In his mid-20s, as a creative-writing graduate student at the University of California at Irvine, Michael Chabon submitted as his master's thesis a brisk novel about a confused young man coming to terms with his sexuality. Needless to say, he earned the degree, but his professor was so impressed with Chabon's work that he immediately sent it along to his agent. The book, 1988's The Mysteries Of Pittsburgh, earned rave reviews on its way to becoming a bestseller. Chabon spent much of the early '90s working on a highly ambitious opus called Fountain City, about an architect building a perfect baseball park in Florida, but he scrapped the project after failing to give shape to the thousands of pages he had written. From the ashes of that experience rose 1995's Wonder Boys, an evocative comic novel that channeled his frustrations into the main character, a professor and author whose own much-anticipated sophomore effort is running well into the thousands, with no end in sight. This year's pitch-perfect film adaptation of Wonder Boys, directed by Curtis Hanson (L.A. Confidential) and starring Michael Douglas, failed to make much of an impression at the box office, but enthusiastic notices prompted a re-release in some cities on Nov. 8. Chabon's latest and most ambitious novel, The Amazing Adventures Of Kavalier & Clay, chronicles the rise of two Jewish cousins who write comic books during the "Golden Age" in the late '30s and '40s. Sammy Klayman, an opportunistic young man with a knack for pulp plotting, is perfectly complemented by Czech émigré Josef Kavalier, whose bold drawing style lends new sophistication and power to the medium. Together, with the help of costumed creations such as the Harry Houdini-inspired The Escapist, they fight the war on the page. Chabon recently spoke to The Onion A.V. Club about his early devotion to comic books, his proposal for an X-Men movie script, and the unexpected perils of writing fiction.
The Onion: What is your history as a reader of comic books?
Michael Chabon: I was introduced to them pretty early, right around the age of six or so, by my father, who had himself been a devoted reader of comics when he was a child. His father was a typographer in New York, and he worked at a plant where they printed comic books, so he used to come home with bags full of them for my father to read as a kid growing up in Brooklyn. So I guess when I started reading, my father thought it was only natural that I should take an interest in comic books, too, and he started bringing me comics to read, although he wasn't getting them for free. I read mostly DC Comics at that time, which was the late '60s and early '70s. They were still very much what they had been for many years: somewhat naïve, innocent, primary-colored, and set in a world with very clear distinctions between good and evil. And that was very appealing to me when I was little. As I got older, I switched over to the Marvel world, where things were murkier and more ambiguous and the heroes had the famous "feet of clay" and more human foibles and failings. And I think that's more appealing to an older kid. Then, when I was a teenager, I completely lost interest in comics, sold my collection, forgot all about them for 15 years or so, and had to reeducate myself again to write [Kavalier & Clay].
O: What was your first introduction to the so-called "Golden Age" of the medium?
MC: Actually, it came in my reading of DC Comics in the late '60s and early '70s, because at that time, DC published several different lines of so-called "giant" comics that were somewhere between 52 and 100 pages. And to fill out those big comic books, they reprinted all kinds of material, and a lot of it was Golden Age stuff. So I got exposed to it directly through the pages of a comic book—not through an old compilation book at the library or something, but actually pulpy, stapled comics with the adventures of heroes from the late '30s, '40s, and into the early '50s. A lot of it was exactly the same stuff my dad had read as a kid, so we were able to talk about them, and that formed a very important early connection of taste between us.
O: When your interest in reading comics waned, was that a consequence of adulthood or the failure of comics to make that transition with you?
MC: I think I outgrew them the way a lot of other people do. I just got interested in reading other things around the time I was 14 or 15. I also stopped reading science fiction and fantasy and started on so-called adult fiction, stuff my parents would recommend to me that they were enjoying. My tastes changed, and I was more interested in reading literature and contemporary fiction than I was in genre fiction and comic books.
O: Well, the reason I ask is that it's such a concern in the book, this idea of comics as a medium for adults, and the problems it has making that transition.
