How we think the fight will go
On the twenty-fifth floor of the Empire State Building, on a Monday night in October 1940, Joe Kavalier’s lonely war—which he had fought armed only with pen and ink and the bright deathless determination of the very young—nearly came to an end.
He had been drawing, painting, smoking cigarettes, and nothing else, not only for much of the past seven days, but for the past two years, as he drew the Escapist’s adventures in the pages of Radio Comics. For those two years since he and his partner, Sammy Clay, had conjured their superhero, the Escapist, the Master of Elusion, from black coffee and memories of Harry Houdini and the detritus of their boyish dreams. Joe, in the guise of the Escapist, had been fighting a one-man war against all the necromantic might of the Wehrmacht and the Lufftwaffe and the Thousand-Year Reich. And now the Escapist had finally stormed the very heart of the Reich, the towered Schloss where waited the Escapist’s final adversary, the minotaur at the heart of the labyrinth, Hitler himself.
In the heat and intensity of this battle—in the light, just then indistinguishable from the brilliance of the setting sun over the East River, of this last great victory—Joe forgot himself entirely. The drawings had always come easily to him, flowed from his pen like the blood from his melancholy heart. But that night was different: The Escapist emerged from his pen, that monolith of gleaming blue and gold, like the Golem woken from his ancient sleep. And soon there was no desk, no cigarette still burning in the ashtray, no Empire State Building, no East River, no Joe Kavalier: just the Escapist, and the massive burnished doors in the topmost room of the tower, engraved with a strangely beautiful and elaborate insignia of a tree, opening to reveal a sinister figure. And so he did not notice that it was not Hitler at all that he had drawn, but a tall, red-haired man in a pale suit. In a vaguely surreal touch that nevertheless failed to surprise Joe even as he drew them—it just felt so right—he had a raven perched on each shoulder.
It was only when Joe had drawn the final detail—the silver tie-pin, in the shape of a tree, echoing the pattern on the door—that he realized there was someone standing behind him, watching him as he worked.
At first, he thought it might be Sammy, bringing the script for the next issue. But then it dawned on him—at first slowly, then all at once, with the incontrovertible logic of a nightmare—that the man standing behind him was the very same that he had drawn on the page, complete with ravens.
“Good evening, Mr. Kavalier,” he said, in a voice that was both soothing and commanding. “I am a great admirer of your work, and I have a proposition to discuss with you.”
Joe was far less proficient in English than he pretended to be, particularly when the subject ran to sports, politics, or business, but he recognized the vaguely threatening word“proposition.”“You must speak to my cousin, Sammy, about this. He is much better at…the contracts and the royalty…”
The man somehow produced from his gorgeous but quite slender suit two goblets, full of a golden, fragrant liquid. He handed one to Joe. “No, Mr. Kavalier, it’s you I wish to speak to. I’m Mr. Wednesday, by the way.”
Joe sniffed the liquid and a dreamy sensation overcame him. “Mead…” He was not sure where the word had come from—the same place, he supposed, as the silver tie pin and the ravens.
Mr. Wednesday nodded.“Mead, to seal our compact. Because I am here to offer you something much greater than five percent of the sales of Escapist pyjamas,” Mr. Wednesday said. “I know what you want, Mr. Kavalier. I know you want to be a great artist. To do extraordinary work.
“I know a charm to heal with a touch. To quench fire simply by looking at it. To sing the wind to sleep and calm a storm. To make any woman love me.
“And I know the greatest charm of all—a charm that I can tell no man, for a secret that no one knows but you is the most powerful secret of all.”
He leaned forward and raised the glass of mead. “And I will tell you that secret. And when you know it, you will be the greatest artist this world has ever seen.”
As the man spoke, Joe found he had no doubt at all that he could do everything that he said. And still he hesitated, and even felt a little afraid; when he spoke, he tried out a slangy phrase he had learned from Sammy. “And what’s the catch?”
“All you have to do…” Mr. Wednesday pointed to the drawing of the Escapist. “…is end this.”
“No more Escapist. You wish me to stop the drawing of the Escapist.”
Mr. Wednesday nodded. “Yes, no more Escapist.”
Joe lit another cigarette, though the previous one still smoldered in the ashtray. He blew out a long stream of smoke, and looked out at the East River, as if he could see all that Mr. Wednesday had promised him just on the other side. But still he was not sure he could say yes: It all meant too much to him, the steadfast and all-consuming persecution of a ridiculous, make-believe war against enemies he could not defeat, by a means that could never succeed. It had to mean something.
In the long silence, Joe heard another sound—that of chains clanking. He caught a glint of blue in the corner of the room, just past his desk, and that’s when he saw him: the colossal, heroic figure in the blue union suit, still somehow magnificent and imposing even though he was bound from head to foot in chains. The Escapist. Joe met his eyes—steely blue and determined—and though the great hero was also gagged, Joe nevertheless heard what he should say.
“Why?” he asked. “Why do you want this?”
From the moment Mr. Wednesday had spoken, Joe had sensed in him an immense and terrifying power; it was only then, though, that he saw that power flaring in his terrible, mismatched eyes. “Who are you to question me? I am Glad-of-War, Grim, Raider, and Third. I am One-Eyed. I am called Highest, and True-Guesser and I am the Hooded One. I am All-Father, and I am Gondlir Wand-Bearer. I am Odin.”
Joe half-remembered the name from his grandmother’s stories: an old god, he thought, from a dying world. For some reason, the phrase gave him courage, and so he shrugged, and turned back to his desk, picking up his pencil. “No, thank you, sir. No deal.”
As Joe spoke, he heard the satisfying sound of the tumblers of a lock turning, a chain falling to the ground with a clank.
“Do you even understand what you are doing here? What you have done?” Mr. Wednesday said, thunder rumbling in his voice. Another lock shattered, another chain snapped.
“You are creating new gods.” Now the breaking of the chains sounded rhythmically like driving rain. “Some of the most powerful gods in history. True American gods. Millions of children believe completely in your work…”
A shadow fell over Mr. Wednesday. Mr. Wednesday was a tall man, but somehow the Escapist was even taller. He seemed to have grown, too, as Mr. Wednesday spoke, until he seemed to almost fill the room, the Empire State Building, the entire city. He put his hands on Mr. Wednesday’s shoulders, who continued to talk to Joe. “And they will kill us. All the old gods…we will never survive them.”
Joe never saw just what the Escapist did to Mr. Wednesday. He had turned back to the drawing table, seized all of a sudden with an irresistible impulse to finish his drawing. Perhaps the Escapist did nothing at all, Joe thought; perhaps Mr. Wednesday had just faded away, the way, Joe had to concede, even the galaxy-black inks and infinite colors of pages of The Escapist would fade with time. And yet he felt, just as surely as he felt the satisfaction of the weight of a beautifully inked line, of capturing the steely glint in the Escapist’s eye, the rightness of what Mr. Wednesday had said: He had made something that did have meaning; that would endure; that would live forever, or at least as long as all the dreaming souls of all the Kavaliers and Clays of Brooklyn.
Predicted Winner: The Escapist
NOTE: THIS MATCH ENDS ON THURSDAY, MARCH 8th, 2012, AT 5 PM, EST
Mr. Wednesday image courtesy of HarperCollins. The Escapist image courtesy of Random House
Cage Match fans: We are looking forward to hearing your responses! If possible, please abstain from including potential spoilers about the books in your comments (and if you need spoilers to make your case, start your comments with: “SPOILER ALERT!”