I started collecting comic books when I was 12 years old. Like most 12-year-olds, I wasn't particularly discriminating, picking up whatever I could afford with my allowance at the local Mac's Milk. If it was a Marvel team book, and there, I probably bought it. (I was never as much interested in the single-person titles.) It wasn't until much later, when I met my husband, that he started to introduce me to specific authors, instead of specific titles, authors we would follow across titles and sometimes companies.
So while my early collection is nothing to write home about, it was an important part of my late childhood and early teen years. (And not just because I was the only girl I knew who collected comics.) Although, as I said, I bought whatever was there, I did have my favourites. And my favourite character, Shadowcat, who I remain passionately fond of to this day. I mean, she had glasses
. And was incredibly smart, but felt that she wasn't pretty and would never have her feelings reciprocated. We even turned 15 in the same year. (Yes, I know comic years are malleable, but this was incredibly significant to me at the time.) She was the smart, awkward female nerd I felt myself to be - I just didn't have the superpowers. (Plus, that whole time period when she couldn't control her powers at all was one of my first introductions to the idea that this shit could be complicated
All this to help me say - I know a bit about comics. And I care about comics. And perhaps that's one of the reasons that I was blown away by this book. Michael Chabon gets it, the messiness, the complications, the Golden Age, the first few hints of the Silver Age, the Wertham crusade. How comics were escapist, and why that was seen by some as a bad thing. How they held a distorted, child-aimed mirror up to contemporary concerns. How Superman was initially a hero for the little guy, an enemy of the capitalists.
And, specific to this book, and these characters, how the Escapist might express the feelings of rage and impotence one Jewish boy who managed to escape Prague had towards the Nazis.
But it's not just about the comics. It's also about three characters. Joe, the Jewish artist who escaped, and burns with the desire to smash the Reich all by himself, and the shame of having been the only one in his family to escape. His cousin Sam, the idea man, who helps create a character who transcends physical limitations (which Sam shares, having had polio as a child), and tries to find where he fits into the world. And eventually finds himself hauled up before the Commission spawned by Wertham's crusade, defending the scandalous practice of giving superheroes sidekicks. Joe's girlfriend Rosa, also an artist and bohemian. And how none of them really fit in. And how they pass, and how they come to want to proclaim who they are to the world. I'm trying really hard not to give anything away, because one of the great pleasures in reading this book to me was the way things unfolded.
I don't know how to explain my emotional reaction to the book. When I finished it yesterday, I didn't cry, but I trembled on the verge of tears for over an hour. And I'm not entirely sure why. I just know that that was the effect. And that I loved it, and will be reading it again, someday. And certainly more books by this author.