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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 08/20/2001
Volume 2, Number 16

The Deconstruction of Superman and Other Interesting Questions

Before getting into the business of Deconstruction, I intend to introduce a series of related questions. They've been proposed not by me but by readers of this column. Oddly enough, I've been getting a lot of very thoughtful emails sent directly to me rather than being sent to The Roundtable. Since they touch significantly on what I'm trying to accomplish in this column, and I've gotten permission from their authors, here are a couple of the most recent.

Dear Mr. Schwartz

To be frank, I asked myself who is Alvin Schwartz. I thought I knew quite a bit about comic books. After all when I was a kid, I wrote Jerry Siegel a letter in care of a Chicago newspaper; he had been written up in one of his interminable court battles with National Periodical Publications, thanking him for the joy he had brought me by getting the super-hero ball rolling with Superman, and he and his wife sent me some autographed drawings and a photograph. Siegel, the Bard of Lexington Avenue, if that was where National was located in those days; one accepted without much thought that he had been the person shouldering the load. It fit nicely into a niche and few thought to mention other writers when they spoke about Superman in the pioneering days of comic books. Critical thinking got left behind. With a start, I suddenly become aware of Alvin Schwartz's role. My surprise might not have been as great as it would have been if I had learnt that Sir Francis Bacon had written the plays of Shakespeare, but it was still a surprise indeed to meet, literarily if not literally, a pivotal shaper of Superman*.

The allusion to Bacon is very apropos when discussing you, for like the former Chancellor of England, you are an original thinker, as I recently discovered when I began reading your column "Exploring the Golden Age". In an Internet site devoted to comic books, one seldom finds a perspective like yours. Each time I use the Internet, I try to read two or three of your columns to capture the current of your thoughts. To explain how I appreciate your writing, I need to withdraw a little from the immediate subject. If one reads the New Republic, the National Review, and the Nation for a year or so, one does not really need to read them any longer. The template is understood and the same conclusions are reached with different circumstances. Thought, as we think of it, becomes tedious. However your point of view is far afield from what I have read before.

Certain factors contribute to the quality of your writing. One is your longevity. Another distinct factor is a post-War tone as we are all affected by our nanosecond in eternity, a tone that is less heard in these dawning days of the Twenty-first Century. Furthermore, you apply your perspective to comic books and couple it with your singular experience as a Promethean in the field. Moreover and perhaps most importantly, you have not stayed stagnant and have continued to develop your thoughts from your observations, experiences and ponderings. I have wondered about the organic growth of Superman. When I saw the awareness of Superman in young children** and in other countries, I realized that there was something transcendental about the concept. An illusion has gradually been dispelled each time I actually meet someone from Greece because the country had become as mythical as the notions that hail from there. There is something boundless in the image of people saying, "Look up in the sky, it's a bird, it's a plane, it's Superman," despite the counterclaim that Superman is as American as apple pie, as if we could lay claim to that too***.

The origins of Superman have baffled me. The power that image has leads me to believe there must have been some strong undercurrents that prepared the way for the character. I have hazarded a guess that the idea is tied up with ethnicity in the United States in the late 1930s and early 1940s, a struggle to overcome that speaks to us universally. I am unsure the hypothesis can withstand thorough examination. In considering Superman, I am groping towards an answer and feel very much in the cave where Plato cast us. I am intrigued by your concept of Superman as a tulpa. I am dubious of shifting my thinking away from Western ideas, worrying about switching horses in midstream so to speak. However you have impressed me with your thoughts and I must consider the validity of your conclusions. Even if I come to terms with Superman using purely common forms of thought, your contribution will probably not have failed to have influenced me. While I commend your vigorous promotion of discussion on the Internet site, vis-a-vis your column, I am writing to you personally. First I want to thank you for your continuing to make your ideas available. Meanwhile I am reading and profiting from the columns you have previously written. Already they have galvanized me on many fronts and action is almost unavoidable, hence this letter. Writing it has given some order to my musings and I am in your debt again.

I hope all is well with you and yours.

