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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 12/13/1999
Column 31

"What--you do not know how to lie?" the Tibetan sage said to the man who had just applied to be his disciple.

"Never in my life have I lied," the man admitted. "It is simply not in my nature."

The sage brushed a gnarled hand across the other's face. "Pity," he said. "A man who cannot lie cannot acquire the wisdom of the true path." "And why is that, Rimpoche?" said the man, deeply hurt. "Because you lack the necessary force. You are too good. Too meek. Those are not virtues at this stage of your knowing. Rather are they signs of low energy. It takes force and energy to acquire wisdom," the sage replied. Apropos this story, it is well known that most of the saints in the Christian roster were at one time great sinners. Augustine himself, when asking for divine guidance to help fight his vices of the flesh, added: "But not just yet, Lord."

I don't intend in this column to go into detail about how it takes great energy to acquire wisdom. I'll only comment that wisdom, being the highest form of consciousness, cannot possibly be acquired by those whose flame of energy burns so low that they have nothing with which to fight any demons anywhere, and, in fact, not enough even to nourish inner demons. Usually they just try to censor libraries--stuff like that. These are not the meek who shall inherit the earth. These are not the ones who learned to subdue themselves and acquire meekness. In fact, that's a mistranslation. In the New Testament context, meekness really means a humility that has struggled with great powers of ego and overcome them. A state of selflessness. Here, in fact, the New Testament is fully in accord with Buddhist teachings.

But in today's column, I'm not concerned with enlightenment. I'm more interested in villains. A good story needs powerful villains if it's to have any real power over the reader. What set me off on this was a meeting with someone who had rather extraordinary eyesight. He had one eye that was so far-sighted, he could see in the dark like a cat. And that brought back to mind one of my own favorite Batman villains. He was called The Lamp and he first appeared in a Batman newspaper strip I wrote in September 1945. The Lamp is an interesting kind of villain because he fits right into the contemporary scene. Let me explain.

The Lamp was a man who was, in fact, a fake swami. But that was only part of him. He also had another side, a special talent consisting of what's known as hypermetropic vision. That means simply that he was so enormously far sighted that he could see in the dark, like the man I met the other day. And because of that gift, the Lamp proved to be an especially tough match for that night-prowling duo, Batman and Robin. Also, you might say that in a symbolic sense, The Lamp had that mysterious thing called "vision." And like all such gifts, it left him also with a weakness. Because he was so far-sighted, he had difficulty in seeing things close up. He needed a pair of corrective lenses to see normally in daylight. And these, in the story I wrote, proved his undoing. If any of you happen to have a copy of Kitchen Sink's wonderful edition of the Batman Dailies, go find that September 5th story (that's the starting date for a continuity that ran for a few months. You'll find a cult along with some sincere and true believers. And you might also notice that the story itself has a kind of New Age flavor. )

As a recent issue of Publisher's Weekly points out, the fastest growing segment of publishing is the New Age section. It's a whole growing universe of various kinds of magic, of roads to wisdom, of cures for everything from chillblains to old age. Most of it's fake, and preys on tens of thousands of the gullible. But keep in mind that all this fakery couldn't exist unless it were riding the coat-tails of something very genuine. I myself wrestled with that genuine something and came out of it not entirely unscathed, but vastly enriched by it. It's all in my current book, An Unlikely Prophet--just type in the title on the Amazon ad on this web site and, if you haven't already, you'll find out what happened to me.

But it's The Lamp I want to discuss, who, as a personality, embodies both the fake and the genuine. He was a scam artist but he was at the same time genuinely gifted, with a kind of symbolic true vision, to say the least. This is often the case among New Age sages and wonder workers. They are often genuine, but just sufficiently flawed to turn their true gifts into swindles. Remember, this was 1945. And today, just as the century turns, stories proliferate about gifted wonder-workers and their gullible followers who not only lose scads of money in following their falsemessiahs, but sometimes their lives, as in the Jonestown mass suicides, and that other mysterious cult originating in Japan whose name I can't think of as I write this. Yes, nasty stories. Should we draw back in horror? Hide the truth about such events? And if we do, how will we, or our children, ever be equipped to tell the genuine from the fake?

Let's consider this. The magic of the New Age could not even be around if there were not real fakery mixed with genuine love of others. Because these oppositions build up powerful energies whose constant conflict has the capacity eventually to lift us to a higher plane. Now getting back to stories, the struggle between the superheroes and their villains is the folk version of just these great energy vortexes. The Supermans, the Batmans, the Spider-Mans, the Flashes, the Aquamen,--all of them provide the energy that attracts the reader and gives a kind of external shape to the struggle that is always going on.

So the point of all this is that the personalities who lead these cults, while neither good, nor mild, nor moral, are powerful energy centers. And great energy is one of the main building blocks of higher consciousness. In stories, especially comics, these powerful personalities make the best villains. And because they have genuine, if misused powers, they become even more interesting because sometimes they turn in another direction, and use their powers for good. They don't become good in that simple sense, but they accomplish what all the great sages say is the real purpose of wisdom--to join the opposites. That is, to take the energy of great evil and the profound synmpathy of great goodness and join them into something that transcends these opposites and becomes that for which we have no name other than the ineffable. And despite what the sneaky, worried, pallid goody-two-shoes who run around decrying violence in our films and comics have to say--there is no real growth into good without at least some sort of vicarious experience of the energy centers that we regard as villainy. And our children need to know it's out there.

Now I don't want anyone to suppose I'm promoting villainy. Quite the reverse. By hiding it, by pretending it doesn't exist, we miss becoming acquainted with the energizing factor so necessary to real wisdom. Let me say it again--wisdom is tough stuff. And because it's genuine, it's bound to draw the fakes, the swindlers, the evil ones in its wake. We need to be acquainted with evil because we need to be able to tell the genuinely enlightened from the fakes, and also from the enfeebled goody-goodies. That's why our libraries must be free, our arts must be free--not just because of the first amendment. Or to put it another way, it's what makes the first amendment important. Unless you can find out what the worst is, you have no way of getting to the best.

Alvin Schwartz

<< 12/06/1999 | 12/13/1999 | 12/20/1999 >>

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