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Kavalier & Clay

In: English and Literature

Submitted By polexo
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Sammy’s Journey As a “Professional Sidekick”

ENG 99B: Senior Honors Essay
Aaron Mitchell Finegold
Professor Caron Irr
Spring 2009

Chapter 1: Introduction, What Is a Sidekick?

Something about The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay’s syntax sounds like a comic book itself, not unlike the two characters of Detective Comics who are always billed as Batman & Robin. “Robin & Batman” makes no sense, since Batman (Bruce Wayne) is the protagonist of the story and Robin (Dick Grayson) is his ward. The ordering of names is indicative of both their working style as superheroes as well as their living arrangement, which caused a great deal of controversy both in the context of the novel and some of the historical events it references. For Sammy Clay, the sidekick role apparent in the ordering of his and Josef’s names provides him a creative and continual outlet for his sexual desires, until the final crisis of the novel in which his learning of this very trend allows him to break free of his role and live his life in fulfillment and contentment. The connection between Kavalier & Clay and Batman becomes apparent not only through linguistic observation, but also through several references Chabon makes in the novel comparing one or both characters. Arguably, the interrogation Sammy faces at the trial about Wayne and Grayson’s relationship is the most explicit in that they both live together and they work as a team to achieve a common goal. Senator Hendrickson’s description of the sidekicks or wards as “muscular, strapping” (Chabon, 616) is a perfect example of Sammy’s unconscious fantasies materializing on the pages of a comic book. In addition, Detective Lieber alludes to the Batman & Robin comics when he calls Joe’s apartment in the Empire State Building, “the Bat Cave” (Chabon, 541). Although it may appear insignificant, this structure of the novel mirroring (to some extent) the Batman & Robin comics is a crucial facet to Chabon’s imaginative delving into the unconscious of two Jewish cousins who both write comic books and are complicated, insecure young men. The protagonists (or arguably, protagonist and sidekick) of this novel, Joe Kavalier and Sammy Clay are heroes in their own right: they produce courageous art with a mission and experience several of the events necessary to become a superhero. In his book Disguised as Clark Kent: Jews, Comics and the Creation of the Superhero, Danny Fingeroth explains many of the factors that comic book heroes and writers shared. Since Joe and Sammy are essentially both heroes and writers at once, there are traits of real-life examples present in both of them. For both of them, the “loss of a father” was crucial in their developments and motivations, the way it is for characters like Batman or Spiderman (Fingeroth, 98). Sammy’s main driving force throughout the novel is his sexuality, which is first unleashed with his father in the hammam, and Josef’s primary motive is his anger at the Nazis. Sammy’s father’s death leads him to seek another outlet for his sexuality, a second chapter to continue what the Mighty Molecule started. Josef’s father’s death, on the other hand, fueled the guilt he already felt surrounding his status as a free man in America while his family was still waiting in a Nazi-occupied, curfew-enforced, rationed Czechoslovakia. Sammy and Joe learn how occupy the role of heroes at first by dealing intimately with the very same content in their own comic books. Fingeroth also points to a number of factors that influence the comic book hero through the Jewish subconscious. A fear of weakness, as Jeffrey A. Brown described, is a major preoccupation of comic book characters. Whether inability to walk properly or inability to speak fluent English/to display self-control around Germans, both Sammy and Josef display tremendous inabilities. Sammy’s relationship with Joe is the most detailed in the novel, but serves by no means as the only point in which Sammy’s identity as a sidekick becomes apparent or problematic. But Sammy’s relationship is not with Joe, nor with any other man, one of equals, nor does Sammy desire it to be. Sammy sees himself as a sidekick, a role that has evolved over literary time, but has often been one of lesser importance, lesser ability and lesser appeal (than the main character). Much of the psychology surrounding Sammy’s fascination with the role is based in a collective American psychology around the time of comic books, as explained by Brown: the “quintessential depiction [in comic books] of masculine duality. Superhero comics have always relied on the notion that a superman exists inside every man” (Brown, 26). Sammy’s desire to unleash the inner superhero in him is the direct result of his awkward and feeble existence as a young man. Although slightly anachronistic, Sammy most likely identifies with characters like Peter Parker, for, “the world may mock…the timid teenager [but] it will soon marvel at the awesome might of Spider-man” (Brown, 31). What Sammy wants more than anything is to be greater than he is, just as Peter Parker also wants to show the duality of the human spirit, or perhaps as Stan Lee (the author) wants to show the duality of the Jewish identity. Sammy has, since the outset of the novel, been described as “not, in any conventional way, handsome…he always looked as though he has just been jumped for his lunch money…polio had left him with the legs of a delicate boy” (Chabon, 4). What Peter Parker and Sammy Clay share is the desire followed by the ability to break out of their respective limitations and prove something. The reason, perhaps, that Sammy cannot be a Spiderman or Superman, although he may or may not want to be, is his homosexual proclivity and admission of a weakness too debilitating to allow him the lead superhero role. Sammy’s desire to be a hero of some kind and his desire to lust after men seem irreconcilable: manly superheroes could not possibly be effeminate little gay boys, could they? David Leverenz, in his article, “The Last Real Man in American: From Natty Bumppo to Batman,” explains how the two are possible through the role of a sidekick, who is simultaneously heroic and homosexual. Also recognizing the duality inherent in heroic characters, Levernz points to Robin as a quintessential example of a gay sidekick: in a survey, “Batman fans responded to a poll by demanding that Robin be dumped. He seemed too wimpy and twerpy; some used gay-baiting terms” (Leverenz, 769). Perhaps the fact that when the word “twerp” is searched in the Google image database, the third most relevant result is about Robin, is an indicator. But Leverenz goes on to argue that the audience might have misunderstood Robin’s homosexuality, for although it was present, it was not a threat to Batman’s masculinity, in fact, it was a very crucial aspect to making Batman into a hero, a stand-in father, and not “an effete, impotent snob” (Leverenz, 769). According to Leverenz, sidekicks started as foils, as in Don Quixote where the two protagonists are opposites in appearance and temperament. Sometimes having the perfect sidekick, including the possibility of him being a foil, can be quite convenient: “with a more subliminal audacity, George Bush secured his mythic transformation into an electable manly image by choosing Robin as his running mate” (Leverenz 754). What Leverenz means here is not that Dan Quayle is gay, but rather that a society so obsessed with masculinity can leverage running mates, foils and character flaws to create heroes—or at least Presidents. Sammy’s job in all of this is similar to Robin’s, being part of a heroic duo makes him better than he is in real life, but his homosexual nature and generally less impressive personality make him cling to Batman, Josef, the Molecule or Tracy for advice, love and support. For Sammy, in each of those three instances, the other is shinier, bigger, and in the case of the latter two, an idealized form come to life. Sammy has no choice but to accept the sidekick role, which he does very willingly. His relationship with his vaudevillian entertaining father is another point of Sammy’s sidekick role not only motivating their interactions, but also allowing Sammy to begin the exploration he will eventually complete of his sexuality and erotic desire. This desire becomes more clearly mapped out and is given some tangible, linguistic parameters as Sammy enters the relationship with Tracy Bacon—for whom he once again serves as a sidekick. Like the other two, this relationship is eventually a disappointment and Sammy is resigned to live with Rosa as her husband for twelve years. Although Sammy’s “escape” from reality into domesticity appears successful, Sammy’s revelation regarding his own lack of fulfillment is sparked by the Senate hearings of 1954, at which point the sexual connotations of a sidekick’s role in comic books is made explicit. After this climax, Sammy experiences the same type of release a performing escape artist feels once the feat has been accomplished. Not only is he newly aware of his “unsatisfying lifestyle,” this climactic experience also allows Sammy to engage in a new relationship with his unconscious, including his unconscious desire to experience true escape and leave the family. Leaving the family is like an escape artist leaving the stage, having done what he was brought there to do: having performed an irreversible feat and basking in the satisfaction of finishing the act. The trajectory of Sammy’s life takes the shape of a dramatic triangle, as will be discussed later, but most importantly, the escape plot mirrors Sammy in that several turning points involve role changes. Sammy escapes from being the ugly crippled Jew by becoming a sidekick, escapes the sidekick role by becoming a husband and father, and finally escapes the family responsibilities by accepting his sexuality and moving to California.

