Thursday, December 20, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #354: Michael Chabon's The Escapists by Brian K. Vaughan and various artists

If a story has a moral that says, basically, "stories like this one are not as important or good as other kinds of stories, which are more special," is that enough to make you throw it across the room in disgust?

In this case, it didn't...mostly because it was a library book, and I don't want to damage someone else's things. But Michael Chabon's The Escapists has a severe case of wanting to eat its cake and have it too, even though The Escapist is a pretty unappetizing cake to hang onto.

Perhaps I should explain.

Michael Chabon wrote a novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, almost twenty years ago, a fictionalized version of the Simon/Kirby team (or maybe not -- that was one piece that went into it, and influenced the title, at least). In that novel, the main characters created a Golden Age superhero called The Escapist.

For some reason, The Escapist turned into a real comic book, with various people doing new fake versions of the various fictional phases of his invented comics career. I read a collection of those stories earlier this year, Amazing Adventures.

Michael Chabon's The Escapists, the book I have today, is from that same publishing burst (originally serialized in 2006 and republished in this edition about a year ago), but is even more metafictional: it's the story of some people in modern-day Cleveland who get the rights to The Escapist and make up new adventures of this old, mostly-forgotten minor hero. And, of course, in the end they learn that they should make up their own stories, and not just extend old stories. (Before that, they get other cliches to fill up the book: the shy nerd who can't tell the punky girl he loves her, the strong silent type who looks good in a supersuit, the eeeevil corporation who will stop at nothing to buy back the mostly worthless thing they sold by accident, and so on.)

On the one hand: yes. Comics desperately needs the make-your-own-stuff message, even though it will never heed it. On the other hand: did you just get me to read two hundred pages of comics about a fake legacy character and then say that stories about legacy characters are crap?


I'm sure writer Brian K. Vaughan would object that he's not saying legacy characters are crap, exactly -- he's done a bunch of them over the years, after all -- but that new ideas are better. But, OK, if that's your message, why tell it in a story about someone else's character? There is a huge disconnect here between medium and message, to put it mildly.

Artistically, The Escapists mixes the fictional world of its silly hero with the real-world exploits of its dull protagonists, giving work to a variety of different artists (Steve Rolston, Jason Shawn Alexander, Philip Bond, and Eduardo Barreto; none of them credited to specific pages) and allowing the story to have both kitchen-sink drama and pulse-pounding action. So, yes, more cake-eating and -having is going on there, as well.

Frankly, The Escapists is best used as an object lesson in the art of Having It Both Ways.

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