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After the Golden Age by Alvin Schwartz
Giving a glimpse into the formative years of comics and beyond.

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AFTER THE GOLDEN AGE for 07/16/2001
Volume 2, Number 12

I too was busy packing for San Diego when I spotted Tony's column on Bradford Wright's book COMIC BOOK NATION, where right off, Tony acknowledges that "Wright quite correctly sees Superman and other early creations as super-heroes for the common man. He shows how the comics of World War II sought, perhaps unconsciously, to unite readers against the Axis threat, and how, after the war, they championed traditional values and gender roles."

Well, correct, in a limited way, Wright sees Supes as the common man's hero. But it's all wrapped in such a narrow sociology, and so misses the bigger picture and the real significance of Superman, that I had to step in on this one. And that's mainly because I covered this whole view, far more appropriately in another academic paper as early as 1976. What I said then, essentially, is that, yes, Superman's true appeal was to the dispossessed. As I wrote in the academic journal, Children's Literature, edited at U Conn and published by Temple University Press:

"To those of us with a secure share in the literate world of technology and information, who possess, in consequence, a variety of life options, there is no crisis and no healing irruption of the sort that Superman is capable of providing. But there are those who like children were much closer to the oral tradition when Superman first appeared. It was, it may be recalled, the height of the great depression. There were blacks, Chicanos, Puerto Ricans and around the world, masses of semi-literate ghetto inhabitants, minorities, persons displaced by the devastating urbanization of rural.cultures, who, in one way or another, were excluded: who, like children, had not attained that level of differentiated functioning that separated them from the oral tradition. And then too there were even those of us who maintained a firm grip on the rational until consciousness and rationality were shattered by World War II. This produced, to my mind, one of the most persuasive pieces of evidence that Superman had a certain healing quality for those who had no external choices. For during the war, fifty percent of circulation went to the armed forces. And no one, regardless of his pre-war status was more lacking in choice than a conscript soldier in the midst of a war. At the end of hostilities, when the conscript armies disbanded, Superman's circulation dropped severely. As ethnocentrism developed a new pride and options among blacks, Chicanos, Puerto Ricans, and other ghetto minorities during the fifties and sixties, Superman's circulation dropped further still. Children, of necessity, cannot escape from the kind of story-awareness that belongs to the oral mode. It is, in fact, one of the requirements of healthy psychic growth."

Now, with that reference to the oral mode from earlier in the article, I'm afraid I'll have to go back and explain it. It's long, but by all means, let's do it, if only to get beyond the bounds of that most inane of social sciences, sociology. (If anyone's really interested in what lies behind my contempt for this field, I recommend that you visit and download a copy of my enovel: THE STRAIGHT TREE. For all of $5, you'll discover a fascinating read as well as a thorough unmasking of sociology)

So now, let me take you back to the time when I was renting a house in Provincetown, wrestling with a comic book story, and happened to look out and discover, about a hundred yards from the house (and here we'll take it up from the same article quoted above), "a group of children dressed in an assortment of improvised capes, very definitely of the Superman variety, engaged in play that consisted unmistakably of a mimicry of flight and of superstrength. My immediate association with the recollection of this particular scene ...was the rather revealing phrase "oral tradition." At the same time, I had the first uneasy intimation that my relationship with Superman was something much more complex than a means of working my way through Grub Street in order to write "serious" novels.

"As I mulled over those two words "oral tradition," I realized they had something to do with story or plot. The more I considered it, the more it struck me that plot, in relation to the oral tradition, went considerably beyond the specification of the antipodes of a communication accompanied by its ultimate resolutionm as for example, in the familiar schema: 'AoBoy meets girl; boy loses girl; boy gets girl.' Plot has to do with fiction par excellence. It is the way we structure truth and make it intelligible which no mere record of empirical or haphazard events, so called 'Aorealism', can accomplish. Even in science, we use it to organize reality. We hypothesize. That is, we take the indiscrinibate record and bind it into the unity of a story.

