Friday, July 01, 2005

Stuff I've Been Reading Vol. 4

Books Read:
The Sandman: Preludes & Nocturnes--Neil Gaiman
Y: The Last Man--Unmanned
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay--Michael Chabon

Books Bought:
The Amazing Adventures of the Escapist Vol. 1--Michael Chabon et al.

This month's theme is comic books. As finals approached rapidly and I spent all my time desperately trying to finish heavy peices of modernist prose at May's end, I decided to start reading graphic novels. And, in reading the aforementioned graphic novels that I had borrowed from my friends in the winter, I decided that the one novel I should pull off my jam-packed bookshelf would be Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.

I don't actually know why it took me so damn long to sit down with Sandman. I borrowed it from Corey on my birthday in January, and it sat on my desk unread until June. As to The Last Man, Cassie's boyfriend brought it over when they started dating in April and it sat on our table until every last one of us had read it.

Here's why I adore the graphic novel: the graphic novel is the link between books and movies. Graphic novels employ cinematic cuts and "camera angles" to emphasize the active and emotive qualities of the story, as films do, but relies on a literary format to do so. They're thicker, generally, and more complex than comic books, often dealing with incredible mythologies (like Sandman) and more adult subjects (like The Last Man) than their comic cousins. Comics and graphic novels, alike, though allow their readers easy access to complex themes and provide an introduction to basic literary conventions. They're also much easier to digest on the whole.

Sandman Chronicles I think most readers have heard of. And I can now personally vouch for the merits of Gaiman's characters and his stories. The art in it is beautiful: a nice blend of gothic style with classic comic drawing. It's a great graphic novel for those who like the resonance of Frank Miller's naratives (specifically through repetition of phrase), but with a touch of Baudilere under them. I liked them, but I liked The Last Man much, much more. Let me begin on The Last Man by introducing some topics that recurr throughout the first issue: feminism, gendercide, gender issues as a whole, american politics, Jewish mysticism, and sources of power. Also, there is a monkey. The Last Man is the story of Yorick, the only man to survive a strange and sudden plague that eliminates anything with a Y-chromosome . . . except for Yorick and his male monkey. This turns the world into chaos. Supermodels have no purpose in a society with no male gaze. (They can now only make money by collecting the dead bodies of single men who rotted away in their apartments.) The Secretary of Agriculture is now President. And a brigade of feminist "Amazons" who believe that the man-killing plague is a sign of male inferiority and the female right to rule are taking over the land. When I finished the first issue of The Last Man, I immediately wanted to find the successive issues. It is an incredible character driven, theme-laden narrative that addresses so many crucial social concerns. I was thoroughly impressed. (Also, the cuts leading up to the man-plague are so intense I can barely begin to describe them.)

It's nice to think about the fact that The Last Man's Yorick is introduced to us as an escape artist, because that is also how we are introduced to Josef Kavalier in Chabon's Kavalier & Clay. Escape worked so well as a central motif on which Chabon chose to hang his story. If there's one thing I can say for Chabon it is that he writes a very tight story. Nothing is extraneous. "Escape" certainly isn't thrown about lightly. It is the one word that both Kavalier & Clay understand. For Josef Kavalier, like thousands of other European Jews before WWII, escape was the only means of survival. Josef manages to escape because he is a trained escape artist, schooled after America's most famous immigrant, Harry Houdini. It is Joe's escape from Prague and Nazi rule that inspires the comic book character The Escapist, which ties nicely into his American cousin Sammy Klaymann's world of escape: comic books. Sammy's dreams of escaping his current lifestyle and polio-ridden legs are invested in the masked heroes that he and his cousin create. The Escapist encompasses both men at once. This is exactly what I mean when I say that Chabon writes a tight story. It goes on to be more complex, with more escapes of many other kinds: escapes from traditional family roles, escapes from traditional lifestyles in general, escapes from reality and from life (though this is more of a Houdinian disappearing act than anything else).

Kavalier & Clay is a long read, true, but it is so well written that one is constantly driven forward in the narrative. I find recently that I am increasingly dissatisfied with the ends of novels. I realized reading Kavalier & Clay why that is. So many novels I read tend to stop in the middle of something, with no sense of finality. You can get away with this if you are Zora Neale Hurston and end on a beautiful metaphor as in Their Eyes Were Watching God, and, naturally, if you are Toni Morrison you can get away with this as well by ending on a beautiful sentence. If your point is that there is no finality, I think this is also acceptable. However, when a book doesn't have a great finish and just fizzles out (like Life of Pi), I lose my faith in the entire book. Thank you, Chabon, for writing me a definitive and beautiful ending. Chabon chooses to end on the names of his protagonists written hastily on a calling card, and this is a powerful image to end such a colossal and moving book. So much of Kavalier & Clay relies on faith and dream, and I could not be more pleased that Chabon allowed his readers to keep theirs in his book.

What's also pretty damn cool about the Kavalier & Clay universe is that two subsequent volumes of comic books related to the novel were published. I came across The Amazing Adventures of the Escapist Vol. 1 in Copperfield's up in Calistoga just sitting there on the sale rack. I grabbed it immediately as I had not two days before finished Kavalier & Clay. Escapist Adventures includes Chabon's origin story, plus several other stories written and illustrated by current comic artists that fill in some of the stories to which Chabon alludes, mostly to define the changes in the way the character was drawn over the years. The edition also includes a few Luna Moth stories done in extremely different styles: one in Rose Saxon watercolors, for instance, and another drawn in 1950's pulp fiction style, which was my personal favorite. I'm told that Vol. 2 features the infamous Escapist punching Hitler cover, and I look forward to acquiring it.

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