The Escapist punches Hitler in the nose on the cover of Kavalier and Clay

One of my all-time favorite novels is Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. In it, two teenaged cousins, Sam Clay and Joe Kavalier, create a comic book series called The Escapist. Whereas comic books are used primarily as fodder for summer blockbusters in current American culture, in their “Golden Age,” comic books tapped directly into the American psyche of needing to defeat Nazis.

The two cousins create The Escapist with exactly this desire in mind–the need to defeat Nazis is especially close to home for Joe Kavalier, who left the remainder of his Jewish family behind in Prague when he escaped. While living in Prague, he’d studied magic and escapology and considered Harry Houdini to be his idol.

Usually, when I think of magic, I think of card tricks and animals appearing and disappearing. Perhaps I’m alone in this opinion, but escapes have always seemed something other than “magic.” Yet Houdini is arguably the most famous magician in history due to his amazing escapes. One of the most wonderful parts of Kavalier and Clay is how Chabon delves into the psychology of this particular brand of magic–how does a person learn to escape, and why would he be compelled to do so?

Here’s a brief bio of Houdini, along with great video of his escapes: