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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 12/20/1999
Column 32

I got this email from comics historian Rich Morrissey in which he reminds me that my comics life back in the forties and fifties had another major side very far removed from superheroes. If it slipped my mind, it was because I'd been so involved with finishing my book THE SHATTERING PRESENCE about which you'll eventually hear more on this site. It was a book I was driven to write, as I've already mentioned, by a need to represent what Superman stood for, his messianic aspect, in a more detailed, serious and universal way. The result was a big, world-ranging novel of the sort, I hope, you'll want to read over and over again. I'll be coming back to that soon. But first, come travel back with me to a very small world, an idyllic place called Avondale in which I spent my richest and most important formative years. Avondale, in fact, was the kind of place that only Norman Rockwell could have dreamed up. But it was real, and it was also why I took so much pleasure in writing the DC strip known as Buzzy.

In Rich's email, he mentions the following:

"Mike Tiefenbacher (a member of the comics indexing group to which Martin [O'Hearn]and I belong, just ran an index to DC's Buzzy title from the 1940's. He listed you [or rather "Vernon Woodrum", a pseudonym of yours he apparently didn't know about] as the co-creator of the character and series, which had never really occurred to me [my collection of the earliest issues, all from before I was born, is understandably limited]. But it almost jumps out at me as I read it; Buzzy's jive-talk is as sparkling...and deliberately overblown, but sincethis was a comedy series, quite the poetic dialogue of Hayfoot Henry. Mike referred to it as his favorite DC "teen" series of the'40's and '50's, so I e-mailed him your real name and e-mail address with thesuggestion that he pass his index on to you.. [which, so far, hasn't happened--AS]

Rich continues: "Looking back on the early Buzzy...which I agree with Mike was the best ofDC's teen-humor series, before it got run through the inevitable "blanderizing" that seemed to strike all comic book teens [including the original trendsetter, MLJ Comics' Archie], I'm quite impressed. You took offon the even-then-universal aspects of the comic teenage strip...the accident-prone hero, his girlfriend, his friends, his rival(s), parents, principals and the like...but gave them a fresh approach. As Mike said, therelationship between Buzzy, Susie, and Susie's father was a classic...I can'tthink of anyone else who based the hero's main love on the somewhat spoiled rich girl with a prominent father who's constantly at odds with the boy he most assuredly does NOT want for a futureson-in-law.

"Most inspired of all was making Buzzy a musician...something I don't recall having been done before in a teenage feature, though it would bedone innumerable times since. Two decades later DC's SCOOTER strip similarlyfeatured a musician star...though, as a sign of changing times, he was a former member of a British rock band rather than a be-bop trumpeter. (I livedthrough the rock era, but confess I don't know much about the big bands. WasBuzzy based on a real-life musician of the time, as Scooter's group was loosely based on the Beatles? Mike said he mentioned Benny Goodman, but I'mpretty sure Goodman's instrument was the clarinet...and THAT stuck in my mindonly because it was the same as mine, during my abortive career in the high-school band...) Archie didn't get to it until the '60's, though, beingby then the unquestioned leader of the genre (remember The Archies?) it blewall its competitors out of the water when it did.

"Music, after all, is one of the perennial sources of generational conflict; every generation seems to come up with a rhythm and beat of its ownthat the earlier one despises. I daresay 70-year-old Buzzy and 50-year-oldScooter are listening to big-band and rock respectively to this day, but inall likelihood both despise the gangsta rap of their own children and probably the hip-hopof their grandchildren...But I'd be really interested in the development of thisfeature, and perhaps of A DATE WITH JUDY (what was the radio show it was based on like?) as well. Mike Tiefenbacher will probably be even more so.--Rich

How nice it was to be reminded again of Buzzy. Takes me back some 55 years, so Ican't figure out who was the alleged co-creator. I seem to remember either workingup the basic idea with Jack Schiff, or the rudimentary idea being handed to me for developmentafter DC bought it from someone else. So I don't see how I could actually have originated it. And I believe the artist who worked on it was Stan Kaye, and while Stan had nothing to do with developing it, since he was simply handed my scripts and did a wonderful job bringing them to life.

