Wonders and Marvels

<i>The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay</i> by Michael Chabon (Fourth Estate, &pound;12, 659pp)
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The Independent Culture

Has there ever been an art form more ideally suited to the American experiment than that of the superhero comic strip? In their mixture of triumphant individualism and innocent homosociality (Batman needs his Robin as surely as Ishmael needed Queequeg or Huck needed Jim), these iconic cartoons embody the very spirit of their culture. Democratic in their populism, transcendent in design, they occupy a space in which the egalitarian politics of Everyman are guarded by the steadfast righteousness of Superman - the point being that these two figures are one and the same. Within every grey-flannel suit can be found the cape of a crusader, beneath every suburb lurks a Gotham in need of his patriotic vigilance.

Has there ever been an art form more ideally suited to the American experiment than that of the superhero comic strip? In their mixture of triumphant individualism and innocent homosociality (Batman needs his Robin as surely as Ishmael needed Queequeg or Huck needed Jim), these iconic cartoons embody the very spirit of their culture. Democratic in their populism, transcendent in design, they occupy a space in which the egalitarian politics of Everyman are guarded by the steadfast righteousness of Superman - the point being that these two figures are one and the same. Within every grey-flannel suit can be found the cape of a crusader, beneath every suburb lurks a Gotham in need of his patriotic vigilance.

Michael Chabon's dazzling new novel explores the golden age of the comic hero in the build-up to the Second World War. Josef Kavalier is a refugee from Prague, a young Jewish artist who smuggled himself out just as the seeds of anti-Semitism were beginning to take root. He goes to live with the Klaymans - his aunt and his cousin, cramped in a New York apartment. In the early hours of every night, with the frenzied imagination of mid-adolescence, the two boys become immersed in fantasies of retribution, exile and revenge.

Their hero is Harry Houdini, a figure who represents all the magical defiance and physical alchemy of the immigrant American. Escape becomes their metaphor for radical self-assertion.

Combine this fascination with their addiction to comics, and they soon find themselves story-boarding their own strip, "The Escapist": "No cuffs can hold him. No lock is secure. Coming to the rescue of those who toil in the chains of tyranny and injustice. Houdini, but mixed with Robin Hood and a little bit of Albert Schweitzer."

The idea is snapped up by a press baron and Joe and Sam become the driving force behind Empire Comics Inc. They milk the strip's propaganda value, transforming rage at the Nazis into narratives in which their hero battles against the forces of goose-stepping Evil.

Chabon has done his research and the novel excels at capturing America's ambivalence to the war before Pearl Harbour. He takes us on detours into the American Aryan League, the politics of isolationism, and the ways in which the war in Europe helped to rescue America from its Great Depression.

Not that he ever loses the human touch. A good third of the book is taken up with the romances of his protagonists. While Joe courts Rosa, a Jewish activist, Sam falls for the man who is playing his comic creation on the radio. Their affair ends with a police raid, and Sam marries Rosa when his cousin enlists in the Air Force. This love triangle plays itself out with a tender dexterity - a series of bittersweet vignettes that alternate between a sexless marriage in New York and the unforgiving isolation of an air base in the Antarctic.

The prose of the novel is as ambitious as its scope, bristling with precision and urgency. Chabon has always been an elegant stylist, but here he plays off his poetic flourishes against ironic understatement. When the war is over, so is their empire. Commies have replaced Nazis as the villains, and there is growing anxiety about the effect of comics on youth.

The novel reaches its denouement with a melancholy warmth, the future looming as both promise and threat. It has been an epic journey, one that has succeeded in welding the panoramic eye of Theodore Dreiser to the absurdist tragedies of the 1940s. Chabon has not so much attempted the great American novel as brought to life the idea that it had already been written - week by week, in the humble heroism of the comic book.

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