Skip to main content
Skip to main content

Writing Masculinity: Jewish Archetypes, Self-Fashioning, and the Comic Book Genre in Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay

About the Author: Luke Brown

Luke Brown is a junior at Georgetown University majoring in English. This article comes from his research into queer and feminist critical literary theory as a recipient of Georgetown University's prestigious Kalorama Fellowship. During his undergraduate career he has investigated the role of power-knowledge systems in the formation of personal identifications, focusing on questions concerning the intersectional nature of race, gender, and sexuality. He hopes to one day work with marginalized communities as a licensed psychiatrist.

By Luke Brown | General Essays

 The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay occupies an immense historical space, extending from the streets of Nazi-occupied Prague to a solitary base in Antarctica, to pre-World War II Manhattan and its post-war suburbs. The novel’s main protagonist, Josef Kavalier, traverses nations, genres, and ideologies in an attempt to find a stable home and a defined Self. He and his cousin, Sammy Clay, help bring about the golden age of comic books with their fantastical creations and innovative designs, only to become disenfranchised with the figures they created. Josef Kavalier’s narrative occupies an important ideological space at the heart of the intersection of the comic book genre and a particular hegemonic masculinity rooted in escapism, masochism, and invulnerability. While Josef eventually succeeds in redefining his own masculinity by rewriting the tales of his masculine heroes, Sammy Clay is unable to extract himself from the homophobic discourse which surrounds him. Josef eventually manages to find refuge in a heterosexual, suburban family unit, but this act is predicated on the abnegation of the queer subject, Sammy Clay.

The earliest image we receive of Josef consists of him struggling to keep a torque wrench buried in his gums while eating breakfast (Chabon 22-23). His practice of magic tricks provides him with “a masturbatory intensity of concentration that became almost more pleasurable for him than the trick itself” (Chabon 25). His mentor, an old Jewish master of escape acts, Bernard Kornblum, describes Josef as, “one of those unfortunate boys who become escape artists…for dangerously metaphorical reasons. Such men feel imprisoned by invisible chains-walled in, sewn up in layers of batting” (Chabon 37). Josef, chained and stuffed into a sack, even goes so far as to plunge into the icy waters of the Vltava; this stunt nearly kills him (Chabon 35). Confinement and the ensuing act of autoliberation become a source of identification, erotic pleasure, and masculine dominance for Josef. He grounds himself in the masochistic pleasure of being physically immobilized and attempts to transmogrify into a free, unadulterated paradigm of male prowess through his escape acts.

Josef constructs an identity for himself based along lines of physical prowess, invulnerability, and escape that reflects the particular type of masculinity espoused by Houdini in the decades before. Harry Houdini’s meteoric rise to prominence depended upon his turning the male body from a site of weakness and vulnerability into a location of domination and triumph. “Behind Houdini’s police challenges stood the often sadomasochistic contents between torturers and victims that so fascinated the melodramatic imagination” (Kasson 114). Houdini was also known to insert himself into “what might be regarded as an especially provocative feminized position: naked, bound, bent over, inspected, even to a degree penetrated. His victimization was thus not only political (a loss of freedom) but gendered (a loss of masculinity)” (Kasson 116). His mainstream success was a result of his challenging police departments to a battle of containment: he challenged them to exercise all of the powers of the state to control and diminish the male body only to then regain mastery of said body.

The drama of Houdini’s acts was predicated on the demasculinization and depersonalization inherent in these self-created situations; the catharsis of his acts was the result of a radical transformation of the male body. Houdini successfully turned his physical presence into a site of gendered contestation and his struggle for bodily autonomy was his attempt to reinscribe masculine ideals – autonomy, control, strength – onto his person. “The drama of submission and release, bodily risk and mastery goes deeply to issues of masculine prowess and identity,” and it is for this reason that the crowds which flocked to Houdini’s feats of escape were “mostly men and boys” (Kasson 123-124). This same desire to define one’s “masculinity…in terms of the ability to overcome the body and the subjection of the body to the will” is at the heart of Josef’s attempts to embody the masculine ideal projected by Houdini (Colbran 120). It is therefore no surprise that Chabon ends the first part of his novel with Josef receiving “a drawing of Harry Houdini” from his brother, highlighting the ideological connection between Josef and Houdini (Chabon 66).

