A Cornucopia Of Comic Artists Pay Homage To Michael Chabon's Escapist Chabon created the Escapist for his 2000 novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay — but now he's become a real comic hero, his exploits drawn by equally legendary figures such as Will Eisner.
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Book Reviews

A Cornucopia Of Comic Artists Pay Homage To Michael Chabon's Escapist

It's got to be a bit daunting for a comics creator to contribute to an anthology revolving around Michael Chabon's Escapist. Chabon created the Escapist in his 2000 novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, which won a Pulitzer Prize and set a new standard for highbrow treatment of comics. He's an author who's always expected great things from the form; in the keynote speech at the 2004 Eisner Awards (included in this volume), Chabon called for writers and artists "to ... increase the sophistication of [comics'] language and visual grammar, to probe and explode the limits of the sequential panel, to give free reign to irony and tragedy and other grown-up-type modes of expression."

It's a hefty agenda, and the creators assembled here clearly feel its weight. For some, the pressure has proven to be a valuable impetus. Several of the most successful stories, inspired by the anti-Fascist politics of the Escapist in the novel, find contemporary relevance in his message of liberation. In "The Death of the Escapist" by Kevin McCarthy and Shawn Martinbrough, the Escapist's skills inspire the citizens of a North Korea-like dictatorship to contemplate rebellion: "for the first time in their lives, they allow themselves to entertain the idea that escape ... may be possible."

But patriotic optimism is far from the dominant theme. Jason, Jeffrey Brown and Will Eisner all take the opportunity to snark a bit at superheroics — the latter in a story that, we learn from Diana Schutz' remembrance, was the last he completed. Gary Phillips is cautiously idealistic in "The Freedom Rocket," illustrated by Paul Gulacy and Jimmy Palmiotti. Phillips' African-American Escapist is heroic, but the story is as much about the multifarious challenges facing black Americans as it is about stopping bad guys. At story's end, "we're still here. Still in this mess," one character says. (On the other hand, Phillips closes with a declaration of Brecht's: "Because things are the way they are, things will not stay the way they are.")

Like Phillips, several creators emphasize the importance of the arts in galvanizing resistance to tyranny. Howard Chaykin's "Liberators" recalls the Nazis' crusade against "degenerate art," while Jon Lewis and Marc Hempel's "Escape From Noise" celebrates Karol Szymanowski's second violin concerto. In Daniel Best and Eddie Campbell's "A Fair to Remember," the Escapist reads from Mario and the Magician, Thomas Mann's 1929 parable of fascism.

Chabon's own contribution, the Eduardo Barreto-illustrated "Mr. Machine Gun: Arms and the Man I Sing," is a complex exploration of the role of guns in American society: The hero has a gun permanently grafted to his hand. At one point he describes the gun/hand with a reference to Conrad: It's "my secret sharer. Feeding me and draining me at the same time. Protecting me and exposing me."

Bubbles LaTour, Roy Thomas and Catherine Yronwode contribute short pieces envisioning a role for the Escapist in real-world comics history: the 1950s Comics Code controversy, the rise of indie publisher Eclipse Comics and the birth of romance comics. The gambit works best with the latter. Two accompanying stories by Steven Grant, ostensibly from Weird Date magazine, offer a respite from spandex. Norm Breyfogle and Shawn McManus do a great job copying the real romance comics' style.

They're not the only illustrators on their mettle. Campbell brings a sophisticated palette and a sense of restraint to "A Fair to Remember." Spacious compositions and brushy paintwork make the piece feel simultaneously classic and modern. In "Escape From Noise," Hempel's cantilevered distortions and klaxonlike hues hum with energy and action scenes pop off the page. Matt Kindt's "Chain Reaction" is a real standout. Printed with Ben-Day dots on "yellowed" pages, it's annotated with scribbled comments from an irascible imaginary editor: "Who approved this story? You're lucky we don't pulp the whole issue!"

The editors deserve credit for including stories from such "alternative" creators as Jason and Brown, whose styles and sensibilities diverge wildly from the more mainstream offerings. If only there were a few more like them. This book may offer the "irony and tragedy and other grown-up-type modes of expression" Chabon called for, but it could use more variety.

Etelka Lehoczky has written about books for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and Salon.com. She tweets at @EtelkaL.