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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 03/06/2000
Column 43
March 6, 2000

This week's Round Table produced a series of questions on what I would describe as the difference in ethos of the comics of the forties and those of today. The questions were interlarded with many common assumptions about pop culture as being at best a reflection of the broader culture, on the one hand. On the other, during the forties themselves, elements of the broader culture seemed to find comics a kind of anti-literature, a bad influence, and essentially counter-educational-a cultural misfit, an enemy and in fact a menace to children.

So instead of going ahead with this week's planned discussion of lon-gompa, I've decided to postpone that and take up the more immediate problem which the questions concerning the comics role in the 40s raise. The biggest one is what I would call the misunderstanding of how culture works in our society. Because it is just too much of a simplification to speak of pop culture as a reflection of the society. This notion assumes that society is something over there and pop culture, separated from it, the way a mirror is separated from the individual looking into it, is mysteriously standing outside the culture which is somehow reflected in it.

It stems from a self-prolaimed elite breaking culture down into "highbrow", "middlebrow" amd "lowbrow." Eventually low-brow got to be pop culture and reflected the so-called unoriginal and reflexive stratum of our arts. But without at this time considering pop music, pop art, pop science and all the other pops floating around, we'll look at story alone just to remind ourselves that during the nineteenth century, there was such a demand for story that there sprang up a really cheap and fifth rate genre known as "the penny dreadfuls." Books were costly in those days, and the effort was to get cheap books to the masses. But writers like Hardy, and Jane Austin and Trollope (who invented the postal box by the way) never actually thought of themselves as "high brow" writers. And HG Wells, who wrote in all genres, where was he? And our own Mark Twain?

Brows may be anatomical, but estimating their height is a purely a mechanical kind of vision. A culture consists of all its parts, closely interwoven-in effect, a web. During any clash of differing ethos' at any time, one part of the culture blames another for violating what the first part regards as the essential creed. Today, we have the attacks on entertainment for fomenting violence, and overemphasizing a sexuality that harms our youngsters. In the forties, this particular scapegoat role was given to comics. And yet, in those days, most popular comics were members of the Comics Code that set up explicit barriers to producing anything in the nature of what comics were accused of. It went so far at DC that writers were not allowed to use phrases like "He paid me ten bucks"- because a chance misprint might make the letter 'b' in the word buck look like an 'f'-in which case all hell would break loose and our children would be destroyed by the mere accidental confrontation with this ugly sexual expletive. Simple-minded psychiatrists like Frederick Wertham described comics as teaching sadism and violence (they did indeed-just like Bugs Bunny)-except that Wertham was such an idiot he couldn't tell the difference between a symbol (which has many meanings) and a sign, which has but one meaning, as for example, when he refers to Zorro's whip as an expression of sadism, when in fact, it is a symbol of power and skill in precisely the same way that the great esthetician, A K Coomaraswamy describes the "sword of a knight" not as an expression of violence but a symbol of purity and power bundled together with all the meanings of "the cross."

The narrow view is always to take the sign literally. The literate view is to recognize the symbol it bears. If Wertham had been writing about Homer, had he lived at the time, he would have condemned the literal violence of those great poems, The Illiad and The Odyssey- and they were exceedingly violent- and completely missed the symbolic power that underlies these works which the philosopher Simone Weil has so clearly shown elsewhere that there's no need for me to repeat it all here.

The main point is there were other factors at play in the condemnation of comics. One was the educational establishment itself which had decided that literature was something that had to come either from dead or historically acclaimed writers or from publications that followed the established traditions of style, language and story. And from favored text-book publishers.

Let me emphasize here that tradition is important. It establishes bounds for novelty since sheer novelty, without traditional links, has no value beyond the amount of difference it exhibits over its predecessors. So tradition provides the place for works of art and helps us advance without hurling us into the wild blue yonder. If you ignore tradition and write in Martian, nobody knows what you're talking about. But a little Martian can be interesting-in context.

But most annoying of all was that children preferred comics and used to read them furtively beneath their desktops right in the classroom (as for me, before comics were around. there were plenty of other unapproved books for teachers to outlaw, and how many of my books were taken away by outraged teachers, I can't begin to number) because I found them far more interesting than the classroom textbooks.