Chapter 2: Sammy and the Mighty Molecule

Sammy’s father’s return home in 1935 provides the first glimpse of the literal and unconscious desires that motivate Sammy’s self-perception as a sidekick. While talking to his father, Sammy hopes to construct a persuasive, coherent argument that will allow Sammy to join the Mighty Molecule in the circus. Sammy’s desire to leave Ethel Klayman and her household is only a small part of the appeal of following the Molecule. He is also fascinated with vaudeville and the circus, and fantasizes about the life his father leads, and the Mighty Molecule is keenly aware of this affinity. Sammy’s attraction to the image of his father begins to develop even before the summer meeting in 1935. Having known of his father’s existence and profession almost forever, Sammy dreams about “the tiny, thick-muscled man…the plaudits and honors described by the clipping” (Chabon, 99). Sammy imagines a romanticized version of his father because there is very little evidence to contradict this representation When the two finally do meet, Sammy’s first words to him are “take me with you” (Chabon, 100). What Sammy truly wants is to be a sidekick, or close assistant, to his heroic, superhuman father. Sammy’s sidekick impulse may have roots in his erotic desire as evidenced by the gaze Sammy places on his father “his penis lay in the shadow of his thighs like a short length of thick twisted rope. Sammy stared at it, then realized he was staring. He looked away, and his heart jumped” (Chabon, 106). At age 13, Sammy is not quite mature enough to understand the desire that initially motivated his shocking behavior. Almost on autopilot, Sammy allows his unconscious self to drive his actions and only after they are carried out does he stop to question what they might be or why he may be engaging in them. The act of staring, in this instance, leaves Sammy not only surprised, but also “awash in an acid of embarrassment, confusion and arousal” (Chabon, 106). What Sammy experiences is not only the realization that he is staring, but also the understanding that his action was somehow wrong or misplaced and that there is a shameful force willing the staring to occur. Unsure what to do, Sammy simply looks “down at the towel draped across his own two broomstick legs” (Chabon, 106). Sammy’s instinct when dealing with overwhelming men who evoke erotic sensations is to focus on himself as evidenced by this particular glance among other actions that take place later on. Sammy’s attention toward himself and his own inferiority is inspired by a previous conversation in which the Molecule alluded to Sammy’s weak legs as a possible factor preventing him from life in the circus. This conversation illustrates (although it was arguably already clear) the role Sammy would occupy in the circus. He could never be a main attraction, simply because no amount of hard work or late-night walks could compensate for his sick, polio-stricken legs. Sammy quickly accepts this reality, and appreciates his father’s efforts to make his legs good enough for any role in the circus: “He was flattered, and believed in his father, and in the potency of long walks” (Chabon, 107). What Sammy wants is to believe the unlikely or the impossible, and since his father is a mythic figure (the name Mighty Molecule evokes this). Believing that he can accompany him to the circus is a deep-seated desire that materializes through long walks (and the strengthening of Sammy’s legs). But believing in the impossible is not always a good idea, since it seems that for the Mighty Molecule, keeping his promise or even being a reliable father is unachievable. Although it is unclear as to whether or not the Mighty Molecule ever had plans on taking Sammy with him to the circus, he certainly gave Sammy that impression. When the subject was first broached, the Molecule said, “I need to think about what you are asking me” (Chabon, 103). Sammy’s persistence surrounding the issue inspired a promise on his father’s part, which was broken the following day. But Sammy’s desires were sown, his hopes had been raised and he truly believed that he would work alongside his father as a vaudevillian sidekick. Once news of the Molecule’s death reaches Sammy, he naturally senses, because he cannot predict the rest of his life, that his “fondest hope, in the act of escaping from his life, of working with a partner” has been doused forever. In order to compensate for his disappointment, Sammy is quick to do two things. First, he starts believing in the impossible again, for drawing comic books is a good way to get lost in a fantasy world in which America actually does something about the war. But in addition, Sammy has had a taste of the homoerotic content inherent in a performing duo, and although he is quick to forget about his father (he is never again mentioned), he needs some outlet for his homosexual impulses and desires. Thus, he quickly assumes the role of “professional sidekick” once again, complete with all its unconscious, sexual, insecure and complex implications and consequences.

