Comics Tragedy

Is the superhero invulnerable?

Reviewed in this article:

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, by Michael Chabon, New York: Random House, $26.95

David Boring, by Daniel Clowes, New York: Pantheon Books, $24.95

Reinventing Comics, by Scott McCloud, New York: Paradox Press, $19.95

Commies, Cowboys, and Jungle Queens: Comic Books and America 1945-1954, by William W. Savage Jr., University Press of New England, $14.95 (paper)

Unbreakable, directed by M. Night Shyamalan, Touchstone Pictures

Jimmy Corrigan, The Smartest Kid on Earth, by Chris Ware, New York: Pantheon Books, $27.50

In the climactic moment of Michael Chabon’s recent novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, a character dressed as a comic book superhero called The Escapist shuts down the Empire State Building by threatening to leap from its 86th floor observation deck. In Chris Ware’s new graphic novel, Jimmy Corrigan, The Smartest Kid on Earth, a character in a generic superhero costume leaps to his death from a tall building before the shocked eyes of the eponymous protagonist.

In both works, the superhero -- that absurdly evocative, ridiculously outfitted icon of Truth, Justice, and the American Way -- takes a fall. Although the superhero defines the comic book form for many readers, imagining the death of the colorful avenger in tights warms the hearts of more than a few authors and fans who love comic books but hate the general disre-pute in which they are held. The superhero and his fans are routinely figured as hopelessly puerile and possibly dangerous. But though those who would upgrade comics to Art or Literature may hate him, it could be that the superhero has given the form the energy to survive at all in a crowded and changing pop entertainment market. The superhero’s decades-long dominance of the comic book -- and the backlash against that fact -- is a fascinating study in cultural path dependence. It also suggests how something that meets an audience need can flourish despite the contempt of the taste-making class.

Chabon’s novel, which has rightly garnered much critical and commercial success, is a valentine to the struggling comic book artist, a romantic figure well known to every serious comics fan. In the 1940s, when the novel is mostly set, comic book creators were anonymous, thought of as hacks not artists, and condemned as purveyors of junk for the barely literate at best and grotesque seducers of the innocent at worst. Chabon’s sweeping saga relates the life and times of two fictive superhero creators who are very loosely based on Joe Siegel and Jerry Shuster, the pair that birthed Superman, the first great comics superhero, in 1938.

Chabon portrays Josef Kavalier and Sam Clay (nee Klayman) with love, respect, and a careful attention to period detail. Kavalier is an escapee from Prague who struggles to free the rest of his Jewish family from the Nazis; Clay is his American cousin. They team up to create a superhero, the Escapist, through whose stories Kavalier dreams of bringing freedom to his family and crushing the supervillainy of Hitler. They fast-talk a reluctant novelty salesman, Sheldon Anapol, into becoming a comics mogul. Anapol strikes it rich. The creators do OK for a while, too, until Anapol screws them over in a radio and movie deal, and they end up legally and artistically separated from their own creation.

Greedy corporations systematically cheating superhero artists out of their own creations is a recurring motif in every history of the comics industry. From the very beginning of the comics trade, artists and writers labored under "work for hire" contracts that gave publishers ownership of the characters and trademarks and full control over any ancillary uses and income derived from them. (This model broke down somewhat in the 1980s, when some companies finally made room for creator-owned properties.) In a representative instance of the relationship between artists and publishers, it was only in 1978 that DC Comics, the owners of the Superman copyright, finally coughed up small stipends to Siegel and Shuster -- and even then only as an act of largess, not an acknowledgment of the creators’ rights. (There has been a rash of recent lawsuits by comic creators trying to win back ownership of everyone from Captain America to Green Lantern to Josie and the Pussycats, though none has yet succeeded.)

One effect of that longstanding arrangement was that comics were thought of as essentially creatorless, the brainchildren not of artists with something meaningful to say but of cash-conscious companies trying to squeeze one more dime out of a child’s sweaty palm. Hence, critics, when they deigned to notice comics at all, dismissed them as junk, an unlikely place for anything approaching serious artistic effort. Although plenty of fascinating and valuable work -- both with superheroes and without -- has appeared in comic book form, the larger critical attitude has barely changed. In percentage terms, the vast quantity of comics are certainly nonsense (though nonsense of unique vitality, because of the strangely resonant power of combined words and pictures). But unlike the novel -- another form overstocked with meretricious garbage -- comics as a form tend to be judged by its worst examples, not its best.

Chabon’s novel is a deep and touching exploration of how such a situation alienates and demeans a creator, even of something as seemingly silly (though massively popular) as Kavalier and Clay’s Escapist. By his sophisticated and detailed explorations of the inner lives of Kavalier and Clay and how they translated their experiences and obsessions into their characters, Chabon, while not writing a comic book per se, offers a large measure of dignity to the makers of that much-derided art.

It is not surprising then, that in his "Author’s Note," the acclaimed writer of such highly literary novels as The Mysteries of Pittsburgh and Wonder Boys writes, "I want to acknowledge the deep debt I owe in this and everything else I’ve ever written to the work of the late Jack Kirby, the King of Comics." Even more than Siegel and Shuster -- who at least got credit lines and a stipend -- Kirby is the poster boy for the mistreated comic book genius. The co-creator of Captain America, the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, and the Hulk (and possibly many more, depending on the source), Kirby, who died in 1994, was never given full credit -- much less what most would consider fair compensation -- for his contribution to the field. His mythic imagination and the sheer power of his linework and composition remain unparalleled in comics.

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