Chabon's pretty super The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (2000) threads its story about two (fictional) comics creators in New York in the 1940s and 1950s together with many actual characters and events, from Harry Houdini, Orson Welles and Salvador Dalí to Jack Kirby, Shuster and Siegel and other real-life comics properties and people. It is in part a novel ‘about’ Superman, I think; and certainly it is a novel about superheroes and superheroism. Jo Kavalier, having escaped Nazi Europe (although he's forced to leave many of his family behind) writes, and his closeted gay, polio-survivor cousin Sammy ‘Clay’ Klayman draws. Together they create ‘The Escapist’, a hero whose superpower is, well, escaping. Wikipedia has a whole page dedicated to the character:
The Escapist's true identity is Tom Mayflower. He is the crippled nephew of escape artist Max Mayflower (who performs under the stage name of Misterioso). When Max is fatally shot while performing onstage, he reveals that he isn't his real uncle, having rescued him from a cruel orphanage as a baby. He gives Tom a golden key and a costume, explaining that he was recruited long ago by a mysterious organization called the League of the Golden Key to fight tyranny and free the oppressed. With his dying breath, Max commissions Tom to carry on his work. As long as Tom is wearing the costume and the key, he finds that he is no longer lame of leg and can perform amazing feats of escapology. Tom uses his powers to fight crime under the guise of the Escapist, especially against the evil forces of the mysterious criminal network, the Iron Chain ... The Escapist is also sometimes aided by his benefactors, the League of the Golden Key, a secret society dedicated to freeing the oppressed and imprisoned. They are the source of the mystic key that grants the Escapist his powers, having granted it to Tom's uncle after freeing him from kidnappers when he was younger.I've been thinking about Superman lately (teaching him tomorrow, see) and about superheroes more generally, not least pondering the question of why they have become so culturally ubiquitous in the last decade or so. Should I go back to Kavalier & Clay? (What if it's not as good as I remember?)
Anyway: I'm struck by Chabon's governing metaphor in this novel, and wondering about how it scales to thinking about Superman and his variants. I mean escape, the actual superpower of The Escapist, translating into (comic) text the actual life-story of Kavalier, whose training as an escapologst in Czechoslovakia facilitated his escape from the Nazis (inside a coffin also containing the famous Golem of Prague). The novel spins various riffs on this theme: Clay is imprisoned by his own body in terms of disease, of his shyness, but also his, for the 1940s-50s, socially unacceptable sexual orientation, and his through-line narrative explores the ways in which he might ‘escape’ that as-it-were prison. It's also, obviously enough, Chabon twitting the notion that SF and comics are mere escapism, which is to say, the notion that such escapism is in any sense bad.
There are less successful grace-notes on the theme too: halfway through the novel Kavalier joins the navy, hoping to be able to fight Hitler; but is instead posted to a base in the Antarctic. A blocked chimney kills everyone inside by carbon monoxide posioning, all except Kavalier who is able to escape. For me this episode is a misstep, and the novel starts to lose it way afterwards. Your mileage may vary. But I very much like the way Clay is so-named both on account of his connection with the magical baked-clay golem, but also as a clef, a key, a magical way out of prison.
It is, though interesting to reconsider Superman as an escapologist rather than a super-strong, invulnerable godling, or anything along those sorts of lines. To suggest that the important thing about him was not so much that he came to Earth to fight ‘for truth, justice and the American way’ but that he came from a dying world, that he managed to escape certain death and get away. I mean, it requires some fogging of the lens to make that case, I think (Kal-El was a baby when he left Krypton after all, sent out like a parcel: he can take no credit for that escape), and I'm not sure I see that being Clark Kent was in any existential sense a prison for Superman. On the contrary, the problem with Clark Kent is that that identity is too fragile, too liable to be seen-through by anyone prepared to look twice, or add two and two. Still, that's not Chabon's take, here. ‘“To me, Clark Kent in a phone booth and Houdini in a packing crate, they were one and the same thing,” Kavalier would learnedly expound at WonderCon or Angoulême or to the editor of The Comics Journal. “You weren't the same person when you came out as when you went in”.’ I can sort-of see that.
But if I'm honest, the superheroes are escapologists line seems to me to put the emphasis in the wrong place. The power-fantasy of being Superman is in the can-do, isn't it? The strength and magical powers to do anything. The only can-do manifested by escapologists is that they can and do get out of the locked-box, a power that kicks-in only if they've been locked in the box in the first place. You might want to argue existentially, as it were: that in an escapological universe there are only boxes and so on; but I'm not sure how much I buy-into that particular weltanschauung, either speaking just as me, personally, or as a way of reading superheroes. Isn't it a confusion of the old chestnut concerning freedom? I mean that freedom from and freedom to are quite different valences of the term. Chabon's interested in the former, where Superman strikes me as being all about the latter. Isn't there a kind of Berlinian muddling going on here?
