Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Re-examining pulp comics

Author Michael Chabon to speak about literature genres

Express Staff Writer

Michael Chabon Photo by Stephanie Rausser

Michael Chabon is a writer of singular imagination. His books are wild and wooly affairs that inhabit worlds that—like comics—only slightly bear a resemblance to anything the reader might know. Chabon consistently pulls the reader into worlds inhabited by charming, complex, ambitious characters.

Chabon, 45, lives in Berkeley, Calif., with his wife, writer Aylett Waldman, and their four children, ages 14, 11, 7 and 5. Sponsored by the Sun Valley Center for the Arts, he will appear at the Presbyterian Church of the Big Wood in Ketchum on Tuesday, Dec. 9, at 7 p.m. The talk is part of The Center's lecture series and is related to its current exhibition, "Superheroes & Secret Identities."

One of Chabon's most acclaimed books, "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay" takes place in 1939 when a young artist, Josef Kavalier, arrives in New York after escaping—Houdini style—from Nazi-occupied Prague. In trying to make some money to help his family left behind, he teams up with his cousin Sammy Clay to write comic books. Their adventure is exuberant, historical and also about personal transformation.

"Comics are a very potent medium," Chabon said. "It's an irresistible form."

In fact, comics are where the grand battle between good and evil are played out, especially in the early days when World War II and the Nazis were on everyone's minds. They are where the hidden power people wish they had flourishes, and the ways we hide behind real and imagined masks are revealed.

"When you combine those desires with this strong medium you can really be connected to create in a powerful way," Chabon said. "It's still at play—the desire for escape and transformation."

Chabon was, like many, a fan of comics when he was growing up.

"It was a passion that definitely abated in my late teens and 20s," he said. "I resumed the habit in 1994 and read them again. I wanted to get material from the period. When I got back into it, it was because I was going to write this novel about the heyday of comics, the 1930s to '40s. I was looking around for a means of entry that I felt was interesting to me and also would feel fresh."

He certainly found it. "Kavalier and Clay" manages to instruct the reader on the history of the comic book industry, supply the reader with a meaty romance, be a family drama, slide in a war story and involve a number of celebrities of the day. It's a work of genius.

"It seemed that the early history of the comics was like a great portal," he said. "I read a lot of non-fiction on the period and on the men who started the superhero comics. There's a new book 'Men of Tomorrow,' by Jerry Jones that is great. There are early stories about Superman. It focuses on the business side of it—the men who created the industry—fascinating story."

In the past eight years since "Kavalier & Clay" revived his interest in comics, Chabon has been a guest at comic conventions and given many talks similar to the one he'll give here. For DC Comics he wrote "JSA: All-Stars #7" featuring his favorite character, Mr. Terrific. He also wrote a draft of "Spider-Man 2." And then there was the publication of the quarterly anthology of comic stories featuring Kavalier & Clay's fictional superhero, the Escapist, entitled "Michael Chabon Presents: The Amazing Adventures of the Escapist" by Dark Horse Comics. Very cool. He's also edited two anthologies of pulp-inspired stories for McSweeney's, and written a "story of detection" featuring Sherlock Holmes.

Meanwhile, "Kavalier and Clay" won the Pulitzer Prize, and the Bay Area Book Reviewer's Award and was a finalist for both the Pen/Faulkner award and the National Book Critics Circle Award.

Though he has written since on other subjects, ("The Yiddish Policeman's Union" came out in 2007), Chabon is still a comic-book-reading kid. It helps that his kids read newer models.

"At different times, I've had various favorites," he said. "I'll just say one of the ones I've most enjoyed recently is 'Planetary,' a series by Warren Ellis, drawn by John Cassaday. It's wonderful stuff, very self-aware. My 14-year old is into Manga. My 11-year-old son is totally into 'Usagi Yojimbo,' an on-going series about samurais in feudal Japan.

"There are at least two generations of comic book writers now. There's a lot of conceptual ones like 'The Watchman,' and Frank Miller's 'The Dark Night Returns.' These are landmark works of self-referential comic book heroes."

But writing for the comics was never before considered respectable and the business clings to its precarious shelf at the local drug store. Chabon does more than merely buy a few of what used to be known as the "funnies" for his kids. In his new non-fiction collection of stories praising genre literature, "Maps and Legends," he writes, "Not only are comics appealing to a wider and older audience than ever before, but the idea of comics as a valid art form ... is widely if not quite universally accepted."

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