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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 08/16/1999
Column 14

What Were the Golden Age Comics Writers Really Trying to Do?

In my previous column, I mentioned that I had no special interest in comics as such but rather an interest in story, comics being only one of the means for expressing story. But what about ny Golden Age contemporaries? Was I an exception or fairly typical of the writers of my generation?

Consider what it was like at the end of the thirties and the beginning of the forties. The Grreat Depression was still going on. Writers of every stripe were having a hard time making a living. At the same time comics were suddenly prospering. There was a wild Bohemian spirit in comics offices in those days. A lot of editors kept a handy bottle of booze in the desk drawer. Some of the owners of leading comic book companies kept a permanent hotel room near the office for easy dalliance with various ladies whose talents were specialized in that direction. There was a lot of open sexual byplay in the offices themselves. Not that everyone participated, but most of the comics personnel, inundated by the sudden relative wealth of the new medium after years of depression deprivation had to learn how to use their newfound means. And it took a lot of exploring and quick fixes before comics began to settle down into a more organized kind of work life. Editors and writers from all sorts of areas, science-fiction, the pulps, the slick magazines, even the literary quarterlies were being drawn into comics, sometimes through the enormously lavish parties thrown by the burgeoning comics publishers at their offices.

DC had perhaps the greatest system of all, initiated by Whit Ellsworth. A writer (or free lance artist) never had to wait to get paid. As soon as your work was handed in, a check was waiting for you. Often, if someone needed the money, the check would be given in advance-before anything was turned in. Or, if one of their regular writers wanted to buy a house and needed money for a downpayment, it was always available at DC. A small amount would be taken off successive checks until the loan was painlessly paid off. In a way this was marvelous. In another way, few could really afford to leave DC. It was like working for the company store. You were always in debt to them. But on the whole, Whit Ellsworth deserves credit for his trust and support of DCs free-lancers.

But the writers and artists themselves- what were their feelings about comics? I'll start with one of the real greats of the business, my friend Bill Finger. Did Bill love comics? Not in the least. Bill was always trying to find a way to get out of comics into something with more prestige. Television especially, which was the new and developing medium which seemed to have its doors wide open, except that, in the beginning, the programs were so dull and dreary that real writers found doing them somehow more onerous than comics. However, that changed in a few years, and one writer after another, if he/she was good enough or lucky enough ( and a lot depended on breaks or luck-if the skill was there) began to open doors in television. Others tried writing for the slick magazines. A lot of them were also doing science fiction. But no other medium, in the beginning, paid as well or as consistently as comics. So people would leave and then come back again for that good reliable paycheck. Television was too uncertain in most cases. You'd get a few assignments and suddenly everything would dry up. Well, you got credits which you didn't get in comics. But credits didn't necessarily mean much unless you had a. lot of recent ones, because if your credits were too old, the TV moguls figured you weren't good enough- which was absolutely untrue. In comics, there were no credits. Not for writers anyway. A few artists got credits, but most were ghosts. Yet almost everyone felt that comics, lucrative though they were over the long haul (that is, TV paid more per script, but you didn't get assignments on a regular basis as you did in comics) was like being at the bottom of the totem pole. Everyone was trying to get out. Everyone had plans for books, for stories, for plays in other more respectable media.

Remember, this was an era when almost all literary agents were offering good money to any writers who would be willing to write what they euphemistically called "erotica". Many of those who took these offers were famous names such as Henry Miller and Anais Nin, and others who probably wouldn't care to have it mentioned. I also collected my share of this kind of money not long before I got into comics. We did it because writers had no other way of surviving. Not that it was so bad in itself, but there was little opportunity for creativity or originality, anymore than in most porn films today.

The top novelists of the day would maybe make a total of $750 for a successful book. I remember that James T Farrell's Studs Lonigan, a best seller, after a long period of time, didn't even earn its meager advance when it came out in the thirties. If Farrell's editor, Henle at Vanguagrd Press, didn't have faith in him, he probably would never have managed to keep writing. There were others, myself included. As late as 1948, my first novel, The Blowtop, earned a total of $750 also, partly because Dial Press kept killing all the novels produced between the executive vice president and the president who were feuding. And also, because novrls weren't selling very well yet, unless they were gigantic potboilers like Gone With The Wind, or, less well remembered, The Foxes of Harrow and various historical romances. In this genre, by the way, there were also some greats who had to struggle for a while. I refer particularly to Robert Graves, a true scholar, a great poet and a superb novelist whose I,Claudius is probably familiar to many of you.

In a way, I was fortunate because the NY Times Book section in describing my book as the first existentialist novel in America, when existentialism was an enormous vogue in France, led to The Blowtop's appearance in France under the titlle Le Cinglè, where it became a best seller. What did that do for me? It allowed me to take a year off from comics while I wrote another novel that was sold to Random House but which, when my very literary editor, the novelist Hiram Haydn, also editor of The American Scholar, left for another publishing house, his not-so-literary successor at Random House, decided not to publish. me And back I went to comics where the checks were still coming in regularly.

But this happened also to many other writers, all of whom were struggling to get out of comics but couldn't make enough in more prestigious literary areas to give up comics. Don Cameron published a number of good novels, but they didn't pay him very well. A few others managed to make their way out, some for other areas of writing, others into business, and some into teaching.

And then, comics itself began to lose circulation starting in the early fifties, and the flow of easy cash slowed. In fact, comics payments began to look quite measly compared to other media as the value of the dollar went down and no real increases in pay were offered by the now strapped comics publishers.

Finally, there was Mort Weisinger, the man who couldn't stand having writers make as much and possibly more money than he did. But that's another story, one told by many others and I won't go into it again here. I'll only add that Mort was one of the big reasons for my leaving comics and finding my way into the very interesting and lucrative field of market research, and later into documentary and feature films in the small but very high quality Canadian film industry.. But it took me eighteen years to move out of comics. My point today is that just about everyone of my contemporaries in comics were trying to move out. Some of them succeeded, Some didn't and had a sad and desperate time moving back and forth, into comics, out again and back again. One of those in the latter category was my enormously talented friend, Bill Finger who never even received credit for his role in creating Batman until many years too late and then only thanks to the grapevine.

Now, well along in my eighties, with still another book out revealing the absolutely strange influence that

Superman had on my life so long after I left comics, I feel rather like celebrating the joining of the literary and comics media in the fine reception An Unlikely Prophet has had from so many comics fans. For those interested in discovering more about this recently published memoir of mine, before rushing out and buying it, try and then follow the links from that site.

Alvin Schwartz

<< 06/28/1999 | 08/16/1999 | 08/23/1999 >>

Discuss this column with me at my Round Table.

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