Brian K. Vaughan The Escapists – Shared Worlds, Our Own Golden Age

While often times I think fans of comics and thus their creators are a bit too preoccupied with the same ailment that some Fantasy and Science Fiction writers and tend to trade the walking stick for the mirror often and further, stand so close they fog up the picture. Thus my conclusion is that one Brian K. Vaughan has no reflection but truly exists in both worlds, one the fan, one the creator, all the skills, that he has taken on a project spurned on by the creation of another planewalker, Michael Chabon, whose Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay certainly won the Pulitzer throughout the Multiverse in a socially acceptable double dip.

The Escapists is several stories, a very isolated, focused one that follows a story of Maxwell Roth chasing a dream and buying the rights to his favorite character simply because the feeling of existing in a world with no more adventures of his pulp hero The Escapist was unacceptable. It is from many perspectives rather pathetic, even going to the extreme of spending essentially all that his family left him to purchase the property and start publishing the comic again. Those who would aid in this rebirth were people he met in real life, doing real things — there is no lab, no dungeon that’s only in and out is a net hook-up and though a Warren Ellis can expose crooked little veins simply by rummaging through e-trash it is an eye trained in the field and that has reflected back at him others of the same that can create so bounty from such rummages. It would just seem sensible that the dungeon comes after the success not before. Roth would meet the pencils that would free the Escapist at his job providing elevator maintenance helping free her from the corporate highway, a freedom she — one Case Weaver — would later put into focus for Roth later. His letterer, Denny Jones, could actually be a superhero in a world that had such — a protector in school and since a lifelong friend. In limited pages it succinctly chronicles The League of the Golden Key’s figurative return to the world and success achieved by literal return in a marketing ploy gone bad until the day was saved. To take from  Vaughan, not really a mistake — but more of a happy accident.

Those who haven’t experienced Vaughn’s prowess or can’t read a comic without tights are yawning on their way to pick up the latest issue of what used to be Spider-Man and I won’t bore you with Vaughan’s turn of phrase, his timing, his delivery and how this fictional-biography is a creative-reality check, coming of age story that pulls universal strings. I’ll just tell you that there are tights, there are superheroes, there are villains — and the narrative shifts from the ‘real world’ to the adventures in the comics themselves, both current and classic. Shift is perhaps not a correct word, they are layered — and could be viewed next to each other but offer an enhanced landscape when stacked or removed from one another. One of chief and possibly not intentional pluses in reading The Escapists is that a modern reader is able to stroll into past ages without the stigma we may attach going into reading a “Golden” or even “Silver” Age story. There is a preconceived camp many seem to associate with the era, a detachment from our sensibilities, that even someone like me who is a comic collector of examples from both era is not immune to, however, presented side by side by top talent we see the excitement that can be barely contained on page — it’s bigger than life, these pulp masters didn’t need to escape as they lived in a world of possibilities and mystery and as within the pages of The Escapists boundaries did not exist. We will see the rise of Escapists return, another hot product creating buzz that got the attention of the Corporate machine that wanted to buy it back. Vaughan is careful here, he doesn’t come of as creator lobbyist — the Corporation gave what we are to believe is a more than fair value for a borrowed dream, something he gives to us via the Case’s reaction to Roth’s decline.

The description of it being a ‘love letter’ while alluding to a past is telling. We write most love letters for ourselves and they often go unsent, they are an attempt at personal clarity, to make things real and though The Escapists points to the past it’s message is posted to today and the future. We may dream of the past — but they (dreams) are instruments of tomorrow in reality and this is why The Escapists is oddly enough not in advocacy or a — though all forms of fiction are in some degree escapist in nature — call for us to look to fictional locales and occurrences of our imagination to get away from hardship, the grind, or negatives we may associate with our own realities. We can look to other Vaughan projects (any of them — they are all sweet) and see this is not a theme in any of his other work, so much so one may even come to believe he views such crutches with disdain by his avoidance and would rather limp to engage then sprint to avoid. The titular message is something a rather famous white boy from Eight Mile has shouted to us from main street to mainstream — you have to lose yourself to the muzak and I bet Vaughan was the a hellion when it came to hide and seek. To be an Escapist you have to be able to be it and bask in chasing others, learning, experiencing, loving, and even hate — but in the end you have to want to step out and be on the run yourself — to get lost. What separates the super-fan and the marginal (and in some cases even profound) talents who have jobs in the industry from the true creative forces is never to allow our selves to be attached to the thrill of the chase of other’s dreams.

