The minute Michael Chabon's 2000 novel, ''The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay'' -- an intimate epic about two Jewish boys who create a comic-book superhero called the Escapist (think Superman's Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster) -- won the Pulitzer Prize, one thing was certain: Somebody in the hit-starved funny-book industry was going to ask Chabon to turn the Escapist into a real comic. Now, the inevitable has arrived: ''The Amazing Adventures of the Escapist.'' What a pity.
Chabon himself scripts the anthology's first entry, the requisite origin story, rehashed from his novel. A hybrid of Will Eisner's the Spirit and Jack Kirby's Mister Miracle, our hero is an escape artist who moonlights as a vigilante, fighting a diabolical organization known as the Iron Chain. Empowered by a mystical golden key, the Escapist can free himself from any cage (literal and metaphorical) and has a heart for helping those who need liberation (literal and metaphorical). It's all retro fun, competently realized by an imagination steeped in retro fun, but that's all it is. Lacking the context and complex shadings of the novel, Chabon's creation stands revealed as a moderately interesting assemblage of recycled inspiration.
So much for Pulitzer-quality richness. Instead, you get a literate fanboy trying too hard to be a comics scribe, and comic pros (like Howard Chaykin and Jim Starlin) not trying hard enough to be worthy of a novel they admire. It's a creative bind even a golden key can't unlock.