The Man of Ink

Creator of Wonder Boys and supermen, Michael Chabon is a literary hero

But critics and author be damned; the highest praise comes from Will Eisner himself, who lived through the era Chabon has recreated in Kavalier & Clay.Indeed, Eisner lives in those two characters, the Jew shut out from work in New York's biggest ad agencies, but an artist who never believed comics were beneath his dignity. Like Sam and Joe, Will Eisner and his contemporaries--among them Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, Superman's papas; and Jack Kirby and Joe Simon, creators of Captain America; and Stan Lee, born Stanley Leiber--were also Jews who wanted their heroes to fight the battles they could never win, even if that meant creating one fascist to destroy another. (The first issue of Sam and Joe's comic book features The Escapist--described as "Houdini, but mixed with Robin Hood and a little bit of Albert Schweitzer"--punching out Hitler, an homage to the cover of the first issue of Captain America Comicsin March 1941.)

"I think Michael was very courageous and innovative to do a book set in that era," Eisner says from his home in Florida, where even now the 85-year-old continues to work (this week, DC Comics published his graphic novel Minor Miracles). "Michael's made a real contribution to the young cartoonists, because they write me and want to know what it's like. His book captures the feel of the time; I can see the people involved. I would applaud and agree with the approval." (Chabon, at the time of our interview two weeks ago, had not heard from Eisner and worried he had not read or did not like the book.)

Perhaps Kavalier & Clayis the perfect book because it springs from that most perfect of places: the child's desire to walk in his ancestors' past. Chabon, like so many of us in our 30s, longs for the past only because it's lost forever--a memory that disintegrates a little more each day. We've been so inundated with representations of long-ago yesterdays, but they feel hollow. They're nothing but faded portraits of buildings that have been replaced by parking lots and strip malls. They mean nothing, because they feel intangible, temporary. Chabon wanted to construct a very real past, built on the foundation of his own family's history.

Michael Chabon was supposed to write the screenplay for X-Men; instead, he wrote a book about men who created superheroes.
Michael Chabon was supposed to write the screenplay for X-Men; instead, he wrote a book about men who created superheroes.
The cover of Chabon's book, featuring The Escapist, is a homage to the first issue of Captain America Comics.
The cover of Chabon's book, featuring The Escapist, is a homage to the first issue of Captain America Comics.

Chabon's grandfather was, in fact, the first to bring comics into the Chabon household. He worked as a typographer in a printing press in New York City, and although his grandson doesn't know if he actually printed comics, he would bring bags of them home for Michael's father. Years later, Michael's dad would buy his own son comic books, reading them before handing them over. Father and son would talk about Batman and Captain Marvel and Sub-Mariner the way other dads and their boys would talk about Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris.

"It was something we shared," says Chabon, who will soon begin writing the screenplay for Kavalier & Clay. "And in a way, the book is kind of that sharing that took place between me and my father, and it was more than just comic books, because my dad really stirred my passion and my interest in the world of his childhood. He got me interested in things like radio programs and details about the New York City subway and Coney Island and going to the serials when he was a kid. He has a lot of nostalgia for his childhood, and he communicated that very successfully to me, to the point that I could actually be nostalgic for a childhood I never even had, which is not an unusual experience for me--to feel nostalgia for something I never experienced. I think it's a common feeling of our generation, because the past feels at once very real and, at the same time, totally gone and unrecoverable. I wrote the book for one reason: I wanted to travel in time."

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