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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 05/17/1999
Column 1

I'm writing this because there are a lot of you who want to have a good clear look at comics across the bridge of the generations. I started writing comics over 60 years ago, in 1939, when the world was very different than it is today.

My very first scripts were for Street & Smith, a famous pulp publishing house that, like Standard Magazines, was frantically making the switchover from pulps to comics. This was mainly because something strange had happened just two years earlier. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster had launched their Superman, and it had taken off like a rocket. Sales were in the millions monthly. What had happened?

For one thing, the world hadn't quite emerged from the fearsome grip of the Great Depression. At the same time, it was also just getting into World War II. The forces of Nazi Germany looked unbeatable. The outlook had never seemed worse.

Now I'm not going to tell you that Superman came along at a time when it seemed the world needed a savior. It's not that simple. And I myself didn't come to grips with the Superman phenomenon directly until early 1944, when I was asked to take over the Superman newspaper strip as well as some of the comic book stories. I was reluctant. Why? Because I was already doing Batman, and a number of other comics, all of which offered plenty of scope for good stories. So it seemed to me, as a writer, that with Superman's powers, the very fact that he could sweep away any villains with ease, made me feel that there really wasn't enough threat to allow for good continuous dramatic stories. Sure, Superman's actions made for nice graphics, but sooner or later, these alone would get boring.

But I also sensed that I was missing something important that really accounted for the popularity of Superman. You see, Superman was talked about and frequently referred to even among people who didn't read it, suggesting that it symbolized something more than a mere comic strip.

And then there were those millions who did read it. What strange chord had the Superman idea struck, naively and unintentionally?

When I look back on it now, the answer seems clear. Mine is the last generation whose childhood was not saturated with comics. For us, there was everything from Little Red Riding Hood, Alice in Wonderland, to all of Grimm's and Andersen's fairy tales; and, let me add, we read them over and over again and never got bored even though we knew the outcome in advance. Similarly, for a lot of people young and old reading Superman. So, it seemed Superman was, like these constantly reread earlier classics, a truly archetypal kind of story.


When I was asked to write Superman, I considered all this very carefully and suddently realized that in some way, Superman mimicked the universal archetype of the messiah, the savior who appears when the world is really in trouble. The savior is one form of archetype. appearing over and over again in the history of the world's religions. But let me put it more simply. AN ARCHETYPE IS A REGION OF INFLUENCE. WHATEVER FALLS WITHIN ITS FIELD IS AFFECTED. I MEAN REGION OF INFLUENCE PRECISELY AS I MIGHT MEAN AN ELECTROMAGNETIC FIELD OR A GRAVITATIONAL FIELD, EXCEPT THAT THE ARCHETYPAL REGION IS LARGELY PSYCHOLOGICAL, AND AS SUCH IT SWEEPS ACROSS ALL OF MYTH AND HISTORY.

But from the point of view of writing Superman, it struck me that the character was set up to go through an endless series of punchouts with villains who would never be a real match for him. A difficult task for the writer who couldn't maintain for very long the kind of inner zest needed to keep the writing interesting. Unless, of course, I did indeed treat Superman as archetypal. How was I to do that? I describe in my new memoir, AN UNLIKELY PROPHET, how I reached my decision on writing Superman because I ran into Clark Kent in a diner across the street from the Superman office. At least, the individual I ran into revealed to me what was meant by the Clark Kent aspect of Superman. I suddenly saw the importance of the double role Superman had to play. How universal and necessary it suddenly seemed!

But could I translate a philosophic concept into readable comic book stories? Well, yes, I thought. Because I wouldn't write stories about Superman pitting his superpowers against supervillains. No, as I explain at some length in AN UNLIKELY PROPHET, the way to use Superman was as a secret force behind little people with insurmountable problems, a kind of hidden angel. I was fascinated by the sheer grace of Supermanic force, working unseen in the background, giving the most helpless personalities a momentary power to lift themselves. Superman, as I saw him, was probably the first modern guardian angel.

Alvin Schwartz

The First >> 05/17/1999 | 05/24/1999 >>

Discuss this column with me at my Round Table.

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