I recently finished reading Michael Chabon's "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay," the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about two young Jewish cousins in the late 1930's who get in on the ground floor of the budding comics business and create a super-strong Nazi-fighting Mr. Miracle-type superhero called the Escapist, who, in Chabon's fictional version of the Golden Age, for a time becomes almost as big a comics icon as Superman. What I hadn't realized from merely reading the reviews and articles about the book is that the two cousins also have a hand in creating numerous other superheroes, including Luna Moth, who becomes Earth-Chabon's first superheroine.
Luna Moth is the brainchild of Joe Kavalier, the more driven and artistically ambitious half of the team. Unlike his Brooklyn-born cousin Sammy Clay, who, like many real-life comics creators of the time, regards comic books as an enjoyable but basically somewhat trivial and trashy means of earning a living, Joe Kavalier from the beginning sees the medium as capable of much more. Joe, who was trained as a stage magician and escape artist in his native Prague, is the only member of his family to have escaped Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia, by means of a dangerous feat of postal misdirection involving concealing himself in a secret compartment of a huge crate used to ship the legendary golem of Prague out of the invaders' reach. Once he reaches New York and finds himself employed in creating and depicting characters who, unlike himself, are more than capable of liberating those still trapped in occupied Europe and of wreaking vengeance on their oppressors, Joe flings himself into his work to the exclusion of virtually all else, venting his frustrations and attempting to influence public opinion in favor of America's entrance into the war by drawing story after story in which the Escapist vanquishes entire Nazi battalions, ties panzer tanks in knots, and punches Hitler off his perch in a succession of vividly dynamic covers.
Then Joe falls in love with Rosa Saks, whom he meets at a literally Surrealistic Greenwich Village party for Salvador Dali, only to discover that during the day she works as a volunteer secretary at an organization dedicated to helping Jewish children--including, Joe hopes, his thirteen-year-old brother Thomas--get out of occupied Europe. Disconcerted, yet reassured, by Rosa's transformation from the "foul-mouthed flower of Bohemia" he'd met the night before to the sedately-dressed, tweed-suited "caterpillar girl" he finds upon visiting the relief organization in the businesslike light of day, Joe leaves the Transatlantic Rescue Agency's Union Square office and wanders into a crowd of people gawking at an oversized exotic luna moth in Union Square Park. The following chapter of the novel is comprised of the resulting origin story of the mystical heroine Luna Moth, a mousy caterpillar of a librarian shot by thugs attempting to steal an ancient magical text from an exhibit at the public library, but resurrected and granted vast mystical powers ("You will find...that you have only to imagine something to make it so") by a millennia-old moth goddess who chooses a single female champion every few centuries.
This character becomes the first full-fledged superheroine of Earth-Chabon. ("Sammy [the writing half of the team], for some time, had been toying with ideas for a cat-woman, a bird-woman [an allusion to Black Canary? Or the later, though far more birdlike, Hawkgirl?], a mythological Amazon (all of them soon to be tried elsewhere), and a lady boxer named Kid Vixen when Joe had proposed his secret tribute to the girl from Greenwich Village. The idea of a moth-woman was also, in its way, a natural. National had another huge hit on its hands with Batman in 'Detective Comics,' and the appeal of a nocturnal character, one who derived her power from the light of the moon, was evident.") After some initial resistance from the publisher of the comics company, who is scandalized by the new superheroine's impressive bustline and daringly bathing suit-like costume, Luna Moth winds up being launched as the flagship character of a new all-superheroine title called "All Doll." The surreal new heroine goes on to become the catalyst that inspires the two cousins to literary and artistic breakthroughs that to me sounded more reminiscent of Ditko-era Dr. Strange stories and the more experimental artwork of Jim Steranko than anything that was actually done during the thirties and early forties in our world, with the possible exception of Will Eisner's more innovative artistic formats on "The Spirit."
"...It was in the pages of "All Doll," in realms far from Zothenia or Prague, that Joe's art now blossomed.
"Luna Moth was a creature of the night, of the Other World, of mystic regions where evil worked by means of spells and curses instead of bullets, torpedoes, or shells. Luna fought in the wonderworld against specters and demons, and defended all us unsuspecting dreamers against attack from the dark realms of sleep. Twice now she had flapped into battle against slavering Elder Creatures readying vast interdimensional armadas of demons, and while it was easy enough to see such plots as allegories of paranoia, invasion, and world war, and Joe's work here as a continuation of the internecine conflict of 'Radio' and 'Triumph' [the company's leading superhero titles], the art Joe turned in for 'Luna Moth' was very different from his work on the other books. Rosa's [art dealer] father, with his eye for native American sources of the Surrealist idea, had introduced Joe to the work of Winsor McKay. The urban dreamscapes, the dizzying perspectives, the playful tone, and the bizarre metamorphoses and juxtapostions of 'Little Nemo in Slumberland' all quickly found their way into Joe's pages for 'Luna Moth.' Suddenly the standard three tiers of quadrangular panels became a prison from which he had to escape. They hampered his efforts to convey the dislocated and non-Euclidean dream spaces in which Luna Moth fought. He sliced up his panels, stretched and distorted them, cut them into wedges and strips. He experimented with benday dots, cross-hatching, woodcut effects, and even crude collage. (Thirty years later, when this work was first reprinted, 'The Weird Worlds of Luna Moth' [Nostalgia Press, 1970; second edition, Pure Imagination, 1996] quickly became a head-shop bestseller.) Through this bravura landscape of twilight flew a wisecracking, powerful young woman with immense breasts, fairy wings, and furry antennae. The strip lay poised on the needle-sharp fulcrum between the marvelous and the vulgar that was, to Rosa, the balancing point of Surrealism itself. She could see Joe, in each new issue, contending with the conventions and cliches of Sammy's more than usually literate stories, working his way toward some kind of breakthrough in his art. And she was determined to be there when he did. She had a feeling that she was going to be the only one to notice or appreciate it when it happened... In the end, it would take far less time for the world, or at least that small portion of the world that read and thought about comic books, to acclaim Joe's genius than it took for anyone--least of all Rosa [who is an artist herself]--to acknowledge her own."
Michael Chabon's writing did strike me as a bit ornate at times, although usually this works quite well to convey the atmosphere of fevered creativity in which most of the characters exist, as in the passage above, or in a single sentence in which Chabon sums up the literal and figurative significance of Rosa's messy room: "Her bedroom-studio was at once the canvas, journal, museum, and midden of her life." Individual readers' reactions to this book may vary depending on how interested they are in the various subjects covered. I found the parts about the early history of comics and New York City in the late thirties and early forties fascinating (possibly because I'm from New York myself), but I have to admit that I skimmed or skipped significant parts of the section about Joe's military service in the Antarctic later in the novel. (On the other hand, MadiHolmes, another poster on the AOL women in comics board where a version of these comments was originally posted, found the Antarctic section just as "intriguing and interesting to read" as the rest of the book, although she complained that the novel as a whole was too detailed and said that to her it seemed 100-150 pages too long overall.)
Ironically, Michael Chabon, who was one of the guests at the recent San Diego Comic Con, said that the Antarctic section was his favorite part of the novel. However, he added that he had voluntarily omitted that section, along with the subplot about the golem near the beginning of the book, when writing the screenplay for the movie version (he's currently working on the third draft), since he figured that the studio would insist on cutting out this unwieldy extra material eventually anyway.