Krypton is backstory where Superman is concerned; the story is Earth, Lois Lane, Lex Luthor and so on. Isn't it? But neither of Chabon's two main characters can escape the past, and one of the things the novel is, tacitly rather than directly, saying is: the utter destruction of Krypton, which is to say the Holocaust, still defines what it means to be a Jew, even today. Chabon, to be fair, does hint at ways of reconfiguring, or of trying to reconfigure, the vector of escapologist (‘“Forget about what you are escaping from,” he said, quoting an old maxim of Kornblum's. “Reserve your anxiety for what you are escaping to”.’) I don't know if he quite manages this, though.
Maybe I'm being unfair. The Superman is a Jew argument has been so thoroughly rehearsed, nowsadays as to have become pretty much a cliché: so, sure, he comes from a dying world with an exotic-sounding name, but he comes to America, like millions of immigrants before him, and reinvents himself as a clean-cut, suit-wearing, hard-worker with a gentile name. All that. And in parallel with that thesis is the idea, which I kick around in my Palgrave History of SF, that as SF owes its orgins to, and still contains in its semiological DNA a bunch of questions to do with, the Protestant Reformation (read the book if you want to know more), so the huge vogue in SF superhero characters, from Superman in 1938 through Paul Atreides in the 60s, Neo in the 90s and then back to the big-budget megagrossing MCU movies of the last decade and a half, are all ways of thinking through anxieties to do with the nature and status of the messiah, one of several grounds of ferocious contention between Catholics and Protestants in the 16th and 17th century that still, shorn of its doctrinal specificity, has powerful resonance to day. How are we saved? Are we saved? What kind of figure is this saviour, anyway? Man, or god? Strange mixture of the two? Can he marry and have kids, or is that impossible for him? If he's so powerful and good at saving, how are we not all saved and happy now? And so on.
One view of baby-superman in his escape-pod is that it's a version of baby Moses floating down the river in his basket. Sure, why not. Except ... well, except that there's little that's specifically Mosaic about grown-up Superman, is there? There's none of that let-my-people-go or burning-bush stuff even in analogue. Where (and here I'm tiptoing back to the idea that maybe Chabon has a point) there is a specifically escapological element to Christ, the prototype, I'm arguing, whose secularised iterations so dominate our present-day comic book narratives. Christ himself is locked in a tomb, with a giant stone in front of its mouth, but he gets out, Houdini-like. In a more profound sense Christ is locked in a magic box, called ‘death’, whose absolute inescapability is proved by the fact that although literally everybody in the world is locked in it at one point or another, literally none of those people have ever found a way out. But Christ does find a way out, and his apostles repeat the trick, in a stepped-down mundane sense, by breaking out of brick-and-mortar prisons. With a little angelic help, of course.
And when [Herod] had apprehended him, he put him in prison, and delivered him to four quaternions of soldiers to keep him; intending after Easter to bring him forth to the people. Peter therefore was kept in prison: but prayer was made without ceasing of the church unto God for him. And when Herod would have brought him forth, the same night Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains: and the keepers before the door kept the prison. And, behold, the angel of the Lord came upon him, and a light shined in the prison: and he smote Peter on the side, and raised him up, saying, Arise up quickly. And his chains fell off from his hands. [Acts 12:4-7]Pretty escapological, that, right down to the trick with the chains. Nor can the ordinary punters work out how the trick was done: ‘as soon as it was day, there was no small stir among the soldiers, what was become of Peter. And when Herod had sought for him, and found him not, he examined the keepers, and commanded that they should be put to death.’ Maybe that is what superheroes are about after all: breaking chains and getting out of jail as a metaphor for breaking death and evading mortality. Here's a 1939 Captain Marvel cover showing him doing both things at once:
1992's big comic event sold itself on its sheer outrageousness: Superman? Dead? The very idea!
But of course he's not dead, or rather he's only temporarily dead. The creators knew, and so did the fans, that he'd be back. And so it proved. Not dying is the key thing Superman does for us, after all.
We might say that the point of superheroes is that they blur the line between being and not being our saviours. They aren't Christ, except insofar as they symbolically are. They save the world only to discover that the world somehow isn't saved (as Mr Incredible himself says: ‘no matter how many times you save the world, it always manages to get back in jeopardy again. Sometimes I just want it to stay saved! You know, for a little bit? I feel like the maid: I just cleaned up this mess! Can we keep it clean for... for ten minutes?’)—which is another way of saying that they save the world in a material but not a spiritual sense, I suppose. And maybe that's the real escapology at work here. To quote Chabon again, from a different novel: ‘a messiah who actually arrives is no good to anybody. A hope fulfilled is already half a disappointment’ [Yiddish Policeman's Union, ch. 39]. We want but also don't want our saviour to come, and SF's superheroes deliver on both halves of that conflicted desire, just as SF itself both puts its fans in touch with a transcendent sublime (the scale of the universe, the sense of wonder) that is at root basically religious and flees religion into realms of exaggerated materialism, technology and science. A tricky piece of escapological evasion, really.