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Michael Chabon pulls off a sleight of hand
Today the politicians are investigating the marketing of adult films and games to children. Before that they launched crusades against rap lyrics, rock lyrics, television violence, and so on back to Elvis's soul-corrupting gyrations.
But in the beginning -- it was 1954 -- there was Sen. Estes Kefauver's investigation into juvenile delinquency, a kind of Senate un-American proclivities committee, convened to expose the poisonous effect on the nation's youth generated by -- zowie! -- comic books.
The Eisenhower-era hysteria over sex and violence in the media was the first iteration of an increasingly shrill phenomenon that's still with us, says novelist Michael Chabon. Over time, "the things that got objected to got to be more intense and perhaps more objectionable."
Chabon, the author of "Wonder Boys," begins his fifth book, "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay" (Random House), in 1939, at the height of the golden age of comic books, when newly minted superheroes such as Superman, Batman and Captain America were fighting evil and reaping millions for their publishers.
"It was the beginning of youth culture and pandering to youth culture," Chabon says. "In that, the comic book publishers were definitely pioneers."
Men in tights
The Kavalier and Clay of the book's title are two teenage cousins. Sammy Clay, a fast talker with an eye for an angle, hopes that success in the comic book business will lift him from the confines of Brooklyn. Joe Kavalier is just off the boat from the Prague Jewish ghetto, from where he has just made an escape worthy of the cousins' idol Houdini. For Joe, drawing comic books is a way to earn fast money to buy his family's freedom back in Nazi-occupied Europe.
Their collaboration results in the creation of the Escapist, a costumed superhero "who offers the hope of liberation and the promise of freedom ... to all those who languish in tyranny's chains," as Sammy feverishly brainstorms while the cousins wander Manhattan on a cold night in October 1939.
Between that night and the spectacle 15 years later of the Kefauver investigation -- which also sought to expose the homoerotic elements of the superhero men in tights -- the story of Kavalier and Clay and their greatest creation is one of repeated escapes, imprisonment, concealment and sleight of hand.
That wasn't the idea when he began the novel, says Chabon.
"Those themes, all which seem to link up, only came to me well into the writing," he says. "I'm very much an intuitive writer when it comes to theme. (If) I'm paying close attention to the character the theme will organically grow from what I'm writing."
As the novelist was imagining Joe Kavalier's backstory in Prague, an article he had read about escape artistry clicked in his mind. "Suddenly I knew that escape artistry was what Joe Kavalier had been preparing to do."
A comic book fan
For Joe and Sammy's career outline, Chabon had only to look to the real-life story of Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel, two New York kids who created Superman in the '30s, then sold the rights for a pittance and missed out on the financial bonanza when comic books became the obsession of America's boys.
Growing up in a later era, Michael Chabon was a comic book fan, too. Even as an adult, the interest never entirely left him.
"I had been toying for awhile with writing something about comic book creators," he says. "I had a box of comic books left over from my childhood collection. It was taped shut and it just went with me from place to place. After 'Wonder Boys,' I untaped it and the smell of old comic books wafted out. It just triggered something."
The story of Kavalier and Clay grew in stages. Chabon began by reading about the history of comics, to refresh his childhood memory. Then he delved into period accounts of New York City. And he interviewed the Golden Age comic book masters who were still alive, among them Will Eisner, creator of the Spirit; Gil Kane, who drew the Green Lantern and has since died; and Stan Lee, editor and publisher of Marvel Comics.
"To some of them it had just been work," Chabon says. "But some got caught up in the romance of creating comic books."
A big step as a writer
For Chabon, it's definitely the romance of creating. He grew up in Columbia, Maryland, and majored in English at the University of Pittsburgh. He was accepted to the master-of-fine-arts writing program at the University of California at Irvine, where a professor sent Chabon's master's thesis to an agent. It became "The Mysteries of Pittsburgh," and at 26 Chabon became a published author -- and an acclaimed one.
"A Model World and Other Stories" followed in 1991. His second novel, "Wonder Boys," came out in 1995 and last year became a film with Michael Douglas playing the role of a novelist who cannot find the ending for his book. A collection of short stories, "Werewolves In Their Youth," was published earlier this year.
Now 37, married and the father of two, Chabon says "Kavalier & Clay" marks a big step for him as a writer -- from his voluminous research to his use of multiple third-person points of view.
"I've gotten more confident in my ability to tell different kinds of stories not based on my own experiences," he adds. "Also, my tendency to show off in my prose has diminished a little bit."
He's planning his next novel "and trying not to think about it too much" while he works on a pilot for an hour-long drama on TNT. (TNT is a unit of Time Warner, which owns CNN.com.) Meanwhile the film version of "Wonder Boys," which disappeared quickly from the multiplexes, is scheduled for a limited re-release later this fall.
Just how powerfully comic books influenced Michael Chabon becomes evident at the end of "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay." It was the comic books of Jack Kirby -- creator of Captain America and the Fantastic Four, among many others -- that Chabon carried from place to place in that sealed box. Sadly, Kirby, known as the King of Comics, had died by the time Chabon began work on the novel. In his author's note Chabon identifies "the deep debt I owe in this and everything else I've ever written" to Kirby's work.
And there's no mention of Estes Kefauver.
Michael Chabon's homepage
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