There is another towering figure of the Jewish imagination that shadows the steps of Josef Kavalier: the Golem of Rabbi Judah Loew (Berger 83). This hulking mass of mud is believed to have been created by Rabbi Judah Loew in the 16th century to protect the Jewish community of Prague (Baer 18). Josef and his mentor, Kornblum, are tasked with finding Loew’s Golem, which they eventually discover and successfully smuggle out of Prague by disguising it as a recently deceased strongman (Chabon 61). While the Golem is unable to protect the modern Jewish population of Prague, it metaphorically saves Josef by allowing him to stow away under its immense girth and slip across the carefully controlled border of Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia (Chabon 65). The protective capabilities and ineffective strength of the Golem mirrors Josef’s attempts and ultimate failure to protect his own family. Josef internalizes the ideological message that his personal fortitude can overcome the systemic and institutionally-sanctioned destruction of his family, a concept doomed to failure and one that will lead Josef down a path of self-immolation.

Josef will fall back upon these two idols of Jewish masculinity, the Golem and Houdini, when he begins engaging with a new art form, the comic book. When Josef must quickly sketch a comic book superhero to show a potential investor - New York City businessman Sheldon Anapol - he draws an interpretation of the Golem of Prague. When Anapol asks, “Is that the Golem?” Josef replies that “To me, this Superman is…maybe…only an American Golem” (Chabon 86). Josef’s response exposes the way in which the conceit governing the new rise of the comic book genre is a reapplication of the conceit of the Golem (Behlman 67). Even Superman, who became the defining character of the genre, was originally conceived as a mix between the Golem and the embodiment of the Jewish immigrant experience until he was“deJewified” in the following decades, eventually appearing as a Christ-like figure in recent adaptations (Brod 17).

While Anapol ultimately rejects Josef’s first cartoon - its unapologetic Jewish protagonist does not fit within the anti-Semitic marketplace of 1930s America - he will buy the rights to Josef’s second major creation, the Escapist. The Escapist who comes to “the aid of those who languish in tyranny’s chains” is gifted with the Golden Key, a medallion which grants him the power to crack any lock, spring from any chain, and undo any contraption of confinement that seeks to ensnare him (Chabon 121). The duly anglicized superhero - the Escapist’s true name is, of all things, Tom Mayflower - taps into the struggle for self-definition, autoliberation, and rugged independence which were the hallmarks of Houdini. The frank reincarnation of Houdini in the form of the Escapist suggests that Josef once again falls back on the masculine ideals of his youth to spur his creative process. He externalizes the Houdini-esque masculinity he has imbibed, projecting it onto his literary creation.

Josef’s artistic manifestations are enough to satisfy his thirst for control and dominance for a time. The comics offer a creative way for him to vent to his fear and anger: in his first cover for the Escapist, Josef portrays the hero delivering a knockout blow to Hitler in the ultimate fantasy of personalized masculine strength overcoming a political and socially-sanctioned genocidal regime (Chabon 150). The black-and-white, good-and-evil mentality and unambiguous moralization of the comic genre allow Josef to perceive himself as a real-life crusader for justice. In this way, the comic book form becomes a potent means of channeling the fantasies of a young man trapped by his sociopolitical context.

Although he feels “the shame of glorifying, in the name of democracy and freedom, the vengeful brutality of a very strong man,” Josef cannot prevent himself from “indulging [his] own worst impulses and assuring the creation of another generation of men who [revere] only strength and domination” (Chabon 204). Before long, however, artistic manifestations of rage are not enough to satiate Josef; his need for tangible proof of his masculine potency reaches a fever-pitch. He breaks into a nearby Aryan-American League headquarters, only to find that a Nazi sympathizer, Carl Ebling, has collected editions of the Escapist comic and become a fan of his work. Incensed that his glorification of masculine strength could appeal to his enemies, Josef gets into a physical altercation with him and dislocates Ebling’s shoulder (Chabon 205).