Yours truly, Daryl S. Herrick

* In 1977, an up-and-coming singer in a Rolling Stone profile mentioned that her father had written Batman stories in the 1950s. How could this be? I thought. I had never heard of him. This mystery impressed enough that I remember years later. This is indicative of the aura of secrecy and inattentiveness that was present.

** There is also the awareness of Mickey Mouse in young children but that is a visual connection whereas the connection with Superman is with the things he can do.

*** I have seen a paperback in Spanish on cultural imperialism with Superman on the cover. I have forgotten the author and the title of the book, although it may have had the word "Superman" in the title. A Latin author who deals with cultural influences and whose work I have noted but never read is Ariel Dorf (I believe) and he may have written about Superman as well. I should have given them more attention and offer them as a caveat to my own conclusions

Apart from the nice things the writer says about the column that turn my head (it's really very easy to do), he raises some very important points. Examine the passages I've underlined in the letter and note how clearly he recognizes the mythic character of Superman. In last week's column, I was moving toward demonstrating how mythic or archetypal elements are always present in stories widely popular, that, in fact, the wide popularity is precisely due to the mythic element which the inner psyche recognizes after a time, or, in some cases almost instantaneously. And it's this mythic element, acting as a fragment of consciousness, that tends to foster the character's own self-creation, despite the efforts of editors to make other kinds of changes.

But then you might say, "Hold it. Wasn't it Jerry Siegel who created Superman?" And the answer is, yes, of course, but only in the sense that his psyche picked up something that started long before and then reissued it in the habilaments of his own personal creativity. But undeneath, the myth itself was what launched Superman. If I can revert to an apparently unrelated dispute now filling the press over the question of stem cells, which boils down to the simpler question of "when does life begin?" , I offer an answer that says ultimately that there are really no such things as beginnings, or, for that matter, endings. The question is exactly the same as "Which came first, the chicken or the egg?" Because the answer is clearly neither. We break up the two aspects of a total process and treat them as things rather than process. Processes are circular and only acquire temporal reality when the rational mind splits them into parts. Just as in physics the act of observation collapses the quantum wave function as it fixes on a single particle.

So getting back to Jerry Siegel's creation, we have to acknowledge a whole range of possible Superman characters whose actualization depends on the way in which a single writer, who is riding the mythic wave of story lights on a new character as Jerry did. Because, as mythic, the character, Superman, will not respond to any possibilities that deny or exclude that unique mythos. This is why John Byrne's Superman never really found its way into the popular image, anymore than the death and life attempt with Superman seems to have any lasting or significant influence on the way people think of the character. There are myths of death and resurrection, of course, but the Superman mythos is different. It's more benign, protective, and, in fact, gentle, as I confirmed for myself simply by showing around a recent Superman sales poster emphasizing the powerful, angry, forceful Superman raging out of the center of the picture. Not a single individual felt that the poster was really like Superman whom, in fact, most people still tended to think of as "gentle."

Does all this mean that Superman can never change, can never be adjusted to fit the changes in the times? Quite the contrary, and that brings us to the second of the two letters I singled out of this week's mail bag.

Alvin, at least I hope it's you I'm addressing.

I'll be brief, not being sure it's you I'm reaching. I am very impressed, and in fact have been influenced by both the recounting of your experiences and your insights.

I am interested in the industry that produced comics, but find in the books and other resources available, there is an almost total obsession with the characters, who wrote and drew what - collectors and data gatherer's perspective.

I don't actually think anyone has come to grips with a facinating phenomenon, American comics, with the depth that you have.

Having said that, there are a few questions I'd like very much to ask you. They are mostly fairly pointed YES / No type of things, as I'm sure your time is at a premium. If it is at all possible, could we open up a line of communication, at least briefly.

Thanks, in advance
Michael Feldman

At this point, I persuaded Mr Feldman to present his questions on the Round Table in order that everyone could participate in the discussion, which he kindly consented to do. So the following comments and questions by him are taken from the Round Table where I intend to offer additional thoughts of mine so that we can keep the entire forum open. But for lurkers and pure column readers, here is what Mr Feldman had to say:

Posted By: Michael Feldman Date: SAT, 8/18/01, 12:29 p.m.

