When I was a boy, I had my hair cut at a (somewhat sleazy I can now say) Italian barbers called Mario’s. It was in a small suburban shopping centre named Crossways, after the fact it was placed on a major intersection. Despite this, it never managed to attract a great deal of foot traffic. But somehow, its traders struggled on, and Mario’s seemed to get by on the number of (always) attractive (always) female (daughters? cousins? nieces?) staff that Mario had around to hand him scissors and clippers.
To keep the younger clientele amused while waiting for Mario, at the end of the long, leather bench seat that ran the length of the barbershop, there was a stack of various comic publications. There was Archie and Richie Rich and others of that ilk, but it was The Phantom that I would always dig through the stack for. A costumed super-hero dating from the earliest days of the comics scene, he would fight off smugglers and slave traders through smarts and physical prowess.
That’s probably how I got “into” comics.
I’m not the biggest comic fan I know, nor am I a regular reader of comics (if you don’t count web comics). But I do own several graphic novels and books of comics, have Comical installed on my PC, and I now have my own stack of The Phantom.
So, when I came across a recommendation for a Pulitzer Prize-winning book on the early days of comics, it then didn’t take too much convincing from the sales lady to buy it. “It’s epic”, she said.
A literary treatment of escapism
Michael Chabon’s book takes the reader through the early years of the American comic book industry, set in 1940s New York. It is a thoroughly researched tale, that feels completely plausible, and it is difficult to know where the facts stop and the fiction begins.
The two protagonists of the title – Joe Kavalier and Sam Clay – are likable and engaging, and it is easy to get caught up in their enthusiasm. However, it’s not clear that Chabon likes them very much at all, as it is a rollercoaster of a story, and he doesn’t let them stay happy for long.
The quirky style of the writing made me feel as if I should be getting ready to laugh out loud, but the strife and despair of the situations put a damper on the high points. As a result, I couldn’t sit and read this book for very long at a stretch, and had to put it down and come back when I was ready for yet more torment to occur to Sam and Joe.
The themes of the book revolve around ideas of escapism. There is plenty of fodder for this in the context of a couple of Jewish immigrants in New York during World War II, however the inclusion of comic books into this allows additional meanings. It is cleverly done and the book feels “worthy”, but the level of depressingness was a little too much for me.
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