Michael Chabon's "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay" (Random House; 639 pages; $26.95) is a serious but never solemn novel about the American comic book's Golden Age, from the late 1930s to (and this could cause a generational squabble) the early 1950s.
The period is not arbitrary. World War II and its aftermath provided fantasy heroes with real villains. Superman interceded at critical moments to pretzel the barrels of German 88s. Captain Marvel punched Japanese Zeroes out of the Pacific skies, and Wonder Woman not only deflected machine-gun slugs with her bracelets but also offered future feminists an early model of the female as an empowered single.
Chabon, whose previous novels include "Werewolves in Their Youth" and "The Mysteries of Pittsburgh," knows and loves his pulps. He also seems to understand intuitively that in the U.S., popular culture is the culture, and there is no point in pretending it is not. But the real heroes of his latest effort are the ink-stained drudges who filled the brightly colored panels with muscle-bound avengers and infectious onomatopoeia: Biff! Bam! Boom! and the occasional Kerplunk!
Joe Kavalier, a Czech war refugee, and his American-born cousin Sammy Clay are the novel's protagonists. They create a comic-book crusader known as the Escapist, an unabashed projection of Kavalier's revenge fantasies. A young artist with Harry Houdini's ability to pick locks while holding his breath, Kavalier has escaped Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia by hiding in a coffin containing the mythic Golem of Prague, and yearns to make enough money to help his family flee Adolf Hitler, or Attila Haxoff as Kavalier's overly cautious boss at Empire Comics insists on calling the dictator in 1939.
Chabon, writing the kind of charged prose that leaps 600 pages of fantasy and social history in a single bound, re-creates a New York City subculture bursting with commercial vitality and inspired schlock. The headquarters of Empire Comics is in the 14-story Kramler Building, "faced with stone the color of a stained shirt collar." Sheldon P. Anapol, the "likable and cruel" publisher and novelty peddler, succeeds with a combination of "hard-won cynicism, low overhead, an unstintingly shoddy product line and the American boy's unassuageable hunger for midget radios, X-ray spectacles and joy buzzers."
Chabon's facts and fabrications are mutually supporting. At least until Joe Kavalier, itching to get into the war and kill Nazis, ends up as a U.S. Navy radioman who escapes the South Pole in a homemade plane whose wings and fuselage are covered with the skins of dozens of seals and one beloved dog.
What Joe and Sammy cannot elude is the postwar era. With graphic comic-book imagery, Chabon writes that the classic superhero "had fallen beneath the whirling thresher blades of changing tastes." By the '50s, Kavalier and Clay are not only old hat but also targets of a congressional committee investigating the effects of comic books on children. Then, like Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the real-life team that begat Superman, Chabon's fictional duo lose the rights to their character in a dispute with cutthroat publishers. Screwing the talent is an old story, but never before told with as much imagination, verve and affection as can be found in "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay."