Reprinted with permission from American Jewish Fiction: A JPS Guide (Jewish Publication Society).
Jews invented the American comic book, and the superhero in particular. So, are Superman, Batman, and Spiderman all somehow Jewish, then? Well, not exactly. Fans, critics, and scholars might postulate about some essential Jewishness in each of these characters, but the truth is that their creators were unwilling to identify the heroes religiously, and, at the same time, were busy whitewashing their own Jewish origins. Thus finding what in Yiddish is called the pintele Yid-the nub of Jewish essence-in the history of comics, though hardly impossible, can pose quite a challenge.
In The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Michael Chabon achieves something different, and more astounding: he re-creates the history of comics around that pintele Yid. In his gorgeous prose and with an intricate, page-turning narrative, Chabon tells the story of Jews in comics more engagingly than anyone before or since, and the fact that this tale is fiction-that the two comics creators, Sam Clay and Joe Kavalier, and their signature creation, The Escapist, are all figments of Chabon’s miraculous imagination-takes away nothing from its fundamental accuracy and makes it only that much more impressive.
The winner of many awards, including the Pulitzer Prize, Chabon’s novel is full of delights, including the ways it links both the ancient legend of the golem and the horrors of World War II with the rise of the modern superhero; its sympathetic portraits of friendship and love, both gay and straight; its fresh and engrossing descriptions of New York in the 1930s; and its tour de force re-creations in prose of comic book issues.
It is amazing that, in the years after the novel’s enormous success, Chabon’s invented comic book characters became real, as The Escapist was adapted into a comic book. Tremendous in its scope, exuberant in every way, and excitingly engaged with the history of Jews in America, Chabon’s novel is as mythic and unforgettable as the best comics-and if you aren’t a fan of comic books, it just might turn you into one.
Chaborn’s earlier novels-The Mysteries of Pittsburgh (1988) and Wonder Boys (1995)-and his collections of short fiction, are all superb and deal with Jewish life; but Kavalier & Clay is his masterpiece so far. Of course, readers enamored of Chabon’s story should immediately proceed to read the works of the great Jewish comic creators, including Will Eisner and Jack Kirby; and they might be interested in tracking down earlier comics with references to golems, such as an issue of The Incredible Hulk, In the Shadow of the Golem (#1:134, 1970), or a two-part Batman story, “The Golem of Gotham,” in Detective Comics (#631-32, 1991).
Nonfiction studies of comics and the Jews continue to proliferate; the bibliography at the back of Chabon’s novel-documenting the prodigious research that went into it-is as good a place as any to find some preliminary reading suggestions in this field.