MC: At the time I was giving up on comics in the mid- to late '70s, there wasn't much in the way of what are now called "graphic novels" or adult comics. There was the underground stuff, like Zap Comics with Robert Crumb and Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, but that didn't really appeal to me. Had there been artists around like Daniel Clowes or Chris Ware, I don't know if I'd have kept reading or not. It's hard to say.
O: Why do you feel such an affection for Jack Kirby [creator or co-creator of Incredible Hulk, Captain America, Iron Man, Spider-Man, and Fantastic Four]?
MC: He was really the first comic-book artist I learned to identify by sight. His work was very distinctive, so it was not like a great feat of discernment on my part. But as a kid of six or seven, I was thrilled by his unique stylization, and he was the first one I learned to spot without having seen who had drawn the particular comic I was reading. So that was the first initial impulse. He had this astonishingly fertile imagination where he generated and shed concepts and ideas and nomenclatures… In the course of a single comic book, he would create and destroy an entire universe that he had richly peopled with races and worlds. Then, in the very next issue, he'd do it all over again. I think that kind of inexhaustible fertility really appealed to me. Even to this day, I continue to revere him along with other heroes of mine, like Nikola Tesla, the great inventor, whom I also see as somehow having tapped into this amazing, mysterious supply of imagination.
O: What were the particular historical models you had in mind for Kavalier & Clay?
MC: I didn't really have any specific models. Neither of the main characters is based in particular on any one or even any couple of actual comic-book creators. It was more, especially in Sammy's case, that there was an easy pattern to be discerned among creators at the time. Many of them, not all, were young Jewish guys from New York with immigrant parents, a yen for success, and a love of the pulps. All of those qualities were pretty common among comic-book men at the time, almost universal, and so it was not basing Sammy on any one person, but on the archetype of the comic-book creator. In the case of Joe, I don't see him as being based on anybody, or even fitting a particular pattern. The only thing I would say about him that I really did draw from an actual creator is that I gave him Will Eisner's rather surprising and unshakable faith in the medium of comic books. That was rare at the time. In fact, I think Eisner was unique in feeling from the start that comic books were not necessarily this despised, bastard, crappy, low-brow kind of art form, and that there was a potential for real art. And he saw that from the very beginning, which was very unusual, and I took that quality and gave it to Joe Kavalier. I think that was the only direct borrowing I really did.
O: What did you find was comic books' predominant attitude toward the war?
MC: Well, they were incredibly jingoistic, just rife with horrifically gross caricatures of Japanese and Germans. The entire comic-book world went to war, and it went to war a little earlier than the United States actually did, for the most part. Throughout the war, that was pretty much the single theme of almost every superhero comic book: the war, saboteurs, fighting the Axis Powers. Without the war, I don't know if comic books would have caught on the way they did. They were the perfect medium for the time, and the boys and girls of America really responded to this sort of fantasy fighting. I think those children were keenly aware of the actual war being fought, because family members of theirs were fighting in it or were somehow or other victimized by it. I think it was very appealing to kids at the time, who were so painfully conscious of the war, to have this fantasy war going on, which could be easily won over and over again by these costumed heroes.
O: When you talked to various comic-book artists while researching the book, did you find them as conflicted as Kavalier is in their relationship to violence?
