Hey, it’s a comic book about people who create comic books. How reflexive! How precious! And how unexpectedly wonderful!
If you’ve read Michael Chabon’s brilliant The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, you’re familiar with the character of the Escapist. Looking at the facts literally, the Escapist is a character created by two young Jewish boys in the 1930s. Symbolically, though, the Escapist has deeper meaning.
As you might gather, the Escapist is a symbol of freedom–freedom from Nazi oppression, from grinding poverty, and from the shackles of being an ignorant immigrant who barely speaks the native language in a vast and uncaring country. The Escapist is also a symbol of the fact that freedom can sometimes be ephemeral.
It can often be easy to become free, but it can be much more difficult to remain free. No matter the chains that one escapes from, there is often a different set of chains that one is racing to. For Kavalier and Clay, the chains they escape to are an obscure sort of oblivion. In Chabon’s book, Kavalier and Clay are virtually forgotten in the comics industry, and their greatest hero is consigned to the history books.
Appropriately enough, Brian K. Vaughan’s take on the Escapist embraces the concept of escaping. This new book tells the story of three people in their early 20s who live in Cleveland and are beginning to publish new adventures of the Escapist. The story is about the dangerous stunt they take to publicize their comic, and of the unpredictable ramifications of that stunt.
It’s appropriate that the characters in this book live in Cleveland, as that was the home town of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the creators of Superman. Kavalier and Clay were, of course, loosely based on Superman’s creators; Vaughan quite deliberately creates a connection between comics’ past and present by setting the book in that city.
Maxwell Roth is the main instigator behind the resurrection of the Escapist. After his father dies suddenly, Maxwell discovers that his dad had a secret life. He was perhaps the world’s greatest collector of Escapist memorabilia.
Not surprisingly, Maxwell is fascinated by the discovery of his father’s secret identity, and he uses his inheritance to buy the long-moribund rights to the Escapist so that he can begin publishing comics that feature the character. Along the way, he meets Case Weaver, a female illustrator whom he admires deeply from afar, and Denny Jones, his letterer and a man whose very broad shoulders will bring a very interesting plot twist into this comic.
The book unfolds in unexpected ways as Vaughan shows us the lives of characters who are admirable and deeply flawed. Maxwell, Case, and Denny all have lives that progress in unexpected ways. For instance, Maxwell seems to be an uncomplicated nebbish at first, but he becomes more complex and intriguing as the story moves on. In subtle ways, Maxwell grows a great deal as the story unfolds–giving the book a wonderful feeling of closure as it moves along.
Steve Rolston’s naturalistic art and traditional page layouts give the book a solid, grounded feel that benefits it well. I especially enjoyed the way Rolston depicts all the various odd situations in which the characters find themselves.
As the story unfolds, readers also get a much-appreciated look at the Escapist comics that Maxwell, Case, and Denny create. Those pages are drawn by Jason Shawn Alexander in a kind of Jae Lee-style angularity, with full-page bleeds and luscious color. This comic-within-a-comic stands out nicely from the more grounded work that surrounds it, which gives this book a welcomed and intriguing sense of contrast.
Vaughan has lived up to the challenge thrown down by Michael Chabon. While The Escapists doesn’t have the poignancy or intense political complexity of Chabon’s work, Vaughan delivers an interesting modern meditation into the art of escape.