Michael Chabon's Big, Epic Voice

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I've made my way back into Michael Chabon's The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. I started the book about a year ago, but got pulled away by some other reading. At any rate, I've returned to it. Here is Chabon (who is a friend of the room) pulling back a bit to give us a take on the comic book industry:

In 1939 the American comic book, like the beavers and cockroaches of prehistory, was larger and, in its cumbersome way, more splendid than its modern descendant. It aspired to the dimensions of a slick magazine and to the thickness of a pulp, offering sixty-four pages of gaudy bulk (including the cover) for its ideal price of one thin dime. While the quality of its interior illustrations was generally execrable at best, its covers pretended to some of the skill and design of the slick, and to the brio of the pulp magazine. 

The comic book cover, in those early days, was a poster advertising a dream-movie, with a running time of two seconds, that flickered to life in the mind and unreeled in splendor just before one opened to the stapled packet of coarse paper inside and the lights came up. The covers were often hand-painted, rather than merely inked and colored, by men with solid reputations in the business, journeyman illustrators who could pull off accurate lab girls in chains and languid, detailed jungle jaguars and muscularly correct male bodies whose feet seemed really to carry their weight. 

Held in the hand, hefted, those early numbers of Wonder and Detective, with their chromatic crew of pirates, Hindu poisoners, and snap-brim avengers, their abundant typography at once stylish and crude, seem even today to promise adventure of a light but thoroughly nourishing variety. All too often, however, the scene depicted on the label bore no relation to the thin soup of material contained within. Inside the covers—whence today there wafts an inevitable flea-market smell of rot and nostalgia—the comic book of 1939 was, artistically and morphologically, in a far more primitive state. 

As with all mongrel art forms and pidgin languages, there was, in the beginning, a necessary, highly fertile period of genetic and grammatical confusion. Men who had been reading newspaper comic strips and pulp magazines for most of their lives, many of them young and inexperienced with the pencil, the ink brush, and the cruel time constraints of piecework, struggled to see beyond the strict spatial requirements of the newspaper strip, on the one hand, and the sheer overheated wordiness of the pulp on the other.

The excerpt goes on, but I what I liked so much about this (and the excerpt) is the excitement of the narrator. The voice almost reminds me of a comic book writer in the sense that he attempts to write as though the fate of multiverse hinges upon the narrative. The advantages of this are two-fold. First Chabon is writing about comic books, so you want some of that. Second, the narrator's excitement convinces you that he believes, and thus you should believe too. It's very similar to the trick that George Eliot pulled off in Middlemarch where the narrator breaks the third wall and addresses you on the problems of writing what is, for her, nonfiction.

Chabon's narrator conveys his "self-belief" through the wide language—comic books were "splendid" and birthed "descendants," they were "dream-movies" bringing us to a world of "Hindu poisoners and snap-brim adventurers." Later he gives us this:

Though he had been conceived originally as a newspaper hero, Superman was born in the pages of a comic book, where he thrived, and after this miraculous parturition, the form finally began to emerge from its transitional funk, and to articulate a purpose for itself in the marketplace of ten-cent dreams: to express the lust for power and the gaudy sartorial taste of a race of powerless people with no leave to dress themselves

So I'm enjoying myself. I have to read so much for my work. Reading for pleasure is such a relief.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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