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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 11/29/1999
Column 29

I was looking through a reprint of one of my Batman dailies, in this case, a story mistakenly attributed to Jack Schiff. I was the one who made the mistake. Rich Morrissey and I were trying to tie down the various creators before the Kitchen Sink reissue of the Batman Dailies went to press in December of 1990. We were in a hurry, and I tended to bend backwards in an effort to avoid falsely attributing to myself works I hadn't written. After publication, we were to determine that Vol 2, ChAPTER VII, the story entitled Bliss House Ain't the Same should not have been credited to Schiff.

In going over the material after it was printed, we found, with Martin O'Hearn's help, that I was in fact the author of the story. And only the name of the villain, Pomade, had been contributed by Schiff. Also, the style was quite different from Schiff's. However, all this was settled long ago, but only after the story already appeared with Schiff's byline.

Then, this very afternoon, Thanksgiving Day 1999, I rediscovered one other detail in the story that not only makes it inescapably mine, but in fact only got into the story because it illustrated a minor wrestling gimmick that some five before before, I had remembered in time to save my life. More precisely, if I hadn't suddenly remembered it from out of the depths of childhood, I wouldn't even have been around writing stories for DC.

In other words, there was something I used in that story, as illustrated in episode 70, panel one that many years before had kept me from being strangled by a jealous friend (and yes, he was a friend) during an emotional seizure that was beyond his control. Note that in the final panel of the previous day, Batman is being strangled from behind by the powerful villain, Pomade. The next day's opening panel shows Batman breaking that stranglehold. Examine the picture carefully. Batman is seen thrusting his arms upward like levers between Pomade's strangling arms and prying them apart as his fists strike at Pomade's face.

But thirteen years before I wrote that script, there had been a dramatic scene in my Greenwich Village apartment--initiated out of the blue by a man I thought was my friend, a man whose upper arms and body had acquired a remarkable strength as a result of years of working in stone sculpture. He had been, in fact, the favorite student of that famous sculptor, Jose deCreeft. My supposed friend, Federico, was someone I had met through my then live-in girl friend of over a year. What I did not know was that she had been Federico's girl friend before me. Indeed, she had taken pains to convince me that she and Freddy, as she called him had only been friends because she had been one of his students. She knew him because she was studying stone sculpture with him. What she managed to conceal from me was that she had been his long time amour, and had abruptly ended that relationship because of me. So even if Freddy and I seemed to be friends on the surface, the fact that I had, innocently or not, stolen his woman, understandably continued to rankle him. So that was the situation. He hated me while I thought we were the best of friends.

Now Freddy was not just an ordinary, heavily muscled, hard-working and truly gifted sculptor. He was also a member of the Rosicrucian Foundation, claimed to have suffered frequent encounters with strange creatures like poltergeists, and was, as he frequently told me, often afflicted with a variety of forces that in earlier times would have been considered demonic. I wasn't sceptical about these experiences, some of which had begun when he got involved some years earlier in Haitian voodoo, but I mostly tendedto see them as psychological in origin. I had frequently noted that Freddy seemed like a dynamo, one leaking with constantly uncontrolled voltage. Or let's say I saw him as a man bursting with a level of psychic energy which, according to my readings in Jung, would often act independently of his will, and manifest itself as an unpredictable exterior force. Jung, in fact, describes himself as projecting just such a force, in the form of a small explosion, during a conversation with Sigmund Freud. Jung managed twice to provoke a mysterious explosion in the startled Freud's bookcase while they were conversing. But it was a controlled thing for Jung.

Well, Freddy had no such control. Things would happen to him. He described once how one night, he felt invisible hands seize his feet and yank him out of bed. He described other sim ilar experiences over the years. He insisted they were mostly poltergeists, and mostly ignored them. On the evening when he suddenly decided to strangle me, to put it bluntly, he had started out by describing the action of another poltergeist he had tried to fight off--one who had grabbed him by the neck. "Here--I'll show you," he said, and proceeded to wrap his powerful hands around my throat. A little too tight for comfort. To loosen his grip, I put my hands on his wrists and tried to pull them away. "Not so tight, Freddy," I admonished a little breathlessly. Somehow, this effort only had the opposite effect. I could feel his fingers tighten further. My lady friend, who clearly knew Freddie better than I did, suddenly reacted with alarm. She was all too aware of her ex's hitherto well-concealed hostility toward me. Now she shouted at him to let go. Her cries had no effect. Neither did her own efforts to pry his arms loose. In fact, they were gripping me tighter. I was choking for breath. And the room was beginning to spin. One glance at his eyes, and I knew that Freddie not only had stopped hearing us, he had abandoned any rational thinking and taken on a bright, bulging-eyed stare that seemed locked into his fixation on a single goal--strangling me. I tore at his arms helplessly. I couldn't budge them. And then, almost at the last minute, an old memory came to my rescue.

I was a child of ten. I was standing on a street in the Bronx watching as my friend Jack Landsman, also about ten, but unusually big for his age, wrestled with another older boy who had his arms around Jack's throat. I was worried that Jack would soon have to give in to the older boy, a humiliation I would have shared with him, since we were pals. And then, to my delight and amazement, I watched Jack lock his fingers together and slide his hands up like a wedge between the encircling arms of the older boy and, in one quick movement, smash his fists into the older boy's face while his arms instantly levered the other's arms apart with such force that they lost their hold on Jack's throat..

