Saturday, August 04, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #216: Michael Chabon's The Escapist: Amazing Adventures

I usually list the author (or authors, or creators, or editors, or other persons responsible) of the books I read in post titles, and then try to work in all of those names into the text, with explanations of what they did.

That's not going to happen today. Michael Chabon's The Escapist: Amazing Adventures doesn't have a central creator -- Michael Chabon created the character in his novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, but he only writes one story here here (plus a couple of text pieces as "Malachi B. Cohen"). And it's hard to credit an editor: the book notes that Diana Schutz was the series editor, but that Katie Moody and Aaron Walker were assistant and associate editors as well, and that Freddye Miller is the "collection editor."

And the contents of Amazing Adventures includes twenty-six comics stories and some associated prose pieces, contributed by a total of forty-four people. This material all originally appeared in single-issue form back in the mid-aughts, and was collected in a series of smaller trade paperbacks; I'm pretty sure this larger book collects what was Michael Chabon Presents...The Amazing Adventures of the Escapist volumes 1 and 2 about a decade ago.

So there's a lot of stuff here, by a lot of different people, all sharecropping in Chabon's world. I'll mention specific people, where it makes sense (and I remember to do so), but this is somewhere between a fully-sharecropped universe and a comics jam session: Chabon set the parameters in his novel, and about fifty people collaborated in various ways (including editors, letterers, colorists and cover artists) to explore what can be done within those parameters.

The Escapist is a Golden Age superhero with a mildly supernatural twist: Tom Mayflower has a magic key, which allows him to escape all bonds. It marks him as an agent of the League of the Golden Key, whose white-suited functionaries show up randomly to give him cryptic instructions and guidance. And of course they have a great nemesis: the Iron Chain, a secret society that wants to put all humanity into slavery of one kind or another, for the usual they're-evil reasons.

The stories here are all about the Escapist, but Chabon's novel is as much about the comics industry and its changes over time: there's a whole convoluted publication history of the Escapist (and related characters) that the stories here more-or-less fit into, so we get Silver Age versions of the Escapist -- both aged and not, for an Earth-1/Earth-2 feel -- and later, rebooted Bronze Age takes on the character and the inevitable Escapist Of The Fabulous Year 2966!

Most of them are reasonably smart and entertaining adventure stories, though there's vastly less bondage than I would have expected, given the character's name and role. (He barely gets tied up at all: I suspect if it were Ms. Escapist, she'd be tied up more often than Marston's Wonder Woman.) The "escapes" have a tendency to get very metaphorical and allegorical very quickly, because we are at that end of the timeline of comics and Chabon is pretty literary to begin with.

The stuff I liked best is the most quirky and off-brand: Paul Hornschemeier has a series of short comics about "The Escape-Not," a kid version of the Escapist who desperately wants to be trapped but keeps getting out. And Michael T. Gilbert -- whose work I haven't seen for years! I hope he's doing something he enjoys -- has a fun and very metafictional story all about the crooked world of early comics.

Otherwise, what sticks out is a silent, ultra-"cosmic" Jim Starlin story and the typically impressive Howard Chaykin art in a typically sordid Howard Chaykin story about the typically Howard Chaykin 1950s. The rest all blended together into a mish-mosh of speeches about freedom and guys in leotards throwing punches.

My sense is that the Escapist is just twisted off the superhero norm enough that superhero fans mostly find it quirky and intriguing, but not so far that they reject it entirely. I find it weird and goofy, but that's how much superhero stuff strikes me these days -- but I often enjoy weird and goofy, so I'm not complaining.

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