About the music, I was steeped in it. I was reasonably good on the piano, was taught by my mother who used to do the piano in the old silent movie houses. I also had an abortive try on the violin. By the time I got to Buzzy, I had acquired a crazy way of doing jazz on the descant recorder which I used to pretend was Benny Goodman's "licorice stick"-- and living tooth by jowl in the village with so many of the top jazz musicians, I simply had to make Buzzy a horn player. As simple as that. (Grin)

But the important thing about Buzzy is that I thoroughly enjoyed writing it. In a very special way. And that's simply because, for me, it was so much a means of reliving my middle school years in Avondale which was a suburb of Cincinnati, Ohio. I lived there at a time whenyou'd see Model A Fords driving down Reading Road, the main drag, with nobodyat the wheel, because often enough there were very short ten year olds doing the drivingand back then Ohio which was a far heavier farm state than it is today, had no driver'slicense law. By the ripe old age of eleven, I myself had become pretty expert at scooting aroundReading Road in my father's Whippet-Six-- that is, whenever my unsuspecting mother would leave me the car keys for my father when he came home from work since she'd probably still be at her voice lessons at the Cincinnati Conservatory, or possibly doing choir practice.

But, it was 1929, and not only did the stock market crash, but so did the dress manufacturer for which my father was the designer but mainly because the owner died during an appendectomy and there was no one else who could replace him. In the end, my parents were forced to make a sudden move back to New York where my father's talents were still needed. I was just turning fourteen and the sudden move so ruptured my life that Avondale always remained with me as a precious cameo of childhood from which I could draw on real feelings and adolescent experience when I worked on Buzzy, and, at the same time, turn it all into real humor. For me, the episodes just wrote themselves. And their very intricate plots just rolled.

As for Date With Judy, I never did see the radio show Rich refers to and from which it derived. I just discussed the story and characters with Schiff and turned out my own version. I liked doing that one too because, mainly, it had many of the same elements that attracted me to Buzzy.

Now I was also doing Superman and Batman during that time But apparently not enough of them. Because after a few years or so they turned both Buzzy and Date With Judy over to a guy named Segar (really!) because, as Whit Ellsworth bluntly told me, it didn't matter that Ienjoyed doing them or did them well, I was needed more on Superman and Batman--or as he called it-- the big stuff. I was almost as crushed as when I had to leave Avondale.In a way, it was a little like leaving Avondale all over again.

I still feel that DC was short-sighted in not realizing the potential of Buzzy which I'm sure I could have kept going until it waltzed its way right into cinema. The front office considered it a minor strip. But for me it was real art. In fact, I'd say doing Buzzy was like reproducingwith the typewriter what Norman Rockwell shaped with his brush. Because living in Avondale was a lot like living in Norman Rockwell land. Just think ofthe names-- Avondale. A little bit better than Cupcake Center but similar infeeling. And our school-- Walnut Hills High . Real American schmaltz-- but real--oh so real, including the romances, the school dances, especially on the Ohio River paddlewheelers with the steam-powered jazz calliopes--I remember their names, those vessels with the hugepolished dance floors, and on one of which I took a girl to my first dance and wound up doing a pratfall on the oh-so-slippery floor. The paddlewheelers were called The Island Maid, and The Island Queen. . . and the girls I fell in love with. . . one after the other. In fact, it was so idyllic. it was really kind of a comic strip. It was, indeed, Buzzy-land.

There were 750 kids in Walnut Hills High, and half of them were girls. There were some marvelous teachers whom you got to know well, and an old German phys-ed maestro, Dr. A. A. Knoch whom we used to call "doc" and who managed to turn me against all odds into the captain of the track team. We had a great football team and usually lost every game in the season but always won a moral victory. We even won a moral victory because our team's captain was a black man and when the teams across the river in Kentucky refused to play us because of that, we never bothered to cross the river again. And we kept our captain who was one of the most popular kids in school.

And then--back to New York and DeWitt Clinton High School with thirteen thousand students, and no girls. It was something of a shock. But life goes on. I met Will Eisner there, and when I got involved with The Magpie, the school literary magazine, I discovered I was really an intellectual, really the kid who had been brought up on Homer and Virgil.

One final comment about Norman Rockwell. The critics say he sentimentalized America. That it never really was like that. But it really was, down to the last detail. There must have been more than one Avondale in those days.

Alvin Schwartz

<< 12/13/1999 | 12/20/1999 | 12/27/1999 >>

Discuss this column with me at my Round Table.

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