30 July 2009

No Escape

One of the major themes in Michael Chabon's sprawling Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is how most early American comic-book creators didn't control the copyrights of the characters and stories they created, and thus never made big money.

Like Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster (described in Marc Tyler Nobleman's Boys of Steel), Chabon's fictional Joe Kavalier and Sam Clay co-create a popular comic-book superhero. But their Escapist never wins them royalties, a big share of the radio and movie revenue, or job security. 

(The novel has a lot more going on than that, including flight from the Third Reich, Greenwich Village bohemianism, stage magic and escape acts, closeted homosexuality, WW2, the Empire State Building, and Levittown. We even see Chabon's interest in polar regions, which resurfaces in Summerland and The Yiddish Policeman's Union.)

The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay became so popular in comic-book circles that it inspired its own sequels in comics form. One set of follow-up consists of the comic-book adventures of the Escapist as supposedly told by Kavalier and Clay. I haven't read those books, and note only that they show the comics world's unabashed happiness with adaptations and spin-offs of other people's work, an enterprise that the world of literary fiction tends to look down on (unless, of course, it's an exercise in postmodernism).

Another Kavalier and Clay comics spin-off was written by ace scripter Brian K. Vaughan and illustrated by a team of top artists, primarily Steve Rolston, Philip Bond, Jason Shawn Alexander, and Eduardo Barreto. It shows three young people setting out to update the character of the Escapist for the 21st century, eventually losing the rights to a corporation subtly named Omnigrip. Chabon added a short story about a meeting between Clay and a young version of Vaughan outside a comics convention in the 1970s. All that material has been collected into a single volume called The Escapists.

Given the copyright theme of both the original novel and that Escapists follow-up, I was struck by this notice in the back of the latter book: "Introduction, text, and illustrations © 2007 Michael Chabon."

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