Chapter 3: Kavalier & Clay, the Early Years

Part 1: Beginnings

From the moment Josef arrives in New York City, the relationship between the two cousins takes a form that is crucial to Sammy’s development as a “professional sidekick”. Many of the same themes from the episode involving the Might Molecule rise to the surface in Sammy’s relationship with Joe. Specifically, Sammy is a sidekick of Joe’s in the most generous sense of the word: he is a friend, a confidant, a partner. He is also fulfilling the role of a confederate who supports a superior, however, as evidenced by descriptions of Joe’s physicality and his ability as an artist. When Joseph first introduces himself to Sammy, he explains his identity by saying, “I am an artist, like you” (Chabon, 8). Although Josef may identify as an artist, Sammy does not and cannot, thus forcing him to explain that between himself, his mother and Joe there has been some misunderstanding. Sammy is not an artist, and it is later revealed that he does not have nearly the drawing abilities that Josef does. This is the first notion of Sammy’s inferiority, which, to reiterate, positions him as Joe’s sidekick in the comic book business. A skilled businessman and writer, it is Joe whose talent piques the interest of Sheldon Anapol and Jack Ashkenazy at Empire Comics. Sammy is once again reminded of his weak legs in the moment where Joe tells him that he had arrived from Japan: “Sammy was sick with envy. He had never gone farther on his soda-straw legs than Buffalo” (Chabon, 6). The geographical inspiration for Sammy’s envy not only links the two cousins in terms of privilege. Although it may seem strange, Sammy’s jealous stems from what Josef has and what he himself has not: healthy legs and the ability to travel. More than simply traveling, however, what Joe did (and what Sammy desires so badly to do) is escape.: “Sammy dreamed the usual Brooklyn dreams of flight and transformation and escape” (Chabon, 6). What Sammy seeks is not simply the geographical escape, but the means by which to achieve it. The moment—and Sammy’s thoughts—lead naturally to the desire to write, since writing is the only viable outlet for Sammy’s jealousy, insecurity and desire. The fact that Sammy’s writing is inspired, in part, by strong emotions of self-pity and downward social comparison with Joe unlocks a crucial force behind Sammy’s fascination with sidekicks who are inferior to their partners. Roger Rollin contends in his essay “Beowulf to Batman: The Epic Hero in Pop Culture,” that the hero and the sidekick (which he calls an assistant) need each other, because as a duo they represent an infallibility or invulnerability that neither one possesses on his own. He writes, “In general, assistants are inferior both physically and mentally to the Type II hero, but together as a ‘dynamic duo,’ they approach the perfect of the Type I here” (Rollin, 442-3). A Type II hero is someone like Bruce Wayne, who does great things and never dies, but is fallible, human, selfish and mortal. A Type I hero, on the other hand, is a superior being, divine and invincible. Sammy who embodies neither type, is weaker than Joe in physical strength and in familiarity with escape. Although Sammy’s unconscious desires tread toward leaving airtight Brooklyn, his knowledge of how to do this is completely primary, at best. Joe, who has studied the art of escape, was able to come to Brooklyn because of his ability to stay quiet inside a box for countless hours as well as pull a few strings in Japan. Location is a crucial element to escape, especially in terms of the relationship shared between the two cousins. Although for Joseph, New York City seems like a safe haven compared to Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia, Sammy’s desire to move elsewhere is a constant thought. Sammy is eventually allowed to experience krise and successful escape when he moves to California. The longing to belong somewhere is an important part of Sammy’s self discovery, so his permanency in New York City is both the result of his inability to escape but also his attachment to his artist cousin, Joe. Like the relationship between the Molecule and Sammy, the more extensive treatment of Sammy and Joe’s partnership allows for new dimensions that deeply affect Sammy’s growth and his self-image. If Sammy and Josef are heroes in their art, then it should be noted that their missions are not always perfectly in sync. Throughout most of their young careers, Josef’s primary concern is creating an activist drama with a political anti-Nazi message. Sammy, although sympathetic to and generally supportive of, Joe’s inclinations, is cognizant of the commercial value of omitting such controversial content. At one point in their young career, however, there is a moment in which Sammy and Joe seems to switch ideological roles. Once again in the role of a sidekick, Sammy starts what seems to be a virulent speech in favor of fighting Nazis and “looked appealingly to Joe, willing him to speak up, to tell Anapol about his family and the indignities to which they were being exposed…he was sure that Anapol would give in once again” (Chabon, 366). Joe’s quick response that he wants to take a break from the fighting takes everyone, but mostly Sammy, by surprise. Sammy and Joe has always been foils, and this episode is no exception. Chabon plays with Sammy’s maladroit and unsettlingly bad sense of timing to display how inept he is at reading Joe’s desires—whether strategic, artistic or emotional. Sammy’s quick concession once again marks Joe as the clear leader, the visionary whose direction Sammy follows out of willingness and out of desire.

