I looked at the clock on my desk: 3:00 AM. Crap. I was supposed to stop reading by 1:00 AM at least. The problem was, I figured I would. I read a lot of comics this day, and most I can put down. THE ESCAPISTS, however, was an exception.

MICHAEL CHABON’S THE ESCAPISTS, written by Brian K. Vaughan, is a six-part series set in the same world as Michael Chabon’s book, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. Although the script is solely Vaughan’s work, pencil credits go to four others. Phillip Bond and Eduardo Barreto handle issue #1. In issues #2-#6, the credit goes to Steve Rolston and Jason Shawn Alexander (with extra bits by Barreto).

I was lucky to have read Chabon’s book in college — that’s why I chose to cover THE ESCAPISTS as my latest assignment. Both stories follow the creation of a comic book on the outside, but both ask their protagonists a question that sits at the marrow of all creative endeavors. What challenges, personal and social, will an artist overcome to deliver his or her dream unmolested?

The end result is an inspiration.

LISTEN: Want more of Brian K. Vaughan’s work? Listen to our podcast on SAGA!

The Characters Overcome Challenges…Only to Face More

Brian K. Vaughan’s writing serves as the bedrock that makes THE ESCAPISTS good fiction, foremost. Simply put, no matter how good the characters are, no matter how much they strive for their goals or hope in each other, they still fall short of what they want. And the best part? They fall short because of the actions they take to overcome the challenges in the first place.

To use an example, issue #1 introduces Maxwell Roth, the protagonist. All he wants to do is write stories about The Escapist, the superhero of Chabon’s book, but many publishers reject him. So, he resigns to become an elevator repairman. “If I was ever going to write about an emancipator of the imprisoned…I would first have to become one,” he says.

Young Maxwell Roth and The Escapist in THE ESCAPISTS #1, from Phillip Bond, courtesy of Dark Horse Comics.

This may sound benign, but many a hero’s journey starts from humble settings until a sufficient emergency commits the protagonist to his or her dreams. Maybe it’s an awkward nerd who gets superpowers from a freak spider bite; maybe it’s a university linguist who is around for aliens arriving on Earth. In this case, it’s Max, the elevator repairman, whose mother dies, leaving a large life insurance payout.

WATCH: Want to hear more about how that awkward nerd got his superpowers from a spider? We explained this after a bottle of wine (NSFW)!

Max, inspired by his dream, uses the money to buy the rights to The Escapist. He hires the artist, Case Weaver, and his lifetime friend, Denny Jones, as the letterer, burning the bridges that could lead him back to his mundane life. Of course, that also means that after paying his friends, he doesn’t have much money. So, he needs to sell his book. And what better way than having his muscular friend Denny dress up as The Escapist and thwart crimes?

Thus issue #1 ends with Max being very clear on what he needs to achieve in the next issue. It’s not easy — and maybe illegal — but that’s what will make the story exciting. Each subsequent issue sees this pattern repeat, as the stakes get higher and his schemes get riskier. This may sound cliche, but his character actually does drive the plot. Everything that happens — even the appearance of a major antagonist — is a result of our hero’s competence. It’s not just thrilling to see him and his team struggle — it’s inspiring.

The Art Marries Good Writing to Good Characters

THE ESCAPISTS uses art to elevate Brian K. Vaughan’s script into something more than just good writing.

First, there’s the visual element of the characters themselves. In Phillip Bond’s work in issue #1, we see palpable emotion expressed, especially in the eyes and postures of all the characters he draws. Colors are bright and don’t get in the way of the art. Maintaining Philip Bond’s precedent set in issue #1, Steve Rolston brings Max, Case, and Denny to life in a similar fashion. It’s a subtle trick, but you can tell exactly what each character is thinking and feeling before you read the caption. This means, if you want, you could read the comic without words. Don’t believe me? Dark Horse lets you try (be sure to have Flash enabled!).

READ: Art isn’t the only way to express comic book stories — read our analysis on how comics and musical theater overlap!

Phillip Bond shows the team after finishing their first comic, from THE ESCAPISTS #2, courtesy of Dark Horse Comics.

Even still, THE ESCAPISTS pulls ahead of its peers when it begins illustrating the pages of the comics created or read by the characters. Barreto handles the classic Escapist; Alexander handles Case Weaver’s art for Max’s Escapist. In this way, the very stories that enter or exit the character’s minds become visible for us to see. It would be one thing to say what challenges the characters experience putting together a comic, but it’s another entirely to show the created comic book.

Jason Shawn Alexander drawing as Case Weaver in the first Escapist issue, from THE ESCAPISTS #2, courtesy of Dark Horse Comics.

And show they do. Barreto’s style is reminiscent of the Golden and Silver age of comics, with bright colors and square jaws. Alexander’s handling of Case’s style shows a gritty Escapist dripping pathos in each dark shadow. Both transition from the cartoony styles of Bond and Rolston to create a sharp demarcation between the real world and the comic world. Suddenly, we sympathize with the characters, seeing the world and their creations through their own eyes.

Creation and Reality Blend into a Thrilling Plot

And yet, if the art and writing weren’t enough, THE ESCAPISTS pulls one more trick on the reader. Right when we’ve established that one art style exists for the created world and that another art style exists for the actual creators, THE ESCAPISTS blends the two. Starting even in the first issue, we see the creator’s narration replace the text in the word bubbles of the comic book pages. Similarly, in later issues, the creators themselves don the costumes of the characters they’re creating.

CLICK: Want some insight into letting fiction enter real life? We interviewed cosplayers at Anime Expo 2017!

It boggles the mind a little: THE ESCAPISTS is a comic book that tells the story of creating a comic book while putting the creators into the comic book and the comic book into the world of the creators. This could have been handled in a way as haphazard as my description, but it isn’t. What makes THE ESCAPISTS sublime is that this convoluted, metaphysical trick happens seamlessly. It emphasizes not only the creative process behind comics but the nature of heroism itself. Do creators make heroes, or do heroic creators make characters that imitate their lives? THE ESCAPISTS has answers that I won’t spoil.

Final Thoughts on THE ESCAPISTS

Through powerful characters that lead to believable and thrilling plots, and with art that shows what it’s like to become your work, THE ESCAPISTS becomes more than just a story about making comics. It explores what it takes to act creatively despite every and all odds thrown up against a dream.

But thanks to Max, Case, and Denny forming clear goals that they fudge over and over again with their own best efforts, we get a good story. Thanks to the art of the entire team, we see two distinct worlds blend and come together as only a comic can do.

READ: For a talk with creators who brought another licensed property to life, look no further than our interview with the team of RICK AND MORTY: POCKET LIKE YOU STOLE IT!

Paul Pope’s cover for THE ESCAPISTS #5, when the comic and real world begin to blend to dramatic effect. Courtesy of Dark Horse Comics.

THE ESCAPISTS is an experience not to be missed — so do what you can to read it. The latest edition of the series — now some ten years old — comes out October 21st, 2017.

MICHAEL CHABON'S THE ESCAPISTS is good story made better by being a comic book. If you ever wanted to create anything, you will be inspired by this story.
98 %
An exceptional piece of work

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