I'd like to underscore this point by referring to one of my own Superman continuities (for the nth time) in which a student has written a physics term paper citing Superman's extra-physical powers. For this he receives a failing grade. When he goes to the professor to complain, he brings with him a copy of the Daily Planet with headlines announcing that Superman has traveled faster than the speed of light. 'AoSo you see,' the student says waving the newspaper at his physics professor. 'AoIt's true. Superman does have extra-physical powers.' To which the Professor stonily replies: 'AoIn science, we're not interested in truth. For truth, go to the metaphysics department.'

"Before the scientific hypothesis came along with its dependence on stored data and libraries and a written language, we structured the truth of our world in both physical and psychological terms by means of myths, legends and fairy tales. The transmission of these fictional forms from one generation to the next was by word of mouth. And one of the things we've observed even today is the way in which this oral inheritance has developed ritual accretions of music, rhythm, dance and other patterns of group acting out. But when we examine the collected and printed forms of our oral tradition, we note how much of it, fairy tales in particular, has been relegated to the role of children's literature. This tends to be especially the case where the rational function (as information, as science, as technology) has taken over. The fact is, of course, that fairy tales were never originally intended for children. But with universal literacy, children are the only ones left among whom the oral transmission of culture is still active for the simple reason that reading is not an innate capacity. Nor should we ignore the fact that fairy tales, owing to the kind of archetypal characters that people them, lend themselves particularly to the kind of acting out developmentally associated with childhood. Children, like primitives and others who are still, by virtue of education or psychic development, in a less individuated state, have a need to hear the same stories over and over again, a need that readily accomodates itself to the kinetic and participational modes of the oral tradition. (And may also explain comic book collecting).

"So in recalling those youngsters disporting in their Superman costumes that previous summer, it also occurred to me that Superman too was not originally written for children, yet somehow it had been taken over by them for the same reason that they had adopted fairy tales. I was to discover bit by bit, that Superman was as much an archetype* as many of his legendary precessors and shared with them both a certain healing magic and a certain autonomy..

*Please note that this footnote, if read carefully, has important implications for superhero comics, both for publishers and writers, and even for the creation of that emerging new universe of comcs, fantasy.. I append it here as the basis for a future column where I'll attempt to analyze the practical consquences that might flow from it for all of us in this business. Now for the footnote itself:

"...the archetype is an element of our psychic structure and thus a vital and necessary component in our psychic economy. It represents or personifies certain instinctive data of the dark primitive psyche (I had this in mind when I created Bizarro many years ago, AS) It represents or personifies certain instinctive data of the dark, primitive psyche, the real but invisible roots of consciousness...(Psyche & Symbol, by CG Jung, New York: Anchor,1958)

This means too that archetype precedes ego, or, as in Superman's case, the reality, Superman, precedes Clark Kent. And further, that Superman's "colorful" costume points precisely to his archetypal hiddenness (L. color; akin to L. celare,to conceal, Merriam Webster.) So Clark, as I suggest above, is the superficial or temporal ego-accretion in the sense of his being at the center of the rational world of information, the newspaper.

It may be of some further help, in thinking about Superman and how to deal with him, to consider an explanation by Jolande Jacobi, longtime Jung associate who says of archetypes: "They possess no material existence; they must first be endowed with solidity and clarity, clothed, as it were, by the conscious mind, before they can appear as "material reality," as an "image," and, in a manner of speaking be "born."

Finally, since I've gotten so far into this, let me suggest that it wouldn't be inappropriate to consider Goethe's inspired vision of "The Mothers" in the second part of Faust, for what is perhaps the most powerful metaphoric illumination of the concept of archetypes ever to find expression in a modern western language.

Final note: In having taken the trouble to delve so far beyond the norms of sociology, it is largely for the purpose of suggesting, by implication, by anthropological and psychological means those things about Superheroes which even among most of their creators and publishers has never been brought forward in a way that might spark new thinking and new approaches to the whole fascinating medium. And of course, I expect to hear more about this from many of you.

-Alvin Schwartz

<< 07/02/2001 | 07/16/2001 | 07/30/2001 >>

Discuss this column with me at my Round Table.

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