From the archives: Michael Chabon

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Polly want a cipher

Sunday, 12 December 2004 — 1:10pm | Literature, Michael Chabon

If you are still engaged in the holiday ritual known as Christmas shopping, here’s the perfect gift for literary types: Michael Chabon’s freshly-released novella, The Final Solution. It’s a quick read, spanning a mere 131 pages, but boy, is it ever nice to get Chabon’s words in a package that can be digested in a sitting or two.

If The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay was at its core a tribute to Jack Kirby, then in The Final Solution, Chabon pays his respects to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Set in 1944 wartime England, it follows an eighty-nine-year-old former sleuth that has retired into beekeeping as his powers of deduction are enlisted for one last case involving a mute Jewish refugee boy from Nazi Germany and his parrot, Bruno. The protagonist is only ever identified metonymically as “the old man,” but he is clearly implied to be Sherlock Holmes in his twilight years. In this respect the premise is similar to Unforgiven, where Clint Eastwood’s William Munny is an obvious throwback to the Man With No Name he played in Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns, only here in Chabon’s book, the decay explored is intellectual rather than moral.

The mystery itself, on the plot-summary surface, is fairly standard, and befits the complexity of a short story. The twists lie not in the deductive process of revelation, but in the solution at which we finally arrive. Where Chabon excels, as he always does, is in his total mastery of the language.

Today’s literary environment exhibits a widening division between serious art literature that you read for the majesty of the words, and non-serious escapist literature that you read for fun regardless of how it’s written. Michael Chabon bridges the chasm like nobody else (as if that purpose, the celebration of escapism, were not already the explicit theme of Kavalier & Clay). For those who care about good writing, you can bathe in his words and yet derive a sense of dream fulfilment from his romantic fantasy backdrops. For those who dabble in comic books, Baker Street investigations or (in the case of Summerland) a union of Norse mythology, Native American folklore and sandlot baseball, you have the rare privilege of lauding the storyteller not just for the story, but also for the telling.

In The Final Solution, this is very much the case. It’s a simple, perhaps even unremarkable Sherlock Holmes story to begin with, but it’s the telling that makes it all worthwhile. If we recognize that Chabon has already mounted the summit of the fun, artsy novel, here he conquers the fun, artsy novella. He does some remarkable things with his prose; an exquisitely detailed scene of the old man working the hives, his first sight of a war-torn London, a climactic chapter written entirely from the perspective of a parrot – a dazzling feat of animal personification, even by the high standards of someone who has read William Horwood’s Duncton Wood.

But that’s already saying too much. This holiday season, give the gift of a good book.

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Someday my monks will come

Tuesday, 2 November 2004 — 2:37pm | Film, Literature, Michael Chabon

Leaving for a weekend means there is a lot of catching up to do in terms of current events, happenings that had or will have a dramatic impact on the world.

When the dramatic impact I speak of is possessed of a physicality like the flurry of Wong Fei-Hung’s legendary No-Shadow Kick, you have Yuen Wo-Ping to thank for that. As every martial arts aficionado knows, Yuen is possibly the greatest fight choreographer in cinematic history. Over the past few years he has finally gotten more attention in North America, thanks to his work in The Matrix and Kill Bill as well as the overwhelming success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon at the domestic box office. Well, it looks like he’s about to make his English-language directorial debut in the Disney-financed Snow and the Seven, which is reportedly an iteration of Snow White featuring seven Shaolin monks and set in late-nineteenth-century China, a setting that immediately brings the braided hairstyles of the period to mind.

Unfortunately, whenever the best in Asian film come do a stateside project, studio pressures and fundamental misunderstandings of how Hong Kong cinema works the way it does impede their movies from ever being nearly as good as one would expect. Once Upon A Time In China director Tsui Hark has since been damned (or rather, van Dammed) to B-movie hell; Jackie Chan’s career has been limited to buddy-cop culture-clashes and inexplicably, Passepartout; and someone should tell Revolution Studios that Jet Li and DMX aren’t exactly Freddy and Ginger. There’s a lot of talent going to waste here. Hopefully Yuen Wo-Ping is given the directorial freedom he needs, and moreover, a good writer.