I just contacted Alvin offline and was advised it might be better to post my communications here.

I've followed Alvin's column, and kept up with his books as best I can. I am not a comic fan, in the traditional sense, nor a collector. I am fascinated by the American comic book industry, which is sorely in need of an intelligent chronicling.

Trying to be succinct, I don't think anyone else has ever talked about the comic industry with the depth and insight that Alvin does. There are hundreds of resources that will tell you about every sophomoric costumed character that ever existed. Detailed bibliographies of the artists and where they worked, what kind of brush they used, etc. But the whole gestalt of understanding what really happened in the 20th Century with the growth and development of this new form of expression, has been neglected.

Here's a part of my take on the whole story. Yes, by the Thirties there were newspaper strips that were syndicated and it was big business. At the depth of the Depression, around '31-3, a group of New York City small businessmen, quite possibly graduates from the bootlegging and money laundering business, tripped over the publishing world. Most of them were Jewish, uneducated and not particularly cultured or of the highest level in spiritual aspirations.

They wanted to make a big and easy buck, the WASP legitimate publishing industry, with a few exceptions like Horace Liveright, was as inaccessible to them as Dorothy Parker's Roundtable.

But with some unaccounted for source of cash, they were able to buy out old printing presses, failed magazines, and set up a distribution network using an infrastructure that had been used for something else. If it was illegal booze during Prohibition, nobody's ever mentioned. They started in what they knew they could produce and sell easily, girly mags, trashy pulps, astrology books, racing forms, and other peripheral forms of print. I'll cut to the crux of my thesis. These guys planned to make a good living hopefully as pornographers but ended up getting rich doing children's literature.

It caught them with 'their pants down', so to speak. They never quite comfortably adjusted to their new found and unsought respectability. This to me accounts for a lot of the aberrant behaviour and overall strange Karma of American comics.

I say all this without feeling any superiority to or contempt for these people. They found something profitable and did their best to exploit it. But how it happened always fascinates me. How it affected these people, those drawn into it from the inside as 'toiler in the field' like Alvin. How it generated such a huge audience in the outside world - one out of three newsstand sales in America from 1940 till the mid-50s was a comic book. There is much that I'd like to know and understand about this phenomenon. I consider Alvin Schwartz the most valuable source of insight on the subject. I have a million questions, but maybe I'll be lucky enough to get him to answer a few of them Let's call this my first official communication.

Michael Feldman

What's interesting to me about this letter has been underlined. It reveals much about what was really transient and non-mythic about the Superman character and why, in the end, changes had to be made. It seems to me that I made some of these changes myself, but not in a planned and conscious way, but, I think in fact that I was nudged in some way by the myth itself.

