Kavalier, Clay and Unmentioned Context

This blog needs to have more content and less advertising. I also suppose I should use it more often. Here’s an “article” on Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. It’s edited from what happened when I tried to be romantic/friendly (seriously, I have the social skills of an isolated leper). So it can be kinda cute and idiotically clever. And some direct references to the recipient may slip through, as struggling to read something I wrote three years ago is quite painful. Here we go:

I noticed and delighted [bleh,] to a number of the novel’s subtle allusions to comics, both intentional on the part of Mr. Chabon and imagined by myself. You may be aware of them as well. But I’m going to tell you about them anyway.

The first such allusion was the character of Josef Kavalier. I knew of his funny book inspirations before I cracked the cover. A Mr. Jim Steranko was a hugely influential Silver Age artist who had a career as an escape artist before introducing Pop Art to the pages of Nick Fury: Agent of SHEILD. A man mentioned a handful of times in the novel and thanked for everything in its Author’s Notes by the name of Jack Kirby  even created the super escape artist Mr. Miracle based on the mysterious Steranko.  Mr. Miracle was created in the seventies though. I think the waning zeitgeist left in the wake of the death of Harry Houdini makes the advent of The Escapist in the 1930s genius. Even though it was accomplished with considerable hindsight.

(I once had the displeasure of damaging one of the volumes of The Steranko History of Comics in the used book store on Jackson Street in Athens by means of the packing tape they were using to keep it sealed in a plastic sleeve. I apologize for my digression. I still feel guilty for not paying for it. But I’m very poor.)

It makes sense in the context of the novel for a well trained Eastern European Jewish immigrant to be enamored with the American pencil and panel story but it’s not entirely historically accurate. Mr. Chabon correctly describes most Golden Age art as, well, shit. Joe’s work seems to be based in large part on that of WIll Eisner. Eisner was a pioneer of the artform. One of the first artists to break out of the little rectangles, spell out the name of the lead character with the city’s buildings, tell the story from the perspective of regular Joes and Sammys in the streets and alleys the hero stalked and numerous other innovations. He also pioneered the graphic novel with A Contract with God, a Jewey story not unlike Joe’s golem epic. The industry’s top award is named after him. It’s a shame that they let Frank Miller’s crazy ass turn Eisner’s The Spirit into a cinematic abortion.

The aforementioned Jack Kirby (born Jacob Kurtzberg) and his early partner Joe Simon also appear to form the Joe Kavalier pastiche. Both were early luminaries of the industry like everyone else from that period who is still remembered. In 1941 Kirby and Simon created Captain America. His debut issue features Cap seeming to infiltrate a secret Nazi war room to deliver a powerful right cross to the Fürher’s chin while stormtroopers futilely fire their machine guns at the hero. Simon and Kirby worked for three of the big companies of the Golden Age: National, Timely and Fawcett. They created The Newsboy Legion and The Boy Commandos for National, which appear to have inspired Kavalier and Clay’s boy adventurers The Four Freedoms. At Fawcett, Simon and Kirby worked on Captain Marvel, a character with the wisdom of Solomon and strength of Hercules who was eventually defeated, not by Mr. Mind or Dr. Sivana, but the lawyers of National Publications.

Almost universally, creators such as Kirby were mistreated by publishers and even other creators, many times worse than Sammy and Joe. The creators of Superman, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, had their byline restored in the seventies  when, on the eve of Richard Donner’s blockbuster Superman movie, a lawsuit caused Warner Brothers a PR nightmare when it revealed a near blind Shuster was idling in a California nursing home. They were given a modest pension in addition to the restoration of the creators’ byline. Batman co-creator Bill Finger has never had a byline and his name is largely forgotten by people who’ve seen Nolan’s Dark Knight with its forty foot “Batman Created by Bob Kane” title card. Kane was the artist of the duo and his ideas for Batman weren’t particularly spectacular. His original design featured a domino mask like that worn by Robin and Green Lantern. Jack Kirby had most of his Silver Age thunder stolen by the boisterous and omnipresent Stan Lee. They worked in what became known as “The Marvel Method” where synopses were provided for the artist, like Sammy did for Rosa’s romance books. It’s arguable but now well accepted that Kirby came up with the better ideas while Stan, through sheer force of personality, got the credit and eventually the Emeritus position with Marvel. Kirby left frustrated for DC in the seventies to draw as well as script his New Gods epic which was canceled before completion due to low sales but has become an enduring aspect of the DC Universe.

