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Literature / The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay

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The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is a Pulitzer Prize-winning 2000 novel by Michael Chabon about The Golden Age of Comic Books, focusing on two Jewish cousins, American writer Sam Clay (born Klayman) and Czech artist Josef Kavalier, who together create a popular superhero comic called the Escapist, inspired in equal measure by Harry Houdini and Superman.

Many events in the novel are based on the lives of actual comic-book creators, and the book as a whole is generally an homage to the comics of the Golden Age. It had a pseudo-sequel in Brian K. Vaughan's The Escapists, as well as two ultra-short stories that recount events cut from the novel, and a faux-interview with Rosa Saks in 1988. It also spun off into a short lived Anthology Comic, The Amazing Adventures of The Escapist, in which numerous creators including Chabon himself recounted The Escapist's exploits in as many styles.

Not to be confused with that Escapist.

This book contains examples of:

  • All Germans Are Nazis: Deconstructed. Joe ends up venting his hatred of the Nazis on anyone who looks even vaguely German, regardless of whether they support Hitler. Near the end when he's stationed in Antarctica with the Navy, he's so desperate to kill some Nazis that he goes out of his way to track down and kill an innocent German geologist. He immediately feels terrible about it.
    • Ironically, in one scene he actually saves the life of the Spaniard Salvador Dalí, apparently unaware that he's a prominent Fascist.
  • Altar the Speed: Sam and Rosa's marriage was rushed to avoid her having Joe's child out of wedlock.
  • Ambiguously Gay: Discussed Trope. The Senate committee grills Sam about the fact that he constantly creates young male sidekicks for his characters, and all but calls Batman gay.
  • Author Filibuster: The narrator occasionally stops the action in the middle of conversations to go on, at length, about just how awesome '40s comics were.
  • The Beard: Rosa to Sam in the classic sense of covering up the fact that he's gay, and Sam to Rosa to cover up having Joe's baby out of wedlock.
  • Big Applesauce: Not surprising, New York hosted many Jewish immigrants during this time.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Although, considering the gloomy circumstances, perhaps as happy as you could hope. Joe ends up back with Rosa and his son, but Sam is outed as a homosexual and runs away from it all to LA. However, the first page of the book seems to indicate that he did relatively well for himself in the years to follow and there are implications that he and Joe continued to work as Kavalier & Clay, so it's not all sad.
  • Bleak Border Base: Joe signs up for the navy when the US enters World War II, but is literally Reassigned to Antarctica, serving as a radio operator at Kelvinator Station, keeping an eye on the minimal German presence in Antarctica. And then all the other base personnel die from a carbon monoxide leak.
  • Bodybag Trick: Inverted. Joe is smuggled out of Nazi-occupied Prague in a coffin with the Golem of Prague, which has been disguised as an unusually large corpse.
  • The Cameo: Salvador Dalí appears in one scene. Near the end, there's a brief scene in a New York cafe where Stan Lee and Gil Kane (among others) show up to get a cup of coffee.
  • Closet Key: Tracy Bacon for Sam Clay. Sam's mother knows this before he does.
  • Commie Nazis: Once World War II ends, the people who own The Escapist have no problem switching his villains from the Nazis to The Soviets.
  • Cutting the Knot: According to Kornblum, Harry Houdini had his wife sneak him a key in a glass of water when he couldn't escape a lock. This is used as An Aesop about The Power of Love.
  • Dead Guy Junior: Tommy Clay was named after Joe's younger brother, who died when the ship he was travelling to the US in was destroyed by a German U-boat.
  • "Dear John" Letter: Inverted. Joe was the one who left a note for Rosa before leaving for Antarctica.
  • Disappeared Dad:
    • Sam's father was always on the road. Just as well, as his relationship with Sam's mother was rather dysfunctional.
    • Joe becomes one to his own son after he joins the Navy and refuses to come home.
    • Sam himself becomes something like one at the very end.