It wasn't the fact that Jack won the fight that so intrigued me--it was that breakhold, where his arms snaked inside the other's grip on his neck and tore them loose. I asked Jack to show it to me again. He demonstrated it on me while I tried to hold onto his neck, which proved impossible. Then he grabbed my neck and urged me to try it on him. It was miraculous. Sliding my arms between the choking hold, it was instantly broken as though a pair of giant crowbars had pried them apart even though Jack was so much bigger and stronger than me. So it was that memory, suddenly reaching up out of childhood, that saved my life. I swiftly wedged my lifting arms between Freddie's, broke his grip on my neck as though he were a baby, and stepped back, gulping in quick breaths of air. At the same moment, Freddie's eyes refocused. He seemed to see me again. He swallowed. His face reddened as he burst into tears of shame and halting words of abject apology. Without dwelling over much on the event, I now come to my real point. That look I had seen in Freddie's eyes when he was choking me--I was to see that same expression some years later on the face of another man, also bent on murder.. How vividly I remember it. Not the precise details but a pinpointed focus on the eyes and the general facial expression. It had all been caught by a newscamera at the very moment the man had stepped across a protest line and fired a fatal bullet into the body of a doctor just entering a clinic to perform an abortion. The killer was arrested immediately, but it was too late to save the doctor who died almost instantly.

Now let me describe that expression more carefully--an expression of such self-righteous and maniacal concentration, complete to the slight bulging of the eyes, that I recognized it instantly as identical to the way Freddie looked years before when I felt his strangling hands tighten around my throat. What had I actiually read in those eyes? And, interestingly enough, in this later case, the anti-abortion fanatic did not then dissolve into a kind of self-horrified rationality as did Freddie. No, even when the police grabbed him, the man maintained his intent and fixated expression. It wasn't just a look of hatred. Although that could be read in it. And it was not exactly triumph or vindication either. Let me describe the expression once more, carefully, not Freddie's this time, but the one on the face of the killer of the doctor. It was oncentrated, self-righteous and determined--the mouth pulled together tightly, the eyes still bulging a little, but narrowed, and suffused with some imagined heroic or saintly power. The face of a man who had boldly and firmly saved motherhood. It was the same expression Freddie had, but Freddie's never quite got completed. It was going there, but got--pardon the word--aborted. Well, Freddie wasn't saving motherhood either, or was he? Does that kind of jealousy not stem from the same kind of exalted version of motherhood that in our culture we know as Marianism? It's hardly unknown. It's the Christian heresy that elevates Mary to the same level as her Son. And, interestingly enough, Pope John Paul himself seems to be afflicted with it, judging by various behaviors and pronouncements. This isn't just my interpretation. It's been remarked by many theologians in his own church. And it's also been claimed that in the atavistic patriarchy of today's Roman church, this underground obsession with the cult of the Mother, which most earlier and more primitive religions avowed-- religions that existed prior to the written word--which also erupted into the Roman church by way of the Twelfth century Troubadours and knight errantry--seems to be erupting again within the darker shadows of the otherwise legitimate anti-abortion movement.

I had always been puzzled by those extremists of a movement which describes itself as Right To Life who choose to express that movement's values by taking life. If, as they claim, saving babies justifies killing, then such Christian exhortations as Love Thine Enemy and Turn the Other Cheek, even the entire Sermon on the Mount are being abrogated. So it really isn't a Christian motive that drives these people, however noble their cause. And here we come to the element that has always puzzled me about these self-appointed killers of abortionists. The expression I have just attempted to describe on both Freddie's face and the doctor's killer--that seems to appear universally on the faces of certain driven personalities points to something far different. It has to do with two very powerful elements of our emotional lives, elements that when mixed together form a very dangerous brew. These elements are Jealousy and Motherhood.

By itself, jealousy has little power. By itself, it may breed resentment, envy, dislike, even anger. But not sustained murderous rage. In fact, this deadlier kind of jealousy cannot exist without the complementary belief--that all women are basically little mothers.

There is, of course, such a thing as female jealousy, but it's of a different order. In fact, it's not jealousy as I refer to it here. While betrayed women can also be driven to extreme actions, it's because certain intrinsic possessive instincts are challenged. These are more rudimentary. Male jealousy, on the other hand, is potentiated by vast atavistic abstractions, Ideals of Motherhood, Chivalry, Virtue--all by-products of the great social change that led from matriarchy to patriarchy, as in Roman times, to our modern day patriarchy tempered by universal literacy. In other words, the kind of irrational jealousy that leads to the killing of abortion doctors could only happen in literate patriarchal societies.

Note that such killers never kill women. Women are more likely to be killed in illiterate or semi-literate tribal societies. Ancient Rome, for example, would be here classified as a semi-literate patriarchal society. And among people where tribal values still operate, women who trespass the sexual-moral codes are far more often killed than men. I am less of an expert on matriarchal societies, but it does appear that in such societies, identity was so shared with others, that what we think of as jealousy did not exist.

When I started this column, I thought I could cover the subject more briefly. But that would do this very important social problem a real injustice. The truth is that when I saw that picture of Batman breaking Pomade's chokehold, it spurred such a flood of thought and memories, that I did indeed see all the pieces and explanations at once. Writing it all down is a little more demanding. So I'll have to continue this thread in my next column. Watch for it. And hold your fire until I've laid out the whole picture.

Alvin Schwartz

<< 11/22/1999 | 11/29/1999 | 12/06/1999 >>

Discuss this column with me at my Round Table.

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