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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics


When Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay won the Pulitzer in 2000, it bestowed upon the lowly figure of the comic book superhero the superpower of literary legitimacy. Jonathan Lethem’s 2003 The Fortress of Solitude made the mutation permanent. So kudos to the highbrow dynamic duo for teleporting long-underwear characters over to the land of the intellectually bookish. But the transformation was as much a curse as a blessing. The superheroes Escapist and Aeroman say a lot more about death than rebirth.

Asked what inspired his novel, Chabon answered:

“I started writing this book because of a box of comic books that I had been carrying around with me for fifteen years. It was the sole remnant of my once-vast childhood collection. For fifteen years I just lugged it around my life, never opening it. It was all taped up and I left it that way. Then one day, not long after I finished Wonder Boys, I came upon it during a move, and slit open all the layers of packing tape and dust. The smell that emerged was rich and evocative of the vanished world of my four-color childhood imaginings. And I thought, there’s a book in this box somewhere.”

Chabon published Wonder Boys in 1995 and Kavalier and Clay in 2000, so he was drafting during one of the darkest moments of comics history. The superhero was bankrupt. Marvel filed for Chapter 11 protection in 1996, and though it battled its way out the following year, the surviving market was a shred of its pulp glory.

I have my own move-weary box of a whittled-down comics collection in my attic. I was born in 1966, Lethem in 1964, Chabon in 1963, so our four-color childhoods are a Bronze Age overlay. The seventies may lack the primordial Ka-Pow! of the forties or sixties, but it was a damn good if idiosyncratic decade for superheroes. Too bad Chabon isn’t interested in it.

The Escapist

Kavalier and Clay is instead a tale of the Golden Age superhero, and so an inevitable tragedy. The Escapist begins as “an escape artist in a costume,” freeing people from oppression by the light of his Golden Key. But in the end, he can’t even free himself, much less his creators.

“’Today,’ Anapol said, ‘I killed the Escapist.’”

Anapol isn’t a time-traveling supervillain from a parallel dimension. He’s a publisher. And he’s done trading punches with super-publisher DC and its legion of lawyer-minions in a never-ending battle of copyright infringement. The guy’s just not worth the financial effort anymore.

“Superheroes,” says Anapol, “are dead, boys.”

It’s the mid-50s, and, Chabon informs us, the “age of the superhero had long passed . . . all had fallen under the whirling thresher blades of changing tastes,” with DC’s lone survivors “forced to suffer the indignity of seeing their wartime sales cut in half or more.” But even dead, the Escapist, having “long slipped into cultural inconsequence,” would “always be there” for his creators as a “taunting” reminder of “the wealth and unimaginable contentment” they never reaped.

Meanwhile, the novel’s lone, fantastical entity, the Golem of Prague, meets a similar end. An enormous box filled seven inches deep with silt from the Moldau River arrives by mail: “The speculations of those who feared that the Golem, removed from shores of the river that mothered it, might degrade had been proved correct.” A coffin of dirt. That’s all that’s left after Chabon’s done firing his literary cosmic rays at the Golden Age of comics.


Lethem’s superheroes fair no better. His “flying man” (no caps, poor guy doesn’t even earn a superhero name) first appears in 1973, as the Silver Age is plummeting into the Bronze. “He looked like a bum,” with a bedsheet cape  stained yellow with pee, “needing a drink more than anything.” He can’t even land right (“Fucked up my motherfucking leg”) let alone stay airborne. Next thing he’s “curled in a ball” in front of a liquor store, “baked in vomit and urine and sweet” in a “mummified pose.”

So ends the Silver Age. But once hospitalized, “no-longer-flying man” becomes “a symbol of possible atonement” when he passes on his magic ring (it’s a Green Lantern riff) to Lethem’s stand-in, the adolescent Dylan, who rechristens himself Aeroman. Sounds better, but the key word is “possible,” because Dylan wastes the rest of the novel failing to launch. He slowly realizes he’s “no superhero at all” but a “coward” with “an irrelevant secret power,” and when his best friend, Mingus, uses the ring, Aeroman is still only a “would-be hero,” screwing up a police sting while getting himself arrested. Dylan’s costume (or “homo suit”) is soon “lost or destroyed,” and Dylan and Mingus’ shared identity (“world’s most pathetic superhero”) is now a symbol of their dissolving friendship.

The ring is last seen on a coke-smeared mirror, before vanishing into Dylan’s post-college apartment.  When next worn, instead of flight (“that part of it was dead”), it gives Dylan invisibility. But he proves as incompetent as ever, termed a “warped vigilante” when his next outing ends in accidental death (“I only wanted to help”). Aeroman was birthed from adolescent “desolation,” and Dylan finally flings the “curse once and for all into the brush at the side of the highway.” It makes a final appearance on the finger of Dylan’s childhood enemy after he’s leaped to his death—a presumed suicide.

Entrance into the League of Literary Superheroes comes with a stiff price. These are great novels, but rather than reanimating superheroes, Chabon and Lethem incinerate them. And is it coincidence that the character type entered highbrow circles only after comic books—the pulpiest of the pulps—had died? Comic shops in the U.S. peak at 12,000 in the early 90s. When Chabon finished Kavalier and Clay, only 3,000 remained. And they no longer welcomed kids. When Lethem finished Fortress, the average reader was 25, up from 12 when he, Chabon, and I were amassing our childhood collections.

We’re not the only ones.

Second Box of Comics

Komiksová burza, Brno

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