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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 11/01/1999
Column 25

We were all together in Marjorie's Greenwich Village studio on W 13th Street. There were canvases on stretchers turned to the wall, mostly unfinished works. There were unframed recent paintings, a few small ones, as well as a couple of really outsized masses of color. And in one corner, there was a large easel, spattered with paint. And there was an ornate green wicker chair that seemed to have been designed to become alive in a snake-like way. It was ancient and fragile and obviously not for sitting but for use in still-life painting. The other furnishings were brightly upholstered shapes of foam rubber set on the floor, a few plain pine chairs and a large round table. Everyone was talking very seriously about something or other. Mostly, as I recall, Freudian stuff, things about their Oedipus complexes, their problems with parents, the significance of their dreams.

Freud was very big stuff in those days. But no longer for me. I had become suspicious of Freud ever since, at the urging of my soon-to-be wife, I tried a few sessions on my own--with her psychoanalyst. I'm referring to Marjorie McKee, the gifted abstract expressionist painter who was on the verge of her spectacular one-man show at Peggy Guggenheim's Gallery, Art of This Century. To make it brief, a few sessions with this psychoanalyst inspired me, shortly after, to write an article that marked the first attack (later to become a barrage) on the whole Freudian system. Oddly enough, the article was taken up by the psychoanalysts themselves and soon appeared in that leading Freudian Journal AMERICAN IMAGO, (Winter 1952) although it took two years before it got printed, which happens frequently with learned journals.

In that same article, (and later during a lecture at UConn) I also took a couple of solid potshots at that much touted bully of the comics of those days, Dr Frederick Wertham. I like to think that piece was the first of many to follow that knocked the pompous doctor off his pedestal. I particularly mentioned Wertham's equating of Zorro's whip with sado-masochism, as I proceeded to give the literal-minded fathead a lesson in symbolism, pointing out that the whip was, like the sword of a knight, a symbol--in this particular case, a very positive symbol of strength and energy, playing an important role in Latino decoration.

But let's get back to Marjorie's studio on that special day. There were interesting people there except, as far as I was concerned, when they got on their Freudian hobby-horses. One of those was that truly great poet W.H. Auden. Another was Pauline Kael, soon to become one of the finest film reviewers the New Yorker ever had. Pauline, by the way, disliked me from the bottom of her heart--a cast-off state that I shared with almost everyone else Pauline encountered. So we were always at sword's points. She was, nevertheless, a superb film critic. There were a few others of some distinction (besides being disliked by Pauline) but I don't recall all of them with the exception of my comics-writing buddy, Bill Finger. And in the midst of all the talk about complexes and neuroses, Bill and I sat in a corner of the large studio and discreetly, at first, plotted a comic book story. A Plastic Man story to be exact.

Try to picture that rather large studio, partially obscured by cigarette smoke. In those days, everyone smoked. Except Bill. I don't recall ever seeing him with a cigarette. But in the semi privacy created by our smoky environment, we gradually acted as though we were quite alone. In a way, we were. Each conversational group was preoccupied with its own ideas, and the talk became quite a blur. Except that Bill and I, in the way of those who plot comics, began to move around and shout a bit at each other as ideas proceeded to come to us. Also, our voices got louder without our realizing it. Many times, I recall, in plotting with my editor, Jack Schiff at DC, the same thing would happen. Enthralled with our great ideas, we'd even jump around in our excitement. So Bill and I didn't notice in our own literal and artistic fog that the rest of the room had become rather silent while we continued, carried away on our plotting odyssey, while we shouted such things as:

"He stretches out his arm, right around the corner and grabs the guy."

"No--Instead of jumping, he extends his legs twenty feet and finds himself on solid ground."

"Wait--I've got it. He makes like a 500 foot wheel. Expanding arms and legs while doing acrobatic rolls, he covers 10 miles in 10 seconds flat."

Stuff like that--you know. Real stretchy stuff, which was what plastic man did--he stretched himself to his limits. But to the rest of the occupants of that studio, except for Marjorie who had heard this stuff before, the voices emerging from our smoky corner sounded possibly like something out of Dante.

I suddenly became aware that everyone was listening. I signalled Bill to shush. We separated, walked over to join some of the other conversations. Nobody said a word to us. They resumed their own conversations but every once in a while, they'd send us puzzled, speculative looks, as though still wondering what arcane and tantalizing notions we might have been exchanging. Had we been discussing our dreams, very bizarre dreams, out of our own unique Freudian nightmares? Or were we simply straight out more than a little neurotic? It was the position of the New York Psychoanalytic Institute at that time that everyone was at least a little neurotic and should be analyzed.

Anyway, it was not the kind of atmosphere where we could explain that we'd been plotting a Plastic Man story. That would have been a bit worse than being neurotic.

Remarkably enough, the intellectual caste system, having put comics at the outer limits, had absolutely no relationship to what might be called life enrichment. If comics lacked respectability, I used to wonder, having lived and worked in both worlds--the NY Times once described me as a philosophical novelist who also wrote Superman, and then wondered how I put the two things together--why were the lives of the literary elect exactly the same as those of the literary untouchables? Edmund Wilson, the critic, explained that there is no relationship between a writer and his work. The writer is often a disaster when his/her work is inspired. True indeed. But I keep wondering--whom does inspiration inspire? Why are great works so enriching? It's a big subject and I'll try to deal with it in a future column, but for the present, let me further illustrate this fact by pointing out how W.H. Auden, a man of considerable intellectual attainment, was so taken in at that time by the Freudian mystique that he went into psychoanalysis in order, as he hoped, to cure his homosexuality, which the Freudians then considered a neurosis. Auden was profoundly into Christianity and was convinced he had been sinning. In his effort to change, he took up with a woman (whom I'll call Carla) who just happened to be the wife of a friend. That was the first absurdity for a man seeking to square his conscience. Then there was the fact that, as everyone noticed, Carla looked as though she might have been the twin sister of the man Auden had been faithfully living with for years (whom I'll call Eduardo). In any case, Auden made a mighty try, while tossing his Christianity from the frying pan into the fire. In the end, he abandoned the effort and went back to Eduardo. And maybe he too began to have his doubts about psychoanalysis. I had lost touch with him by then.

On the other hand, my friend Bill Finger, sometime later, also decided to look for help on the Freudian bandwagon. The outcome, to say the least, was rather disastrous. But I'll go into more detail in a subsequent column I'm planning on Bill Finger. He deserves a column of his own. He was one of our great ones. And his story may help me illustrate how, despite the disconnect between an artist and his work, there is indeed a value that inspiration at any level leaves to the rest of us.

Alvin Schwartz

<< 10/25/1999 | 11/01/1999 | 11/08/1999 >>

Discuss this column with me at my Round Table.

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