You knew it had to happen. Michael Chabon's best-selling The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay told the story of an artist and writer who poured their lives into a WWII comic-book hero called the Escapist. It was only a matter of time before a real Escapist comic book materialized before our eyes. Yet this creation isn't a quickie money-grab; it's high-concept pomo gamesmanship whose rewards are still unclear. After the first two issues, the safest conclusion is that the execution hasn't equaled the concept.
Each quarterly issue features five or six stories--some chosen by Chabon himself--by a roster of industry celebrities that includes Howard Chaykin, Kyle Baker, and Jim Starlin. Few of them seem to have taken the assignment particularly seriously. The best idea is the fundamental premise, told in minute excerpts from fictionalized Comics Journal histories sprinkled in with the artwork. The Escapist, we learn in these segments, is a hapless shlump whose career is an archetypal saga of survival at the margins. Shunted out of the mainstream, he was parodied by artists who rendered him a hippie or muscle-bound clown. His identity would bend to the agenda of whatever hack controlled his rights that month. "The most interesting incarnation of the Escapist during this wide-open period was the short-lived version produced by Conquaire Comics, publishing arm of Conquaire Grooming Products, manufacturers of hair-care and skin-care products for African-Americans," the text goes. "The streets of Empire city were prowled by a black Escapist whose unique, historically based twist on the theme of enslavement and liberation remains a personal favorite of the author's."
It's a smart ploy: Make the character an everyman who has suffered every indignity that the comic world can deal out. (Doubtless the in-jokes are legion, and the possibilities for reinvention endless.) But as yet, many of the stories based on this premise are too slight to register. Ironic distance isn't sufficient compensation for the loss of both Chabon's yeasty backstory--repressed gay romance, superhero powers as a response to Jewish impotence during the war--and the novel's Golden Age gusto. The Escapist's origin story, written by Chabon and illustrated by Eric Wight, has the lead in Issue #1. It's calculatedly old school: Thrust into his heroic role, the Escapist learns that he has a mission, that secret lore accompanies his mission, and that he enjoys the aid of a cast of super-powered assistants. Yet the tale lacks the mythmaking will-to-power of 1930s comics, and it's told far too straight to work as parody.
A few later examples make good on the premise; the incident where he can't get out of jury duty makes a great one-liner. But the best, novelist Glen David Gold's "The Lady or the Tiger," is told absolutely seriously. A wrenching tale of the Escapist's lost love, it's an example of the possibilities here when everyone involved relaxes and gives the poor guy the respect he deserves.