I know every gray cloud comes with a silver lining, but what about the big white cotton ball clouds -- those poofs of meteorological perfection bouncing rays of sunshine off their creamy dollops of contentment? Do you think they have any bad parts? And come to mention it, have you ever stopped to notice how the most amazing little weeds sprout between the cracks in the pavement? Okay, I gave it away. I'm in love. Issue 3 of The Escapists came out this month, and well...I'm all gushy 'n' stuff.
The Escapists is the latest in the line of comic book spin-offs inspired by Bay Area writer Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. Very basically, the story follows Joe Kavalier and Sam Clay as they create a successful comic book character, The Escapist, who saves the day thwarting crime in the 1940's. Since this beautiful novel landed on the scene, many modern day comics artists and writers have taken up this fictional world and published the Escapists books they think Kavalier & Clay would have created.
The result has yielded a stack of comics with fake 1940's publication dates (including bylines for Joe Kavalier and Sam Clay), creating a REAL collection of this fictional title. Being a huge fan of the novel, I was excited to see The Escapist come to life, but the problem was that the character's premise was never really that dynamic. There is a nice nostalgic camp to The Escapist's exploits, fighting Nazis, infiltrating secret societies and tangling with beguiling, but it is a solidly one-dimensional pull. Beyond just wanting to spend a little more time in the Kavalier & Clay world, there was little modern pizzazz to these Escapist incarnations.
For me, the longing pause I give to my tattered copy of Kavalier & Clay whenever I pass it in my bookcase isn't because I wish I could pick up a copy of a fictional comic -- it's because I deeply miss spending time with Joe and Sam, the fictional creators of that comic. Therein lies the thrill of the new Escapists -- it acknowledges the glossy appeal of its crime-fighting superhero namesake, while elevating the meaning of the character back up to the delicious metaphor for creativity that it was meant to be.
Basically, The Escapists is set in the modern day, with the conceit that Kavalier and Clay actually existed, and so did their comics handiwork. 20-something outsider Maxwell Roth finds himself orphaned in Issue 1, while also discovering that his late father was a rabid fan of the now-forgotten Escapist hero. Max then uses his inheritance to purchase the rights to the character, blow the dust off the idea, and enlist a team of writers and illustrators to help him revamp and renew the title. His partners are Case Weaver, an illustrator with moxie and talent to burn, and Denny Jones, a beefy jock with a knack for lettering and sticking up for his gawky pal.
Following all of this comics-within-a-comic metafiction business? Good. Believe me, it's worth it. Writer Brian K. Vaughan (he's real, by the way), imbues his characters with snappy dialogue and sincere motivations that keep the story exciting and relatable. In Issue 2, the gang deploys guerilla marketing to get the word out for their broke enterprise by outfitting the strapping Denny in an Escapist suit and staging random publicity stunts. Of course, things don't go exactly as planned, including when the coveted first review turns out to be negative. There's a romance element building between Max and Case, and the coming of yet more use of our postmodern prefix when metaphysical coincidences start to take place whenever Denny puts on the Escapist suit.
And all this conceptual derring do doesn't stop with the art, either. The comic volleys between two distinct visual styles to tell the story -- the cartoony, modern polish used to depict Max's life, and the edgy, painterly pages inserted from Max's comic. Steve Rolston (real, too) draws the traditional narrative in Issues 2 and 3, and his casual yet complete style, and knack for impactful facial expressions fits perfectly with the idea of a group of young idealists working together on a labor of love. Jason S. Alexander (real person) contributes the pages ostensibly drawn by the fictional Case Weaver. Alexander's style is dark, raw, and sketchy -- the perfect contrast to Rolston's rounded figures and pop colors. The attitude expressed by Alexander is a seamless extension of Case's sass and impulsiveness. Better yet, the new Escapists seems to have learned from the mistakes of earlier adaptations, and provides a clever device for jazzing up its depiction of The Escapist in action with more than musty superhero shtick.
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay truly tapped into the imaginations of its readers -- inspiring everything from faux-historical research, loving tributes from comics' heavyweights, and even a subplot on The O.C.. But no spin-off has captured the excitement and emotion of the novel more fully, and with more dazzling craft than The Escapists, Seth Cohen's dimpled wisecracks notwithstanding. Reframing the adaptation to focus again on the creators, rather than their creation, brings back the dewy charm of following likeable characters as they struggle towards a goal. Like the 600-plus page tome from whence they came, I could just go on and on about these books, but I'm afraid I'm going to have to stop there. You see, I have a hot date with Issue 4 coming up, and gee whiz, I think it could be serious.