Joe’s Comics: Escapist and Catalytic Texts in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay
Michael Chabon explores the comic book industry and genre beginning in the 1930s through the 1950s in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. Once thought to be exclusively child’s play, comic books address mature themes and have received literary recognition, as both Art Spiegelman and Michael Chabon have won Pulitzers for their texts. Perhaps because many individuals grew up reading comics, post-modern culture seems to have taken to the combination of texts and pictures when dealing with historical trauma. Comics, the quintessential pop cultural icon, enable tragedies to be more authentic than either writing or pictures alone. Understanding the cultural context of the comic book industry then and now is important to understanding the tradition from which Chabon depicts the industry and the comic strips created by Josef Kavalier and his depiction of violence. Comics initially act as a medium for Josef Kavalier to work through the horrors of the Holocaust that he mostly vicariously experiences through the suffering of his family, but the comics eventually transform Joe and act as a catalyst that brings about a more violent reality in which he seeks deliverance and absolution.
Art Spiegelman said of Will Eisner, a Jew who helped develop many American comic strips through several decades, “comic books are to art what Yiddish is to language—a vulgar tongue that incorporates other languages into its mix, a vital and expressive language that talks with its hands. It's a form that's even laid out like a talmudic text, a form that avoids the injunction against graven images by turning pictures into words, or at least into word-pictures” (“Yiddish”). In this way, the comic book performs a golem-like function to the “human” of art. Joe and Sammy’s involvement in the comic industry, along with many other Jews, is accurate for the 1930s when “the pioneer comic-book artists — Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster, Bob Kane (ne Cahn), Stan Lee (born Lieber), Jack Kirby (ne Kurtzberg), Gil Kane (born Eli Katz) . . . and so on and on — were mostly Jews, children of immigrants” (“Yiddish”). In fact, perhaps the superhero’s creation is due in large part to its appeal to Jewish immigrants who felt helpless and unable to save many of their loved ones in Europe and expressed their wish for superhero abilities through the superhero.
Josef Kavalier works through the trauma of losing his family to the Holocaust through his comic strip. Chabon explores the motif of the Super Hero through his imagery of both the Golem and the Escapist. And yet the Escapist is not an all powerful super-hero, because he fails to destroy Hitler in reality or bring Josef’s family to the United States. As Josef and Sammy brainstorm their character, the Escapist, Joe declares, “He is here to free the world” (122) at a time when he so desperately wished to free his family from the oppression and eminent violence that Jews in Prague and all over Europe faced. The superhero’s heroic actions lead to Hitler’s capture and the end of World War II, as Hitler is “sentenced to die for his crimes against humanity. The war was over; a universal era of peace was declared, the imprisoned and persecuted people of Europe—among them, implicitly and passionately, the Kavalier family of Prague—were free” (166). Upon the creation of their superhero, Sammy recognizes that if Joe “was not kept fighting, round the clock—his cousin might be overcome by the imprisoning futility of his rage” (171). Working and creating comics was the only way that Joe initially knows how to fight and repress his growing rage about his and his family’s circumstances. Joe experiments with vicarious violence as the comics “allowed him to fight if not a genuine war, then a tolerable substitute” (167). Joe fight back with ink creating propaganda aimed at American audiences.
At first the comics were a way for Joe to work out his grief but soon they started to have unexpected influences—Joe himself became more violent and sought ways to seek revenge for his family’s imprisonment. “There could not have been more than a couple of thousand German citizens in New York at that time, but . . . wherever Joe went in the city, he managed to run across at least one. He seemed to have acquired, as Sammy remarked, a superpower of his own: he had become a magnet for Germans” (196). Expressed in terms of superpower ability, Joe initially shows intense interest in watching and listening to Germans and German-Americans. However, soon he no longer contains the frustration that he feels and reacts with violence, beating up two Germans at a football game and receiving temporary relief from his pain which he prefers over numbness.
Joe’s violent fantasies and acts are comparable to comic strip panels and he experiments with violence as a means of not only retribution for his family’s suffering but also for his own deliverance—deliverance from the numb reality that he faces and absolution for having survived when his family does not.
Joe attempts to find redemption through the Escapist and absolution for leaving Prague and his family behind. The need for resolution and redemption is commonly expressed in Holocaust literature. While Joe may not find an ultimate truth through his art, he continues to express himself through comics and the creation of a new graphic novel about the Golem. Instead of focusing on the golem’s physical features, readers are drawn to the emotional and intellectual profundity of the graphic novel. Through his work on The Golem, “Joe came to feel that . . . telling this story . . . was helping to heal him. All of the grief and black wonder that he was never able to express . . . all of it went into the queasy angles and stark compositions, the cross-hatchings and vast swaths of shadow, the distended and fractured and finely minced panels of his monstrous comic books” (577-78). Joe’s hopeful future is mostly due to his continued desire for expression and to bear witness through art, instead of closing himself off from his and others’ humanity.
Adorno’s famous comment about the barbarity of writing poetry after Auschwitz is compelling in relation to comic books dealing with Holocaust trauma. By stretching our conceptions about commix and the appropriateness of topics examined, specifically those relating to the Holocaust, we are able to vicariously experience one of the most traumatic events of the twentieth century anew, freed from the shackles of highly commodified genres. Understanding the innovative genre of Holocaust commix and the American comics industry from the 1930s through the 1950s enables greater comprehension of how Chabon continues the dialogue that Spiegelman initiated. Neither Spiegelman nor Chabon is a Holocaust survivor and is more removed from the events than survivors. However, in both texts, the Holocaust is experienced vicariously: in Spiegelman we learn about the Holocaust from the survivor father; in Chabon’s text, we see Josef escape Prague before his family is even moved to the ghetto and we only know about their life from a single letter that not even Joe reads. And yet the positional and temporal distance of Holocaust trauma is no less terrifying or disturbing in the texts.