Part 2: Eroticism

Although there is no repeat of the flavor of eroticism introduced in the hammam between Sammy and his father, the relationship between the two cousins certainly has its own erotic undertones. According to Sammy’s deepest thoughts, as told through an omniscient narrator, “the difference between the love that Sammy had felt for…Joe Kavalier, and that which he felt for Tracy Bacon: it did seem to be reciprocated” (Chabon, 373). Sammy’s love for Joe was not erased once Joe returned to New York in his later life, in fact, Sammy’s affection for Joe had grown with distance and there are several moments when Sammy touches Joe in an intimate, if not somewhat inappropriate fashion. Joe’s love for Sammy is familial, and Sammy’s for Joe is a combination of envious and erotic. What Sammy sees in the earlier days of their relationship is a young man to whom he can relate, and whom he can use to play our his sexual proclivities since his father is gone. In the bed when they smoke together, Sammy claims to be unhappy and excited at the prospect of Josef finding a hotel, but as their relationship grow Sammy feels more and more intimacy and desire toward Joe. When Joe, upset by the news of his father’s death, claims to be useless, Sammy sits with him in Longchamp’s Restaurant and says, as he places an arm on Joe’s shoulder, “Joe, don’t say that” (Chabon, 191). This seemingly romantic move is also Sammy’s way of saying that he sees Joe as a friend, and a stand-in lover who can absorb and someday reflect all the love Sammy has give him. But when Josef shines love onto Rosa, leaving Sammy jealous and alone, he moves on to the next chapter in his sidekick saga, someone who can return, if not the love, at least the sexuality.

Chapter 4: Tracy Bacon

Tracy Bacon represents many new things for Sammy. In addition to the first feelings of requited love, Bacon’s inherently non-Jewish presence in Sammy’s life forces him to consider his own identity in unprecedented and uncomfortable ways. Jewish identity is not the only way in which these two differ, since their physical appearances are also strikingly different. Bacon is a tall, blonde, handsome man who plays the Escapist on the radio and “looks just like Josef draws him” (311). Sammy has found his complete and utter foil, the basis, according to Rollin, of a superhero-sidekick partnership: “as foils they are both like the hero and unlike him…as Robin’s boyish exuberance complements Batman’s mature energy” (Rollin, 442). What brings Sammy and Tracy together is their connection with the Escapist and their desire not to be alone. Their separating traits, however, are much stronger, and although Sammy and Tracy enjoy a meaningful relationship for an extended period of time, Tracy is inevitably off-limits for him. Their compatibility is confined to specific spaces and locations, and in an almost ironic fashion, the world’s most public and tourist-infested places are the most private. When Sammy and Tracy find themselves on the top of the Empire State Building or overlooking the remains of the World’s Fair, there are moments of true intimacy and the seem to complement each other perfectly. But once removed from this extremely private location and thrown into a house on the Jersey Shore (which seems at the surface level that it would be more private), Tracy and Sammy’s differences emerge and become much more noticeable. Ruth Ebling is the first to notice Sammy’s external and somewhat alien Jewish features. Her acute hatred of Jews and relation to American Aryan Leaguer Carl Ebling make the first silent encounter uncomfortable for both of them. His interactions with Tracy take on a different tenor (linguistically as well as dramatically), and he even articulates an awareness of being the token Jew, which Tracy at first misinterprets as an anxiety regarding his gay identity. “‘That’s not what I mean’…He had not meant to sound argumentative… ‘It’s just look at you. Look at them” (407). What Sammy is asking for in this passage is not an argument, but rather some understanding, which Tracy continually fails to provide. He does not understand how Sammy feels or why the question of being the only Jew has become a central preoccupation of his. In addition to feeling misunderstood, Sammy begins to realize that “his attempts at rumination were being parried” (407). Tracy’s lack of interest in this subject is apparent and serves a reflection of the growing divide between principal and counterpart, hero and sidekick. In fact, this very divide causes Sammy some unease and insecurity once it becomes apparent: as if he is wondering how this sexual fantasy he was pretending to live had ever become reality, how “no one as beautiful, as charming and poised an physically grand, as Bacon could possibly take an interest in him” (407). Stating that he had to imagine a hero like Bacon beforehand, Sammy is overjoyed at the opportunity to have a hero of his own, but also terrified. Chabon’s intentional portrayal of Sammy and Tracy as sidekick and hero serves to connect this moment to a later one. Chabon compares Sammy and Tracy cuddling and falling asleep in each other’s arms to “the precise manner that Dr. Fredric Wetham, in his fatal book, would one day allege to be universal among costumed heroes and their “wards” (408). When Sammy describes the men in the house who are not Jewish as superheroes, it’s because they have the physical appearance of the very characters he was describing. In the day of the rise of comic books, superheroes shed their Jewish cloaks when they undertook the mission of fighting crime. But Sammy, who is aware of his Jewish identity and the tokenism that both jars and upsets the order of this Waspy winter retreat, does not openly welcome the invitation to be Tracy’s sidekick—even if that is the encapsulation of his innermost desires. “If you’re asking me if you can be my sidekick…we’ll get you a mask of your own” (Chabon, 407). Tracy’s attempts are humor are rebutted and lead to a fake fight in which Sammy “pins” Tracy to the bed. Sammy, conscious about the traits that set him apart from the rest of the guests, rejects the idea of being put into an inferior role and show his “strength” with the pinning. But the unconscious, that which Sammy never speaks, is the extent to which he enjoys being dominated and being an inferior member of a crime-fighting duo, since that is still several levels above the strength he is able to exhibit as a crippled, scrawny Jew. What drives the relationship between Sammy and Tracy, to a greater extent than with Josef or even with the Molecule, is a difference in physicality. Although Sammy is weaker than all three, Tracy is particularly muscular (in addition to being Northern European and blonde) and muscles have a significant role in comic books, masculine identity and Sammy’s development. Jeffrey A. Brown says, “nothing else so clearly marks an individual as a bearer of masculine power” (Brown, 27). Muscles, the kind that Tracy and the other guests posses and show, are crucial to Sammy’s opinion of them and of himself. His dividing them into two distinct body types is similar to “German fascists, who observed the upstanding, steel-hard, organized, machine-like body of the German master, and the flaccid, soft, fluid body of the perennial Other” (Brown, 27). Is it any surprise, then, that Ruth Ebling, whose brother is self-professed Aryan American Carl Ebling, is the first encounter Sammy has at the house? Nazi sympathies are prevalent throughout the novel, although here they seem to reach a pinnacle. Chabon was thinking along Nazi lines when he made the body so important, especially highlighting the physical differences between him and Tracy and allowing Ruth Ebling to identify him as a Jew so quickly. Although Tracy himself is not a Nazi, he possesses a body that recalls the Nazi ideal, and when juxtaposes to his sidekick Sammy Clay, becomes difficult to ignore. One of the reasons the encounter with the police is so traumatizing is that Sammy feels complete responsibility for the event. Not only did he fantasize about same-sex intercourse, but he also secretly lived off desires of domination and submission. His wishes regarding ward-guardian or hero-sidekick love are fulfilled in a violent and perverse manner at the house, Sammy is dominated and the small, thin body that allowed him to be a sidekick in the first place is exactly what the office wants: “Myself, I’m partial to darker types. Little guys” (Chabon, 412). The intense guilt, shame and trauma that result from his encounter with the police motivate Sammy to run away from homosexuality as quickly as possible. There seems to be little time to analyze, synthesize or generally think about what has happened, running into a marriage with Rosa and having a very good excuse to do it seems the very best and safest escape route.

