Have you ever read a novel, or even a short story, which you desperately wanted to share with someone close to you, hopeful that he or she would hold the book in similar esteem? Of course years go by and you’ll ask new friends who come into your life, or even acquaintances with comparable tastes, in my case a taste for comic books, “Have you ever read ‘The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay’?” And over those same years the answer is repeatedly either “no” or “Oh, I’ve wanted to forever”. Unfortunately, for someone who loves comic books, it’s been a long and lonely road in which sharing this wonderful novel has gone unfulfilled for too long.
Then came Brian K. Vaughn’s “The Escapists”, and suddenly I feel as though I’m sharing my love of this novel with someone who has been equally moved by the story and characters of Michael Chabon’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel. Rather than attempt to tell an Escapist story, Vaughn’s book is set in the world of “Kavalier & Clay”, where the Escapist was a popular character in the comic book frontier of the late 1930s and 40s.
“The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Klay” is the story of two young Jewish immigrants, one an artist and the other a writer, who break into the comic industry with their character the Escapist. The two find varying amounts of success over the years with their character as their lives are upended by the tragedies of the second World War and the discoveries that come naturally with maturing into adulthood. The book also tells the story of the birth of superhero comic books from the eyes of Joe Kavalier and his cousin Sam Clay. Lovers of the medium have embraced Chabon’s magnificent novel for the way it weaves its rich story with real comic book history. This includes Brian K. Vaughn, who has seamlessly created a comic book that is a totally pleasing extension of “Kavalier & Clay”.
The story opens in the early 90’s at the funeral of Maxwell Knox’s father. Max is a wide-eyed boy whose mother has just granted him access to his dad’s most prized possession: a secret treasure trove of Escapist comic books and memorabilia. The comics move Max profoundly, guiding him through adulthood where he eventually lands into a small windfall that enables him to purchase the rights to the forgotten comic book hero that his father introduced him to from beyond the grave. Vaughn, one of the best writers in comics, immediately utilizes distinctive storytelling techniques. In a sequence where Max is narrating some background information on Kavalier, Clay and their creation, all of the narration is communicated through word balloons and thought bubbles from an old Escapist comic book featuring a fight between the hero and his nemesis, the Villainess.
Max Roth, being a true comic book fan, is immersed in the stuff and Vaughn uses tiny splashes of dialogue and narration to illustrate that the guy lives and breathes graphic storytelling. Whether he is bringing the first chapter to a close by announcing “To be continued”, or he’s referring to Denny as “our intrepid hero”, or describing his home as “stately Roth Manor”, Vaughn makes it clear that Max is the purest of pure comic book fans. Max also has an emotional voyage to make in “The Escapists”. He’s clung to his love of comic books, determined to see his Dad’s passion matter to the world as much as it has to him, but Max’s guard is still raised high in terms of romantic relationships.
Max, who works as an elevator repairman, has freed a young female artist named Case Weaver from an elevator. Case is a graphic designer who’s struggled to find work in her chosen field. Now with the rights to the forgotten hero, Max reaches out to Case to illustrate the book and enlists his childhood friend, and longtime protector, Dennis as a letterer. Max finds inspiration from Cavalier and Clay’s methods of publicizing their new venture. Artists Philip Bond and Eduardo Barreto handle the first chapter before handing over art duties to Steve Rolston and Jason Shawn Alexander for the remainder of the book; the result is noticeable but not jarring.
Bond and Rolston have a slightly cartoonish art style, but both are adept at creating expressive characters who are easily distinguishable. Rolston seemed to, for consistency’s sake, ape Bond’s panel work from the opening chapter. Much of “The Escapists” is a dramatic piece, where the meat of the characters’ action is in their dialogue. Though the book is not loaded with fisticuffs and derring-do, Rolston fills his panels with great emotion, not matter how passionate or how subtle. Rolston is able to accurately convey the feelings of Vaughn’s layered characters.
Alexander is responsible for the pages from the modern day Escapist comic book and his work finds the perfect contemporary style that comic fans would eat up. These are some good looking pages, bursting with energy and an amazing flair for kinetic storytelling. Alexander exchanges extreme-close ups and wide landscapes wildly, making even the conversational scenes heart-thumping. Alexander has a gritty style that would be apropos if a company were attempting to revive a Golden Age character whose costume features a prominent golden key from his chest to his torso.
Vaughn brings authenticity to the relationship between his characters, never veering too far into the fantastic, and his style is imaginative and literate. Like “Kavalier & Clay”, which devoted passages to scenes from the Escapist comics, Vaughn uses pages from Max and Case’s new Escapist comic book to move the story along or, in the case of the first interlude, demonstrate how autobiographical this venture is for Max. The way Vaughn uses the comic book within a comic book to expound on the tangled emotional mess in which Max has found himself is masterful. As is the writer’s continued, and understated, references to his three leads being trapped in one way or another over the course of the story. Each helps the other escape the things that are keeping them bound.
“The Escapists” is a modest masterpiece that exhibits, in scene after scene, how this visual medium can be pushed in exciting ways. On top of that, Vaughn has created a beautiful story that pays homage to one of the finest novels of our time. Yes, you can read “The Escapists” without having read “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay”, but why would you want to?
Written by: Brian K. Vaughn
Art: Steve Rolston, Jason Shawn Alexander, Philip Bond, Eduardo Barreto
Colors: Dave Stewart, Matthew Hollingsworth, Paul Hornschemeier and Dan Jackson
Letters: Tom Orzechowski
Publisher: Dark Horse
Original Publication Date: February 25, 2004
Pages: 160 pages