Disenchanted with his artistic representations of masculinity, Josef then attempts to inscribe upon his own body the values he had previously assigned to his superheroes in an attempt to relocate the masculinities of Houdini and the Golem within his person. When it is feared that Ebling has planted a bomb at Josef’s place of work, Josef responds by handcuffing himself to his desk to prevent his removal (Chabon 214). By confining himself and exhibiting a carelessness for his person, Josef tries to perform the masculine invulnerability which characterizes his creations. Just as Ebling’s bomb scare is ultimately uncovered to be a farce, so too will Josef’s attempts to embody the masculine ideal prove ineffective. Instead of fighting evil on the streets of Manhattan, Josef succeeds only in antagonizing larger men to bruise and batter his body. Instead of being able to safeguard his family by bringing them to the United States, Josef is blocked by the bureaucratic arm of the German embassy in New York and struggles to suppress “his sense…of being powerless” (Chabon 178).

The one place that Josef can relax, assured of his masculine vigor, is in the arms of Rosa Saks, his love interest. Rosa Saks embodies the romantic and erotic attraction that allows Josef to forgo feats of strength for feats of the bedroom. It is in Rosa’s eyes, lips, and arms that Josef finds the transcendence and unassailable masculine energy he has been seeking in his construction of the comic book form. In this way, Josef turns to heterosexual desire and, more specifically, the sexual act to solidify his shaken masculinity. Awaking “from a post-coital nap,” Rosa finds him “looking with remarkable interest in his own naked reflection,” at which point it seems Josef’s “process of transferring himself…to New York” has finally been completed (Chabon 314-315). In a textbook example of the infamous heterosexual matrix at work (Butler 36), Josef’s masculinity can only be successfully consolidated at the intersection of his consummated heterosexuality and male physique, and it is at this moment that Josef is described as one of his comic book creations.

Josef’s repositioning of his masculinity along an axis of heterosexual expression allows him a certain degree of repose. This repose is abruptly shattered when Josef learns that the ship carrying Thomas, his brother, to New York has been sunk by a German submarine (Chabon 399). Josef is on the verge of performing an escape trip at a Bar Mitzvah when he hears the news of his brother’s death. “Two minutes and fifty-eight seconds from the time of his immersion in the cool blue water of the Trevi’s fountain…Joe was thrashing around so much on the carpet that the house detective couldn’t get the sack opened alone, and had to call on the other men to lend a hand” (Chabon 399). Chabon describes Josef’s face in this moment as “an expression that most of the guests would later characterize as shame but that others, Stanley Konisberg among them, saw as a terrible, inexplicable anger” (Chabon 400). On learning of his failure to safeguard the welfare of his loved ones Josef immediately reverts back into a sadomasochistic mindset, punishing himself for his failure to fulfill the role of protector. Instead of a moment of rebirth and freedom in which Josef emerges from the water of the fountain unshackled, defiant, and reaffirmed, he appears unable to extricate himself from the physical, familial, and masculine constraints placed upon his person. Josef literally and metaphorically hinders himself from emerging whole and instead chastises his body with extreme punishment for its failure to live up to his supermasculine ideals. Josef then responds to fragility, ineffectiveness, and loss with the oldest masculine response: rage. Josef will race out of the hotel where his failed escape took place, and his momentum carry him into the American Navy (Chabon 417). Josef winds up at an isolated outpost in Antarctica, physically and psychologically distant from Rosa (Chabon 427).

The novel abruptly shifts at this point, and seeks to present Josef as an Odysseus figure struggling to return to a safe, domestic harbor. The other men in Josef’s cohort will die in a cavernous space while Josef escapes by holding on to an animal, in this case a dog, Josef receives visions of the dead, and Sammy acts as a Mentor figure by being left behind to care for Josef’s newly born son. (Levine 530). All of these elements clearly draw upon Homer’s Odyssey and generate a type of psychological distance within the structure of the novel wherein Josef becomes idealized, his experiences take on a heightened unrealistic quality, and a loss of individuation takes place. It is almost as if Josef has written himself into a drama, one in which his subjectivity is grounded in his performance of the role of the epic hero.

