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The Amazing Adventures of Chabon and Lethem

November 2nd, 2007

Last month, Janeane Garofalo half-apologized for liking a comic book (sorry, “graphic novel”) on an episode of “Real Time With Bill Maher.”

To whom is she apologizing?

Certainly not her Hollywood bosses, who circle comic book conventions like vultures every year. Certainly not her fans — she starred in “Mystery Men,” loosely based on “Flaming Carrot Comics” back in the 1990s. Certainly not every college girl who fell in love with Seth Cohen, the comic book-loving schlub on “The O.C.”

Okay, maybe that’s overreaching — for everyone who bought a ticket to see Spider-Man 3 (and I do mean everyone), only a small fraction will buy a Spider-Man comic book.

But Hollywood’s not the only one with a comic book crush. Books — the kind without pictures — are starting to go weak in the knees.

I blame Michael Chabon.

The author, originally from Columbia, Md., is best known for his Pulitzer Prize winning novel “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.” He’s just released a new book, “Gentlemen of the Road,” which I’m sure is fantastic, but somehow I doubt he’ll ever top “Kavalier and Clay.”

“Kavalier and Clay” centered on two comic book creators. Some chapters took place within their comics, detailing the origins of characters like The Escapist or Luna Moth.
It was an epic, exhaustively researched novel dealing with themes of escape, identity, love, prejudice, success, failure, isolation, deception and salvation — all to the backdrop of 20 years of American history (the Depression to Levittown). “Kavalier and Clay” deserved every accolade splashed across its back.

In other words, Chabon made it acceptable for books-without-pictures to be about comics — artistically and financially.

Sure, there’d been other comic book-books before, but, aside from licensed X-Men or Superman properties (and I’m not talking about those, anyway) they were few and far between. “Superfolks” by Robert Mayer came out in 1977. “Flyboy Action Figure Comes With Gasmask,” from Canadian science fiction writer Jim Munroe was released in 1999. =

I’m sure there were others, but “Kavalier and Clay” — unquestionably the best of the bunch — seemed to have opened the floodgates.

“Fortress of Solitude” by Jonathan Lethem (2003). “Great Neck” by Jay Cantor (2003). “The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl” by Barry Lyga (2006). “Falling Boy” by Alison McGhee (2007). “Hero” by Perry Moore (2007). “Soon I Will Be Invincible” by Austin Grossman (2007).

I’m sure there’s more. I’m sure there will be many, many more.

Some books, like Lethem’s “Fortress of Solitude,” are more about social history than astonishing feats of heroism. Others are geared toward young adults, others are just as serious, but exist in a world where superheroes do in fact exist. I suspect more and more of these books will hit the shelves.

Maybe some writers are inspired by their own comic book saturated childhoods, either consciously or unconsciously inspired by Chabon. Maybe — and this is more likely — publishers, like Hollywood, are waking up to the enormous economic power of comic book fans.

It’s working both ways. Post Kavalier, Chabon signed on to write Spider-Man 2, easily the best of the Spidey movies. Marvel Comics just released the first issue of “Omega the Unknown,” a 10-issue series where Lethem and artist Farel Dalrymple dust off a forgotten hero from the 1970s. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the other writers follow suit.

So what to make of this? What to make of the fact that many of these writers — notably Chabon and Lethem — are Jewish, similar to the pioneers of the comic book industry nearly a century ago? Will these comic book-books, certainly a fledgling genre with only a handful of titles, ever receive its own section in the bookstore, between the science fiction section and (ahem) graphic novels?

I doubt it — and if that happens, it probably won’t be for many, many years.

Given the literary nature of some of these authors, it’s hard to imagine their books anywhere but the main “fiction and literature” section. Plus, genre fiction seems to be a bit more disposable than books by authors who are regularly featured in the New York Times Book Review.

I don’t mean that pejoratively. Science fiction, mystery or romance books, organized as such in the book store, are produced in a more pulpy, disposable fashion. They’re often serialized, continuing the adventures of the same characters.

In other words, they’re just like comics.

Staff writer Josh Eiserike can be reached at 703-878-8072.  

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