April 8, 2004
Jewish history has tradition of escaping and escapism
It's Sunday and I'm rushing over to my local comic book store, Hi De Ho, in Santa Monica to buy issue No. 1 of "The Amazing Adventures of the Escapist."
If the name is familiar, it's not because you used to collect "The Escapist" in your youth, as many people have told Mike Hennessy, the owner of Hi De Ho. Rather "The Escapist" is a fictional invention -- I know that seems evident, but what I mean is that "The Escapist" first appeared in text form in Michael Chabon's Pulitzer prize-winning novel, "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay" as the comic book that his protagonists created.
So many readers believed in "The Escapist," a hero who is part Houdini and part Batman, and Chabon fell so under the spell of his own fictional creation, that he has agreed to continue the fiction into comic book form. "The Escapist" comic book pretends to reprint past "Escapist" stories.
Mike Richardson of Dark Horse Comics has enabled Chabon, as well as comic book regulars Howard Chaykin and Kevin McCarthy, to contribute to the mythology of this singular hero, who comes "to the aid of all those who languish in tyranny's chains!"
A great part of the charm of "Kavalier and Clay," as well as this new comic book incarnation, resides in the metaphor of "The Escapist." In the novel, Joseph Kavalier, a Czech Holocaust refugee, draws a comic hero who delivers a powerful response to evil, even as Kavalier himself remains powerless to help his relatives escape their fate in Europe.
Escape is a potent concept, and Chabon is certainly not the first to seize on it. Houdini turned escape into a performance art. For a fascinating meditation on the psychological and philosophical implications of Houdini's life and art, I can recommend no better work than British analyst Adam Phillips' "Houdini's Box: The Art of Escape."
As Phillips relates, Houdini was born Erik Weisz in Budapest in 1874, and he escaped his name, his traditions and poverty by being a master of illusion -- his first famous trick was called, appropriately enough, "metamorphosis." Part of Houdini's appeal was that he appeared to escape death in his performances. That, as Houdini came to believe, is something people will always pay money to see. It is a lesson that is not lost on David Blaine (a performer who has tattooed Primo Levi's Auschwitz number on his arm -- as if to link one escape artist to another).
"The Escapist" references not only the primal appeal of escapism but also comics as a medium suited for Jewish metamorphosis. It is commonly accepted that Superman, created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster in the 1930s, was a metaphor for Jewish identity, assimilation, weakness and power -- whether they knew it at the time or not.
But I would argue that the tale of the escapist is part of our mythological DNA, deeply ingrained in our most sacred stories. Perhaps it's no coincidence that I first read Bible stories in comic book form.
Metamorphosis and escape are core themes in the Pentateuach. Adam and Eve were certainly the first escapists, and Big Daddy Abraham, patriarch of patriarchs, was the first Jewish escapist, commanded to leave his father's home. Jacob, Job, Joseph -- the list of escapists goes on and on.
This week we celebrate perhaps the greatest Jewish escapist: Moses. As a baby Moses escaped into the bulrushes; as a young man, he escaped after murdering an Egyptian overseer; and, of course, he led the escape from Egypt. Moses makes Kafka look like a one-trick pony: Moses changes into an Egyptian noble, into a desert herder -- and from a stutterer to a leader. He's got more changes than David Bowie.
One could recast all of Jewish history as a series of escapes, from Egypt, Babylonia, Spain, England, Russia -- an epic Purimspiel. However to do so would diminish Jewish history to a repeating loop of persecution and escape that begs the question: Is the Holocaust the story of the murder of 6 million, or the survival of 6 million? A history of escapes leaves out the glory of the art of "The Escapist" -- and the richness of Jewish culture.
As Houdini understood so well, escape is great entertainment -- particularly for those who are not the ones escaping. Artists have been providing escapism as entertainment since stories were first told. Even today, in America, Land of the Free, where we need not escape, we still enjoy being armchair escapists. Is it a coincidence that one of the most popular shows on television is called "Survivor"?
The history of comic books, like that of the motion picture business, has been driven by Jewish escape artists, from the 1940s and the golden age of Siegel and Shuster to the early 1960s and Stan Lee, whose Fantastic Four and other Marvel comics reinvigorated the genre, to Robert Crumb, who took the comix, as he called them, into the underground, and also to Will Eisner, whose 1978 "A Contract With God" launched the graphic novel.
Over the next decade, as movies, TV and video games came to dominate the culture, comic books seemed to diminish in importance. By the end of the 1980s, comics seemed played out, in need of a superhero to save the day. It wasn't a bird or a plane, but rather a "Maus."
Art Speigelman's "survivor's tale" made the comic book worthy, winning the 1992 Pulitzer Prize and demonstrating that graphic novels were an independent medium for telling personal stories. Since "Maus," a whole shelf of important and provocative works has appeared, including such diverse works as Alan Moore's "Watchmen," Joe Kubert's "Fax From Sarajevo" and Marjane Satrapi's "Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood."
Which brings me back to Hi De Ho. When I was a kid, comic books were mostly sold in candy stores. When those disappeared, they moved to newsstands and supermarkets. Today, stores like Hi De Ho sell more comics in book form than magazine format.
For a while, comics were primarily the obsession of young kids, then just teenage boys, then just collectors. Today, comic books and comic book stores are much more female friendly. As Hennessy told me, "Once they [comics] were no longer about guys in tights beating on each other" women became interested. The variety of work is amazing: Japanese, European, gothic, fantastic and classic. There are now comics for every age and every interest, from the prurient to the depraved.
Comics, which had abandoned young readers for several decades, are catering to them once again. Archie and Veronica are still around, but they have competition from "The Simpsons." Disney, which has always produced popular children's comic books in Europe, has returned to the American market.
My daughter, who is just starting to read, was so excited when I brought home her own first comic, the new issue of "Duck Tales." As she scanned the cartoon panels, making up her own story to fill what she could not yet understand, I saw a look in her eye, one that I recalled from my own youth. It was the look of an "escapist."
Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else, he's an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward. His column appears every other week.