Chapter 5: Marriage to Rosa

Throughout the development of Rosa and Sammy’s relationship—as necessitated by external uncontrollable circumstances such as Joe’s absence or Rosa’s pregnancy—Sammy takes specific action to break out of the sidekick role in which he had previously situated himself. When Joe first disappeared and Rosa needed help finding him, “the person whose help she most wanted was Sammy” (Chabon. 400). The impulse to call on Sammy for help was the product of his own self-development, and the image he projected toward Rosa. Not only did she instinctively think of Sammy as someone who could provide help or assistance, but she also paired Sammy with Joe, connecting the two cousins in the same way that many other heroic duos are often considered. Later on, when Rosa approaches Sammy again seeking moral support with her pregnancy, she is thinking along similar lines. Before the idea of Sammy as the baby’s stand-in father even crosses either of their minds, Rosa’s plea, “Sammy, listen to me. I need help,” suggests that she expects Sammy to be able to help in some tangible way (Chabon, 420). At the end of this exchange, a thought does materialize in Sammy’s head that “Rosa grasped at once… all the fear and hopelessness on which it fed” (Chabon, 421). The hopelessness the idea (Sammy and Rosa’s makeshift family setup) is feeding on applies more to Sammy than to Rosa, since Sammy—traumatized and scarred from his violent encounter with the consequences of same-sex love—is counting on this new arrangement as an escape from his former life. What he fails to recognize, both at the outset and during his twelve years of fatherhood, is how artificial and unsatisfactory this form of escape is. Unlike the traditional form of escape (whose encapsulated form, escape art) includes a climax and resolution, Sammy’s feigned marriage to Rosa and assumption of the paternal role does not resolve any issues regarding Sammy’s sexuality. The most that Sammy’s new role accomplishes for him is a distraction from his sexuality as well as an opportunity to re-invent himself as a non-sidekick. Basically, Sammy’s roles as the head of the family and Rosa’s boss in their professional lives provides Sammy the chance for leadership and a newfound sense of self-importance. Although he may or may not be aware of it, his desire to become a dominant character is motivated by the trouble and disappointment he suffered when playing the sidekick role and being simply attached to other people (the Molecule, Josef and Tracy). On the surface, Sammy is the boss. He is a father and a husband, although his mastery of both roles is moderately unconvincing. His relationship with Rosa is platonic and professional, since his true sexual orientation negates the possibility of anything romantic or erotic. Being Rosa’s boss means keeping her focused, and her distractibility gives Sammy an excuse to give her orders, which helps him feel that he is in control.
When he tells Rosa that he will drive Tommy to school, and that “you can stay here and, you know, draw my story,” Sammy focuses on their relationship in purely professional terms (Chabon, 477). Sammy, for as much control as he would like to be able to exercise, needs to remember that “he was her boss in name only” (Chabon, 475). Lacking the prowess and the relationship with Rosa that would allow him the power he may seek, Sammy realizes even keeping his orders professional is a pleasure since the entire purpose of the marriage was to escape homosexuality and the unintended trouble that accompanied it. Sammy, who appears to have given up the fascination with sidekicks in the content of his work, is still not completely independent. His work for Weird Planet features Spaceman Jones in the golden city being eaten by God, on his own without a sidekick (Chabon, 564). The content of his comics, however, is only one aspect of Sammy’s fascination with the sidekick role; the other being his own interactions and the role(s) he occupies in his relationships. His relationship with Josef in the early years was greatly shaped by a principal-sidekick dynamic, and although Josef is gone, he is still engaged in a partnership with Rosa in order to complete his comic book publishing mission. Having a colleague satisfies many of Sammy’s goals during this chapter of his life: he completely avoids sexual contact with men, feels a certain degree of control in his life but also has the comfort of a collaborator.

