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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 06/28/1999
Column 7

First, my personal salute to Tony Isabella whose insight and skill in dealing with civil rights and fifth amendment issues constantly impress me. From superb columns on the Littleton school shootings, his defense of a religious group's right to recognition in a high school as not suborning the constitutional church-state separation clause, his incisive stand against practices of the "religious" right, and his well thought out support of gun control, as in printing a recent letter from a Stow, Ohio resident, stating: "If carrying concealed weapons makes us all safer, then certainly we should be allowed to carry weapons into legislative halls without penalty. We should not deprive our legislators of the kind of environment they are so eager to thrust upon the rest of us."

In a still earlier column one of Tony's correspondents mentions that it's difficult to explain America's strange fascination with guns. And it does seem to be a mystery to most observers. Those not mystified simply point to the second amendment. But they never explain why so many feel it necessary to exercise that personal right to bear arms.

I have, I think, a different and better answer. But first, let me take you back a bit to the Batman comics of the forties and fifties. Note that while Superman, at that time, never killed anyone or carried a weapon, neither did Batrman who was much more vulnerable to guns in the hands of criminals, so that Batman's behavior is really worthy of note. In fact, DC made an important contribution in keeping violent images down to the level of fisticuffs despite a national gun culture that would have made it perfectly all right for Batman and Robin to carry a lethal weapon. So why didn't they? The Batman strip originated in a New York culture supported by the Sullivan law, which involved strict registration and strong proof of need before any permit was issued, plus deterrent prison penalties for unregistered gun owners.

Moving away from New York City into rural areas around the country where hunting was still part of the way of life and often contributed to the family food supply, there was a gun culture-a rifle culture, I should point out. Handguns, after all, are only used to kill people, not animals. And mostly, handguns did not exist then in any significant numbers. Note that even the greatest enemy of gun control calls itself The National RIFLE Association. I wonder why?

So I'm claiming here that DCs major characters, followed in short order by the major characters of other publishers, tended to put comics in the forefront, by example, of this country's gun control and anti-violence movement despite recent hysterical claims that include comics in a segment of the entertainment industry's addiction to violence. All of which still does not explain a now largely urbanized America's exceptional addiction to guns.

Now let's look at something oddly relevant to this question. I read in the NYTimes the other day that despite the passage of many years since the Supreme Court overthrew state laws against inter-racial marriage, few justices of the peace can be found in Alabama who will marry inter-racial couples. In fact, there are only 300,000 such couples in the entire nation. Okay-what has this to do with the American addiction to guns?

Hold onto your seats. The answer has been staring right at us in a thousand ways for years. And that answer is-slavery.

Yes- our gun culture is an anachronism. A hangover from the days when slaveowners went about with guns just in case slaves got any ideas about stepping out of line. Indeed, there were few white men south of the Mason-Dixon line who didn't carry a handgun in those days-if they could afford one.

Now here's my point. The slaves were freed, but the culture that saw blacks as dangerous hasn't changed much. Has anyone noted the spate of stories appearing in the contemporary press of police tending to stop and randomly search blacks in far greater numbers than whites? There was a recent brou-ha-ha in the great state of New Jersey over the fact that state troopers were targeting blacks in the same way. Indeed, such stories are common all over the country. And clearly, it's the result of something deep in our culture. Note too that the same level of fear does not exist for other visible minorities, because, quite clearly, they weren't slaves.

Then, consider the number of heavily armed militia groups still proliferating in this country. Any blacks among them? Lots of white supremacists though.

The fact that blacks continue to make up some of the poorest segments of our population also tells us about continuing discrimination based on fear. Combined with a centuries old fear of the poor, plus the continuing hangovers of slavery, the evidence mounts. And now that the secret is out, at least in this column, maybe it'll spread and maybe something will start to be done about it. And maybe the murder rate by guns will eventually decline to resemble that of other civilized nations.

And, by the way, speaking of discrimination, I don't like the idea of hyphenated Americans, such as Afro-Americans.

I'm currently living in Canada. Do black people here suddenly become Afro-Canadians? And what about our German-Americans and Japanese-Americans and Franco-Americans? How silly does this get? We all came from somewhere. But aren't there any plain Americans anymore?

Next week, in a different vein, I'll be coming back to Batman. Mainly the problems I had with him. And with Bruce Wayne.

Alvin Schwartz

<< 06/21/1999 | 06/28/1999 | 08/16/1999 >>

Discuss this column with me at my Round Table.

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