When he learns that a lone German soldier occupies a nearby base, Josef refuses to call command but instead risks his life to satiate his “desire for revenge, for a final expiation of guilt and responsibility” (Chabon 447). While Josef succeeds in killing the German soldier, the brutal psychological realism of the act does not fit within the epic schema, and he realizes that “Nothing…had ever broken his heart quite as terribly as the realization…that he was hauling a corpse behind him” (Chabon 465). It is here, in the bleakness and abjection of a frozen world, that Josef symbolically begins to separate himself from his idealized vision of masculinity by leaving behind the picture of Houdini he has been carrying since leaving Prague (Chabon 468).

Adrift without a system of meaning-making strong enough to invigorate him, Josef eventually finds himself in New York City but cannot bring himself to reconnect with the loved ones he has left behind (Chabon 524). He secrets himself away in a forgotten room in the Empire State Building, unsure of how to begin the process of rejuvenation and reconstruction that lies before him. Where does Josef turn for assistance in assuaging the pains of his trauma? Which subjectivities must Josef reinscribe in order to reenter society?

First, he must reimagine the boundaries of the Houdini-esque and Golem-esque masculinity that have defined his social interactions. Josef redefines the story of Houdini when he recollects a story told to him by his old mentor, Kornblum. Kornblum explained that on one occasion Houdini could not escape from a pair of locked cuffs and his wife had to secure him an alternate escape route. “It was not the key that freed him…it was the wife” (Chabon 535). In the transmission of this seemingly bland tale, the gendered politics at the heart of Houdini’s performances are rewritten as an act of masculine dominance becomes a story of ineptitude and assistance. In centering his understanding of Houdini on this recollection, Josef refashions a symbol of physical prowess, autonomy, and male power into a paradigm of heterosexual love, cooperation, and the limitations of the male body.

Josef then literally rewrites the tale of the Golem, placing all of “the grief and black wonder that he was never able to express…into the queasy angles and stark compositions, the cross-hatchings and vast swaths of shadow…of his monstrous comic book…The Golem” (Chabon 578). His pencils subject the constellation of masculine drives at the heart of the Golem narrative to the creative and generative potential of the comic book form, thereby allowing Josef to transfer the emotional weight of his traumatic experiences outside of his own body. This creative outpouring allowed Josef to “make a ‘slight adjustment’ in [his] confrontation with the everyday,” which allows him to embrace the psychological need for human connection that he had been denying himself (Chang 29).

At this stage, Josef’s healing process is only half completed. While he has redefined his masculine archetypes, he has not yet resumed his role as a heterosexual mate. “He needed Rosa–her love, her body, but above all her forgiveness-to complete the work that his pencils had begun” (Chabon 578). Josef turns to the performance of heterosexual attraction to assuage the trauma of a fractured masculine psyche. Yet while Josef reshapes his conceptual framework, Sammy undergoes his own traumatic experience: Sammy, his partner, Tracy Bacon, and other gay men at a Jersey shore bar are raided by police and a federal officer sexually assaults Sammy (Chabon, 410). In an act of self-abnegation, Sammy settles down with Rosa and proceeds to act as the father of Josef’s child in an attempt to reenter the heteronormative safety of 1940’s suburban America (Chabon 472). Josef can now only “rightfully” reclaim his position as head of the household by displacing the queer subject, Sammy.

Josef is aided in this regard by Sammy’s inability to verbalize, define, or otherwise linguistically denote his homosexuality, an absence which destabilizes Sammy’s agency within the novel. While Josef finds solace in the writing of The Golem, Sammy is unable to engage in the creative process effectively. Although he attempts to produce a novel, it appears as “the autobiography of a man who could not face himself,” and his literary “ambitions” end up “as dead, as the saying [goes], as Vaudeville” (Chabon 543).

