Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Gosh! Recommends... The Escapists HC

Story: Brian K Vaughan
Art: Philip Bond, Steve Rolston, Jason Shawn Alexander, Eduardo Barreto
Dark Horse Comics

The deceptively brief history of The Escapist to date is nonetheless complicated – it all started with Michael Chabon’s novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, about a pair of Siegel-and-Schuster-a-likes who came up with a confinement averse character that knocks the socks off the 1930s comic book, uh, stocks. There was also an anthology series from Dark Horse fleshing out the publishing history of the character which was rather nice, but this series, The Escapists, is the only proper sequel to the book. To shorthand it, the novel's wonderfully-written, lengthy and rewarding, and very much deserves your time, but the Pulitzer Prize probably clued you into that. However, The Escapists has not as yet won a Pulitzer Prize, so I'll tell you a little about it.

The story follows Max Roth, a weedy elevator repairman from Cleveland with ambitions of writerdom. His father dies when he's a child, and he inherits The Key To The Basement. When the young Roth first ventures down there, he's faced with something he never expected - boxes and boxes of comic book ephemera, all to do with Kavalier and Clay's Escapist character. His mother dies after he takes up his job as elevator repairman, and he inherits $150,000. He immediately spends it on the unwanted, long-outdated license for the Escapist and all spin-off characters created for the franchise. He finds an artist in a girl he rescues from a stuck elevator, and a letterer in the thoughtful jock he atypically befriended during high school. The Escapists chronicles their attempts to create in an industry that gives untested talent no footholds whatsoever, and it does it brilliantly.

Now, Steve Rolston is no slouch. He delivers great layouts and expression here and his action work for Queen and Country's early volumes is also sterling. But to have him take over after an introductory chapter by Philip Bond, whose art moves me on a profound level, is a bit of a tease. But there's a reason - this chapter appeared as a kind of pilot for the main series, in the pages of The Amazing Adventures of the Escapist comic, and the rest of the main series was all Rolston.

As I say, however, Rolston never drops the ball, and the talking-head stuff and visual gizmos are brilliantly realised. He's assisted by Jason Shawn Alexander, who ghost-draws for elevator-girl Case Weaver within the pages of the comic, and Eduardo Baretto, who mimicks the depression-era action comic style with line-perfect respect. It's a really convincing blend of styles, and works just as an experiment in having several totally-different artists work together on a single story.

The Escapists fills the reader with the heady ambition of youth, just as the early chapters of Kavalier and Clay managed to do, and it does so in its own idiomatic way. It's not just a retread, it's a whole new chapter to the saga, and a moving evocation of the new generation's attempts at stardom and creative respect. It does contain a few callbacks to the novel, however, including a character dressing as the Escapist himself to publicise his cause. There aren't the usual showdowns with stern corporate types, nor, in fact, many other characters at all bar the three protagonists. It's somewhat of a stripped-down narrative, but by design, and it pays off.

The Escapists doesn't, in synopsis, do anything that a prose novel couldn't, but it's the execution that shows comics' potential as a literary medium, with dream sequences, broken narratives and the aforementioned art style shifts that justify the characters' determination and the form of the story itself. In other words, it's in that rare category of 'good alternative comics' - it's a book that neither leans on nor shamefully rejects comics' legacy as a disposable art form. This is yet another triumph for Vaughan that singles him out as one of comics' greatest genre-hoppers and most capable talents, and acts as the new generation's equivalent of Will Eisner's classic The Dreamer for both inspiring and evoking the pure enthusiasm of artistic endeavour. Highly recommended.

Recommended by Tom.