I'm going to be trying something a little different in this post, to see how it flies. I'm not going to be writing a separate review portion. It's all about the analysis! But some review-like bits are sure to sneak in anyway. Also spoilers.
This is not a superhero novel, but it is a novel about superheroes. It's about two Jewish cousins in 1930s New York who get into the comic book business with The Escapist. It's also about Josef Kavalier, a young man trained in stage magic, escapism, and the visual arts, who flees Czechoslovakia just before the Nazis disallow visas entirely, and who desperately wants to get his younger brother out behind him. It's about getting out of the life you have, and it's about golems, those larger-than-life, immensely strong, man-made creatures that take on a life of their own.
The glory of the novel is not in the story itself, which is fantastic and includes all sorts of insights into the early days of comic books and 1930s New York and human nature and life, but in the way Chabon blends escapism and the mythology of the golem into The Escapist and its creators. Not only is superhero fiction escapist for readers, but on a level it's escapist for its creators as well. The Escapist is full of retellings and offshoots of the lives of Joe and his cousin Sam, with a fair bit of revenge fantasy thrown in for good measure. A second comic line that appears later in the story is basically a love story to a woman Joe meets, who's drawn with more ample assets than she actually has. And then there's the golem angle, which I think deserves its own paragraph.
Golems, for those of you not in the know, are creatures from Jewish mythology, who are created out of clay by rabbis who control them through directions written down and placed inside the golem's head. They're immensely strong and single-minded, and pretty much unstoppable. The Golem of Prague, which features strongly in the first section of the book, is created to project the Jewish population from genocide, and does so by killing lots and lots of gentiles. Chabon casts superheroes as a kind of golem—see my initial definition in paragraph one—and I think he's right, at least when it comes to the very first heroes. You make this being out of clay, trying to get it human-shaped and mostly succeeding, and you want it to become a force for good, but life's never really like that and once the golem/hero exists, you basically lose control of it but maybe not before its power has corrupted you a little. And still people look up to it and say, "Yeah, let's be like that."
Chabon did a lot of research into the Golden Age comic book industry, and a lot about 1930s-1950s New York, for this book. That's obvious. There's this air of realism to the novel, that this stuff actually happened and these were real people and so on. I don't know how much of that reality, and how many of the facts in Kavalier and Clay, are actually real. I suspect a lot is, but I also wouldn't be surprised if Chabon used a bit of artistic license when dealing with certain elements of the comic book industry that would go against his plan for the story. Unfortunately, I'm not an expert on the era. I don't know what these elements might be. Still, Chabon gives a fabulous behind-the-scenes look into comic production—pulling stories from life, meeting deadlines, getting a team together because you can't draw, ink, and color all on your own—and the greater repercussions of writing comics. Everything from radio dramas and high sales to lawsuits and complaints about violence and degraded morals show up at some point.
Like I said, this isn't a superhero novel. At no point does anyone display superpowers or gain superpowers or face a supervillain alone on a dark rooftop. But the themes and the topic and the narrative combine to say some very interesting, very powerful things about superheroes all the same. I highly recommend this to everyone. It's a great read.
As will be standard for the Year of the Superhero series, comments and questions are welcome. And if you like/love/hate the new format for this series, let me know!