As a reader, even as a life-long fan of sequential art, my considerations bordering on exclusivity always focus on the writer and writing. Narrative, dialogue, plot — all products of great art as well — via the writer has always been my focus. A comic can have just competent art and I could hold it in the high of regard. I have always painted my own pictures in my reading with paints given to by artists of vocabulary like Calvino, Peake, Clark Ashton Smith, Kafka — and newer scribes who paint with words like Mieville, Valente, and Ducornet and I find that I read comics the first time around completely unaware of art. I go from word to word, balloon to balloon, and then if satisfied I go back and compare visions. By its very nature it’s not very hard to portray or convince us of something that is fantastic, the accomplishment of the art in The Escapists is to illustrate the journey within that is put across in our own world and a fictional comic. The real journey was Bastian’s; running from the bullies and reading a book, not Atreyu’s. This is the fictional story of fictional storytellers in the midst of creating fiction — sometimes finding themselves in the pages — not breaking the fourth wall, but creating the 6th.

The use of books as literary devices is something readers are familiar with recent work like Shriek: an Afterword or House of Leaves or more famously by Lovecraft, Goldman, or Borges and so on but to give seamless physicality to these gates was almost breathtaking. The flashbacks to vintage funny books make you want to go out and explore an era that when names like Schomburg didn’t need variants to make a fool of you and buy books and were labeled by the only titles with words that could contain them: Weird, Amazing, Astonish, Mystery, Strange, Two-Fisted, Suspense, Planet Comics, Wings. The modern pages reminded me of Totleben, who along with the aforementioned Moore heralded the next evolution. No matter where on the timeline or in what reality they chose to inhabit, the art in The Escapists given to us by Jason Shaw Alexander, Eduardo Barretto, Philip Bond and Steve Rolston gave me not only something to interact with, but offer visual bridges to Vaughan’s generational collage. Simply put, the art is top notch throughout and display an era when every page was a Tale or an Adventure. Where dreams were seen for all to witness, but more importantly where one was put down on paper.

I didn’t go to Comic Book inventions when I was a kid. To me they were these semi-mythical events that I could only read about in some Wizard’s report. I was either overseas or never in an area close to these tourneys when I wasn’t but I had a magic kingdom and it was called a flea market. A place that opened its gates every weekend where I could communicate with Hama, Gaiman, McFarlane, Claremont, Shooter, Windsor-Smith, Keith, Lapham, Simm, and Byrne — they were never there but they spoke to me, sometimes through balloons. I was there when people carried on conversations of such gravity only in person, “Who the heck is this Stephen Platt?” — “I don’t know bro but I’m coppin’ Moon Knight”. It was a time when Scott Lobdell held the keys to the hottest titles when they had rarely been hotter, when Generation X wouldn’t be thought of as just another X-book in a lame era — but when it was perhaps the only mutant title that carried on the original mandate that once made the X brand great — these kids were different and Chris Bachalo came out of the lab with stuff up he still doesn’t get enough credit for and when Travis Charest pages were still affordable. It’s when we were introduced to some dude named Hellboy in the pages of Byrne’s Next Men, when Gaiman and Moore were advancing the possibilities of the craft, when we read a Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow comic with no word and didn’t miss a beat. I was there when the creation of Image created actual excitement about comics, when Shooter was valiant and defiant, and witnessed Kraven’s last hunt.

Vaughan goes beyond the admirable skill of knowing how to tell stories — he understands them. He can tell you how to open and close them and then tell you why you shouldn’t as he slams the window that you didn’t see before — that wasn’t even there — on you. Every child who has ever dreamed and any adult who isn’t living it and wants to see Vaughan get missing should lock themselves up with Escapist and watch it break free and then, and only then can you have the chance to know it is not he who Vaughn followed, but what lay a step further, he was chasing that yet and always unseen that the Escapist himself was chasing.

I can sense a common criticism of The Escapists might be that the heroic interludes are something more than the rest of the story. It’s hard not to think that because the shift in art draws you in, it’s beautiful, it’s wonderful, it promises the amazing. It’s the feeling comics are supposed to give you, simulating your transition from the mundane to the page. It’s the escape.

I’m a quoter, a look at my other reviews will indicate such, I pick out lines of no more relevance than any other to consume space in my reviews. Some display stylistic characteristics and others I choose just because they make me smirk. With this read I almost wanted to skip the practice as every line is so in tune I didn’t want to spoil the melody but right after a table-setting intro by Chabon, Vaughan kicks it off with:

“Superman and I have the same hometown”

We all do. As comic fans, our heroes derive from him, yet we are all also alien to someone. BKV invokes  an atmosphere shared by decades and generations; this thing of ours, a specialized bi-lingual attribute shared by those who are otherwise altogether different and never would share more than a nod in passing. We are all different, from different infinite worlds that all landed in one spot to share in something, be it the man of tomorrow or his descendants. With Vaughan we escape, come as you are.