The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay

April 10, 2011

Heroism is much more fraught for real people than it is for superheroes.

The central theme running through The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is that of escape. Joe Kavalier, a young Jewish boy from Prague trained as an escape artist, begins the story with his escape from a Europe under the looming shadow of Hitler. In the New York of the ’30s, Joe and his cousin, Sam Clay, make their fortunes creating comic books, and their first hero is The Escapist1 Throughout, Joe is tormented by his consistently frustrated attempts to help his family escape from Czechoslovakia, and then he struggles to escape the guilt of his assumed failure. Finally, at the story’s end, the medium of comic books comes under senate investigation for engendering sordid escapism among young boys in America.

One feels for Joe, whose story brings to light the fraught nature of escape. One the one hand, we celebrate the survivor who escapes from evil. And yet there is such a thing as survivor’s guilt, based perhaps on the plausible idea that every person who escapes some evil leaves one less person to resist it. As a society, I think we’re of two minds regarding escape, unsure whether it’s a kind of heroic self-rescue or cowardly fleeing. And at what point is it one or the other? Are we ethically obliged to fight evil, even overwhelming evil, when our escape will leave those who remain more vulnerable? Or is this just a decision each person must make for himself, leaving us with the ethical maxim of last resort: act such that you can live with yourself? Now, having escaped to America, Joe and his cousin create a hit comic that vilifies the Nazis, which probably has some small effect in turning the tide of American popular opinion against Hitler’s army. To continue to fight after fleeing seems like it might absolve the guilt of the escapee, but it isn’t enough for Joe.

You know who else is forced into this kind of ethical dilemma? Superheroes. As we learn from Uncle Ben in the Spider-Man series, “with great power comes great responsibility,”2 and yet any hero who would take up this calling would immediately place at risk those they love most (as The Dark Knight brilliantly illustrates). Is this why superheroes’ origin stories so often get the tragedy out of the way early? Superman loses his home planet–everything he loves–so when he gets to Earth he is unencumbered by the possibility of loss and can fight evil without hesitation. But what if he had a family, one dependent on his wages at the Daily Planet to put food on the table? It couldn’t work. Heroism isn’t so simple for real people–it starts to seem selfish and rash when you’re risking other peoples’ lives besides your own. So the superhero must either fight endless evil and in doing so put at risk everyone and everything he loves, or shamefully shirk the great responsibility that comes with great power. I see a similarity to the predicament of the potential escapee, who must either stay and fight and maybe (sometimes certainly) die, or escape with his life and suffer the guilt of having abandoned those he left behind.

The fact of it is that evil isn’t fair, and yet it seems we collectively put the burden of this unfairness on the shoulders of heroes and victims. We’d fault Superman if he, with his amazing powers, chose to live a normal life while evil triumphed. And perhaps we’d blame (or at least allow to blame himself) someone who escapes from evil when he, with his normal human powers, might have stayed to fight it? But shouldn’t we then fault ourselves for the escapism of comic books (or television, or shopping, or whatever else) when the world has problems we could lend out hands to solve? If great power brings great responsibility, then shouldn’t modest power beget modest responsibility? How much could we mitigate the tragedy of both heroes and escapees if regular people had the backbone to stand up to evil?

And yet, the end of the book brings something of a celebration of escapism:

Having lost his mother, father, brother, an grandfather, the friends and foes of his youth, his beloved teacher Bernard Kornblum, his city, his history–his home–the usual charge leveled against comic books, that they offered merely an escape from reality, seemed to Joe actually to be a powerful argument on their behalf…

The escape from reality was, he felt–especially right after the war–a worthy challenge… The pain of his loss–though he would never have spoken of it in those terms–was always with him in those days, a cold smooth ball lodged in his chest, just behind his sternum. For that half hour spent in the dappled shade of the Douglas firs, reading Betty and Veronica, the icy ball had melted away without him even noticing. That was the magic–not the apparent magic of a silk-hatted card-palmer, or the bold, brute trickery of the escape artist, but the genuine magic of art. It was a mark of how fucked-up and broken was the world–the reality–that had swallowed his home and his family that such a feat of escape, by no means easy to pull off, should remain so universally despised. (576)

Of course, our society is terribly conflicted about escapism as well. We laud an engaging movie or symphony that carries us out of our heads for a while, yet we condemn drugs (or even video games) for having the same effect. I think it comes down to an ethical question for which I don’t have an answer: what is our moral responsibility to the real world?

  1. “No cuffs can hold him. No lock is secure. Coming to the rescue of those who toil in the chains of tyranny and injustice” (153) 

  2. The idea goes back at least to Jesus who declared, according to Luke 12:48, that “to whom much is given, much will be required.”