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The Novelist as Wonder Boy

Drawing on his youthful passion for comic book super-hero adventures, Michael Chabon has written a fictional homage to the genre and its creators.

October 09, 2000|MICHAEL J. YBARRA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

BERKELEY — When Michael Chabon was a child, his pediatrician father would lug stacks of comic books back to their Columbia, Md., home, where the young devotee devoured each issue, especially the work of "Fantastic Four" creator Jack Kirby, amassing thousands of skinny volumes. Three decades later Chabon, 37, a celebrated prose stylist whose first two novels were bestsellers, has written an effusive, magisterial paean to the genre and its creators; the 600-page story plumbs the admittedly shallow depths of the Golden Age of Comics while at the same time sounding the unfathomable abyss of the Holocaust and its meaning for a young refugee in New York who finds fleeting fortune drawing characters that right the world's wrongs while dressed in long underwear.

Here is how Chabon describes what comic books mean to Joe Kavalier in his new novel, "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay" (Random House):

"Joe sighed. Although all the world--even Sam Clay, who had spent most of his adult life making and selling them--viewed them as trash, Joe loved his comic books: for their inferior color separation, their poorly trimmed paper stock, their ads for air rifles and dance courses and acne creams, for the basement smell that clung to the older ones, the ones that had been in storage during Joe's travels. Most of all, he loved them for the pictures and stories they contained, the inspirations and lucubrations of 500 aging boys dreaming as hard as they could for 15 years, transfiguring their insecurities and delusions, their wishes and their doubts, their public educations and their sexual perversions, into something that only the most purblind of societies would have denied the status of art."

So when a visitor to his writing cottage behind his large shingle home with a redwood tree in the front yard innocently suggests that Chabon might be a comic book fan, the author seems somewhat taken aback and quickly points out that he sold off most of his treasures in high school. "I don't read comics," he says at first. Sometime in high school, his love of the genre gave way to enthusiasm for literary writers like Henry Miller and John Cheever.

He does, however, frame original drawings by Kirby by his desk and, when prompted, draws open a file cabinet in which a couple of hundred comics are lovingly preserved, the amber of his youth. "I had several thousand comics," he says, warming to the topic. "I wish I still had them. My son also wishes I still had them, but I don't have a collector's mentality."

Chabon certainly seems to have a creator's mentality, and the act of breathing life into dust (or trash) is central to his new book, which has been drawing mostly excellent reviews.

The story starts when Sam Clay is roused from sleep one night in New York in 1939 to meet his cousin Joe Kavalier, who has escaped (with the aid of the mythic Golem of Prague) from the encroaching terrors of a Nazified Czechoslovakia. The next day, the two begin collaborating on a comic book character called the Escapist, who can pick any lock, slip any shackle. The Escapist battles barely disguised Nazis, while Kavalier pines to rescue the rest of his family and Clay discovers (and decides to hide) the fact that he is gay. When the U.S. enters the war, Kavalier runs off to fight real Nazis and finds himself stuck in Antarctica.

The book concludes with Kavalier standing on the precipice of the Empire State Building in the Escapist's long underwear, trying to right the wrongs of his own life. Each time and place is lovingly and precisely evoked in Chabon's looping and trilling sentences (although some plot points and actions are glossed over). "A novel of towering achievement," concluded the New York Times.

"Fighting Hitler was what comics were all about," Chabon says. "I just wanted the opportunity to travel in time and go back to this place and live there if only in my head." At 37, he still resembles a grad student, with wavy brown hair that falls to his shoulders, bright eyes and fine features that make him look like a Hollywood version of what a writer should look like. He wears glasses, shorts and a Giants T-shirt, and slips on clogs to walk from his house through his backyard to his writing cottage, where he reverts to bare feet.

He's accommodating but seems to tolerate interviews more than open up to them. Not long after sitting down to talk about his work, he says he has to pick up one of his children from school. His wife insists that she can manage.

Learning by Imitation

Chabon, with his usual precision, says he wanted to be a writer since he was 11. As a child he drew his own comic books. Later he typed up a 12-page story about Captain Nemo and Sherlock Holmes told in the voice of Doctor Watson. "Slavishly imitate the writers you love," he suggests. "You'll learn a lot about how to write."

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