The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon

Some books grow in repute over years as if by gestation. This novel by Michael Chabon ( has quietly become something of a cult classic, readers smiling to themselves about its genius. I wonder if you’ll agree that it’s an astoundingly good read.

The summary is as follows. Josef Kavalier smuggles himself out of occupied Prague in a coffin and ends up ‘slumped like a question mark against the door frame’ in the Brooklyn bedroom of his cousin Sammy Clay. Together they invent ‘The Escapist’, a cartoon superhero ‘whose power would be that of impossible and perpetual escape’. Escape, indeed, is this novel’s preoccupation. While their superhero trounces Hitler in their pages, Josef obsessively tries to free his family from the Nazis and Sam, covertly gay in an era of bigotry, has his own bonds to slip.

As the novel develops, both Sammy and Josef find their creative niches, one entrepreneurial, the latter’s artistic. Beyond having a shared interest in drawing, they share several connections to Jewish stage magician Harry Houdini. Josef (like comics legend Jim Steranko) studied magic and escapology in Prague, which aided him in his departure from Europe. Sammy is the son of the ‘Mighty Molecule’, a strongman on the vaudeville circuit.

When Sammy discovers Joe’s artistic talent, he gets him a job as an illustrator for a novelty products company, Empire Novelty. Sheldon Anapol, owner of Empire, motivated to share in the recent cultural and financial success of Superman, is attempting to break into the comic-book business. Under the name “Sam Clay”, Sammy starts writing adventure stories with Joe as illustrator. The two recruit several other Brooklyn teenagers to produce Amazing Midget Radio Comics. The magazine features ‘the Escapist’, an anti-fascist superhero who combines traits of (among others) Captain America, Harry Houdini, Batman, the Phantom, and the Scarlet Pimpernel. ‘The Escapist’ becomes tremendously popular, but Sammy and Joe are slow to realize that they are being exploited.

Sammy develops a romantic relationship with the radio voice of ‘The Escapist’, Tracy Bacon. Bacon’s movie-star good looks initially intimidate Clay, but later they fall in love. When Tracy is cast as ‘The Escapist’ in the film adaptation of the now-popular franchise, he invites Clay to move to Hollywood with him, an offer that Clay accepts. But later, when Bacon and Clay go to a friend’s beach house with several other gay couples, the private dinner is raided by the local police. All of the men at the party are arrested, except for two who hide under the dinner table, one of whom is Sam Clay. The adventure continues from there.

Many events in the novel are based on the lives of actual comic-book creators including Jack Kirby (to whom the book is dedicated in the afterword), Bob Kane, Stan Lee, Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster, Joe Simon, Will Eisner, and Jim Steranko. Other historical figures play minor roles, including Salvador Dalí, Al Smith, Orson Welles, and Fredric Wertham. The novel’s time span roughly mirrors that of the Golden Age of Comics itself, starting from shortly after the debut of Superman and concluding with the Kefauver Senate hearings, two events often used to demarcate the era.

Throw yourself into these amazing adventures. Danger, romance, tragedy and triumph – are all written in the immaculate, shining prose of a confident novelist. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay won the Pultzer Prize for Fiction in 2001.

Enquire at your local library. Check if this important title is in stock by consulting the online catalogue at

643 pages in Fourth Estate

First published 2000

ISBN  978-1841154930

Michael Chabon

Scroll to Top