MC: I didn't really ask them about it that much. When I was interviewing those guys, I was in the fairly early stages of writing the book, and at that point, I was more concerned with getting their help in painting a portrait of the time and the features of their lives at the time. So I was asking them things like what they wore, and where they worked, and what their offices were like, and how they got there: Did they ride the bus or take the streetcars? Those kinds of things, and also how they started working, how they worked, what kind of brushes they used, and all of those more quotidian things. So a thematic concern like [their relationship to the violence in their work] hadn't occurred to me yet. I wasn't immersed in the material enough. The question of violence and the inherent fascistic nature of the superhero didn't really come to me so early. I had to grow into it and look at it through the point of view of Joe Kavalier. It was only once I was immersed in his character that it started to be a concern of mine. That said, I did find it to be a concern in interviews I later read with creators, especially someone like Eisner, who is one of the more thoughtful people ever to work in comics. He didn't address the issue as overtly as Joe does in the novel, but he did touch on the fact that he had dressed his famous team of aviators, The Blackhawks, in uniforms that were consciously modeled on SS stormtrooper uniforms. He said he was somehow responding to some element in the look of the Nazi forces that seemed right for these so-called heroic characters, too. So that gave me sort of a confirmation about what I was having Joe think and feel about what he was doing. But it's certainly not an original idea of mine. If you look at a work like Alan Moore's The Watchmen, the whole idea of the superhero as fascist gets a real working-over.
O: After your experience with Fountain City, were you nervous about leaping into a project of this proportion?
MC: Yeah, I was a little bit, and there were definitely times while I was working on it when I worried I had done it again. I did run into some rough patches, and in the course of trying to get through them, I couldn't help but wonder if I had done it to myself all over again. But it was never really the same, because I felt from the first that there was just something about this time, this place, and the business of comic books that was so real and juicy. It wasn't like Fountain City, where I never felt like I was conceptually on steady ground, and I was trying to knit together these disparate elements in the hope it would add up to something. With [Kavalier & Clay], I felt from the very beginning that there was this fundamental kernel from which you could make a novel.
O: Did your writing habits change? Were there other lessons you took from the experience?
MC: No, I've always had pretty good habits. I don't think I could have worked on Fountain City for five years and generated as much material as I did if I didn't have steady work habits. I think that if I learned anything, it's that you can feel completely despairing and hopeless and in over your head and lost and incompetent in the course of writing a book, but that doesn't mean all those things are true. You can fight your way through those periods to a new appreciation of what you're doing and to a firmer grip on the material. If I had known that with Fountain City, I might have fought just a little longer to try to pull it together.
O: Will elements of that book—I'm thinking of the baseball angle, in particular—find their way into future works?
MC: I don't know. As you mention, the baseball angle was the initial exciting idea for me, and it had been completely superceded by reality. When I first came up with Fountain City, the idea of a downtown, green-grass, baseball-only, intimate sort of Ebbets Field/Fenway Park-style stadium being built in a contemporary setting was a complete fantasy, and it seemed like such a wonderful idea to me. But in the course of writing that book, I first started hearing of this new park they were building in Baltimore. Then they built it and started working on another one in Cleveland, and so on. So reality completely caught up to me. Now, [building old-style baseball parks] is old hat, which takes away one of the central pillars of that book.
O: Were you concerned about the tone of Kavalier & Clay? On the one hand, it's a brisk and adventurous yarn, while on the other, it does deal with a lot of the darker issues related to the war.
MC: No. Tone is definitely not something I worry about too much. I feel that in the past, my style has shown itself to be capable of handling dark and light in the same paragraph, or even in the same sentence. That's something I almost take for granted now. I think it was more a concern to get the details right and persuasively recreate the world I was trying to write about.
O: What is your history in creative-writing classes? It seems like so many books I've read lately have the same attitude about them, which is that those who have it have it, and that no amount of guidance or instruction will make a difference to those who don't. Do you find that to be the case?
MC: It depends on what you mean by "it," I suppose. [Laughs.] I don't know if you've looked at this new book by Stephen King, On Writing, but he talks about how instruction of this kind couldn't make a bad writer into a good writer and it couldn't make a good writer into a great writer, but it can take someone who has a certain amount of innate ability and help them avoid lots of common pitfalls. I don't think you could teach someone to be a genius, but you can certainly teach them to not make rookie mistakes and to look at writing the way a writer looks at writing, and not just the way a reader looks at writing. There are a lot of techniques and skills that can be taught that will be helpful to anybody, no matter how gifted they are, and I think writing programs can be very good for people. It always seemed strange to me that this question gets raised only in the context of the teaching of writing, as though writing were different from the other arts, which have routinely been taught for a long time, like music and painting and drama and sculpting.