Chapter 6: Joe’s Return

Part 1: Joe & Sammy’s Bond

Although he should be hesitant, the luxury of having a collaborator is propelled into the forefront of Sammy’s mind once Joe returns. Although he has tried very hard to give up his sidekick role and the sexual fantasies that it allows him to live out, Joe’s presence ignites the possibility of re-starting the partnership, which is simultaneously exciting and anxiety provoking for Sammy. Sammy’s life, before Joe returns, is very unfulfilling, as other comic book professionals observe that he “looked pretty down in the mouth” and “is not a happy man” (480). Although Stan Lee (Spiderman) and Julie Glovsky are commenting on Sammy’s mishap of a career in the advertising world, they are unknowingly priming the reader to learn more about Sammy’s dissatisfaction in his personal life. Joe, not privy to the complications of Sammy’s secret adventures with Tracy Bacon, his run-in with the police or his current status as stand-in husband and father, " used to always imagine that he was happy” (Chabon, 555). But what Joe fails to recognize is that Sammy was left all alone in a geographical setting that reminded him constantly of the golden age of Kavalier & Clay. The setting is hugely important, because Sammy’s line of work (comics) is inherent to his location in or around New York City. Living in New York, the place where the golden age took place, combined with Joe’s sudden return greatly complicates Sammy’s struggle between moving on and regressing. His “fake escape” begins to reveal itself as Joe’s presence prompts some of Sammy’s long unconfronted fantasies to emerge. Sammy’s erotic bond with Joe is as strong and present as it ever had been when Joe makes his return as the Escapist. Sammy’s realization of his sexual attraction serves as part of his motivation to leave the family and start a new life toward the end of the novel. His response to Joe noticing the weight he has put on is at once defensive and sexually charged: “It’s all in my face. I still swing the dumbbells every morning. Feel my arm” (Chabon, 540). Joe, who encourages this behavior by squeezing Sammy’s arm, gives Sammy hope that the partnership they shared previously can work. Still longing for the sexuality that existed between them, Sammy finds himself getting more and more comfortable with Joe around. Sammy’s lust for Joe comes to the psychological surface, to a conscious level when the two cousins start talking about comic books: the very profession that brought them together at the initial stages of their relationship. At one point, Sammy becomes genuinely very excited about Joe’s work, even though its content is too Jewish to be published. Sammy’s arguments that the work could gain mass appeal cue Josef in to an awareness that Sammy longs for the old days. Prompted by this realization, Joe asks, “you want us to work together again?” to which Sammy, caught off guard, replies, “Well…actually…” (Chabon, 585). Sammy’s embarrassment regarding his cousin’s realization that he long secretly for a return to their partnership is one further step in the process to understanding his own psychology. Grappling with the awareness that his perfect solution may be flawed, a frustrated Sammy comes down hard on Joe: “You always did have a way of confusing my priorities like that” (Chabon, 590). Without truly understanding his own situation, Sammy feels the need to lash out in order to protect his own feelings: he can’t be sucked into the world of comics and partnerships and sidekicks again, but it is not until there is a significant krise in Sammy’s life that he fully understands why or what to do about it.

Part 2: The Falsehood

Sammy is a fake father, fake husband and fake escape artist in his entire marriage to Rosa. He cannot satisfy Rosa sexually, cannot be an appropriate parent for Tommy nor can he untangle the profound complex of shackles that are keeping him from enjoying true escape. When Joe left, Sammy was placed in a very difficult position and without any guidance as to how to fulfill his new role. When Joe realizes this, he is stricken with remorse, “I left Sammy to do my job,” a job that Sammy ultimately failed to complete (Chabon, 572). What Sammy failed to do was a job that included providing Rosa the kind of romantic love she had experienced with Joe, and being a father for Tommy. Unlike Rosa, whose maternal instincts guide her through parenthood, Sammy is left to his own devices and seems to fall short. “Tommy never seemed to resent [Rosa’s] heavy discipline in the way he chafed under Sammy’s lightest reproof” (Chabon, 476). Sammy’s inability to discipline Tommy effectively speaks to his awkwardness as a father and possibly even the lack of a biological connection akin to the one that Tommy and Rosa share. The falsehood of Sammy’s attempts at escape during this period in his life is highlighted by some very conscious thoughts that run through every member of the family. First, the very need to avoid questions that challenged them to think about their lives marks Rosa and Sammy as unfulfilled, otherwise these questions would stimulate and interest them. The fact that they “avoid questions like ‘How sane are we?’ and ‘Do our lives have meaning?’” demonstrates their willingness to deny the emptiness that pervades both their existences (Chabon, 563). Both of them are equally aware of this fault in their respective lives, but also equally unwilling to do anything about it. Perhaps Sammy’s cognizance of this problem is the very force that paralyzes him from taking action. When watching Josef carry his son Tommy, Rosa and Sammy reflect on the “doubt and shame and contentment that animated all the proceedings of their jury-rigged family” (Chabon 552). This particular family experiences simultaneously several (seemingly) contradicting emotions. What the family enjoys is a sense of contentment that their life is functional: their son is healthy, although mischievous, and the two parents have a solid friendship if nothing else. They suffer from shame because “everyone knew. That was what made their particular secret, their life, so ironic” (Chabon, 567). The fact that Sammy’s lie was so universally acknowledged led Rosa to feel slightly inadequate, since it was she who “never heard it, but…could feel it sometimes” (Chabon, 567). Rosa, who in the eye of the public is simply a beard, lives a shameful existence among the neighbors, not because they think she is unaware of Sammy’s sexual orientation, but because any couple that was fully aware and yet motivated to stay together must be pretty desperate. Even privately, Rosa must feel that she is occupying an awkward role, a feeling with which she has grown complacent until Joe’s arrival. As Joe re-enters Rosa’s life, he brings doubt of all forms: doubt that their living situation is truly an acceptable form of family, doubt that the love the two shared is gone, and doubt as to what to do next. Sammy’s doubt is, once again, not resolved until he attends the hearing, because Sammy doubts whether or not Joe should reveal his true identity to Tommy, and whether or not he should take over as head of the household. Ultimately, doubt over the love Joe and Rosa once shared is resolved and this resolution plays a major role in Sammy’s own development and escape from suburban heterosexual life. As Rosa was abandoned once, Sammy is naturally concerned for her well-being and wants to avoid abandoning her again. His questioning of whether or not Joe’s re-appearance into the family is a positive event shows his concern for his wife, but the love they share becomes so apparent that “at the same instant, [Tommy] realized he had known all his life that his mother was in love with Cousin Joe…the information pleased him” (506). The love had become so obvious that even Tommy, whose understanding of the word was limited to “his mother’s stories in Heartache, Sweetheart, and Love Crazy,” could understand it (Chabon, 506). The kind of love they share enables Sammy to escape from both a practical and a theoretical angle. He is able to justify his departure from the family, but on another level, the love Rosa and Joe share allows for an escape the way the familial love Rosa and Sammy share never could have. Comparing once again Sammy’s experience in escapism with a performer’s, it takes more than just a timed or practice routine to make art. As Bernard Kornblum once said, “Only love…could pick a nested pair of steel Bramah locks” (532). Sammy’s situation, like the Bramah locks, is hard to escape, since it’s comfortable, others depend on him and he’s been in it for a long time. The comfort stems from the marriage’s negation of the possibility of Sammy as a sidekick: as the father and husband as well as Rosa’s boss, the possibility that Sammy will become a sidekick (or involved with illegal activity) is small. It takes true love to break someone from a comfortable habit, and Joe and Rosa’s support of Sammy in whatever he does, as well as the love he gains for himself are crucial factors in his final departure. The dependence others’ have on him is also alleviated once he learns of the love Josef can provide for the two he is leaving behind. Ultimately, the time that Sammy has spent with the family and the love he has developed for them helps him leave: although it is difficult, he knows that his actions are in their best interest. Although Josef’s return to New York and the family is a huge motivating factor for Sammy’s ability to experience full escape, it alone does not succeed in making up Sammy’s mind. It gives him the rational comfort of knowing that, once he leaves, everyone he cares about will be safe, but it’s the emotional that truly prompts him to make the final move out of the picture and into a new chapter of his life.

