Jul 18, 2010

Comics Cube! Reviews: The Escapists

Back in November, after reading a bunch of good reviews about it and heading off to the sale, I acquired a copy of The Escapists, written by Brian K. Vaughan and drawn by Steve Rolston, Jason Shawn Alexander, and Eduardo Barreto.

It is one of the best comics I have ever read. Scratch that - it is one of the best works of fiction I have ever read. Scratch that, too - it is one of the best things I have ever had the pleasure of experiencing, period.

At the time, it was Eduardo Barreto's name that drew me to the work more so than those of the others, since I'd never read Vaughan's work and hadn't even heard of the other two. (That, and I didn't even know Barreto was still active.) And of course, there's this gorgeous, stunning Alex Ross cover, which stands out distinctly from most other Alex Ross covers because it's not just a bunch of people standing or flying to a corner or striking a distinctive, heroic pose.

For those who can't recognize the character in the middle, that's the Escapist, a fictional comic book character created in Michael Chabon's Pulitzer Prize-winning The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, which is the finest novel I've ever read, and if you as a comics fan haven't read it yet, I suggest you stop reading this now, go to the store or online and buy a copy, read it, and then come back here. No, really. I can wait. You can press Ctrl+D on your keyboard so you never lose this link. Go.

Are you back yet? Well, good, now we can get to The Escapists.

In Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, two Jewish kids named Joe Kavalier and Sam Clay, in the Golden Age of comics, created the Escapist, whose comics revolutionized the industry. The Escapist, if I may, was a character as big as - well, not Superman - maybe Batman was in the real world, and a comic as inventive and influential as Will Eisner's The Spirit. In fact, Michael Chabon's portrayal of Joe Kavalier was very much influenced by Will Eisner in terms of his inventiveness (and by Jim Steranko in the sense that he was an escape artist, but that's not really relevant).

Now, you don't need to have read Kavalier and Clay to get this story - it works just fine without it and it does a good job of briefing you on what you need (you know, like comics are supposed to be able to do) without overwhelming you with information, but Kavalier and Clay is such a good book. Go read it anyway.

The Escapists is set in Michael Chabon's fictional world and the present day, and at this point in time, the Escapist has been mostly forgotten - another of a long line of comic book Golden Age characters lost to the the sands of time. The book follows his biggest fan, Max Roth, who is the main protagonist of the story. Max's father was the most avid collector of Escapist comics and memorabilia, which was his inheritance to Max. And when Max's mother dies, he uses his inheritance from her life insurance to buy the rights to the character and revive him for a new audience. To do this, he enlists the help of artist Case Weaver, a girl he meets shortly before his mom passes away, and his lifelong friend, Denny Jones, as letterer. To promote their book, they have Denny dress up in an Escapist costume to pull a publicity stunt, but then he inadvertently stops a real crime, and that's when things start snowballing for our heroes, as the stunt makes a major corporation want to take the rights of the Escapist away from them. However, despite the adventurous excitement of this plot, the true heart of the story is in what it says about the creative process, both in the context of the story itself and in how the story is told.

Two art styles dominate the story. Steve Rolston handles the "real world" sequences, while Jason Shawn Alexander handles the Escapist scenes. It's an interesting dynamic, because Rolston's style is very cartoony, while Alexander's style is reminiscent of Jae Lee's - very dark and angular, and very based in realism. It supports the commonly held belief that a cartoony style is more inviting for a reader to relate to - the fewer the lines, the easier it is for the reader to project themselves into it.

Look at this sequence, when Max pitches the Escapist idea to Case. See that look on Case's face, and how it shifts into a sarcastic tone? It's done in a few lines, but the thing is, we've all made those faces, we've all made that shift, and therefore we can all see ourselves in Case's position of skepticism, just like in other panels, we can all see ourselves in Max's position of having a dream. In other words, because of Steve Rolston's style, it's easier for us to imagine ourselves in these characters' positions.

Here's another example, when Case asks Max to a movie. Look at those expressions. Rolston gets it just right. We know exactly what these characters are thinking, and we don't need a bunch of narrative captions to tell us.

On the other hand, Jason Shawn Alexander's style serves the same purpose as a lot of darker, grittier superhero art, and therefore, it's not about relating; it's about being a spectator. There's the feeling of watching something "other" taking place. That's why they use him to depict the scenes featuring the Escapist:

But I think the flashes of brilliance in the book lie when they have Alexander depict the real-world sequences, or rather, when the Alexander-drawn sequences are given the real-world narration. It's a technique I've only ever seen Chris Ware use in his short story "I Guess," and the result is an interesting juxtaposition of something going on in the art and something else going on in the words - a parallel combination that ends up coinciding and therefore resonating even more than it would if it were just done straight. (It would, of course, be tiresome if the entire book was done this way, which is why the combination of Rolston and Alexander is important). For example, when Denny stops the robbery, he doesn't tell Max or Case what actually happened, so they made a myth out of it, so it's drawn by Alexander:

But when it shows up on TV, we're now experiencing it as the characters are, so it's drawn by Rolston:

The difference between the two styles is obvious - for all its "realism," Alexander's style is more sensationalistic, and Rolston's style more mundane and actually realistic. There's a certain kind of play here; a counterintuitive juxtaposition that tickles your brain and makes you smile at how it all works.

Vaughan puts a lot of heart in his characters, and truly believes in them. Anyone who's ever wanted to create anything can relate to Max, and anyone who's ever helped a friend make anything can relate to Denny and Case. The earnestness of the characters and their faith in their dream is, for lack of a better word, inspiring. I'm not kidding - reading this book makes you want to drop everything and create, create, create. It makes me want to dust off my old sketchbooks and work on all these old ideas I used to have, to send in proposals and calls for artists, and to write scripts. The energy given by our protagonists here is palpable, infectious, and contagious.

Take note of the following sequence (one of my favorites in the book). The context is that Max is helping Case ink, and the Escapist is chasing Luna Moth across the rooftops. It's something that's happening between Max and Case, so it's drawn in Alexander's style - who among us hasn't felt as if we were on a whole different plane of existence when getting close to the girl of our dreams? And the whole attitude towards art is uplifting - for someone like me who always feels like he's screwing everything up, I want to tack this page onto my drawing board or computer and look at it every time I feel like I'm screwing up.

And that's not even the best scene in the book. The best scene comes at the end, which I'm not going to spoil for you. It's inspiring, it's incredible, and it blew me away when I first read it, and it blew me away again when I read it yesterday - and I knew it was coming.

The Escapists has all the makings of a generic comic book adventure - you've got an idealistic dreamer, a reliable sidekick, and a potential will-they-won't-they love interest; you've got a villain; and you've got superheroes. But at the end of the day, The Escapists is a really good story driven by its characters. It is one of the most inspirational works of fiction I have ever read, and it stands in my bookshelf right next to Chabon's Kavalier and Clay. It's that good, and Chabon himself agrees, as he wrote the introduction (also set in the world of his novel).

For anyone who's ever wanted to create anything of their own, or who's ever loved any comic so much to want to continue its legacy, this book is a must-read. For anyone who loved The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, this book is a worthy sequel, both in chronology and in spirit, thus making this book a must-read. And for anyone who fits both descriptions? This book is essential. You will be moved. I can guarantee it.

Highly, highly, highly recommended.

As an extra treat, thanks to Hey Oscar Wilde! It's Clobberin' Time!!!, here's Steve Rolston's rendition of Joe Kavalier and Sam Clay!

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