  • Do Not Do This Cool Thing: In-universe, and played fairly humourously. Carl Ebling's reports on the comic are intended to be about the evil work of the degenerates corrupting the youth and leading people to war. But over time, his articles and reports shift from angered screeds and criticism to simply him talking about the comic and giving detailed summaries of the latest issue in a way that sounds like he's honestly invested in it. A later one is a four-page-long explication of the events of the comic, with the sole criticism being a hasty note in the very last sentence of "Of course all this is the usual Jewish warmongering propaganda."
  • Dropped a Bridge on Him: Tracy Bacon gets this towards the end. A few years after Sam abandons him, we briefly learn that he was killed in the war.
  • Easily Forgiven: Rosa easily takes back Joe after he ran off for thirteen years, then came back and initiated a Zany Scheme to, essentially, bungee jump off the Empire State Building.
  • Escapism: The story deals with the theme of literal and metaphorical escapism, especially the way in which various characters use comics to escape the troubles of their lives. Kavalier wants to escape the memory of the Nazis and guilt over his little brother. Clay wishes to escape his closeted gay life and his disability. Together they create the Escapist, a literal escape artist, who gains popularity when the public uses him to escape from the war.
  • Escapist Character: The Escapist, for people in-universe.
  • Expy: Joe's escapologist trade is influenced by real-life comic book artist Jim Steranko, who was also an escape artist and magician before becoming a comic book artist. Steranko was also the inspiration for the Jack Kirby character Mister Miracle, and Chabon has acknowledged the connection.
  • Framing Device: The novel is written as a dramatization of historical reality, including fake citations of historical sources and frequent mentions of the eventual fates of side characters. The Escapist comics published by Dark Horse are in turn presented as "reprints".
  • Gayngst: Sam Clay is a gay man in the 1940s... so it comes up in force, complete with the addition of Fredric Wertham and the congressional investigations into comicbooks in the 1950s. He is ashamed of his sexuality, and ends up abandoning Tracy because of it.
  • Give the Baby a Father: When Sam finds out Rosa is pregnant and considering having an abortion, he suggests getting married and raising the child together. She accepts.
  • Golem: There is a lengthy subplot that manages to involve the Golem of Prague, World War II, and Harry Houdini.
  • Good Girls Avoid Abortion: Rosa considers having an abortion after Joe decides to enlist in the US Navy. Instead, she accepts Sam's proposal of getting married and raising the child together.
  • Heroes Love Dogs: Justified, because they are sled dogs after all.
  • Historical Domain Character:
    • Real comic book writers and artists from that era appear frequently.
    • Joe saves Salvador Dalí from suffocating inside a diving helmet, and Max Ernst makes an appearance.
    • Joe and Sam are invited by Orson Welles to an advance screening of Citizen Kane, which inspires Joe to take a more cinematic approach to drawing comics.
    • Former New York Governor Alfred E. Smith meets Joe in an early chapter, reacting to a bomb threat against the Empire State Building.
  • Historical In-Joke: Occasionally, usually involving the long-term future of superheroes and the comicbook industry.
  • Impossibly Awesome Magic Trick: During a business meeting Kavalier's magician background comes up and he is asked for a demonstration. He manages to make a lit cigarette disappear and then reapper inside someone else's cigarette case. (Later in the story, when he's working as a professional magician, the boy whose Bar Mitzvah he's performing at catches him planting cards for a trick to be done during the banquet, so it's not like there is no acknowledgement of magic's need for setup.)
  • Irony: Joe tries to take out his anger at the Nazis by picking fights with every German-looking person he runs across. He ends up in fights with lots of innocent German-Americans who want nothing to do with Hitler. But when he runs into Salvador Dalí (who actually is a fascist), he ends up saving his life.
  • Jewish and Nerdy: Played straight and subverted to varying degrees.
  • Magic Realism: The subplot about the Golem of Prague has a touch of this. In particular, the circumstances under which its crate found its way to the house in Long Island.