The book is littered with specific coded and explicit references to my sweaty nerd brethren regarding the characters we obsessively study and the meatier people associated with them. Mr. Chabon riffs on the X-Men, animal themed characters who eventually came to be and a brief mention of Timely’s new-at-the-time Sub-Mariner and original Human Torch when Joe and Sammy are trying to create their own Superman. Martin Goodman is mentioned, publisher of Timely, which became Atlas and later Marvel where Jack Kirby returned to help imbue the superhero with a pathos that would revolutionize the artform. National Publications/Dectctive Comics, later DC, effectively kills The Escapist through litigation. Sammy’s father, The Mighty Molecule, bears more than a passing resemblance to Al Pratt, The Golden Age’s Atom. The Atom was just a strong guy of diminutive stature who took to underwear perversion and was a founding member of The Justice Society of America along with Wonder Woman (of whom I’m sure you’ve at least a passing knowledge). The Atom was also a Jew (probably not originally stated as such though). He sired a hero who also punched people’s faces while wearing long underwear years later.

This is not an uncommon occurrence in the universe of mystery men (the DC universe at least) and it’s referred to as a legacy character. After the great evil of the twentieth century had been all but vanquished and the attention of children and immature adults such as myself had turned to stories of crime, pirates and horror for four color entertainment, superheroes other than Batman and Superman really did become very scarce. Possibly more so than in Mr. Chabon’s novel. In the mid fifties, rather than creating entirely new characters, DC began reworking its characters from the Golden Age. Beginning with The Flash, no longer a college student who inhaled “hard water vapors,” now an entirely different person, a police scientist who was doused with esoteric chemicals and struck by lightning. The Green Lantern became a galactic policeman who drew his power from an ancient race of aliens and their technolgy rather than a train conductor with a magic ring. Hawkman went from a human archaeologist to an alien umm.. policeman again. But he went back and forth between these two origins so many times a moratorium was placed on him until someone could figure out what the fuck was going on with him. There’s also a modern trend of legacies. There have been four canonical Robins and the original is currently running around dressed like a bat. And Captain America’s little buddy Bucky is carrying the shield and wearing the flag after recovering from a decades long case of off panel death. Tom Mayflower would have been an early though not unprecedented (there were a bunch of Phantoms but he had a newspaper strip so fuck him. I’m just including him for the sake of being thorough.) example of a legacy character.

I actually wrote a college paper defending violent video games and movies by citing an event from the end of the book: the “eminent” and all-too-real Fredric Wertham’s appearance, as well as the Senate committee he inspired. The committee is largely seen now as an attempt to run William Gaines and his EC Comics (erroneously called Entertainment Comics by Mr. Chabon, it actually stood for Entertaining Comics, the only mistake I remember) line out of business. They mostly published  horror comics including Tales from the Crypt. This actual Senate testimony is oft quoted because it’s pretty damn funny:

KEFAUVER (holding up an especially gory EC Comic title): “This seems to be a man with a bloody ax holding a woman’s head up, which has been severed from her body. Do you think that is in good taste?”

GAINES: “Yes sir, I do for the cover of a horror comic. A cover in bad taste might be defined as holding the head higher so that the blood could be seen dripping from it.”

KEFAUVER: “You’ve got blood coming out of her mouth”

GAINES: “A little.”

After the Senate felt it had sufficiently appeased its constituents, the industry began policing itself with the Comics Code Authority. It banned a number of things’ depiction, from drugs to bad guys winning but notably most any occult reference. This effectively put EC and Gaines out of the comics business. But William Gaines changed the dimensions of his one comedy title, Mad, in order to reclassify it as a magazine.

Wertham is called out for idiocy in the book. Batman and Robin is not a “wish dream of two homosexuals living together” (well, maybe the movie with that title is). But, I’m not sure of this, he did pick up on one bit of scandal with actual substance. Wonder Woman’s original weakness was being put in bondage. Her creator, himself a notable psychologist, William Moulton Marston was supposedly into the bondage found today in self proclaimed dungeons. He was also a polyamorist. But Wertham also claimed that Wonder Woman was a lesbian so picking up on some intentional kinkiness hardly gives his book credibility.

I could go on about Windsor McKay and how Captain Marvel had to become Shazam and what size Underoos the various crimefighters wear (Dragon Man and and Fin Fang Foom shop at the same monster sized underpants specialty store). For some reason I find this all quite fascinating. I hope I haven’t bored you too terribly rambling on about the inconsequential history of sequential art.I read that Michael Chabon extensively employs metaphor but I’m either tone deaf to metaphor or see it everywhere. Maybe years of art school had me contemplating every obscure detail as if it had the weight of symbolic depleted uranium. I don’t know.

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