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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 11/22/1999
Column 28

I didn't know it at the time, but I really learned how to write superhero comics back in 1924, before superhero comics were born. Or, you might say, I went to superhero writing school when I wasn't quite eight years old. The course lasted for about a year. It came about like this.

I was visiting my Uncle Yoineh with my mother. Yoineh was a family diminutive for Yankel, and Uncle Yoineh was my maternal grandmother's brother, really my granduncle. He was not only the prosperous owner of a large wholesale flour business, he was also a man of considerable learning, but only in Hebrew, Yiddish and German. English was a problem to him but he spoke it reasonably well. He also had a library. Most of the books were, obviously, not in English. But there were hefty tomes of all sorts, many well thumbed volumes in Hebrew and German, especially.

On the day of the visit I'm describing, I was left mostly to my own devices while the grownups talked in the next room. So I started poking around in the library and, to my surprise, I discovered some English books like jewels in a tapestry of strange alphabets and stranger words. Some of the English books had obviously been read. Probably by Uncle Yoineh's sons who were no longer living at home. Or perhaps Yoineh himself had struggled with them at some time. But then, my eye was attracted by a set of three volumes bound in a kind of bright greenish leather with striking gold titles. They looked new. I took them down.

They had inscrutable titles. One was called: The Illiad. Another was: The Odyssey. And the third, The Voyages of Aenaeus. I had never heard of any of them, and while I could read the titles, I couldn't exactly pronounce them. But I settled down on a small couch and started to skim the first volume: The Illiad. It wasn't easy reading. The names were difficult too, but since I could recognize them by their spelling, pronouncing them was not important. I made up my own pronunciations.

The language was also a little odd. There were phrases like the wine-dark sea, which, years later, made me realize that whoever translated the three volumes, seemed to have retained a lot of the Homeric style and manner, using the Greek epithets regularly for the first two volumes and the Latin ones for Virgil's tale of Aenaeus. But, as I say, I started on the Illiad, and got into the story of The Apples of Discord, and the adventures of Paris, and how this son of Priam, the King of Troy took off with Helen, the wife of the Greek King Menelaus and started the Trojan Wars.

The stories which built rapidly one upon the other were so mysterious and fascinating, I couldn't put the book down. When my mother finally appeared in the library and said it was time to go home, I didn't want to leave. Not in the middle of the episode of the Trojan horse. And that was when Uncle Yoineh told me I could take all three books home and keep them.

That was the beginning of my own odyssey into the world of myth, history, legend and adventure. And I encountered my first real superheroesthe thaumaturgic Olympian Pantheon, the mighty indestructible Achilles whose mother had made him invulnerable by dipping him in the River Styx. But, (in a neat little contretemps worked out by those nasty old ladies, the Fates), Achilles' mother held her son by the heel, a spot where he was later to become vulnerable to an arrow by the god Apollo, who, unlike most of his Olympian buddies, sided with the Trojans.

An Achilles heel, note, had an interesting functional resemblance to Kryptonite, Superman's own "Achilles heel."

I went through the death of Hector, the Trojan's own mighty superhero with deep sadness, sympathizing with old King Priam who stood atop one of Troy's castles and tore his hair out in anguish as Hector's body was dragged through the dust behind the chariot of Achilles. I'll admit to having a sneaking predilection for the Trojans. And, you might say, I was an Apollo man. And of course there was Hermes who, in his role as trickster anticipated the Prankster, the Joker and even the Penguin.

During the many battles that marked the Trojan War, I also watched doughty Odysseus, cleaving a man in two with one stroke of his sword, and then followed him across the then known world as he encountered the one-eyed Cyclops and the clashing rocks of Scylla and Charybdis, and a variety of other monstrous and challenging adventures. There was the time he arranged to have his hearing cut off by sealing wax while his men lashed him to the mast so that he might safely sail past the lure of the Sirens. And in a kind of grand finale of slyness and might that would put Rambo to shame, he arrived home from the wars and destroyed the suitors plaguing his home and his wife, Penelope.

In the "afterword" he then sets off with an oar slung across his shoulder into a mysterious future and a quest for meaning that expressed the deeper significance of the aging process. Not that I understood it that way when I was so young, but rather, having come upon it again from my present perspective, when I find myself, Homerically speaking, hoary and full of years.

Next, I followed the equally great adventures of Virgil's Aenaeus until the lovely and disappointed Queen Dido flung herself on her own sword. How bloody, how brutal, how ingenious, how magical, mysterious and studded with powerful insight were these great books which, as I read them in those early years, remained the grandest of stories to me. I had no idea I was reading "the classics" or "great books" I just, you might say, lushed the stuff up. I shudder when I think of how "unsuitable for kids" a lot of well-intentioned mushheads would be most likely to label these works. But, fortunately, I rather suspect, these works will never find themselves on the mushhead reading list.

Of course, I've revisited all of these epics to a degree after I grew up. But only to confirm something now and then. Mostly, they remain in my memory as clearly as though I'd read them yesterday. I don't know why that is, except that they somehow embodied all the greatest things in story-telling, full of details and gimmicks and plot twists (consider again, for example, the great gimmick of the Trojan horse) not to mention a kind of quiet wisdom supported by great characterization. Achilles, sulking in his tent; the reckless ways of Paris; the glamorous Helen"the face that launched a thousand ships and sunk the topless towers of Illium."

I don't think there was anything unusual about me that made these sagas special. I missed a lot too with my still unskilled reading and lack of knowledge. But I'm certain that any youngster, given those works in a not too difficult translation of which there are many, would react the same way. So maybe it's not so strange that so many classic comic book characters, not unlike the characters of Homer and Virgil, remain so popular, lingering in the memories of readers already at the half century mark who had been brought up on comics from childhood.

Alvin Schwartz

<< 11/08/1999 | 11/22/1999 | 11/29/1999 >>

Discuss this column with me at my Round Table.

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