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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 02/21/2000
Column 41
February 21, 2000

There was still a line waiting to get into Madame Gorelli's tent.  Maybe ten were ahead of me, mostly older women with a couple of younger girls who looked as if they should have been in school. I stood there with the sunlight spreading like a bedraggled  blanket over the castoff soft drink cans and popcorn boxes and other carnival litter and wondered if it would really be worth the wait.

Nobody paid any attention to me as each seemed to linger in her own forlorn anticipation of some unpromised but hoped-for good fortune. The line lacked grace. It was dowdy. We all looked dowdy and I was beginning to feel dowdy myself. Waiting in line does that to you. You join an atmosphere of drab muted anticipation.

I had just about decided to abandon the project when the tent flap opened and a big woman, her streaked black hair tumbling in thick waves below her shoulder, emerged. She wore one of those long flowing print dresses on whose heavy linen-like surface zodiacal signs were emblazoned in no recognizable pattern,probably because the images had been hand stamped on the cloth from a linoleum cut. But it was a heavy garment, and Madame Gorelli, who she clearly was, seemed not only comfortable in the day's wintry temperature, she looked positively warm, no doubt additionally well shielded by the extra lsyers of fat she appeared to wear like armor.

The ladies sighed and watched her as she moved slowly along the line, her radiant dark  eyes fixing each one in turn until she came to me. That was when she suddenly placed her hands on her hips and proceeded to study me intently, her head going up and down as she visually picked me over from head to toe.

"You are one fellow," she said finally, still holding her gaze on me. In that single phrase, she sounded more Russian than Italian.

"Just one," I admitted facetiously.

Madama Gorelli glanced along the line of ladies and shook her head. "I do not today do first-come-first-served, ladies. Is today men's day.  One time a week I make men's day. And here is first man I see yet." She turned to me and beckoned. "Come," she said.

With a somewhat embarrassed glance at the row of ladies I had so luckily outflanked, I followed Madame Gorelli into the darkness of the tent where for a moment, after the sunbright day, I found ,myself standing in stygian blackness. But after a few seconds, the dark dissipated into a monochrome of warm grey.  Everything was laminated in its embracing neutrality, even the small wooden table or desk along with the ample padded swivel chair into which Madame Gorelli now deposited herself with practised care. At the same time, following her gesture, I placed myself on the grey wooden seat that faced her, realizing that somehow in all this greyness, her face, and probably my own, were especially enhanced. I seemed able to see her with twice the clarity, even noticing the small markings on her face, the lines delicately imprinted by the years. She appeared to be in her mid-fifties but they had been hard years, my peculiarly enhanced vision told me. And while I was considering this, I was astonished by a sudden runnel of laughter from her open mouth that seemed to spread back inside her in a way that shook her entire frame.

"You are bigger surprise than I think," she remarked.

"Oh? In what way?"

She pointed toward my left shoulder. "Funny little man in costume who sit there," she explained, using a finger as a pointer. "You know--" And she laughed again. "--he look like Superman."

"I can't believe this," I said suddenly. And next thing I know I'm telling her about my book in which the tulpa, Thongden shows up and spots the Superman presence over my left shoulder. I ran on for a few minutes, telling her about An Unlikely Prophet and my certainty that as a result of my strange encounter with Thongden, I thought I'd gotten rid of the Superman image-- when she interrupted me.

"No--never does the electro-magnetic presence go away. This presence-- it is more yourself than sack of flesh wrapped around you. You understand about auras? You understand that there is no solid body without the electro-magnetic power constantly to sustain it? But such fine bright colors it shows. Even the ring of purple. Does before me stand man of wisdom? That is meaning of purple ring. But literal reading is not how I work. What you say?"

And after this astonishing tirade, my own feeble answer to her impossible questions took the form of asking, quite irrelevantly, how she came by her unlikely combination of an Italian name and a Russian accent.

"No--I have no marriage to Italian. I am by birth Tuscan but father, he was famous anti-fascist who took refuge in old Soviet Union when I am very young. So better I learn Russian than Italian. As young girl, not liking the narrow minds and machine-thinking of the apparachniki, I run off with  special group, mostly underground people, led by man named Gurdjieff--strange man, educated by Sufi sect hidden somewhere in Caucasus. Gurdjieff teach me to "see."

"See what?" I asked, knowing I was expected to ask that.

