The Escape Arts

It’s all escapism, right?

To read a comic and to shrug off the Clark Kent trappings of the Smallville mundane, leap the tallest building, and take dominion over the clouds as Superman. We’re all Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster making wings out of paper and India ink, breaking free and saving the world from something, from everything. This is the unifying power of all fantasy and fiction, but perhaps the comic book especially: to press a key to our palm or between our teeth and let us wriggle and escape from whatever it is we need to escape from. Though our backgrounds may differ dramatically, though our physical need for liberation varies due to circumstance, we’re all itching for escape.

And there’s no one place we’d all rather be. The mutual thrill is not in the here or the there, but in the act of bending steel, in the audacity of becoming something else. It’s freedom. The heart of escapism is not the dying planet Krypton or the distant blue beacon of Earth. It’s the shuttle between and all that fueled it. A father’s dying wish, a mother’s love, and the unconquerable force of life. And with every turn of the page, we feed our own shuttles to that far-off olly-olly-oxen-free of the imagination.

This is the escape art.

The subtitle to a recent Houdini biography refers to the legendary escape artist as “America’s First Superhero.” The man fed that same hunger. He may not have bent steel, but he never bent to it either. Just as in any pop culture icon, the full extent of Houdini’s influence is unclear, but I can’t help but think that Clark Kent owes a little something to the old Handcuff King whenever he rips open that oxford shirt to reveal the crest underneath. Strictly speaking, it’s something of a mild-mannered straitjacket routine. And his chariot of transformation, the public telephone booth? It’s not so far removed from the Chinese water torture cell employed by Houdini. When either man emerges from these containers, these shuttles, he has become something else entirely.

This isn’t new, and it isn’t anything that’s going away either, this tango of superheroism and escape artistry. Secret identities are a permanent fixture of the art form, and suspense necessitates entrapment and liberation for our heroes. Often it’s not even a matter of subtext. Kirby’s Mr. Miracle is a genuine hybrid, a no-apologies superhero escape artist. He’s a daredevil lock breaker in cape and cowl.

No examination of the subject would be complete without a tip of the hat to writers Michael Chabon and Brian K. Vaughan. Fascinated by this subject as I am, Chabon is the mountaintop sage of the lock-picking, cocoon-bursting comic school of thought. His Pulitzer winning novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay champions the metaphor and really serves as a fictional biography of both the industry and spirit of the medium. The title characters, one an escape artist in his own right, create a comic book about the Escapist, a death-defying, Hitler-slugging crusader trained in the art of lock breaking. The character and the legacy of his creators lives on in several comic anthologies. But the most satisfying graphic incarnation exists in the pages of Brian K. Vaughan’s The Escapists mini-series. In it, a new modern day team of writer, artist, and letterer embark on an independent venture to publish Escapist tales decades after the original Kavalier and Clay run disappeared from shelves. While we do get to enjoy the Escapist’s exploits in the comic within the comic, the real story is about the struggle of the creative team in their efforts to publish a comic that can serve as their own vessel of expression. And, really, there’s no better means of escape and transformation than creating it. The term ‘creative freedom’ comes to mind. If you know the book, you may agree that the final image is perhaps the most effective depiction of what freedom really means for an artist. It’s the stuff that slackens a jaw and sticks with you all day.

It’s also important to stress that comic escapism is not limited to books of tights and flights. Just look to Vaughan’s calling card, a series that undoubtedly played a major role in earning him the keys to the Escapist Mobile. I refer, of course, to Y: The Last Man and the Yorick we know so well. When we first meet him, Yorick is suspended from the ceiling in a straitjacket. He’s a Houdini enthusiast and his skills will help him out of many a scrape in the issues to come. But even when he finds his way out of that straitjacket, the escape really isn’t over. His story questions the very nature of escape, what it means to run, and just how significant each link in the chain can be, even as we shrug them to the floor. Freedom and the cost of liberation is a motif for Vaughan. It turns up again in Pride of Baghdad, a fable of war and the corruption of dignity in even the most majestic creatures.

There is joy in escape, but there is also consequence. Escape is not the here or there. It’s the struggle in between. The soul of drama. It’s what defines life, even on the day to day. It’s what we root for. It’s knowing that if they can make it one more step, one more breath, one more ounce of everything they’ve got, the world can spin another day. Another bullet dodged or caught between the fingers.

