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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 01/31/2000
Column 38

What does it take to write a good comic strip, and keep writing it successfully year after year? Most people would answer that it takes creativity, originality, an ability to throw away the rule book and produce entirely new and fresh ideas.

Actually, the answer is just the reverse. No art, no writing and no great ideas can strive entirely for originality without collapsing on itself. The fact is that nothing is more essential to creativity than boundaries, rules and conventions. Great music such as Bach's was built around the strict canons laid down by the Church. Great poetry emerged out of fixed rules of rhythm, form and prosody. William Wordworth, one of the greatest poets of his day wrote a sonnet extolling the sonnet form in which he complains that without the strict requirements of that form, he found himself "tired of this trackless waste"-- stating quite clearly that without the boundaries of his art, he found himself in an arid wasteland, unable to work.

Innovation is always possible within any art from, but pure novelty is a leap into the dark. It has no history, offers no point of reference for the reader or viewer or listener to get hold of. T.S. Eliot said this very clearly in the greatest of his critical essays, Tradition and the Individual Talent.

An even more interesting case can be found in the way the creative process itself seems to work. For example, (and I've said this here before) I have known many artists and writers who, having struggled hard to do their work, have been awarded with a grant of some kind. But I knew writers especially who having received such grants, found themselves unable to work, as though somehow the unlimited time suddenly available for work made doing the work impossible. The pressure was gone to such an extent that simply getting organized tended to waste the whole year of the grant. Saul Bellow told me this years ago about his own first Guggenheim grant. Another soon to become one of the more interesting art critics of the sixties, the late Harold Rosenberg, who did the art column for The New Yorker, once remarked to me that "a good bourgeois job organizes you." For years, his views and his work grew solidly while he held down a day job at The Advertising Council.

In pointing out that art of any kind requires constraints of time and structure, I'm not arguing for the starving artist in the garret. I'm trying to point out that pure originality involves such a leap into the unknown that it doesn't have a language to speak to anyone. Let's take Superman. It would seem that Jerry Siegel's successful idea really did involve such a leap. But I'd like to remind readers of this column how Superman, above all, was tied to one of the oldest traditions of our civilization-- the messianic tradition, the savior, the helper, the guardian angel. Even then it was hard to sell at first because it was truly innovative--dressing an old idea in new clothing and doing it in the medium of the comic strip.

But Superman also illustrates very clearly through its own history of ups and downs that whenever it moved too far from its basic premise into sheer novelty, it tended to decline in popularity. The first great decline came in the Silver Age or, more properly to my mind, the Weisinger era when Mort introduced elements into the strip that diluted the significance of the character--with add-ons like Supergirl, Superdog-- achieving a momentary boost because the dilution still rested on the old Superman base, but dropping into rapid decline later. Some will say that the market had declined in general anyway, but the market for pop entertainment overall has, in fact, risen. And Superman too had a comeback for a while after Weisinger let go of the reins. The next decline had to do with a strucural change in the way comics were created and happened pretty much across the field.

As I've often mentioned before, a new generation of kids grew up reading comics, instead of the story-driven pulps of my generation. So instead of trying to write stories in emulation of their favorite writers like Burroughs and Wells and Conan-Doyle, the new generation, never having had access to an actual written script, began instead to draw their favorites. Instead of becoming writers, the talented members of the new generation became artists, and soon thereafter, editors and publishers. And the art of story was lost. Graphic excitement became the hallmark of the newer comic books and the realization that this type of serial graphic story was still as dependent as ever on story, simply did not register. Again, there was a decline in circulation, while other entertainment media were thriving.

However, the success of other entertainment media such as movies and TV and even the paperback book were not the cause of comics' decline. No entertainment medium has ever faded because of the arrival of new media on the scene. Radio did not die as predicted. People did not stop reading. And, in fact, the media all bolstered and supported each other. Comics was dying simply because story had failed. And I truly believe that comics will thrive in the internet era because the computer screen is so well adapted to the comics medium, among other things.

At DC, declining sales again brought the attempt to introduce a powerful new element of story at the expense of what the character really represented. The Death of Superman hit the headlines everywhere. But the resulting sales were essentially a tribute to the still innate strength of the original character. And the decline immediately following this artificial boost again attested to the fact that sheer novelty, in the form of the New Superman, was in itself all that was needed to start another decline. Perhaps the current DC trend toward reprinting the classic stories of the past in various hardcover editions has helped, despite everything, to keep that traditional image alive.

One of today's most popular strips, Peanuts , has almost never altered from its original format, even to the point of endlessly repeating the old gag of Charlie Brown having the football snatched away from him by Lucy as he once again vainly tries to kick it. These are the ritualistic elements that every art requires to keep its identity and popularity intact. Trying to "keep up with the times" destroys the inner time that is the true milieu of any creative work. That inner time is part of the work while so-called "real time" is outside of its framework and whenever creators try to mix the two kinds of time, they destroy the inner time that's the core of the particular artwork. I remember one very striking example. It goes way back to the days of that very popular strip, Gasoline Alley. The day that strip started to fall apart began with the moment it was decided to have the central characters Skeezix and Walt start growing up--to get in sync with "real" time. Actually, there is no real time, as such. Time, like space, is a dimension. If you try to treat it as a universally applicable one-way arrow, it dies. The time of the work, if untouched helps hold together the space in which it operates. The work keeps its internal reality and its fans.

Now, within those rigid time and conceptual conventions that every successful strip possesses, there is still room for innovation and change. Indeed, there must be change without changing anything, the way the ripples in a brook retain their unyielding form while the onrushing water passes through it.

There's a need for certain unchanging markers in our lives that help make change bearable. They often take the form of the fixed sign posts of our popular culture. Superman was certainly one of those signposts and to alter it against the swiftly moving current has a kind of mass traumatic effect. People turn away from it, especially when, in a time of great change, those signposts were a means of keeping the world a familiar place. More than ever in times like these, we need the conventional, familiar and assuring features of our popular arts. Change can be traumatic even at its most exhilarating and the conventional in art has actual healing powers during periods of historical stress and radical structural reformulation.

Alvin Schwartz

<< 01/24/2000 | 01/31/2000 | 02/07/2000 >>

Discuss this column with me at my Round Table.

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