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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 06/14/1999
Column 5

I've decided to continue this weekly column because of a little friendly arm-twisting and a couple of nudges. So let me usher in this new week by introducing you to a real old-timer a man named Jack Adams who once headed DCs distribution unit, Independent News. He was also responsible for deciding on print orders. I just received a letter from him, sent from California. Jack's my senior by a few years and I'm four score and two. But he has a vivid memory of the old days.

A friend of his read a major review of my recent book AN UNLIKELY PROPHET and contacted Jack. "Do you know this guy, Schwartz?" That prompted Jack to persuade his friend, who was in Canada, to get my address in Canada. And Jack wrote to me, bringing up lots of stuff about the old days. For example: "In the spring of 1940," he wrote me on a scrabbly old typewriter with a half-dead ribbon, "I set the first order and distribution for Batman at 500,000. One million was my first order on Superman, and of course, both titles and their unbelievable high printings sold out... thanks to the comic magazine craze that was in full bloom those days."

Jack then went on in 1953 to handle the sales of a paperback publisher he'd originally handled for DC and Independent News. That was New American Library. Worth mentioning here because my present Literary Agent, Bob DiForio, came in on Jack's heels to handle sales-they became good friends, in fact-and in a few years, DiForio became Publisher and CEO of NAL. And after that became a literary agent, most importantly, MY agent. These are the outer threads of a garment of which the comics portion is now going to be examined a little more carefully.

First: What happened to all this huge circulation in the meantime? How did it drop so precipitously? Well, a number of economic factors were involved. Also, some social factors. When people like Bill Finger and Stan Lee and Alvin Schwartz and Don Cameron first wrote comics, there did not then exist a body of earlier comics that were part of their pre-teen and teen years. Instead, they read stories from writers such as Edgar Rice Burroughs, Alexandre Dumas, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and maybe even a touch of Tom Swift and his Great Airship and stuff like that. Let's also throw in Defoe and H.G. Wells and possibly even O'Henry and Mark Twain. And, of course, all that great story stuff in the pulp magazines of the day, like Standard Magazines from which DCs original editors came.

So these guys came to comics with a sense of story built out of early experiences in reading. And they created the first comics out of their knowledge of how a story was put together. Now consider something else. Bob Kane, Joe Shuster, Wayne Boring-all artists who worked on the stories put together by writers-not one of them ever plotted a story. It never even occurred to them. I knew Bob Kane, going as far back as first semester in PS 28, the Bronx-my very first school experience.

Teachers were cruel and uncomprehending in those days. They didn't think Bob was very smart (and I firmly believe it was only because they made him that way by maltreating his sensitivities) so they forced him to sit in a corner with a dunce cap. They really did in those days. Sahes of Nathaniel Hawthorne! They really tried hard to stunt Bob's mental growth. They couldn't stop his physical growth. He was tall and good looking even in 1A. He might even have become a writer besides being an artist.

So how did Batman happen? Bob went to his friend Bill Finger who was working part time in a shoe store just then. The depression, remember? "Bill, I've got this idea for a guy in a Bat suit who fights crime. Do you think you can come up with a story for it?"

Bill, whom I knew well before I ever started comics, put Batman together. He was a man who had studied the pulp story from Aardvark to Zuccini and was known to have the biggest collection of story gimmicks the world has ever seen. But everybody knows all that.

So anyway, Bob and Joe Shuster and Wayne Boring, with whom, years later I worked on an idea for a new strip that never materialized (my fault-I had gotten too deeply involved in market research by then)-these artists did not, and could not have cooked up a story. With a few rare exceptions, like Shelley Mayer and John Byrne and my old high school acquaintance Will Eisner-most comics artists were not story oriented. But as the comics were developing, the kids of the new generation were reading-guess what? Not Dumas, not Defoe, not O'Henry-not even pulps. Pulps were gone. They had become comics. And the new generation was reading them. So, did they sit down and write stories the way kids of my generation did? No-they sat down and DREW COMICS. They became artists. And of course you know what happened next. Artists became the next generation of editors and writers, and story, to a great extent, went out the window. And circulation sagged. Because of story shortcomings? A lot of people seem to think so. But what's your opinion? Tell me what you think and I'll give you my take in next week's column.

Alvin Schwartz

<< 06/07/1999 | 06/14/1999 | 06/21/1999 >>

Discuss this column with me at my Round Table.

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