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The Amazing Adventures of the Escapist #1
writer: Michael Chabon and various
artists: various

Serious-minded comic book fans should rejoice. The Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay has finally given into its pulpy roots and become a comic book. Ostensibly guided by Chabon, who adapts his own work for The Escapist's origin story, it looks to be more in the hands of creator Kevin McCarthy. A wink's as good as a nod here, because McCarthy clearly has a handle on Chabon's exhaustive mythos.

But do readers?

In the past decade or so, the comics industry has developed its own offshoot of Philip Jose Farmer's Wold-Newton game, in which all literary heroic fiction is treated as real, with most of the protagonists related to each other somehow. For comics, it's become the game of creating retroactive continuity for fictional creators. Maybe it started with Big Bang Comics, but certainly, Chabon's novel is the most high-profile example, as Kavalier & Clay rubbed shoulders with Stan Lee, Simon & Kirby and other giants of the Golden Age. We're guilty of participating, too, with our involvement with Mark Hamill's Commander Courage over at Once Upon A Dime.

The problem is, it's self-referential to a fault, and though this first issue excerpts huge chunks of text from the novel in the guise of a reprinted Comics Journal article, the stories themselves are largely presented without context. If you haven't read the book (shame on you?), they may not seem that cool.

Part of the problem is the only half-hearted attempt at recreating the different eras of Escapist comics. Artists like Eric Wight and Steve Lieber have the right styles. Wight draws the origin story in a manner that looks like an exceptionally good Golden Age book, perhaps by a young Joe Kubert. You can believe this is a reprint. And Lieber has a solid but not flashy look. Assuming that his story comes from the late sixties or early seventies, it could fit in an era when guys like Neal Adams and Gray Morrow were bringing a more realistic style onto the page.

While work from Howard Chaykin and Kyle Baker is always welcome, it's also too idiosyncratically theirs, blowing the illusion. If there is an illusion about the Master of Elusion. Chaykin delivers his usual mix of sex and violence, but where it fits in the publishing history seems vague. While the text piece does set up Baker's story somewhat, again the artist's style is too modern to be believably reprinted from the fifties.

Oddly enough, the perfect match of era, context and style also ends up being the most bland. Inserting a story of Luna Moth, another character from Kavalier & Clay's stable, McCarthy provides a brief introduction for a contribution from Jim Starlin. It does make sense that Starlin might have toyed with the character in the seventies. But since Luna Moth was built up in the novel as an incredibly bizarre and sexy strip, his take just seems like a feminized Captain Marvel while looking like Black Orchid. Nor is the story that ground-breaking, as she battles the same Death worshipped by Thanos. Shall we consider it a dry run for his Marvel work?

It's still a noble try, and if the title wasn't working around the conceit of this being a long-established and famous character, it could be judged rather more favorably. The supporting cast that Chabon gave The Escapist borrows from the best pulp traditions, and the hero's life-long enemies, The Iron Chain, is a great concept. But the writer also built it up as a work that turned the comics industry on its ear, innovating the medium on par with Will Eisner and Jack Kirby.

We can't see any of that here. Though the text-piece mentions how often the stories became about the people affected by The Escapist's presence (not just the regular supporting cast), none of those are "reproduced." But at least Dark Horse got unjustly booted Marvel artist Herb Trimpe to do a piece. For that, I'm grateful.

At $8.95 for the book, though, I'm also a bit rueful. Annoyingly enough, Dark Horse has attracted a plethora of talented people to work on this book, and therefore they've got me hooked at least through the second issue. Why? Because Glen David Gold, author of the absolutely cool Carter Beats the Devil, will contribute his first comic book work, and I've got to be there. Dammit.


Derek McCaw


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