reading the great illustrated classics (Arthur Rackham, L. Frank Baum, N.C. Wyeth, Howard Pyle), a jolly student life in Paris, travel to exotic ports-of-call, his longtime friendship with the NYPD (including his own involvment in crimestopping and even his help in some cases), current news of his colorful town house (where so many wonderful parties -- attended by some of New York's most stellar personalities -- have been held) loaded with souvenirs of a life well lived, and glowing praise of his wife, whose photo is clipped to the edge of the drawing board. Looking at the photo, the by now completely awestruck fan recognizes her as the model for the lovely Dale Divine, the love of Wonderman's life and partner in crimefighting. Leaving the office with a bag of goodies (a fresh copy of Wonder Comics, a card marking the bearer as an Extra-Special Member of the League of Wonder--with replacement sealed-in-plastic membership kit, and a signed sketch of the fan with Wonderman) in hand, the fan will catch a fleeting glimpse of the artist standing by the window, gazing out into the skyline, the breeze blowing through his hair.... By now, what had been unsaid becomes obvious -- Wonderman is a self-portrait.

With but a little imagination, the fan can see him fly...

Of course, anyone who's ever gone on such a pilgrimage with this fantasy in mind has been disappointed. Comic books come from small, cluttered offices, penciled by small, balding men (often with Yiddish accents) whose inspiration is shared with a range of writers, inkers, colorists, and even more arcane specialties, and who are less the auteurial curators of a Sacred Flame of Truth than the servants of various bean-counters who don't give a tinker's dam about how uplifting it is, as long as it makes money, and no, they can't use random suggestions. Wonderman, for all his ability to shock, amaze and compel adoration, was concieved, not in a ray of golden light, but as an advertising gimmick. As far as a personal life, their past is mundaine (born in Flatbush), their current life humdrum (suburban living, kids, divorce, drinking, financial problems) and as for super-powers, the closest they've have come to them is their amazing ability to make money disappear at Belmont. Stan Lee tried to remedy the situation by including Marvel Studios in his stories and chitchatting about the cozy camaraderie there, substituting one myth for another, but it's not quite the same.

Still, wouldn't it be nice to imagine that these artists and writers lived out at least a fraction of what their creations did in the comics? Maybe not X-ray vision or being able to fly, but perhaps a distinguished service career, a deep personal secret, a romantic past, or a great, lost, love?

This book is an attempt to have it both ways.

This is the story of Sam Clay and Joe Kavalier, the (totally fictional) creators of the greatest supersagas of the Golden Age of Comics, from the late Thirties to the early Fifties. In it, you will find magic, secret cabals, Nazis, Kabbalah, military heroism, ghosts, High Art, movie stars, cafe society, alternate identities, obsessive sworn nemeses, forbidden love, a real live Golem...a work of Real Literature with recurrent themes, pop references, and a real plot...and also the tale of two young Jewish fellows from Brooklyn, cousins, working at a gag shop who make great comics (The Escapist, The Monitor, Luna Moth...), and bad business decisions, fall in love, make money, lose money, friends, and family...and change American pop culture forever. At times it reads like a movie, and a good one: fantastical images and good dialog abound. (It would also be interesting to see what a contemporary cartoonist could do with the descriptions of the comics -- two origin stories are outlined -- and why am I reminded, at every turn, of Will Eisner, I wonder?)

I'd give it a try.

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