"Many things. Many hidden truths. Especially auras. The electro-magnetic ring that form us. And which eyes trained through self-remembering can read. So--you are not man who come here for assistance. You too have vision--even with funny Superman doll that cling to you. Explain to me, please?"

So I told her how I used to write Superman and the special role he'd played in my life and led to my meeting with Thongden. Then I suggested she get a copy of my book for the whole long story. "But you're right--I came here to settle a kind of professional question. About the future of comics."

She laughed. "This is your most important question in life?"

"Not exactly," I admitted. "But it's one of the handles I use to consider the future--probably because I've been so involved with it. Besides, I've got a lot of friends who really need to know. People like my gifted and perceptive friend Tony Isabella who's got a lot invested in the future of comics. A young man with such great human gifts--I'd like to find out for him too, so he can make the decisions necessary while the chance is still there."

Maybe I sounded a little pompous, which would explain the sudden snort I got from Madame Gorelli. "Why you talk such nonsense about future-- like future of this--future of that--future of comics? Even more important--future of world? That is what you really ask--future of world--no?  You are not so knowing as first I think. Such a question. Do you not understand that everthing what happen right now does not come from yesterday--but from future? That this moment as we stand here looking at your funny Superman friend like teddybear from childhood-- it all come from future, not from past? How do I explain this?  It is not easy. Keep your seat. I will try."  And with a sigh, she pulled herself from her chair.

"You think," she said, standing over me so I became aware of the heavy lavender odor that came from her long draping garment, --"you think time flow in one direction like arrow. But not so, Time is like clever negotiator. It stand right here in this moment, looks back a little, shakes its head "no"--then looks to future--maybe one day--five years--ten years--a hundred different futures-- and picks one that suits the day--right here now--out of a thousand possibilities. And with that, it change the past. You think the past is all laid out clear and definite? And I remind you that everyone who write book about yesterday tell different story, because past is not fixed place. Only the very near past, like World War II--part really of the present. But a past far enough back--nobody is sure of it, where we come from, who we are, from what we are descended. Apes maybe? Or maybe space aliens? Or maybe other dimension? No--there is no true past. Is only long present. And certain futures that choose us in such way that we always in our confusion make up different versions of past. What is future of comic books, you ask?

Such simplicity. All that is here now come from future. Comic books too. So what you see around you-- of course it has future. It IS future. But--one thing you should understand. You can run away from future by looking to past. You turn time around and ask all wrong questions. How can you make decision like that?  You like comic books? You worry other things will take place of them? Movies. Other media?  Not to worry. Is already happening, comics are moving into other media. Like there will be more animated films of great works by great artist Charles Schultz. You see that coming, do you not? Of course. Mr Schultz is from the future. Here for good. You understand what I'm telling you?"

I think that  was the gist of what she was telling me. I think I got it mostly right as I remembered it. But she was impressive. Especially, when she finally dismissed me, she reminded me that the aura which she insisted as constitutive of our selves was not in the time dimension and had, as she put it, a "preference" for the future.

What did puzzle me was the persistence of that aura of Superman over my left shoulder. I thought Thongfden had helped me get rid of it, Apparently on the surface, he had. But to a penetrating eye like Madame Gorelli's, who could look deeper, and who seemed to understand that nothing was ever entirely gotten rid of-- it would remain as a deeply hidden part of me for good.

And I wasn't too clear about the future making the past. At least it wasn't entirely a new idea to me. After all, why accept what really amounted to a temporal prejudice? Why couldn't time be turned around? For years, the notion of one-way time had hobbled our civilization, expressing itself in the law of entropy--the eventual running down and heat-death of the universe. But more recent work had destroyed that notion's universality. It applied, perhaps to machines, was a mere limited mechanical principle. But now we had negative entropy-- where more energy was constantly pouring into the system. If it couldn't come from the past, it had to come from the future. In fact, it occurred to me, maybe notions like past and future were just modes of seeing reality that started with Copernicus and finally got solidified by Newton. But way way back--if one can speak in that way except metaphorically-- past and future used to flow back and forth in tandem, like a pair of dancers constantly circling around each other. Even today, I knew of medicine men among aboriginal people who thought and functioned that way.

Anyway, I didn't know how to ask Madame Gorelli any more questions. I had enough to digest already. So I thanked her and left.

Where did that comics store owner find these people? And I still had one more on my list--Horiatio. I had no idea what I might be getting into next.

Alvin Schwartz

<< 02/17/2000 | 02/21/2000 | 02/28/2000 >>

Discuss this column with me at my Round Table.

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