O: It seems like all these disciplines have been questioned because they don't have, for lack of a better term, practical applications. In math, there's always a single answer to a problem that can be taught. With the arts, you're dealing more with vagaries.
MC: Yeah, but they should still be taught. Painting, for example, is full of techniques that you would only learn if somebody showed you how to do them. And that's true for writing, too. Let's just take the question of point of view in fiction, with first-person, third-person, limited point of view, omniscient point of view, and so forth. Somebody who's out there, reading on his or her own and trying to become a writer, may conceivably read for years and never really get quickly to the bottom of the issue of point of view in fiction, and the difficulties and advantages to adopting one point of view over another. Now, a truly gifted writer might have an intuitive grasp of that and not need to have it demonstrated through careful reading of selected works that illustrate point of view very well. But I think it's really helpful for a lot of writers, and from what little teaching I've done, it can be eye-opening to just take a piece of fiction and look at it exclusively for point of view. You can take a work like, say, Lolita and not look at it for what it's about, or what's happening, or how beautiful the language is, or the scenes of innocence and experience and corruption. If you just examine the question of point of view, which is not naturally something a reader would do on his or her own, it can be incredibly instructive and informative. It can really help you in your own work when it comes time for you to attempt, for example, some kind of a strange, unreliable first-person narrator.
O: To what do you attribute the indifferent popular response to the film version of Wonder Boys?
MC: Of course, I kind of blame myself. One can't help but think that all these talented people, from the screenwriter to the director to the cast to the producer to the cinematographer, put all their amazing gifts and hard work into something that was fundamentally not worthy of them. But I also think that it was kind of a tricky pitch. It was hard to figure out how to market that film and find what kind of audience it would appeal to. And I guess they didn't really solve those admittedly very difficult problems. Also, it came out in February, which is sort of a dead time of year.
O: Watching a film like that fail to make money, you have to wonder how studios can sell films for adults in a climate that's really teen-oriented.
MC: I think [Wonder Boys] is a film for adults, but on the other hand, that's almost like the kiss of death in a way. It's weird. Supposedly, there are adults out there who are hungry for films that aren't aimed at teens, but where are they? Why don't they go see a movie like that when every reviewer in the country—for the most part, anyway—is telling them that this is a movie for you and not for the Scream/I Know What You Did Last Summer crowd? But they didn't turn out for it, which makes you wonder whether the whole idea of a film for adults is a canard or something. The campaign was aimed at more grown-up people. The trailer had a more sophisticated touch to it: You had to read along with it as you were watching. And they had that great Bob Dylan song, which you'd think would appeal, for lack of a better term, to the VH1 generation. And yet, with all of that, it still didn't get across somehow. Whether that was the fault of the studio or the fault of the adults who supposedly want to go see movies about themselves, I don't know. It's almost as if a film like that needs cachet, and yet the adult crowd to whom a film like that might appeal is somehow incapable of bestowing cachet. Cachet definitely seems like something that arises exclusively from the younger crowd.
O: Reading your proposal for the X-Men script, it sounds like a lot of your general ideas about what it should be—to reveal the X-Men universe through Wolverine's eyes, dispensing with supervillains, and so on—made it into the film.
MC: But they didn't dispense with the idea of supervillains. I think they flew directly in the face of what I was suggesting. They had Magneto and Toad and Mystique… It was loaded with supervillains. I was saying, "No Magneto." Magneto had been there in every previous draft that I read, and they're all kind of collectively known as "The Brotherhood Of Evil Mutants." I thought that was a big mistake. It was hard enough to keep track of all the heroes among the X-Men. And as far as doing it from Wolverine's point of view, that didn't originate with me. That was sort of a given. I took it as a given, because it was more or less an element in most of the prior drafts I'd read. It just seemed like a natural, I suppose, because he's not a team player and they are a team. So it seemed like an inevitable way of setting up the story, to have this outside, lone-wolf type who encounters this functioning unit and is ultimately accepted by them and accepts them.
