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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 08/14/2006
Vol. 2, #189

It's Not At All That You Think It Is!

I think sometimes that most of us in comics have put the emphasis on the wrong thing. We look up to and admire the superhero. To be like him (or her), that's the dream, the ideal. That same dream or ideal seems to be what motivates the most dedicated comics fans. And yet, as they collect signatures and art works and symbols of contact with the lofty beings to whom they aspire, they all seem to miss the essential element without which there would be no superheroes and no stars, no beings beyond the ordinary, no greatness beyond sheer non-entity.

But the fact is, as things now stand, the superheroes have become the saints of the secular world, a world in which sects who share unique relations with the ineffable, groups of believers whom I would describe as "understanding", such as the thirteenth century Chasidim, where it is considered a sin to try to be a saint. Just like that. As the Rabbi of Kosnitz stated in his prayers after people had sought him out for his saintly wisdom and advice, "Oh Lord, what sin have I committed that I should become famous."

I could answer in a few simple words, like the Buddhists: "There is no self, so how could it become famous?" Or even, there is no fame that is not an illusion, a reflection of other people's eyes?

Or as Shakespeare put it:

"Tell me, Good Brutus, can you see yourself?" Cassius asks.

"No Cassius, there are no such mirrors that can inward turn..."

CASSIUS. 'Tis just, And it is very much lamented, Brutus, That you have no such mirrors as will turn your hidden worthiness into your eye that you might see yourself. ...

I bring all this up because of a letter received from one of my regular readers, Edward Lally, who points out at some length:

Alvin, I have found your website and see that you have much, much more to say. The prospect of discussing these subjects with you has sent me back to Prophet. The Chock full of Nuts story hit me right between the eyes. My approach to the character of Superman was focused on his heart, his need to belong. Clark was not shy so much as lonely, not awkward so much as careful not to stand out, a man with super powers, but still a man like you and me, with flaws and questions, and not all of the answers.

Even Zeus didn't have all of the answers, and in fact, seemed a doofus at times. As you so accurately say,"The sharp contrast between the self as nonentity and the self as all powerful seemed to suggest a secret, private, but universal experience." Universal indeed. In fact, in 1968, I was sitting in the ChockFull 'o Nuts on 57Th and sixth Ave reading The Once and Future King in preparation for playing Arthur on stage when I had a similar notion, that Wart (Arthur as a child) loved his nickname and his nonentityness. He belonged. I based my performance on this normalcy. And it served the character well. I never had the shot at Superman, but the recent movie seemed much closer to your guy..... Edward

Now, a telling question: Does all this mean we want to be superheroes? Or are we more likely struggling to attain that most comfortable of all states, nonentityness? The superhero himself is always laden with responsibility, forced to live a life in hiding, unable to, how shall I say it, be himself?

Oh yes, we've all had the experience of being able to do something special that no one else can do. And for a moment, as we strutted on that small stage of our ego, there was always the wish to step away from it and see yourself from afar, as a fan, with admiring eyes? Or put it this way, can Superman really admire himself? For what, that he has powers? That he was born with them and never worked to achieve them, but rather struggled to keep them hidden in order to live normally among other men?

For all of us, the struggle for greatness is almost mandatory. It is what we do and what we are. The struggle gives us experience, insight, understanding and compassion. But to have greatness, perhaps by birth or accident, in this is the real terrible struggle. Oddly, as I write this, I recall a scene in which the late Nelson Rockefeller, born to wealth and status and culture was wandering around in the old Moma Sculpture Court. He was dressed in morning clothes, like the important gentleman he was. But he wandered around without very much to do which was, effectively, nothing, until, he started working. In his pristine dress and stately bearing, he proceeded to walk the sculpture court and pick up stray bits of paper and debris that littered the precincts. He hade found himself, I thought. A man with a purpose. And, in a small desperate way, I suppose that's what it was.

Which brings me to my major point. It is not just a sin to be greater than all the others. It is isolating. It is a foretaste of emptiness. The real task of Superman, and any superhero or star, is to learn ordinariness. Not to stand out, not to be sought out, except by one's ability to belong, to share, to be part of....

So why do we struggle for fame and envy those who have it?

Because that's the ordinary way. It's what we do, always and in our best moments. If anyone sensed this and expressed it thus, it was Augustine who, knowing himself slated for sainthood, said to the Lord, not yet. Not so soon.

Think of it when you next follow your favorite star or superhero. Think about it carefully.

- Alvin

<< 07/17/2006 | 08/14/2006 | 09/11/2006 >>

Discuss this column with me at my Round Table.

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