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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 09/13/1999
Column 18

Last Wednesday, among the answers to Tony's poll in which the question was asked which powers of Superman readers would most prefer to have, there was one that particularly caught my attention.

It was from the respondent who chose Superman's ability to go back in time because then, "it would be possible to buy Golden Age comics for ten dollars." Why did I especially notice that one? Because, as a Golden Age writer, you'd think I might have lots of such comics lying around when, in actual fact, I used to give them to my kids. We had five of them and they gobbled up comic books by the carload, lost them, gave them away to friends and, for all I know, maybe ate them. So here I am,. these many years later, and not a single Golden Age comic to show for it.

Correction. I do have a somewhat beatup page of the Superman newspaper strip containing the week's six strips for July 6 1944. It's the actual release that went out to editors running the syndicated daily, and, as it happens, was not written by me but by Whit Ellsworth. I know that, because I was involved in some of the plotting. But it still says Siegel and Shuster on the credit line. Whether it's worth much, I haven't the least idea. But if anybody else has a notion of its value, I'd be interested in hearing from them.

But now for the big one. Just one more item. And this one may well be the daddy of all Superman collectibles after the first Action Comics that introduced Superman in 1938. Let me tell you about it. There's a story that goes with it. I've referred to it before but never with an eye to trying to estimate its possible value. If it's worth what I'm beginning to think it is, I don't think I can afford to keep it around any more. In fact, a few years ago, I thought and knew so little about the values of old Superman comics and collectibles that I actually gave this one away to a good friend, having completely forgotten that I'd already given it as a gift to my wife. It was she who made me contact my friend and get it back, since it was really hers and I didn't have the right to give it away. The friend, of course, understood and returned the item. And it continued to languish in my file for a few more years. Now, let me tell you what it is and how this particular item came to be.

Does anybody remember the Superman radio show back during the pre-television days of the forties? It aired every week day for many years. And it was written regularly by a writer named Ben Freedman. The show's producer was Alan Dukovny, known around the Superman office as Duke. Duke was, in fact, the account executive for the Superman ad agency, Kenyon & Eckhardt. He oversaw Ben who, as a methodical worker, had rented an office at 480 Lexington Avenue, the same building where the DC offices were then located. The place was also known as Grand Central Palace.

One day in early 1947, Duke asked me to drop into his office. When I got there, I found Ben Freedman with him.

"We want you to write a Superman opera," Duke told me. "Actually, a kind of young folks operetta in fifteen minutes, like a typical radio show. We'll be using the original cast for the radio show."

"You want me to write an operetta in fifteen minutes," I asked, looking questioingly at Ben.

"Complete with plotted story and characters," Duke broke in. "All wrapped up in one package. No continuing story lines."

"Whew," I said. Again I looked questioningly at Ben.

"Well, Al- I tried to write it," Ben explained. "I put rhymes on the end of each line of each song, but they never came out right."

What Ben was trying to tell me was that he didn't know anything about meter. As the creator of a six page strip called Hayfoot Henry which was a detective story written entirely in verse, I was pretty well recognized around DC as a skillful lyricist. And because I'd been doing the daily as well, Duke and Ben decided I was the ideal candidate for the "operetta." So I wrote it. A complete episode, with a beginning, a middle and an end- and lots of songs. In fifteen minutes. And somehow, it really worked. My years doing the Superman and Batman dailies had really taught me how to compact a story and still give it breathing room. It was produced on a set of two vinyl, double-sided 78 rpm records, and the original radio cast was used. The two records were then packaged in a comic book containing a flap on the inside front cover . The covers were a soft but sturdy cardboard encasing a book of 10 pages printed on very heavy quality paper. The size was 8 x 7.25 inches. A little more compact than a regular comic book. Within the ten pages were printed the narrative and the song lyrics, so the reader could either read along with the records or read the story separately. Also, the narrative was heavily illustrated, with at least two colorful comicbook style illustrations per page, with the text flowing around the illustrations.

The edition was produced by an outfit called Musette Records, located in Steinway Hall. It was however an official DC publication. And it sold so well that Duke asked me to write a second operetta. That one was called "The Magic Ring" and its format was exactly like the first one. It too was a sellout, and Duke and Ben then both asked me to take over the Superman radio show. Ben said he'd been doing it for so many years, he wanted to beg off for a while.

I couldn't accept. I not only had my commitments to the Superman daily and Sunday, but I was also doing Hayfoot Henry and had a lot of Batman and other comics to do. Besides, my first novel had just been accepted by Dial Press and I was deep into a second novel.

Now, at one time, I owned a copy of each operetta. The songs were so catchy that people around the office could actually be heard humming them, or singing them aloud. In the end, the first operetta got lost among the other vanished comic books. I have only the second one, with its much catchier tunes. Yes, in fact, as an amateur musician, after having heard the tunes for the first one, I had a hand in doing the tunes for the second before it went to the arranger. To be absolutely honest, however, I think that musically, the first songs were probably better. The second set was catchier when first heard, but wouldn't have held up as well over time. But be that as it may, I am left today only with a very good copy of the second set, The Magic Ring, to which I've added a cassette tape made from the vinyl recordings since it's kind of hard to find 78 rpm players around these days. But now, consider. I have not been able to find anywhere another copy of either of these operettas. It begins to look as if I may have the only one left in existence.

Also, there's absolutely no other comic book or Superman artifact like it. It's really as rare as the bones of a whole brontosaurus. And, as I've been told, it's delightful to listen to and to read. So, if you have to go back in time to buy Golden Age comics for ten dollars (that used to cost a nickel) how much is The Magic Ring worth in our time? Anybody have any ideas?

I recently filled out a form and sent it in with details to have it evaluated at Sotheby's. They tell me it'll take six to eight weeks. That doesn't mean I can't try other venues in the meantime. Would anyone reading this have any idea of what the item is worth? In the meantime, I'm removing it from my file and putting it into a safe deposit box.

Next week, I also want to continue a thread developed here, having to do with the way credits were used on the various DC characters and some events that flowed from them, particularly in the case of Superman.

Alvin Schwartz

<< 09/06/1999 | 09/13/1999 | 09/20/1999 >>

Discuss this column with me at my Round Table.

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