guttergeek the discontinuous review of graphic narrative

June 2007

Brian K. Vaughan, Jason S. Alexander, Steve Rolston, et al, The Escapists (Dark Horse, 2006). $2.99, six-issue miniseries.

By Alex Boney

If there’s a prose novel that has gotten more mileage in the comics world than Michael Chabon’s
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (2000), I’m not sure what it is. Maybe Philip Wylie’s Gladiator (1930), which Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster seem to have mined extensively when creating Superman. But while Gladiator still sits tucked away in relative obscurity, Chabon’s novel brought widespread mainstream attention (from readers of both highbrow and lowbrow fiction) to the comics world. It also won a Pulitzer Prize along the way. Kavalier and Clay tells a compelling story, but Chabon’s signature metatextual blend of real-world historical details and fictional invention is what makes the novel most interesting—especially to comics insiders who recognized many of the subtle industry references and clever homages. It’s a novel that was tailor-made for a comic book adaptation. And like most comic book adaptations, it could have flopped miserably. But in collaboration with Chabon, Dark Horse chose to go a very different route with the source material. The company has been sporadically publishing a “spin-off” book called The Amazing Adventures of the Escapist during the last few years. But while the Escapist stories have been somewhat hit-and-miss on the whole, the concept has reached its high point in the recent The Escapists miniseries.

If ever a comic book were tailor-made for metatextuality, it is
The Escapists. When Dark Horse launched The Amazing Adventures of the Escapist in 2004, the writers and editors created a fictional framework that purported to be real. Sam Clay and Joe Kavalier were supposedly real-life comics creators who inhabited the same world as Joe Simon, Jack Kirby, Jerry Siegel, and Joe Shuster. They worked for a real-world/fictional comics company called Radio Comics—the publisher of the Escapist stories. All the advertisements, write-ups, and retrospectives surrounding the Golden Age Escapist stories were written as through the character and his creators had always been part of comics history. This trick isn’t particularly new. The Blair Witch Project (1999) staged a similar blending of fiction and reality in its multi-media rollout, while Marvel Comics and Wizard pulled off an elaborate hoax when they launched The Sentry in 2000. But because Chabon was in on the act, the layers of fiction and reality gradually became more complex and refined. This wasn’t just a hoax.

The Escapists is the culmination of two years of fictional framing. The book’s main character, a Cleveland native named Max Roth, discovers an extensive stash of Escapist memorabilia in his basement after his father dies. As Max grows older, he tries to revive interest in the character. He purchases the rights to the Escapist with his inheritance and decides to write the character’s adventures in a new comics series. He recruits his best friend from childhood—Denny Jones—to letter the book, and he hires an attractive young woman named Case Weaver to provide the art. The main ingredients of The Escapists are loosely patterned on the central elements of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, and the action of the comic story loosely follows the action of Chabon’s novel. But this isn’t just a modernized adaptation. The characters are aware of at least part of the original source material in the interior fictional frame. Denny wears and Escapist costume at one point, while Case dons a Luna Moth costume later in the book. In fact, Escapist superhero sequences (supposedly written and illustrated by Max and his friends) are inserted occasionally into the story to mirror or foreshadow the events the creators experience in their real lives. Themes of loyalty, betrayal, and friendship link both narrative strains throughout the series.

It’s sometimes difficult to tell where the real and faux worlds meet and diverge in
The Escapists, but this complexity ends up being more of a reward than a hindrance. Vaughan sets up the multiple layers on the first page of the first issue, as Max reflects on Cleveland in a series of establishing panels: “Superman and I have the same hometown. This is where two Jewish teenagers named Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster created the Man of Steel. This is the city where R. Crumb helped change the face of underground commix. This is the city that gave birth to Bendis, Azzarello, and dozens of the political cartoonists and strip artists who fill your newspapers. I have no idea what makes Cleveland such a comic-book town…but I don’t know why the hell we’re the rock-and-roll capital of the world either, so there you go.” Max Roth’s narrative voice is relaxed and engaging enough to pull the reader of Vaughan’s world into the fabricated circumstances of Max’s world and to accept both as plausible truth. By the end of the first issue, all that matters is what happens to these characters. Readers familiar with Chabon’s novel will have some idea of where all this is heading. But seeing the events played out under a different set of circumstances in the modern world can easily lead the reader to forget what he thinks he knows. Dramatic tension and urgency are still very much what drive this book.

Vaughan’s deft handling of the narrative would not work without an equally talented art team. Steve Rolston (who handles the Max Roth sequences) and Jason S. Alexander (who handles the Escapist sequences) complement each other well throughout the series. The artists’ individual styles are well-suited to the parts of the story they illustrate. Rolston, who took over art chores from Philip Bond after issue #1, is a natural fit for the outer narrative. His sharp inks and panel compositions allow for the variety of gestures, postures, and facial expressions needed to convey the “real-world” focus of Max’s story. In contrast, Alexander’s style captures the darker tone and sleek, kinetic energy of modern superhero comics. Rolston plays Vertigo to Alexander’s Marvel, and the combination provides a full, rich palette that effectively illustrates Vaughan’s ambitious story.

The Escapists is a smart book that respects not only Chabon’s novel, but also the history and the art of the comics medium as a whole. The book is rewarding in the same way that the American Splendor film is rewarding: It merges and navigates multiple planes of art and fiction while telling a compelling, often moving story about human desires, failures, and successes. Inexplicably, The Escapists was left off the nomination list for this year’s Eisner awards. I have no hesitation in insisting that the nomination committee got this one wrong. This is probably the best comic book limited series I’ve read this year.