It’s the stuff superheroes are made of.

 


Paul Montgomery is locked in a steamer trunk miles beneath the surface of the Caspian Sea. He has comics and ‘Nilla Wafers though, so no worries. He sometimes blogs and podcasts for the infamous Fuzzy Typewriter label, and can be reached at paul@ifanboy.com.

Comments

  1. Great new article Paul!
    I really need to pick up that trade of the escapists.

  2. Nicely done, sir. Comics and escapism do seem to go hand in hand, and you reference some of excellent stories. Will this examination continue? I’m curious about the act of reading comics as a form of escapism. You know that little nugget that turns up on message boards from time to time? "I read comics to get AWAY from the real world, so I don’t want too much reality in my comics!" That always fascinates me — as if we’re all a legion of dreamers, flipping four-pages to maintain the fantasy as long as possible.

  3. very nice Pole.  

  4. Enjoyed the article! 

    I’m with TimmyWood; I need to go get the Escapists trade stat.  I am not quite sure how I didn’t know it was out there.

  5. I was ready to dislike Kavalier and Clay because the idea of an escape artist held no appeal for me, but Chabon really drew me into the thrill of putting oneself in an impossible situation and then getting out of it. It started to seem like a metaphor for my life, and occasionally still does as a deadline gets too close.

    Similarly, I didn’t have high hopes for Vaughan’s Escapists; I’d read Dark Horse’s earlier attempt to Sentry-fy the Escapist and treat him like a real old character, but they fell flat for me. That having been said, I cannot recommend the Escapists mini highly enough. In a way, the characters are a nice echo of Kavalier and Clay themselves, and a lot more relatable to boot. 

  6. It’s always nice to see someone referencing Chabon’s book.  It is simply one of the best things I have ever read.

  7. And we can’t forget Jim Steranko and his life as an escape artist before becoming a comic book creator!

  8. Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    @daccampo – Definitely a subject that interests me, so I’m sure these themes will pop up again.  What is this ‘realism’?

    @Jimski –  Yeah, I think the appeal of Escapist is symbolic; he’s more interesting as a comic within a comic, a parallel to the real world characters.  By himself he’s just another pulp action hero.  

    @Tork – I had no idea about Steranko!  That’s really cool.   

  9. Wow, lots of typos in my entry — meant to be "some excellent stories" and "four-color pages" … 😀

  10. I have the overwhelming urge to just say "Nice" and move on…but I won’t.

     

    I really enjoyed the article.  Comics are so ingrained to me that I really forget that they are something I do as a form of entertainment.  I’ve been reading them for over 20 years and sometimes it feels like they are just something I do.  It’s nice to be reminded from time to time that I genuinely love them and use them to get away.

  11. @Paul– Oh, yeah, Jim was partially the inspiration for Chabon making his hero the Escapist.  Supposedly, the same applies when Kirby made Mr. Miracle an escape artist.

  12. @ Luthor

     

    Nice.

  13. Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    @Tork – I’m looking for a research assistant.  I can’t pay you, but I do have a Nintendo Wii you can play between Wikipedia searches.  We would be unstoppable.  

  14. I hear you don’t even PRACTICE magic. I call bullshit. 😉

    Very nice article that touched on some very nice stories. The two (escape artists/magicicans and comics) are fairly symbiotic, but it isn’t something people generally pay much mind to.

  15. Haha.  In all fairness, I knew that tidbit from a Wizard article on Steranko.

  16. Timmy Wood (@TimmyWood) says:

    @Tork I think that Kirby based Miracle Man on Jim Steranko. I think I heard John Suintress mention that on Wordballoon once.

  17. Timmy Wood (@TimmyWood) says:

    @Tork Oh You just mentioned that. man I feel stupid now.

  18. Nice work Paul.  Interesting stuff.  I woudl say that I don’t tend to use comics as a form of escapism–I mainly read them for the stories and to be entertained. 

    My escapism comes from the warm glow of my 360 and Wii where I can shoot things, steal cars, leap massive chasms, and live without consequence.

  19. Excellent Work, Paul. I loved pPride of Baghdad. In a certian respect, I took that work to be an assertion of the futility of escape.

  20. Niclely none Paul lovely artcel. i’lln have to pick up the escapists sometime  i love BKV.