Chapter 7: The “Krise”

According to dramatic structure theorist Gustav Fretyag, all narratives must have five components or acts: exposition, rising action, “krise,” falling action and denouement (Freytag, 13). Thus, Shakespearean dramas contain five acts each and one could even draw a parallel to The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay’s six chapters. The climax of Sammy’s journey as a sidekick and this escape from that role doesn’t occur in the center of the novel chronologically, but it is clearly marked not only by (seemingly over the top) explicit language surrounding it, but also the change in Sammy’s character and even subtle changes in the narration that appear immediately afterward. It is imperative to understand the dramatic or artistic meaning of the krise before applying it to Sammy’s life story. What happens in a drama or any other type of performance art, for that matter, is the action reaches of a pinnacle of confusion and disorder, of discomfort and self-shattering. In escape art, for example, the krise takes place at the point where the artist has been liberated from him shackles. In one memorably Houdini act, Kornblum recalls, “Houdini stepped from the cabinet for the last time, brandishing the cuffs over his head like a loving cup. He was free. The crowd suffered a kind of painful, collective orgasm—a ‘Krise,’ Kornblum called it—of delight and relief (Chabon, 535). Maybe Chabon called it the krise because Kornblum speaks German and it seemed appropriate for the character, but maybe he (or Kornblum) was thinking of Freytag’s original German book, Die Technik des Drames, which began where Aristotle left off explaining the purpose and technique of dramatic structure. For Houdini in this moment, he has experienced several fake escapes. He nearly escapes from the cuffs once before, and in so doing has built up audience frustration and/or tension. For that reason, the moment of release is not only an individual experience, but rather a shared, collective one. The Krise finally happens when Sammy realizes that his attempt to feign a spousal and paternal role in the family was not going to allow him to achieve successful escape. This realization occurs at the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, which is actually—but successfully—situated at the fourth-to-last chapter of the novel. By this time, the audience has had enough time to contemplate the viability of Sammy’s flawed escape into normativity: an escape that provided him more tension than release and more questions than answers. The crisis is a point of extreme confusion on the part of the character experiencing it, and this confusion is clearly marked in the transcript of the proceedings in that hearing. Even the punctuation displays Sammy’s apparent ignorance regarding the topics the Senators were pushing. When Sammy is asked about the veracity of the claim that he is partial to boy sidekicks, his answer is “I’m not aware—no one has ever—“ (Chabon, 615). Even though his colleagues have noticed the exact same trend in Sammy’s work and even though Sammy likens himself to a sidekick compared to Tracy Bacon’s heroic physique in New Jersey, Sammy himself was never forced to confront this issue. Even while reading Dr. Fredic Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent, Sammy did not come to understand the sexuality that pervaded his work, nor the criticism surrounding it. Although he seems cognizant in his conversation with Rosa that “it might not be the stabling and vivisection…at least not only that,” his failure to see the sidekick role as prevalent or problematic results in his surprise on the day of the hearing (Chabon, 566). In the conversation, he only briefly mentions the work he did, without asking himself or explaining to Rosa why these specific characters might be controversial. It’s not Sammy’s inability to see that The Lumberjack and the Rectifier are clearly sexual names—his colleagues observe this several chapters earlier—it’s his natural inclination toward denial rather than confrontation. This very characteristic of Sammy makes the hearing scene so crucial to Sammy’s release, climax and escape: it forces him, literally by law, to answer questions about his comic book characters and the “psychological proclivities” that inspired them (Chabon, 616). What Sammy had been doing his entire life until the encounter with the police was using the sidekick character—both as a subject for his work and as a description of himself—as a vehicle for playing our his sexual fantasies for older, stronger men and as a vehicle for living the comic book dream of a weak, crippled Jew being someone important. In her book Transparent Minds: Narrative Modes for Presenting Consciousness in Fiction, an excerpt of which is included in Michael McKeon’s anthology Theory of the Novel, Dorrit Cohn explains the use of style indirect libre, a style of third-person narration that expresses some first-person thoughts and emotions without quoting or framing, around and after “moments of inner crisis” (Cohn, 502). Cohn references Jane Austen, Franz Kafka and Hermann Broch as three authors who make use of style indirect libre in order to illustrate crisis. One reason this technique is so effective in and around moments of krise is that it provides an appropriate outlet for the author to seamlessly demonstrate and expose “the rhythm of inner debate” (Cohn, 502). Although the novel’s narration rarely makes use of style indirect libre, the few instances appear only after Sammy has experienced the liberating release of the hearing. “But what did it matter? It was better not to have put up any fight at all; it was over now,” this is the first example of style indirect libre, as defined as third-person narration that expresses one character’s thoughts without a break in the narrative style (Chabon, 631). This sentence appears to achieve the goals Cohn claims style indirect libre works toward: the negotiation and debate that surrounds decision making in or after crisis. Chabon’s connection between orgasm and the krise is well placed in the story about Houdini in several ways. Release from chains and handcuffs, release from lies and falsehood and release from the tension of rising arousal are all related. In his article “Writing and Unmaking of the Self,” Eugene Goodheart contends, “Art is life, life art” (Goodheart, 439). Josef’s art that is escape performance is an extended metaphor for Sammy’s own life, which has many painful wrong turns and at times seems so convoluted as to make escape impossible. He says that “writing…tends to dissolve the self and compel its reinvention,” and since writing is one of these arts, it makes sense to apply this new understanding to Sammy as well: his own life requires reinvention (Goodheart, 441). There is something self-shattering about the hearing scene in a very painful but also very comforting sense. This very contradiction is the key to understanding Sammy’s climax as an orgasm. Just as Kornblum describes the krise at the end of Houdini’s performance as “painful,” so is Sammy’s coming to terms with the truth about his proclivities that inspired an entire generation of comic book heroes and their muscular boyfriends. Any orgasm is naturally self-shattering, and Sammy’s experience in the courtroom is much like a first orgasm. Sammy cannot even comprehend—until his friends make it explicit—the transformation he has experienced during the hearing. Just like Houdini performing an escape, Sammy escaping from his past and his secrets allows for a renewed sense of stasis (as dramatic structure always returns there). Thus, he is able to leave the family to their original state (Rosa, Josef, Tommy) and live out his sexuality in its more natural form. Goodheart explains, “one would need several skins…to achieve orgasm ad infinitum” (Goodheart, 439). Simply put, the mapping of an orgasm is similar to dramatic structure: it begins with rising action (which can be quite literally interpreted in both the male and female experience!), followed by climax, falling action (again, literal) and denouement. One could argue that, in addition, both the orgasm and the drama begin and end with stasis. But what is the difference between the stasis at the end and at the beginning: in both situations something irreversible has happened. Perhaps the orgasm is called “le petit mort” by the French because a part of any person experiencing orgasm has died and can never return. It’s certainly true to say that Sammy will never be the same after the hearing, and that even each escape performance one performs one emerges a different person. The novel opens with a mature Sammy’s thoughts on the very topic: “‘To me, Clark Kent in a phone booth and Houdini in a packing crate, they were one and the same thing,’…‘You weren’t the same person when you came out as when you went in’” (Chabon, 3). What Chabon does here is set up the entire story, although the reader does not understand it yet, to be a story of metamorphosis through escape. The pain of being tied up, or being interrogated in a courtroom is the same kind of transformative process that leads to an eventual release, and in Sammy, allows him to do what is best for himself and his family.

