07 August 2007

The Amazing Adventures of The Escapist

Look out, Boys it's Here!
THE FIRST BOOK COLLECTION EVER of the original Amazing Adventures of The Escapist, the legendary yet seldom-seen comic book feature that riveted generations of readers for decades--and served as the secret inspiration for Michael Chabon's Pulitzer-Prize winning The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. Thrill to over sixty years' worth of carefully selected stories from the classic days of comic book industry production, when men were men--and there was still money to be made. Included rare art and stories by Howard Chaykin, Jim Starlin, Gene Colan, Michael Chabon, Glen David Gold, and Kevin McCarthy, this is no collection to miss by any serious student of comic book history or fan of contemporary literature. But it now!
Fortunately, the arbitrarily bold backcover sales pitch is only more entertaining than a small portion of this book's contents. Chabon's story - the Escapist's origin story from The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay - is the high point of the book. Sad, as he's not the comics guy, but he's not alone in producing a good read.

There are a couple of other decent tales: Kevin McCarthy's "Divine Wind" and "Prison Break"; McCarthy's Luna Moth story, "Old Flame"; and Glen David Gold's "The Lady or the Tiger" which closes the book on a bittersweet note that echoes the opening's. In between there are some other good stories and a few very silly efforts.

The conceit of the book and the subsequent volumes is that The Escapist was a real funnybook character, created by Kavalier and Clay, who were then loosely fictionalized by Chabon in his novel about the birth of the comics industry. This volume then collects decades worth of stories of various quality, including the many years when the intellectual rights on The Escapist were disputed and the stories were anything but classic. Conceptually, this is brilliant. As an art installation, I'd be amused and entertained. As a collection of comics, I'm far less so. Especially when I see what could have been when reading the masterful first and last stories, or imagine the Kane-inspired comics Chabon could have scripted for these fine artists to bring to life.

That's the one constant throughout (excepting two stories where bad art was part of the joke): the art is top-notch. In particular, the three Luna Moth stories are quite beautiful. This makes sense, as Joe Kavalier's art for the character was supposed to be revolutionary. Bill Sienkiewicz does a masterful job with McCarthy's "The Mechanist" and Dan Brereton's colors pop off the panels of McCarthy's "Old Flame". Christie Scheele's Luna Moth, while not as painterly, juxtaposes light and dark to good effect.

The most evocative art for me comes with the final tale...and now that I've taken the time to reflect, it might even be better than Chabon's origin story. But I'm a sucker for bittersweet. And I was blown away by Gene Colan's layout. More than anything else about his art, the way he blows up panels and uses whitespace between them for effect is striking. He generates a real sense of claustrophobia when The Escapist is underground, and heightens the tension of a protracted chase sequence while Tom Mayflower pursues the mysterious Lady of the title. When Colan finally comes at you with the full-page full-bleed, its impact is that much more profound.

For comics folk who've never read Kavalier and Clay and probably never will, I'd say skip the book. You'll just find it an odd and pointless exercise. In fact, you're probably better off hanging out at DC message boards arguing about whether Renato Guedes has made Kara fat or not. For those who have read K&C and hate comics...I think you missed the point. Go reread K&C. For the Chabon fans who also like the funnybooks, this slender volume should be a treat.