  • Meaningful Name: Sam Clay's real last name is Klayman, or "Clay Man." The book heavily references the story of the Golem, another Clay Man. Kavalier is a play on the French "cavale", meaning escape. Joe's escape artist stage name is The Amazing Cavalieri, putting the emphasis closer to the French.
  • Naked First Impression / Naked on Arrival: How Joe first meets Rosa. He and Sam are trying to get into the apartment building where the local cartoonists work, but the front door's locked, so he scales the fire escape and goes in through the window...only to find Rosa lying on the couch completely naked. As soon as his friends find out, one of them pays him to draw her naked from memory.
  • A Nazi by Any Other Name: The "Razis", led by evil dictator "Atilla Haxoff" (and similar pseudonyms), when Executive Meddling forces them to lay off the Germans, since they're not yet at war with them.
  • The Night That Never Ends: A realistic example of the trope, where enduring the Antarctic winter has detrimental effects on the mental health of Joe and the pilot Shannenhouse.
  • Non-Residential Residence: Sam and Joe's boss sleeps in his office in order to avoid going home to his wife and kids.
  • Offscreen Moment of Awesome: Joe's trek across Antarctica is almost entirely skipped over. First, his pilot dies shortly into the trip and he is forced to continue flying it alone with no experience. After killing the German, he treks on foot across the Tundra and barely survives by finding an old pre-war German base camp and holing up.
  • Reassigned to Antarctica: Literally. Joe joins the navy in hopes of fighting the Nazis, but he is instead assigned to a remote naval outpost in Antarctica, miles away from any actual battles. This is particularly hard on him, as he only enlisted so he could avenge his little brother, who was killed in a German torpedo attack.
  • Reconstruction: Reconstructs Golden Age superhero stories by telling a story from the POV of the men who wrote them, showing how important they are to American culture.
  • Scarpia Ultimatum: A particularly cruel one. Sam says yes.
  • Secret Secret-Keeper: Almost everyone for Sam. His mother figures out the attraction between him and Tracy before he does himself, and Rosa pegs him as gay shortly after meeting him.
  • Shiksa Goddess: Tracy is the Spear Counterpart of this trope.
  • Shoot the Dog: Literally. Poor Oyster.
  • Shout-Out: Clay's father is called the Mighty Molecule - it's a reference to the Golden Age Atom.
  • Shown Their Work: The book even has an extended bibliography.
  • Straight Gay: All of the gay men in the novel are rather inconspicuous. Of course, they had to be.
  • Superdickery: The trope is outlined in full, with the Escapist participating in a classic example, when the book chronicles the '50s.
  • Time Skip: A few years during World War II and a whopping decade after.
  • Twofer Token Minority: Sam is Jewish and Nerdy, Straight Gay, and walks on crutches due to a childhood bout with Polio.
  • Vengeance Feels Empty: Joe Kavalier escaped Czechoslovkia prior to US entry into World War II and spent two years cultivating his rage over the Nazi occupation of Prague, resettlement of his family, death of his father and finally, death of his beloved brother by German U-Boat. Hell-bent on revenge, Joe joins the navy in hopes of killing German soldiers. By way of Antarctica, he finally achieves his goal of murdering a German. However, the man was an innocent scientist and Joe's successful revenge made him feel like "the worst man in the world."
  • War Is Hell: Reconstructed in a (mostly) non-combat situation. Joe is eager to fight the Nazis and pay them back for murdering his family, but, because he's a native German speaker, he ends up far away from the fighting intercepting radio transmissions, at an outpost in Mysterious Antarctica, where the only thing to fight is the harsh conditions. He sees all his comrades die, pointlessly, from a carbon monoxide leak. He does shoot one German— who turns out to be a nice guy and not at all a Nazi.
  • Wartime Wedding: Rosa and Sam's wedding is a variation of this. It's also combined with The Beard and Altar the Speed.
  • What Do You Mean, It's for Kids?: In-universe example, but reflective of real life. Joe channels a great deal of his hatred of The Nazis into some very detailed, but graphically violent fight comics.
  • You Can't Go Home Again: Joe, in respect to both New York and Prague.
  • Your Son All Along: Tommy's parentage, while known to the reader, was unknown to Joe until Rosa and Sam revealed the truth.