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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 06/07/1999
Column 4

I had suggested in my last column that it might be interesting to take another look at how the invention of the Superman comic had its own positive effects on our everyday reality. The first effect begins with the invention of the Superhero uniform. Why would the sight of a grown man running around in a flashy costume immediately attract so many imitators? Was it the simple success of Superman that produced all those costumed imitators, Batman, Captain Marvel, Captain America, Aquaman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, Green Lantern - the list is pretty long. And yes, Superman's success did play a part, but that's begging the question. Why was the idea of the uniform so successful?

Let me start with an old familiar question. Do clothes make the man? The standard answer in our culture is usually a definite no. And it's really the wrong answer. Remember the expression: "Don't disgrace the uniform!"? The uniform had always been historically a mark of officialdom. Not simply for the police and the military, but in Europe and Asia was even worn by the civil service. Ever read a Russian pre-soviet novel? Notice how even the clerks wore uniforms?

All special occasions still call for some sort of uniform, like a tuxedo and a set of tails for such important events as official dinners, celebrations, marriages, proms. Putting on a uniform always means taking on a certain suprapersonal role. Clothes were often a mark of caste, of social position and responsibility. Here in the US, we have mostly forgotten that when individuals wore a certain type of uniform, it was because they were stepping into a role that was more important than their limited private selves. The uniform had community significance. It had religious significance as any Roman or Greek Catholic well knows. For Americans, however, where the Puritan influence was stronger than anywhere else, we had lost sight of this precisely because the Protestant ethic turned away from all ostentation and open displays of special position. IT WENT SO FAR THAT IT DEVELOPED A REVERSE KIND OF UNIFORM WHICH I CALL THE BROOKS BROTHERS SUIT. VERY AUSTERE LINES. NO DRAPE. REMOVE THE SHOULDER PADS. BUT KEEP THE TIE. NEVER LEAVE IT OUT. THE TIE IS DE RIGUEUR. SUCH A STYLE, OR AN ANTI-STYLE BECAME THE ACTUAL UNIFORM OF THE NINETEENTH AND TWENTIETH CENTURY AMERICAN BUSINESSMAN WITH HIS LARGELY PROTESTANT ORIENTATION.

But let's now jump ahead to the late 1930s-the time of hopelessness, unemployment, beginnings of war-the time when most people, having been abandoned economically also had mostly abandoned any but secular solutions for its problems of identity and malaise. Various forms of socialism were winning adherents. The churches were nearly empty or had mostly, out of necessity, become social centers, trying to help feed and clothe people. There was nothing to believe in except, maybe, the military. And they did wear uniforms. Mostly functional. Indeed, everything we wore had become mostly functional. And then-suddenly-there's Superman, in bright colors and cape, embodying an imagination suddenly taking flight to higher realms and higher possibilities. The man in the Superman uniform represented all the things that we had somehow become too depressed to take very seriously-all the essential values of truthfulness, decency, and respect for life that gives meaning to community and that elusive thing we call the personal self.. Superman, the uniformed visitor from Krypton never killed anyone. Not back then.

Suddenly the small, frightened, separated individual personality was drawn by a new vision of value. People understood almost instinctively that an element important to our human heritage had once more manifested itself. I think the timing was especially important. And, of course, the response, in those days, was overwhelming. Uniforms returned in dozens of different forms. And comics prospered because the superhero uniform embodied something important to our social structure and how we relate to our society.

That's hardly the case today. Superman and caped heroes are largely fading out along with the fading of industrial society and the rise of the information society. We now live in a world where superman and superheroes have been, in a sense, deflated. The flashy uniform protocol seems, thanks to cinematic special effects, largely been transferred to villains. Heroes are once more the ordinary guy, apart from occasional exceptions. And as yet not properly accounted for by social scientists-a new vision of reality, one that is becoming so powerful that according to Publishers Weekly, it has become the most popular current in the entire publishing world. I'm talking about the tremendous spread of New Age groups, believers and values. These values involve notions of reality and paranormal possibilities that make the costumed superhero look like a leftover from the mechanical age. Supersenses and superstrength are today rapidly being superceded by superpowers of another order-stemming from the computer. And while it's been said that all the superstitions in the world have come to roost in New Age creches, it's also true that the dry and dessicated atmosphere of the old religions are effectively more narrow, more paternalistic and less adapted to the vaster moral sweep of the information age and its cosmic reach, as well as its hospitality to a more broadband, more ecological spirituality.

And of course this affected Superman. And so he had to change. Today's DC editors and writers have been working hard trying to fit Superman into the changed paradigm. It's been and will likely continue to be a difficult effort. When the changes started, they took the form of what I call imitations from within. That is, instead of other strips with other superheroes appearing that tried to appeal to the Superman market, there was a fragmentation within the Superman strip itself. Superboy, Superdog, Supergirl and so on, ad nauseam. What remains of Superman and the older superhero idea? I have tried to express this in AN UNLIKELY PROPHET where I seem to have found a way, through Superman, to get myself rescued from a fatal fall when a carnival ride collapses. As I describe that rescue scene to my wife near the end of the book: "Don't you see-that's what Superman really is. The highest point of individual consciousness. He's totally fixed on a single point. His one defining act-his rescue mission. That's what he does... He's specialized, you might say, to live entirely in the now. You know how adrenaline pulls the whole body together so that all its energy is centered on combating danger? Superman is like that. He's us-when we're truly impermeable, indestructible-totally concentrated. In fact that's his archetypal reality."

I won't add any more here, except to ask: "Have you never felt like that? Has there never been a time in your life when you had that indestructible feeling?" If you look back carefully, maybe as far back as childhood, you'll discover that you certainly had. The question is-can you attain such a state again? You may find the answer in UNLIKELY PROPHET. It doesn't tell you how. It doesn't offer any method. It just presents a narrative, and carries you right through to the point where you yourself can get a better feel of what's possible for you. At least that's what a lot of people have been telling me. Give it a try. Maybe you'll come upon a psychological avenue that really doesn't require you to walk only with your Clark Kent identity all the time.

Alvin Schwartz

<< 05/31/1999 | 06/07/1999 | 06/14/1999 >>

Discuss this column with me at my Round Table.

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