But if you read that story to which I linked, you’ll see that the “good writer” part has already been covered. They’ve signed none other than Michael Chabon, whom I never hesitate to identify as the best American novelist this generation. As such, there is plenty of reason to be optimistic about how this will turn out.

Speaking of Chabon, I never ended up ordering my Amazing Adventures of the Escapist #3 and #4. I’ll get on it, unless I spot it at a local retailer first.

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With great power comes great electric bills

Wednesday, 7 July 2004 — 8:13pm | Comics, Literature, Michael Chabon

Ken Jennings update: Not only has he won twenty-six consecutive episodes of Jeopardy!, tonight he swept the “Marvel Comics Heroes” category. I am suitably impressed.

As I’ve mentioned before, I have plenty of time to mull over all the facets of Spider-Man 2 in terms of its content, since the ever-shortening summer movie season is effectively over barring a surprise success on the part of I, Robot. Today, I will instead act like a Comic Book Guy poseur and talk about a few of the mice and men behind the movie.

First of all, Apple has a fantastic article featuring Nels Israelson, a professional one-sheet photographer (“poster boy”?) who designed the outstanding promotional material for the movie. A must-read for any photography buffs out there, it covers how he creates and shoots the superhero poses in a digital format. Naturally, he uses a Macintosh.

Those of you who have seen the film will remember the stunning opening credits sequence, which re-created memorable images from the first Spider-Man (such as its most iconic moment, the upside-down kiss) in dynamic comic-book panels. The art in those panels was by award-winning painter Alex Ross, who rose to fame in the mid-nineties with his distinct romantic-yet-realist tapestries of costumed superheroes in two all-star graphic novels. The first was the Marvel project Marvels, written by Kurt Busiek, which re-created select famous events in the Marvel universe in the eyes of an ordinary civilian, which was a pretty decent concept, but was better as an Alex Ross art book than it was a story, especially to this here reader who was only casually acquainted with such calamitous crises as Gwen Stacy being dropped off a bridge after having seen it happen to Mary-Jane Watson in the movie. (I still don’t know what all that hocus-pocus about the Sentinel robots in that X-Men chapter was about.) His second big hit was a project for DC Comics entitled Kingdom Come, which took your Superman, Batman, Green Arrow, Flash, Sandman and a few hundred others, aged them a few decades and made them fight each other. Again, I imagine it would be more fun for seasoned comics fans who actually recognize all the cameos, but the painting was great. All in all, though, while you will never find as detailed and lifelike portrayals of your favourite superheroes as those in the Alex Ross portfolio, I find his art to be much better suited for stand-alone epic imagery than sequential storytelling. In the opening credits to the Spider-Man sequel, however, it is a perfect fit.

Novelist Michael Chabon receives partial credit for the screenplay to Spider-Man 2, which was a significant improvement over Jurassic Park screenwriter David Koepp’s work on its predecessor. It is hard to discern the extent to which Chabon’s contribution remains in the final cut, but holistically speaking, the impact is noticeable.

Michael Chabon, as I continually inform anyone who will listen, is the guy who got me interested in comic books. (Note that by comic books I don’t mean comic strips – I was weaned on Peanuts from birth – but full-fledged comics, often of the superhero variety, sometimes not; graphic novels and their shorter, monthly kin.) The culprit is that Pulitzer-winner of his, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, which is a tremendously enjoyable read and alongside J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books, my favourite work of literature published in recent years. It is indeed a rarity to find a writer of his calibre who respects the mythology of comics the way he does. If you turn at the last chapter of Kill Bill, Vol. 2 and examine Bill’s monologue about Superman’s critique of the human condition, you can see just what an impact comics had on Quentin Tarantino, and how he longed to express it to a larger audience in a medium that was more firmly entrenched in the mainstream – in his case, film. With Kavalier & Clay, Michael Chabon pulls off an equivalent in print, weaving a six-hundred-page adventure full of that same reverence for superhero mythology, that same implicit desire to share it with everyone else.