To begin with, when those errant gentlemen who had various uncomfortable brushes with the law because they were a little ahead of their time in attempting to promote girlie mags and got into difficulties with certain proscriptive statutes and the Mrs. Comstocks of their day, , when they fell into a sudden winner like Superman (and Batman and all the rest of their superheroes) they were ultra careful about again crossing the line of public morality. They not only sterilized Superman of the least hint of salacious content. They even made sure that no typographic errors or accidents would ever occur in which a piece of bad leading would take the word "buck" and misshape the first letter into (horror of horrors) an "f". Think of it, and search all the back pages of Detective Comics right through the days of that greater horror, WWII and the BOMB and you'll never find the word "buck", the most common slang term for the dollar across the US and Canada. Instead you'll find substitutes such as "clams, simoleans, smackers", and the like. And. at the same time, Superman himself was always the most well behaved, sometimes embarrassingly proper (just think of what he really could have done with his x-ray vision) boyscoutish character. He was truly SuperGoody-Goody. And in a certain way, in the atmosphere of the war where everything was watched, censored, supervised and focused entirely on the virtue of winning the war, and having God and Morality on our side, it was okay. As I've already indicated very early in these columns, Superman was somehow seen as a kind of Savior, perhaps merely a Pop savior, but with 50% of circulation going to the forces, and the sense of powerlessness experienced by conscript soldiers facing the stress of military action, it helped. I won't go into all this again, but after 1945, the war ended and things changed rapidly. Slowly, as the GI bill sent many ex-servicemen to university and then into the rapidly swelling Levittowns and other more upscale suburbs, Superman and superheroes began to decline. It was not that the myth was in trouble, but rather that goody-goody element the war sustained had been able to linger despite the myth until the beginning of the fifties. Protest in the form of the Beat movement was already developing. And even my own early 1948 novel THE BLOWTOP (just recently reprinted) which is generally regarded as the first Beat novel, almost seemed to emerge as my own protest from within the ultra goody confines of my other identity, writing Superman. But I've already indicated in these columns how the blandness of Superman, the constant victor over one pushover villain after another made me uncomfortable and I tried to move to other themes, beyond superstrength and superpowers. I even tried it during the war, when I attempted to develop plots as in The Chef of Bohemia, known for his beef stroganoff and his dislike of cooking (possibly reflecting my own growing ambivalence about cooking up repetitive plots), so I tried to get Superman to use his "noodle", to solve problems by thought and merely use his supergifts as methods of research and developing clues. This was the period when Father Teilhard de Chardin, the respected Jesuit thinker was developing his notions of the nöosphere, the idea of the universe evolving as mind rather than blind matter. Because Superman, at war's end, had to become something more than blind matter, pure physical power. He had to have insight and ideas and more subtle values. He needed for that a kind of gentleness and insight, more i n keeping with his archetypal guardian angel role, the myth.

So now I began to do stories in which Superman, working behind the scenes, helped people. Now a guardian angel doesn't proceed by helping people win the lottery. Nor does he do it in grim-face all the time. He needs to be obfuscated by small things, by the vagaries of life, like any mythic character. Note that the best of these latter always have some type of Achille's heel that makes them susceptible, otherwise there's no story, and without story, there's no myth. So I wrote stories like The Ogies (already discussed here) where Superman is bedeviled by magical little critters from almost nowhere. And like the man who had such a consecutive run of luck that he ventured far beyond his capacities, endangering his own life until Superman had to take over in the background and gradually allow the self-deluded individual to rediscover reality. In short, Superman used his powers to solve problems. (And not sociological dilemmas like wife-beating) He also discovered that super powers themselves can be Achilles heels in stories like Superman's Search For Clark Kent. Or the story in which his powers get out of control and like the neophyte who took over Apollo's Chariot of the Sun, almost scorched the earth, until. . . well, until Superman managed to come to grips with himself and resolve the burden of his powers.

Unfortunately, memory at this distance resists my efforts to recall details of many stories as I sit here and write, but I've made it very clear that when I could no longer do stories in accordance with the myth, as when a new editor stpped in and heavy-handedly started to manipulate the character in a number of inappropriate ways, the magic was gone for me and I left. And since then, I might add, I have seen numerous heavy-handed efforts to restructure the fading image with no real success beyond a momentary blip. Yet interestingly enough, the character and his basic traits as I've described them here remains strong in the public mind as though no one is really paying attention to what's happening in the comic books.

Now we come to a rather "bizarre turn of events." Sometime in late 1958, I created Bizarro for the reasons given in my preceding column. I never stepped back to analyze my reasons. It came out of what I thought was an interesting idea. And then, after an absence of forty years, I get a call from DC to write a Bizarro story for DCs new Bizarro # 5. And I also discover that Bizarro has become enormously popular. At first, I'm somewhat taken aback. I'm not sure why. But obviously it has something to do with Superman. After all, Bizarro is essentially a parody of Superman. Right?

Well, not actually. It goes further than that. In fact, it's not exactly true to say that no one is really paying attention to what's happening in comic books. They're paying attention obliquely. By other choices they're making. And by deconstructing Superman. That's what this column was supposed to be about. But there were a lot of basics I had to lay down first. And I'm out of time and space for this week. But I'll get back to it next week, I promise.

- Alvin

<< 08/13/2001 | 08/20/2001 | 08/27/2001 >>

Discuss this column with me at my Round Table.

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