O: Why do you imagine your proposal was rejected?
MC: Oh, it was a very simple reason. When [director] Bryan Singer and his screenwriting partner, Christopher McQuarrie, came along, the studio very wisely dropped me like a hot potato.
O: There were no particular objections to your ideas?
MC: No. In fact, I think I was on the verge of getting hired. I was trying to reassure a couple of people who had a few reservations, and as I was engaged in that process, Bryan Singer showed up. And he was hot off The Usual Suspects, as was Christopher McQuarrie. So getting rid of me was a no-brainer, as they say.
O: How have your struggles to break into television been working out?
MC: I wrote a pilot [House Of Gold] for CBS, which was not picked up, unfortunately. And now, I'm just starting to work on the second one for TNT. At this point, I'm batting .000. But who knows? Maybe by next year,
I'll be batting .500.
O: Putting aside the obvious problems of creating a show for a network, the medium itself seems to hold a lot of potential, particularly for a novelist.
MC: I agree. There's something inherently more appealing about the idea that you could reveal and tell stories about characters over the course of a TV season—13 or 26 episodes, whatever it might be—than in the course of one two-hour movie. You can do so many more novelistic kinds of things on a TV show—with time, with gradual development of relationships, and so on—than you could possibly do in a movie. And that is very appealing.
O: And House Of Gold has an original and intriguing premise, covering three different generations in one family over three different time periods.
MC: Yeah, I thought it was a cool idea, too. If you ever find yourself to be a programming executive at a major network, let me know. [Laughs.]
O: For an idea so novel, didn't you want to shop it around at more ambitious outlets, like HBO?
MC: There was some talk about it, but it didn't really seem like the producers I was working with quite had the energy for that. Or maybe I didn't, either. We thought about going to HBO or Showtime, but it didn't seem like it had the quote-unquote—and I'm putting quotes on there very deliberately—"edge" that those kinds of networks favor in what they do run.
O: Yeah, but it doesn't seem like the kind of thing that would come out of the network that brought you Big Brother or Bette.
MC: No. They said—or somebody said they said—that they wanted more adventuresome shows that would help them capture an audience they hadn't been able to capture at that point. They were still the Touched By An Angel and Murder, She Wrote network. But ultimately, it didn't turn out that way, at least as far as I was concerned.
O: What are some of the problems of being a novelist in this particular time? What gratification do you get from the release of a book, especially in a time when it's destined to be dwarfed in sales by the likes of a Ludlum or Clancy?
MC: I guess I don't really look at it that way. The problems you have as a novelist tend to have to do with making a living and trying to find ways to supplement the income you get from writing novels. For a lot of writers, that involves teaching. In my case, so far, I've been able to get by working in Hollywood with this TV stuff I've been doing. And it's very important, because my wife is a writer, too, and we don't have health insurance through any employer. Therefore, our health insurance comes through the screenwriter's guild, so I can only ensure my family's health by working in Hollywood. In a way, that's a problem for me, because I'd much prefer to be writing novels all the time. But from the point of view of the marketplace for novels, I want my book to do well, and I want my publisher to be happy with me and to feel like I'm a good bet. But for me, the goal is always to write a novel that I myself would like to read. People frequently ask me what my favorite book is, and in effect, there's always a capital-F Favorite, capital-B Book that I would like to write myself someday. I try to go for that ideal of writing the best, most entertaining, most beautifully written book that I possibly can. So I never get too upset. I just go into it expecting that I'm never going to be a Tom Clancy. And I wouldn't really want to be—not that I have anything against him, and I wish him continued success—because that's not why I'm writing novels. I'm doing it because I have to. I feel like I have to, anyway.