Sammy’s linguistic patterns are marked by his continual inability to finish thoughts and sentences and the mark of his speech in the novel becomes that of a series of lacuna. The lacunae syntactically represent a void, an absence of meaning and intelligibility. In Sammy’s case, this emptiness is directly correlated with the “unspeakable sin” existing within a heterosexual framework (Henderson 66). When brought before the Senate committee – which was created at the instigation of the infamous Dr. Wertham to examine the homophilic underpinnings of the comic book genre’s caped duos (Myers 577) – Sammy must respond to insinuations of homosexuality. Hendrickson, a member of the committee, asks Sammy, “So you have never been aware, personally, therefore, that in outfitting these muscular, strapping young fellows in tight trousers and sending them flitting around the skies together, you were in any way expressing or attempting to disseminate your own…psychological proclivities.” To which Sammy replies, “I’m afraid I don’t…these are not any proclivities which I’m familiar with, Senator” (Chabon 616). Hendrickson and Sammy balk at naming homosexual desire. The linguistic void of the lacunae highlights Sammy’s inability to project a stable identity into the space and claim it as his own; Sammy responds by feigning ignorance in an attempt to assert a heterosexuality he has never been able to fully embody.

Sammy’s inability to define his own experience and act from a cohesive self-conception constrains his physical movement. His seeking physical and ideological security in the heteronormative, white suburban paradise of Bloomtown “allow[s] the world to wind him in the final set of chains, and [he climbs], once and for all, into the cabinet of mysteries that was the life of an ordinary man.” Sammy loses agency through his “self-immurement” and becomes a passive subject defined by the number of trains he has “not been on” (Chabon 547). In this way, his bodily constraint echoes his linguistic deficiencies. It comes as no surprise then that the return of Josef – rightful patriarch, heroic figure, and heterosexual mate – signals the expulsion of the undefined Sammy. The novel ends with Josef replacing Sammy in the bed of Rosa, an act of consummation that signifies Josef’s successful repositioning as patriarch. Sammy actively participates in this usurpation of his position, even going so far as to offer his space in Rosa’s bed to Josef in a final “clever fear of substitution” (Chabon 635-636).

By effectively rewriting the masculine narratives informing his own, Josef is able to position himself within the heteronormative ideal of the post-World War II suburban family unit. He does so through a manipulation of the comic book genre, a process that Sammy Clay is unable to engage in due to the debilitating unintelligibility of his homosexual desire. Josef is able to move through various spatial and ideological zones, eventually reaching a place of supposed marital bliss while Sammy struggles to define his own subjectivity and therefore ends the novel as a literal and metaphorical wanderer.

Works Cited

Baer, Elizabeth Roberts. The Golem Redux: From Prague to Post-Holocaust Fiction. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2012. eBook Academic Collection (EBSCOhost). Web.

Behlman, Lee. "The Escapist: Fantasy, Folklore, and the Pleasures of the Comic Book in Recent Jewish American Holocaust Fiction." Shofar 22.3 (2004): 56-71.

Berger, Alan L. "Michael Chabon's "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay": The Return of the Golem." Studies in American Jewish Literature 29.1 (2010): 80-9.

Brod, Harry. Superman is Jewish?: How Comic Book Superheroes Came to Serve Truth, Justice, and the Jewish-American Way. New York: Free Press, 2012.

Butler, Judith, 1956. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Chabon, Michael. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. New York: Random House, 2001.

Chang, Shu-li. "Superhero Comics and Everyday Heroics--Michael Chabon's the Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay." EurAmerica 44.1 (2014): 1-40.

Colbran, Louise. "The Grand Illusion: Hegemonic Masculinity as Escapism in Michael Chabon's the Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and Wonder Boys." Cambridge Scholars, 2010. 118-127.

Henderson, Carol E. James Baldwin's Go Tell it on the Mountain: Historical and Critical Essays. 49;49.; Vol. New York: Peter Lang, 2006. Web.

Kasson, John F. Houdini, Tarzan, and the Perfect Man: The White Male Body and the Challenge of Modernity in America. New York: Hill and Wang, 2001.

Levine, Daniel B. "Josef Kavalier’s Odyssey: Homeric Echoes in Michael Chabon’s the Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay." International Journal of the Classical Tradition 17.4 (2010): 526-55.

Myers, D. G. "Michael Chabon's Imaginary Jews." The Sewanee Review 116.4 (2008): 572-88.