Chapter 8: Conclusion

Essentially, what happens to Sammy in a courtroom where angry, homophobic Senators interrogate and force Sammy to confront places and topics he had never before encountered is good. It allows for an escape, which seems to be the goal of most characters in the novel. But escape by itself is not sufficient! Escape must teach us something, even failed escape (such as Sammy escaping into normativity or young Thomas escaping from Prague and drowning) provides valuable lessons. Although real life and escape art are often parallels, the crucial differences are that real life provides a substantive lesson or moral, and that real life escape is not always deadly if mis-performed. These two characteristics go together in the sense that what must happen is, once one fails at escape, that one seek out the factors that will permit true escape. Sammy experiences this true escape at the point where he realizes that he will never be attracted to Rosa, and never be happy staying with the family. Although there are a lot of external factors, the joy of Sammy’s krise (remember orgasm is also called jouissance in addition to le petit mort) is that it started from within. Just like Houdini or Clark Kent, these heroes were intrinsically motivated to follow their passions, and Sammy is following in his hero’s footsteps. Perhaps the novel teaches us the being a sidekick is equally unsatisfying as being in a jury-rigged marriage. Sammy’s independence in the end, as he moved to California, is a symbol of his freedom from marriage and a sidekick role. Throughout this coming of age tale, Sammy sheds the sidekick obsession little by little, at first doing so only because it brought about unwanted consequences (the police), but later doing so because he understood that it was a perverse but viable mangling of his actual sexual desires: to be in a relationship with another man. Before moving on, Sammy was too insecure to believe this was possible, he relied on hope that he could rise, not from Peter Parker to Spiderman, but rather from Peter Parker to Spiderman’s friend/assistant/submissive sexual partner. Unaware of his own potential, Sammy hid himself under his heroic counterparts, but when each one failed (the Molecule by running away, Josef by loving Rosa and Tracy by leading Sammy to the violent police), he could hide no longer. After the marriage with Rosa, Sammy was finally ready to accept himself as a leading man, a hero and the only person responsible for his own life. In a time when gays and Jews were so heavily and easily hated, Sammy’s course of action and the events that befell him are understandable and—to some extent—predictable, but the novel’s overarching belief in “wonderful escape” (Hawthorne, “Wakefield”) guides Sammy and allows him to achieve the kind of happiness that escape strives to make possible.

Works Cited

Brown, Jeffrey, A. “Comic Book Masculinity and the New Black Superhero.” African American Review 33.1 (1999): 25-42.

Chabon, Michael. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. New York: Picador USA, 2000.

Cohn, Dorrit. “Narrated Monologue.” Theory of the Novel. Ed. Michael McKeon. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000. 493-514.

Fingeroth, Danny. Disguised as Clark Kent: Jews, Comics and the Creation of the Superhero. New York: Continuum, 2007.

Freytag, Gustav. Technique of the Drama: An Exposition of Dramatic Composition and Art. New York: BiblioBazaar, 2008.

Goodheart, Eugene. “Writing and the Unmaking of the Self.” Contemporary Literature 29.3 (1988): 438-439.

Leverenz. “The Last Real Man in America: From Natty Bumppo to Batman.” American Literary History 3.4: (1991): 754-781.

Rollin, Roger B. “Beowulf to Batman: The Epic Hero and Pop Culture.” College English 31.5 (1970): 442-444.

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Liz Zlot Summerfield

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