The language was poor and destroying children's ability to read, was one major claim. Yet at DC, I'm convinced that far more care was taken to keep the language pure and correct than anyone today realizes. Jack Schiff never let a questionable subordinate clause pass without consulting his trusty Fowler. It wasn't at school that I learned how a subordinate clause with a subjective object always takes the subjective not the objective case-it was from Schiff.

So much for the corruption of language. Then, there was the corruption of ideas. Here matters were not quite as they should have been. In the forties, and especially because there was a war on, there were too many racist stereotypes, just as there were in the larger society-which resulted in the larger society sending American citizens into concentration camps because they were of Japanese ancestry. National paranoia and racism descended into comics from the larger society. But nobody complained about this. The big comics companies like DC were careful not to raise any racial questions that might offend southern readers' sensibilities. So comics, among the bigger companies, tended to be stacked with white male protestant heroes and characters. Even the superheroes, the new genre that accounted for the exponential growth of comics. were white, patriotic and not without a questionable element of vigilantism in their makeup. They also had unque connections with that rapidly growing genre, science-fiction. But on the negative side, in those forties strips, an effort was even made to avoid using names that were obviously Jewish. Offend no one, keep it bland and clear and clean. So, why then, was there so much animosity about comics?

Well-look at the people who read them. Not the classiest types in our society. Many readers came from the poor, the racial minorities, the ones that for many other reasons didn't do so well at school. But because they were human, they needed stories as part of the human condition, and comics came at low cost and with no strictires attached. And they were fun. They stirred the imagination. They offered a kind of substitute messianic rescue from the pressures of poverty and depression. They were there for the reading. And the habit spread.

There's a bit more to this story, of course, which I've covered in previous columns on the rise of Superman.

The fact is that comics, with their far deeper connection to traditional and mythological messianic expectations especially for people who lived on the edge) found a particular reception in a nation at war where 50 percent of circulation went to the armed forces. And they seemed far more enticing than textbooks in helping kids learn to read (even my own kids reading skills were enriched by the constant flow of comics passing through our household. There was a time when my oldest son's two favorites were Superman and his well thumbed copy of Neitzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra. I think if he hadn't been a comics reader and had his mind opened to other kinds of thought and possibilities, he'd probably never have latched onto Nietzsche. Of course, many anti-comics crusaders of the day also managed to misunderstand Nietzsche, equating him with the Nazi's Superman, when in fact, Nietzsche had vainly warned Germany years before that the danger of some thing like the Nazis was very real in that nation. I'd even claim that what I call the "respectable illiterates" were anti-comic because respectability does require a closed mind and an outlook that will provoke no objections from anywhere. Or maybe in some quarters it's called "compassionate conservatism."

I think, considering that I didn't grow up with comics (they weren't around yet) that such remarkably imaginative works as Edgar Rice Burroughs Tarzan series, were probably the most confiscated collection of books, preceding comics. I'm sure now that the elementary teachers of the day were simply trained to be leery of imagination. To them, education was a kind of brainwashing from which any side-trips should be discouraged. Certain books lacked the educator's imprimatur and that was that. So they were corrupting our children.

So for these and a few other reasons, I don't believe that comics are a true reflection of the society at large. I think that all the elements of a society form a kind of web so that the spontaneous emergence of any social activity or art form results from the combined effect of non-equilibrium (see my previous column in which life is shown to depend on a state far from equilibrium) and feedback loops which unpredictably magnify the effects of any medium with respect to others. I think those feedback loops may well, at this time, be leading to a decline in comics, just because of the way random processes work. This doesn't mean we have nothing to say about it. It means that there has been a structural decline in interest. Comics needs new structures. We have today achieved a reasonable level of political correctness (i.e. the racist features are mostly gone) but there is somehow a lack of connectedness with the society at large in the sense that comics has become so refined it is largely only about itself, and if it does seem to try to deal with social matters, such as the recent attempt to have Superman confront the problem of wife abuse, it seems to be coming from so unconnected a world, it simply didn't seem to belong in Superman. However, there are always new ideas, new modes of working sequential art that keep popping up. We need to get past mere nostalgia, certainly.

But I definitely do not subscribe to the outdated sociology that still sees comics as a reflection of our society. I think each social element influences and is influenced by each other, as the web of relations constantly shifts and changes in its remarkably homeostatic and unpredictable disequilibrium.

Alvin Schwartz

<< 02/28/2000 | 03/06/2000 | 03/20/2000 >>

Discuss this column with me at my Round Table.

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