Chabon created the Escapist as an homage to the heroes of the Golden Age of Comic Books. The character's abilities as an escape artist are inspired by escape artist Harry Houdini as well as Robin Hood and Albert Schweitzer. Another inspiration was the early illusionist career of comic book artist Jim Steranko.
Introduced in Chabon's novel in 2000, the Escapist is said to be the creation of the book's protagonists, the cousins Joe Kavalier and Sam Clay, a pair of Jewish comic book creators in the 1930s and '40's. The character's modus operandi is part of a recurring theme of escapism in the novel, representing the imaginative and positive effects of escapism in superhero comics as well as Kavalier and Clay's attempts to escape from the troubles of their past. Joe Kavalier has fled to America from Nazi-occupied Prague in Europe, leaving the rest of his family behind. Unable to help them, he starts fleeing from himself and everyone trying to get close to him. Sam Clay also wants to escape from himself – both his polio-stricken body and repressed homosexuality.
Within the story, the Escapist makes his first appearance in Amazing Midget Radio Comics #1, published by Empire Comics, a former novelty device company. He provides Kavalier and Clay with a measure of success and fame. However, having signed the rights to the character to the publisher, they make comparatively little from the massively successful character.
In 2004, Chabon teamed with Dark Horse Comics to create an actual comic book series of the Escapist. Named Michael Chabon Presents the Amazing Adventures of the Escapist, the comic chronicled the supposed decades-long publishing history of the character. The stories and text pieces were written with the concept that Kavalier and Clay were real people and that the Escapist had actually been a character from the Golden Age of Comics. As such, the stories in the anthology were frequently written and drawn in older or simpler styles, in homage to the comics of past eras.
In addition to the Escapist himself, the comic featured stories of other characters supposedly created by Kavalier and Clay, such as the heroine Luna Moth and villains such as the gun-wielding Mr. Machine Gun or The Saboteur.