Superhuman strength, x-ray vision, the ability to leap tall buildings in a single bound -- Superman's got it all, believes author Michael Chabon. But if Chabon were a comic book superhero himself, he thinks he would have been "one of the also-rans. There's Daredevil, who was blind; Hour Man, who had his powers for an hour; Bouncing Boy bounced into people; Matter Eater could eat anything," he said. "As a nebbishy Jewish guy from Cleveland, I always identified with characters with greater frailty."
And that's the key to Chabon, who was all of 24 when he dazzled the literary world with his 1988 debut novel The Mysteries of Pittsburgh. While grateful to be published, the mad celebrity he garnered at the time struck him as "a horrible fate -- I felt thrust forward," said Chabon, who though he seems neither nebbishy nor frail, holds his inner Bouncing Boy close to his heart. He combines his empathy for nebbishes and people who are "prisoners of their own limitations" and his love of comic book superheroes in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.
The novel, set in New York in the 1940s, features lavish descriptions and cameo appearances by historical figures including Al Smith and Orson Welles. The world Chabon portrays is so vivid, it's hard to remember the author, 36, wasn't even born then. "I'm drawn to the history of that period," he said. "Not just the battles, but the home front."
The home front is where The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay takes place. Joseph Kavalier escapes from Hitler's Prague and comes to America, specifically Brooklyn, and the home of his cousin Sammy Clay. Sammy's a huge comic book fan. Joe's a killer artist. He's also a deft magician skilled at Houdini-like escapes. Sammy, whose head is filled with stories, possesses, as Chabon writes, "a longing -- common enough among the inventors of heroes -- to be someone else . . . ."
The cousins, both in their teens, create a new superhero. "Armed with superb physical and mental training, a crack team of assistants, and ancient wisdom, he roams the globe, performing amazing feats and coming to the aid of those who languish in tyranny's chains! He is. . . the Escapist!"
The Escapist earns his name. He eludes the forces of evil and beats up German soldiers with his righteous fists, while the comic books themselves provide escape from the grim backdrop of World War II. As Chabon writes, "Having lost his mother, father, brother, and grandfather . . . his city, his history -- his home -- the usual charge leveled against comic books, that they offered merely an easy escape from reality, seemed to Joe actually to be a powerful argument on their behalf."
At one time, the author, who lives in Berkeley, considered creating comic books himself. "I like drawing, I like graphic art," he said. "But I didn't seriously think about doing anything other than being a writer. I never had parental resistance. I said, I want to be a writer, and they said, okay."
Growing up, Chabon was a devotee of DC and Marvel comics. When he got older, "Comic books were out of my life. I sold my collection for $1,000, which I frittered away. Except I held on to Jack Kirby's, dug them out about seven years ago, and I remembered what I'd given up," he said, green eyes glowing. Chabon feels Kirby, the King of Comics and creator of Spiderman, The Incredible Hulk, and Captain America, has influenced everything he has written.
Superheroes and supervillains have played a part in Chabon's writing since he wrote his first short story at the age of 10. "It was Sherlock Holmes meets Captain Nemo," he recalled. "I started writing on my mother's typewriter and to my amazement, I finished it. I put an explosion at the end." He laughs at his 10-year-old self but learned a lot from his first writing experience. "I was trying to write in the style of Arthur Conan Doyle. It was my first awakening to style, word choice, voice, diction."
Since his Sherlock Holmes days, Chabon has become master of the short story and is author of two collections A Model World and Other Stories and Werewolves in Their Youth. And yet he isn't comfortable with the short story form. "When I'm working on a short story, I'm in a constant state of anxiety and doubt," he said, raking a hand through his brown hair. "I'll get really, really lost. I don't know what it's about or how it'll end."
Chabon, whose second novel Wonder Boys is now a film, feels freer when writing novels. "I write with a vague idea of the ending I'm working toward and it will organically emerge. It's like the opening scenes of "Get Smart," with all the doors opening. This will happen, then that will happen. There's a certainty to it."
Chronicling Kavalier and Clay's wild, funny, and poignant adventures, Chabon's 736-page novel is longer than a comic book and 200 pages shorter than it was in its first draft. The epic novel took an epic four years, four months, and four days to write. "Every year there's a big honker of a book that does really well," he said. "Maybe this'll be the one."
He produced The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay as he always does, by keeping to a rigid schedule. "I don't like not working," he said. "I write five days a week, starting Sunday, 10 p.m. to 3 a.m. I sleep till 11." This cockeyed system somehow allows Chabon to be not just a writer, but a father and husband. In the afternoons, he gets to play with his children, Sophie, 6, and Zeke, 3 (and proud owner of five Superman T-shirts), while his wife, mystery writer Ayelet Waldman, works.
Chabon has come far from being the kid who wrote The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, and that's okay with him. "The older I get, the more amazed I am by that whole time. I'm embarrassed by the book in an affectionate way, like you feel about a younger brother -- he's irritating, he's precocious, but he's your brother."
That affection, compassion for the flawed, is the hallmark of Chabon's writing. It's what makes the very human Kavalier and Clay more compelling than the superheroes they create.
Miami writer Ellen Kanner is Wonder Woman.
Author photo by Patricia Williams.