They also thought of Wolverine.

Posted by on January 12th, 2010 at 11:56 AM

Marin County picked Michael Chabon’s The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay as its “One City, One Book” thing, and my husband Andrew and I have been working on a PowerPoint presentation for libraries about the historical inspirations for the novel’s comic-book artists.  For nerds of our obsessive fact-filing bent, Kavalier and Clay is like the comics version of Valley of the Dolls, where half the fun is in figuring out the real-life models for the characters.  Ah, that part’s Joe Simon, that’s Jim Steranko… that’s Jack Kirby and Stan Lee if Stan were a little more gay…

If you know too much about comics, and lord knows I know too much about comics, it starts to hamper enjoyment of the novel, because Chabon gives his heroes comic-creating powers far beyond human ken.  Kavalier and Clay essentially come up with every good idea in comics about twenty years ahead of schedule.  When Joe Kavalier starts to expand his drawing style, “Suddenly the standard three tiers of quadrangular panels… hampered his efforts to convey the dislocated and non-Euclidean dream spaces in which Luna Moth fought.”  Sounds like Steve Ditko’s Doctor Strange. Then, a few sentences later, “He experimented with benday dots, cross-hatching woodcut effects, and even crude collage.”  Jack Kirby at his peak!  (In Powerpoint, I pasted this quote next to the Crossroads of Infinity collage splash from “This Man, This Monster!”, and damned if that isn’t still one of the most striking single pages in comics.  I’m surprised more artists haven’t ripped it off over the years and diluted its impact.  But no, folks only steal the less interesting stuff from Kirby.)

So in the 1940s, Joe Kavalier is doing the kind of work Ditko and Kirby were doing in the 1960s.  But that’s not all!  He and Sam Clay also see “Citizen Kane” together and rip off Will Eisner’s ripping off of Orson Wells for camera angles and chiaroscuro.  They also start doing stories about the ordinary people in their superhero’s town, the same way Eisner did with his later Spirit stories.  And then Joe invents the first graphic novel, and comes up with the brainstorm of making it all about the Jewish culture marginalized in mainstream comic books, decades before Eisner’s A Contract with God.  He even gets Eisner’s trademark title-incorporated-into-the-art idea: “…the two words THE GOLEM which reappeared on the splash page at the start of each chapter, each time in a different guise…”

Meanwhile, Sam has been slacking off, and has only managed to come up with the idea of blowing up comic-book panels to canvas size twenty years before Roy Lichtenstein.

It’s fun.  It’s just kind of like reading a novel about a Victorian inventor who comes up with the microchip, the integrated-circuit computer, the Internet, Google, and furry porn, yet is only considered on par with the guy who made those bikes with the one big wheel.

Also, just to put on my irritable-feminist hat for the day, I’ve noticed a tendency in fiction where these superhuman feats of intellect and inspiration are only considered plausible in male characters.  While Joe and Sammy come up with every brilliant innovation in the history of American comic books, their lady Rosa Saks gets to be… the second-best artist of romance comics.  Sure, in real life there weren’t many women during that period drawing great comic books, but neither were there any men who simultaneously combined all the best qualities of Siegel and Shuster, Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, Steve Ditko, and Will Eisner in their prime.  Why must our ridiculous wish-fulfillment fantasy characters be confined to

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3 Responses to “They also thought of Wolverine.”

  1. Tom Crippen says:

    “Kavalier and Clay essentially come up with every good idea in comics about twenty years ahead of schedule.”

    Nobody noticed this before? That’s amazing. The stuff people can get away with.

    • I’m sure I’m not the first, but poking around online, I couldn’t find much discussion of it. Probably because the book was published way back in 2000, before everything comics-related got picked to death on the Internet. Maybe there was a really awesome Geocities page about it!