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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 08/30/1999
Column 16

In my previous column, I spoke of dealing with ways we can rescue comics from its own history and help it acquire the prestige it truly deserves.

Let's start with the fact that "comics", as we all know, are not comics at all, but a genre totally different from what used to be known as "the funnies" which were relegated to the back sections of those daily newspapers that deigned to print them-usually the tabloids (and, very selectively, the more serious dailies like New York's old, almost forgotten Herald-Tribune) and certainly not the staid New York Times who in publishing "all the news that's fit to print" wouldn't touch comics or any other kind of "kid stuff."

Let's get this straight. Comics today still publishes a lot of "kid stuff." But most of comics is not for kids. In fact, most of what we know as comics today derive from the old pulp magazine tradition, which is where the majority of the early editors and writers came from. Batman, for example, was a graphic remake of The Phantom Detective, a staple of Standard Magazines. And Superman-well, as I've already suggested in this column- was a phenomenon in itself. I won't go over that ground again. But it certainly wasn't a comic and it wasn't "kid stuff". In fact, what we call comics today shares absolutely no lineage with such earlier funnies as Krazy Kat, The Bungle Family, Dagwood, The Katzenjammer Kids, Mutt & Jeff, Bringing Up Father. Everyone of these were really great comic strips. And they were very funny. They really were the funnies. And so, it was perfectly accurate to call them comics.

And let's not forget either that Disney's great comics characters, Mickey and Minnie, Donald Duck, Uncle Scrooge, Gyro Gearloose derived from the same funnies tradition. So too did the Archie series, and let's also include those DC stalwarts, Date With Judy and Buzzy. And there, mostly, the so-called comics come to an end.

Since the birth of Superman. the evolution of the printed popular arts experienced a sudden branching off. Artists, who wrote most of their own "funnies" stepped aside and made room for writers. They synergized a new medium which absorbed and made its own certain elements of science fiction, of fantasy and even horror. Its real roots were literary, deriving less from "funnies" than from visionary writers like Edgar Allen Poe, H.G. Wells and Edgar Rice Burroughs In fact, they weren't funnies at all anymore. They were a new breed of serials presented in graphic form.

There used to be serial novels. Remember the Tarzan series, the Burroughs Mars series? And various detective and mystery series in novel form? Even younger readers had their own series, such as Tom Swift and Frank Merriwell.

So it's really quite clear that what goes under the name of comics is, for the most part, a new form which, to describe it accurately, we would have to call "graphic serial." Now why should it bother me that we don't call it that? After all, what's in a name? And wouldn't a rose by any other name smell as sweet? I'm afraid Shakespeare's question wouldn't apply in this case. In describing the graphic serial by the word comics we mislabel an entire field and in so doing we find it, not so surprisingly, relegated to the bottom of the literary totem pole. Funny things, in themselves, aren't meant to be taken seriously.

But wait a minute, guys and gals. Comics really are serious. They're not funny at all.

Then why are they called comics?

Well, as I said last week, it's only an historical accident.

That answer isn't good enough. This is the age of PR. A very bad time to mislabel your product.

We've got to stop calling comics "comics." Because people believe labels-maybe far more than they should. And that includes a great number of writers in the field, as I pointed out in some detail in a previous column. And that included me when I was doing comics. Because we tended to see ourselves as working in a medium that by its own self-definition wasn't important or significant. It's simply a fact, as Tony Isabella stated in a recent column, comics really does get relegated to the backroom by the other literary arts. Even by its own writers!

So what can we do about it? Maybe it's time we stopped describing the medium as "comics."

Maybe we should make it a point in future to refer to it as "graphic serials." So many of our best writers and artists are producing creative work that in no way can be seen as mere "funnies"- even when they're satirical and actually risible, because their purpose goes so far beyond a simple yuk-yuk. So let's give it a try. Shall it be "graphic serials?" Very likely such a name will get shortened to graphics. That wouldn't be as misleading as comics, but maybe there's something better. How about illustrated tales? Why not just "Serials" with a capital S? No one seems to be using that one in a specific way even though there are numerous serial forms in all the literary arts. But I'm low on ideas. I need help. What do you suggest? Some of you who read this will surely have some ideas of your own.

This is a subject we should really take up seriously. And maybe, if we arrive at a consensus, we'll get a new and better label. Something that really gives the medium and the talented people who work in it a more accurate and appropriate image. The word "comics" isn't forever. We can change it.

So let's hear from you. This is important.

Alvin Schwartz

<< 08/23/1999 | 08/30/1999 | 09/06/1999 >>

Discuss this column with me at my Round Table.

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