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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 06/21/1999
Column 6

Last week, I said that stories went out the window when artists displaced writers as editors and did their own stories. Now, in a certain way, artists can write stories as well as writers. That is, if you look only at the story's surface. But the secret of good stories, the kind that create fan attachment is based on what I call the hidden dimension. It has to do with a vision of the character that is not graphic. It's an inner thing that gets revealed in the way the character acts, speaks and reacts to the world. It doesn't matter much how it's drawn. This applies only to comics AS A SERIAL MEDIUM. An example? Well, Bob Kane wasn't exactly the world's greatest artist. He could barely manage to put a figure on the floor. But the way Finger wrote the Batman stories, Kane was able to pick up that underlying clash of light and dark so characteristic of Batman, and so aptly caught by Tim Burton who directed the first Batman movie.

Let's go to a passage from my memoir, AN UNLIKELY PROPHET. The Tibetan *tulpa*, Thongden (anyone wants to discuss tulpas, just ask. We'll try it in another column)-is discussing my view of Superman with me. On page 107, Thongden says: "...let's get this Superman question out of the way first. Isn't it the case that you were so angry about writing that last story that you quit-because, from your point of view, it was out of character for Superman to be able to give his powers to Lois Lane?"

"Exactly right," I admitted. "It trivialized Superman."

"That was *your* Superman," Thongden said. "The one you made a mantra of."

"I made a mantra-?" The disbelief was evident in my tone as my voice rose half an octave in protest.

"Now wait-I'm not saying you did this naively, out of some primitive impulse. Quite the reverse. The philosophical bent that governed you, that was always whispering disdainfully in your ear because you wrote comics to make a living-you compromised with it by giving Superman a kind of philosophical gloss. You began to think of him as a sort of degenerated religious symbol-an avatar for the underprivileged and the dispossessed. All this was in your article. (1) So it was obvious to me that you'd been reflecting quite deeply on Superman. You had indeed made a mantra of him, and in your own way, you did give him a kind of independent reality. That's what Weisinger violated. And that's why you quit. But-it didn't stop there. You had implanted your own philosophical image of Superman so firmly within yourself that it was able to guide you very quickly into a whole new career. Several careers, in fact... And your Superman image. That's what made the difference... You sensed Superman as the image of something that came into being in the individual in moments of extreme crisis. The Superman self, as you believed even then, was not something one could live in all the time. It's a far too heightened level of the personality. Sustaining it for too long could burn one out very quickly. and possibly do the same to those around one. So the Clark Kent everyday personality was a necessary safety valve-a retreat where one could live normally."

What I'm trying to suggest is that the uniquely introspective act of writing over a long period of time is not usually available to artists whose long-term activity involves the mastering of visual and manual skills. The pen and the brush are antithetical ways of mastering reality, a teacher of mine once remarked. So it happens that in a medium like comics in which artwork is something to hang a story on, that hidden dimension that creates fan loyalty simply isn't present. In some ways, again with exceptions (I always like to cite Mort Meskin's Vigilante). I'm saying that comics art-work is a technique for assembling drawing clichés. The mechanics matter. The line does not. And by line, let me explain that a line drawn by the Abstract Expressionist master, DeKooning, is the same kind of living thing as a line by Rembrandt. I'm not putting down artists by saying this. Cliches are sentimental. The greatest sentimental cliché monger in American art history was Rockwell Kent. His paintings weren't musical, weren't *painterly* were not focused on values of space and dimension and color and motion within the picture frame. They were sentimental visions drawn in the clichés of an academy a hundred years out of date. And they were very very good. But such an illustrator's approach would never have worked in comics where the serial story was essential.

So, I suggest, among the various reasons for loss of audience lies the switch from writers to artists. Also important was market research. Was the market research flawed? Were leading comics publishers focusing on the wrong audience? And here I can speak with some authority.. We'll take that up in a succeeding column.

(1)The Real Secret of Superman's Identity, Children's Literature #5, Univ of Conn 1976.
For more on AN UNLIKELY PROPHET, click here.

Alvin Schwartz

<< 06/14/1999 | 06/21/1999 | 06/28/1999 >>

Discuss this column with me at my Round Table.

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