October 26, 2000
Novelist Michael Chabon visits the Jewish world of Golden Age comics in "Kavalier & Clay."
Joe [incredulous]: Jewish superheroes?
Sammy: What, they're all Jewish, superheroes. Superman, you don't think he's Jewish? Coming from the old country, changing his name like that. Clark Kent, only a Jew would pick up a name like that for himself.
A day after Yom Kippur, Michael Chabon, with his telegenic looks - long dark locks, piercing clear eyes - does not stand out amidst the young and the beautiful circulating through Chateau Marmont. However, as a writer, the 37-year-old - best known for the 1995 novel "The Wonder Boys" - has stood out in the publishing world since graduating from college in the mid- 1980s.
Chabon's latest, "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay" (Random House), chronicles the rise and fall of Sammy Clay and his Czechoslovakian refugee cousin, Joe Kavalier - cartoonists who create, then lose control of their biggest creation: the Escapist. Set in the World War II-era Golden Age of comic books - when Jewish American males thrived, conjuring up dime store escapism - the story echoes the real-life tragedy of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the Jewish teenagers who concocted Superman, only to naively forfeit the rights.
Five years in the making, Chabon's novel not only encapsulates the author's childhood-forged passion for superhero comics, but also his recent rediscovery of his own Jewish culture. The book's strength lies in its rich universe of Jewish characters and metaphors, as the Golem of Prague, Harry Houdini and Europe at the dawn of World War II all figure prominently. And while some publishers might consider a saga containing the double whammy of overtly Jewish themes and comic books as an elixir for disaster, Chabon was surprised by how receptive his associates were to his concept.
"I was sort of talking initially to my agent about various book ideas," Chabon told The Journal, "and it was the one she jumped on right away. My editor had the same reaction. She's not Jewish, she never read a comic book in her life."
Researching "Kavalier & Clay," Chabon conducted firsthand interviews with legends of the field: Marvel Comics' guru Stan Lee, "The Spirit" creator Will Eisner, Martin "Green Lantern" Nodell, and on and on. As Chabon learned, "Almost all of the major characters - with the possible exception of Wonder Woman - were created by Jews. I wondered, 'What was that about?' As soon as I started thinking about it and doing some reading into the history of comics, especially superhero comics, it's immediately apparent."
Indeed, the Golem of Prague looms large in Chabon's book, as symbolic of the Jewish storytelling tradition; as precursor to the modern superhero idiom; as a reminder of Kavalier and Clay's Ashkenazi roots. While Chabon originally included the Golem in a passing reference, his chat with Eisner, who referenced the legendary champion of the Jewish people, led Chabon to reevaluate the clay giant. Several drafts later, the Golem had insinuated itself into a greatly expanded role. Like the original Golem rising in a besieged medieval shtetl, Chabon said the character "popped into my life kind of right when I needed it."
The link between the Golem and the American superhero is clear to Chabon, who cites the "messianic" component of early Superman editions, when the Man of Steel - with powers less godlike and more earthbound (Superman originally did not fly) - served as a champion of the oppressed."It was not about fighting supervillains," said Chabon, "but rescuing people from bosses that were exploiting them."
One eye-catching item in "Kavalier & Clay" comes at the end of the lengthy acknowledgments, where Chabon dedicates not only this comics-themed work but every story he has ever written to Jack Kirby - co-creator of Captain America, the Hulk, the X-Men, and hundreds more. Chabon never did meet the prolific cartoonist, a tough Depression-era New Yorker born Jacob Kurtzberg who died in 1994.
"The greatest thing about Kirby that I ultimately find so inspiring," said Chabon, "is the sheer fecundity of his imagination. The way he could just toss off, in a throw-away story, seven or eight different ideas that other writers would be happy to have an entire series built around. He was such an unstoppable force."
For years, Chabon was somewhat disconnected from his own Jewish heritage."As I had children, I found myself coming back to it and looking at it in a whole different light," said Chabon, who lives in Berkeley.
With his novelist wife, Ayelet Waldman, and their children, Sophie, 6, and Zeke, 3, Chabon actively attends a Jewish Renewal congregation called Kehilla Community Synagogue and sits on the synagogue's board.
"It is through Kehilla that I see myself, at least in the foreseeable future, defining my Jewish identity," said Chabon.
Like many young men of his generation, Chabon's entry into literature began with comic books, particularly the steady diet of Marvel titles he avidly consumed in the 1970s. By his own account, his childhood was "a standard suburban Jewish upbringing in Columbia, Maryland," where his family occasionally attended synagogue. Chabon's parents have Polish, Lithuanian and Russian roots. His father, a former pediatrician and lawyer, now works as an executive for Mutual of Omaha, his mother as an attorney. The family name is either Moldavian or Belarussian and means "shepherd."
After graduating from the University of Pittsburgh in 1984, Chabon attended the University of California at Irvine, where his professor, MacDonald Harris, forwarded Chabon's thesis to a literary agent. That project became Chabon's well-received 1988 debut, "The Mysteries of Pittsburgh," and that literary agent, Mary Evans, represents the writer to this day.
In the early 1990s, Chabon agonized over, then abandoned his original follow-up to "Mysteries" after amassing thousands of pages. His critically acclaimed sophomore novel, "Wonder Boys," hit movie theaters earlier this year starring Michael Douglas and directed by Curtis Hanson ("L.A. Confidential"). While the film version failed to find its audience, Paramount believes in it enough to rerelease the movie this month, in time for Oscar consideration. And producer Scott Rudin has tapped Chabon to adapt "Kavalier & Clay" as a motion picture.
"It's going to be incumbent on me not to be too protective as a screenwriter," said Chabon, who was pleased with Steven Kloves's "Wonder Boys" screenplay.
By translating his book to celluloid, Chabon hopes to direct new interest to the long-maligned medium he cherishes.
"Comics had already existed for 40 or 50 years as this art form that nobody had paid attention to," said Chabon. "There was never a critic who stood up and had the guts to say, 'I read comics. I like comics.'"
Fortunately for comic book fans, one writer has.