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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 09/27/1999
Column 20

The Impossible Superman

In the course of a long lifetime, I find that one of my greatest changes in outlook lies in my relationship to what I call the "impossible." In childhood and early youth, the mythology is that all things are possible. Forthe broadest expression of that possibility was the notion that any American child could grow up and become President of the United States. Of course, people did become presidents, so such a belief had some claim to reality, however poor the odds. But then, there were so many other possibilities, from Vice President to Congressman to General to Movie Star to Great Inventor, Great Artist, Astronaut-that there seemed to be enough prizes available for all. I was born into a nation in which the past did not preclude any kind of brilliant future, and even poverty and low birth could not foreclose one's qualification for some very impressive career goodies. Not just an American dream but an American possibility.

These were also the essentially narrow notions of possibility that we shared with the adult world. But as children, there were also impossible beliefs that were not shared with adults. I have to be careful here. I have to remind my readers that, for the most part, impossible, is an adult word. It has no reality in the mind of a child. And so, children have no way of telling adults that they can really fly, for example, because each age division is on a different side of the meaning of possibility. Since the process of becoming an adult is the process of learning limits, of imposing order on the endless flow of perception and mental imagery and intuition. So, as an adult, how do I remember that I was once able to fly, or to leap into real living worlds that were woven into the lace forms of the curtains that covered my windows?

The realization came late. But I was one of the lucky ones able to recross the structured boundary between adult reality and childhood reality. Let me emphasize here that childhood reality is not childish. But what we call adult reality is learned and fabricated reality, stuff we made up in exchange for getting other kinds of stuff as we set about taking our place in the adult world. Once that bargain is struck, by the way, it's extremely difficult to get back one's childhood vision. Because we've come to believe that the adult world is —hard, solid, irrefrangibly real, if you please. So how did I escape? Because I really did. I broke loose and haven't looked back since.

It started very early, when I was asked to take over the Superman strip after Jerry Siegel went into the army. I went over the origin story carefully and found, in Action Comics #1, 1938, the following: "A Scientific Explanation of Clark Kent's Amazing Strength." Somehow, as though the imagination were not its own justification, Jerry felt compelled to invoke a scaling, to the effect that "the lowly ant can support weights hundreds of times its own. The grasshopper leaps what to man would be the space of several city blocks." It was assumed that on Krypton, strength scaled to body mass in a straightforward linear way, so anything of human size could carry a huge sequoia. In reality, arm and leg strength is proportional only to its cross-sectional area and increases along just two dimensions, so a man a million times more massive than an ant could only lift objects weighing up to a hundred pounds, not thousands. So, in the end, it was the exceptional fact that on Krypton this was not true, and therefore anyone from Krypton could transfer that Kryptonic agility elsewhere in the cosmos-well it all made the "scientific" explanation irrelevant. But always there's been some attempt to explain Superman instead of recognizing him as one of the impossibilities upon which our very best experiences are based.

In fact, without the impossible, you can't even have science which starts with an impossible premise-complementarity, which I've discussed in these columns before, and which Einstein himself admitted didn't make sense. Am I being deliberately confusing? Not in the least. Because, first, we start from the impossible, nothing. Nothing is truly an impossibility, yet it's the beginning of everything. Some decades ago, when I did some work on Mayan mathematics with that great anthropologist Herbert J Spinden, he found himself stuck on the problem of Maya Zero. He didn't understand the math that flowed from it because he equated nothingness with emptiness. I pointed out to him that in the Vedic notion of emptiness, the word "Vac" appeared (our words vaccuum, vacant) and that vac derived from vache, meaning cow. And cow represented "Fullness"-that, in fact, the emptiness contains all things in undifferentrated form.

It represented sheer possibility. In the emptiness of pure white light are all the colors of the spectrum. Nothing is in fact a name for infinite possibility, it precedes science, it precedes all structure. And all structure, even science, is one step away from infinite possibility. The great Hegel himself said, "there is no absolute negative, only the negative of a particular positive."

So all of this is by way of prelude as to why, when I took over Superman, I started without trying to explain him. He was a pure, sourceless original-one of those impossibilities from which the world begins. So instead of "leaping tall buildings with a single bound", I realized that he flew over them. Instead of x-ray vision, he had universal vision, that is, it could be microscopic, heated, cold, telescopic... If I had my way, I would have eliminated Kryptonite altogether, but I didn't have my way. However, as best I could, Superman became the Protean bed of the imagination which preceded all structure and definition. But how then could there be any competition for such a creature? The standard question and my standard answer has always been: The imagination is always being challenged by efforts to "explain" and "structuralize" it-to limit it. To make it possible, when by its very nature, it must remain implausible. So then, what challenges can such a creature have? As many of my stories have illustrated, they involved challenges of "credibility" as in the famous Doctor Duste story, where even science couldn't accept Superman. Then there were the challenges of identity-the need for something infinite to mediate itself to finite points of view, to live, as I used to call it, "a normal life." The need for self-reflection, an idea at the heart of all doctrines of emanation from Platonism to Christianity to Chasidism. The need for an idea of the impossible to work itself out through all the vicissitudes of the possible. Now if this all seems very abstract put in this manner, I invite those of you who really care to understand what's at the heart of the new type of comic or Superhero art form Superman ushered in, to examine the stories themselves, at least up until the mid-fifties where I had something to say about it, and discover if I did not shape Jerry Siegel's gift to me into the very impossibility he must have been aiming at.

I mentioned earlier that I didn't arrive at my ability to cross from adult structured reality to the

reality of childhood impossibility all in one leap. It came in steps, by intuitions, by hints, by gifts of imagination and the power of great teachers whose paths I happened to cross. In An Unlikely Prophet, you might want to think of the tulpa, Thongden, as the embodiment of a number of such teachers. And you might also want to consider how, since I learned that the future also determines the past, I was able to bring what I was srill to become into the very first efforts I brought to writing Superman.

Alvin Schwartz

<< 09/20/1999 | 09/27/1999 | 10/04/1999 >>

Discuss this column with me at my Round Table.

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