It so happens that back in 1996, before he really exploded on the scene with the likes of Wonder Boys, Michael Chabon was one of many writers approached to tackle the then-in-development-hell X-Men film. His (rejected) proposal, which can be found on his website, is not just your run-of-the-mill screen story treatment; it begins with a full-blown treatise that delineates the appeal of the X-Men into four elements – I particularly like the last one: “Stuff exploding, wild technology, cool powers, fighting. I have this stuff too.” Now that X-Men has actually been made into a film by which I was generally unimpressed, but spawned a surprisingly exhilirating sequel, one looks back and imagines what might have been – but considering that he went on to give us Kavalier & Clay instead, who am I to complain? Happily, it all worked out in the end, and he got to pen a little bit of Marvel’s other A-list franchise, and with admirable results.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay itself spawned a byproduct in the form of a quarterly eighty-page comic paperback, The Amazing Adventures of the Escapist – a realization of the fictitious comic that our titular heroes Joe Kavalier and Sammy Clay create in Chabon’s novel. Those of you with long memories or a predilection for digging around in the archives may recall that one of this weblog’s first posts was about that very announcement. After months of hunting around comic book retailers in Alberta in vain, I ordered the first two issues from Things From Another World a little while ago; they arrived at the end of May, but other circumstances have precluded me from reviewing them in full… until now.

To be honest, after the trials and tribulations of publication delays and the small problem of retailers not stocking the series, all the hype for Escapist #1 culminated in a bit of a letdown, perhaps because it was almost too conventional. The book is an anthology of six stories, with a few written segments of invented history interspersed throughout to continue the masquerade that the Escapist is or ever was a real comic book hero that has now been rediscovered by the “history” recounted in Kavalier & Clay. The first one, “The Passing of the Key”, is an origin story that faithfully visualizes Part I, Chapter 8 of the novel – one of the best parts of the original text, a breathtaking encapsulation of comic book panels in the power of prose written in the present tense, a passage that made one wish the comic was real. Well, now the comic is real, and this may sound harsher than I intend, but the book was better.

Make no mistake – the story as it unfolds in twenty pages of full colour is still a fun read – but the scene that stood as originally written in words and words alone made you believe that the art, the story, and the sheer thrill of escapism in that twenty pages were revolutionary. Perhaps this is a consequence of being desensitized to the present-day quality of comic book art now that every budding penciller has had ample time to idolize the visionary Jack Kirby, but the one thing the Escapist cannot escape here is the feeling of being a little ordinary. Part of it is that outside the context of the novel, the thematic significance of various elements are lost – Tom Mayflower’s crutch an expression of Sammy’s battle with polio, the entire concept of the character founded on Joe’s escape artistry and flight from the Nazis, the very idea of escapism as a human necessity.

See, this is what happens when the first two comic books you ever read are Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore’s Watchmen, which are generally agreed to be the two greatest works of comic art of all time and all time yet to come (a claim that, in my brief experience with comics, remains to my knowledge entirely true): you set your standards too high.

Also in Escapist #1 are “Reckonings”, a very contemporary-style and almost dialogue-free retelling of Luna Moth’s own origin story; “Sequestered”, a lighthearted read where the Escapist fights for justice in the form of jury duty, and the best entry in the volume; “Are You Now Or Have You Ever Been…”, a mediocre allegory of Joseph McCarthy that never quite connects; “The Escapegoat”, an interesting two-page foray into kids’ comics by way of animal personification; and “Prison Break”, a darker sort of story where the Escapist goes undercover in a maximum-security prison, which features the Saboteur, another character from the novel. The entire project is an enjoyable adaptation, but is unlikely to entice anyone who has not read Chabon’s magnum opus. Of course, in my humble opinion, anyone who has not read Chabon’s magnum opus should remedy that with the utmost immediacy.

The big payoff, however, is in Escapist #2. Part of the original concept of the Escapist comic anthologies was to parallel the evolution of the comic as depicted in Kavalier & Clay, and thus capture a stylistic history of comic books in general. While the first volume hints at this – “The Passing of the Key” has the angular simplicity of the 1930s, the cornball atmosphere in “Sequestered” is reminiscent of the ’60s Batman television series starring Adam West, and “The Escapegoat” is a conceptual children’s work – it is in Escapist #2 that we really see the art branch out into wildly divergent aesthetics, a postmodern collage that finally distinguishes this series from the other comics on the market. The quality of the stories also shows improvement, some of them tackling the motives of heroes and villains in the same abstract, conceptual fashion as the symbolic conflicts in the book.

This collection begins with a Luna Moth story, “The Mechanist!”, the highlight of which is the chaotic pencil work by Bill Sienkiewicz, partially sprayed with colours that run all over the place. The approach is fresh, unconventional, and welcome. But what follows it is the best story in either Escapist volume, “The Lady or the Tiger”, by Glen David Gold (who authored the immensely entertaining novel Carter Beats The Devil). With fine pencilling by Gene Colan underlining a dark and solemn colour palette, it is a moody superhero love story that touches on many of the same ideas of personal desires and responsibility that we see in the two Spider-Man films. The writing is characteristic of an established and respected author, whose one novel to date has very similar appeal to Chabon’s own work.

Then comes “Divine Wind”, a story done in Japanese manga, which is by itself fairly standard but a decent take on the cultural cross-pollination we have already seen with Japanese comics, and which is still quite relevant considering projects such as the Indian Spider-Man. “300 Fathoms Down”, in the style of the Modern Era, brings an aging Escapist out of retirement for a Cold War mission; it is the most conventional of the lot. Escapist #2 concludes with “Old Flame”, a Luna Moth story that does the most we have yet seen with her out-of-costume alter-ego, the librarian Judy Dark.

On the strength of the second volume, I will very likely order The Amazing Adventures of the Escapist #3 when it is released next week. This one features the cover art that is a source of controversy and a key element in the novel, the Joe Kavalier drawing of the Escapist decking Adolf Hitler – only drawn by Mike Mignola, creator of Hellboy. Hopefully it exhibits the same kind of creative daring that made Escapist #2 worthwhile; of all the styles of sequential art out there, many have yet to be explored.

Oh, right… Spider-Man 2. Next post, I promise.

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Coming to the aid of those who languish in tyranny’s chains

Saturday, 19 July 2003 — 10:31pm | Comics, Literature, Michael Chabon

A bit late in the reporting, but nonetheless, here is the greatest and most exciting piece of literary news I have heard in a fair while:

Pulitzer-prize winning author Michael Chabon has signed on with Dark Horse Comics to publish Michael Chabon Presents…The Amazing Adventures of the Escapist. The quarterly comic anthology will feature characters created by Chabon in his critically acclaimed, Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.

Set primarily in the late ’30’-s and early ’40’-s at the birth of the comic book industry, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay tells the story of two young men who create a popular comic-book character known as “The Escapist.” The Dark Horse anthology will present tales of the Escapist and his cohorts set in the style of various comic book eras from the 40’s through today. Chabon will guide the direction of the series as well as contribute to writing original stories. Other artists and writers will be announced in coming months.

Read all about it here – there is a nice piece of promotional art there as well.

I am nothing even remotely close to a comic book aficionado, but this announcement has me wetting my pants with anticipation. Why? Well, for starters, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is arguably the best piece of contemporary literature I have ever read, for reasons that would fill several essays. Among the most vividly-written scenes in the piece are the respective origin stories of The Escapist and Luna Moth, comic book sequences inked with words alone; the panels leap off the page, and if they evoke one reaction, it’s exactly what Sammy Clay said upon the genesis of his creation: “I wish he were real.”

Suffice to say, an actual comic book of The Escapist is a dream come true – that is, if handled properly. Considering the extent of Chabon’s direct involvement, it is reasonable to expect it to live up to his grand vision.

And if you haven’t read Kavalier & Clay, then what are you waiting for? Go get it!

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