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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 03/20/2000
Column 45

Fifteen years ago, when I went to lecture on Superman at the University of Connecticut, the Hartford Courant did a story about me which was headlined:

Superman Author Leads Double Life.

Some years later, when doing an interview for the local media in Bathurst, New Brunswick, Canada, the small Acadian fishing village where my wife grew up, the press, known appropriately as The Northern Light ran the following headline:

Like Superman, Schwartz Also Leads Double Life.

How double was it really? What were they driving at. The Hartford Courant elaborated and went on to say that I was also a novelist, a poet, a literary critic and a documentary film writer.

But the double life really was meant to be an expression of two separate viewpoints that somehow operated side by side.

They came together when the NY Times Book Section did a story about my first novel, The Blowtop, which it described as "perhaps the first existentialist novel in America." That was back in 1948, earlier than most of you can remember. But that novel, reprinted in France, at the height of the post-war existentialist revival, when Camus and Sartre and Simon de Beauvoir were the literary luminaries, was retitled Le Cinglé, and published by Les Editions de l'Elan in 1950-and became a best seller.

In the meantime, back home in the US, the New Yorker sent a soon-to-become editor to interview me in order to find out how I managed to keep the two things apart-the comic strip and the philosophic novel. I was too young then to recognize the publicity value of the interview and couldn't resist explaining that I had two differently colored workrooms, separated by a phone booth-an outburst of risibility that played a role, among many, in damping down sales of The Blowtop in the US. Note that people are now recognizing that The Blowtop was actually one of the earliest beat novels. Used booksellers so list it. And if you think Kerouac or Allen Ginsburg, then certainly The Blowtop was the pioneer in that kind of vision. I expect to be reprinting it soon.

But that's an old story. In these columns, I've explained what it was that fascinated me about Superman. Up until the late twentieth century, no serious philosophic mind ever went anywhere without carrying a significant amount of theological baggage. Einstein carried it, and going back to William James, and Kant, and Hegel and Plato (far enough to make my point) these remarkable thinkers understood that our most driving beliefs had to provide the underpinning of a science that mostly looks to the reality of an outside world that we can examine objectively. Yet one of my favorite works of philosophy, little known today, was Hegel's early study, The Spirit of Christianity which foreshadowed the whole dialectical movement of thought, provided the foundation for such disparate thinkers as Karl Marx and William James and, in the final analysis, gave me my special interest in Superman.

Superman's double identity which he needed to live IN the world, and yet to remain outside it, as by necessity he was an outsider, gave me my first intimation, in somewhat naive form, it is true, of his role as savior. I knew too that such a savior existed in some form or another in every culture we have ever studied besides our own. It was, as I now understand, a projection of that sense of grace that I have come to realize underpins our life in this world and which, I believe, is laid upon us to receive and accept.

But I have touched on all these matters in previous columns. In a sense, I have brought the two things together, the world of comics and the world of speculative philosophy. I have discovered they are not so much different as expressions of two different styles, uttered, for the most part, through two different modes of language and expression.

Now I come to another stage. I've found, especially while reading with avid interest the witty and insightul columns of Tony Isabella, that because of my age, the long sleep between my early work in comics and my recent reintroduction to them through my friend, Rich Morrissey, that I still find myself very distant from the field because of all I missed in between the years 1958 and 1990 when Rich discovered that I was still around and living in Florida. Coming back, under Rich's guidance, I discovered a vastly changed comics world, in some ways better for the creators, but in some ways deteriorated from the earlier promise of comic book art and writing. Considering that these may be merely generational gaps, I won't go into them here. Mostly what I want to discuss in today's column is the rediscovery of old friends, and my immersion into the comics community which has in itself been a salubrious experience.

But on the one hand, my interests had changed in such a way that I found myself with no incentive to do any regular comics reading. I tried, but somehow, I felt I'd seen it all before and better done. I recognized certain new elements that revealed high quality such as The Sandman, The Watchman, and some sophisticated variations on old themes. Art work expecially had become unique and specialized, and vastly more skillful. But, I felt, in many ways, repetitive.

In any case, these days, I find it just as difficult to read new fiction in any form. I've kept up with a few of the best and the brightest. I find it hard to overlook almost any work by John Updyke. Most of these I grew up with have already gone, and my own interests have shifted over very heavily to science. There are things happening in molecular biology, superstring theory in physics, and in the speculative work of biologists like Rupert Sheldrake and his morphogenetic fields that to my mind reach across the centuries and connect with ancient Buddhist Sutras, Tibetan cosmology and some of the very strange experiences that I have also had to take cognizance of within some meaningful context such as these ancient wisdoms provide.

In the long and short of it, I begin to find myself fully occupied with my own work in the novel, as well as the experiences described in AN UNLIKELY PROPHET which is happily still in print. But I also have a number of novels that are all very close to being finished, or in a couple of cases, are already finished. I feel I have to get them out. I have an agent who has a good reputation and who probably, given enough time (the way publishing decisions crawl along today) will probably manage to sell them-if I wait long enough.

And then, there's the web. The other day we were all treated to the remarkable spectacle of a Stephen King novelette breaking all records as an ebook. Whatever the publishers may think, the old system is now irrelevant. We writers no longer need editors and publicists and warehouses and middlemen of every kind. But more than that-we no longer even need web publishers.

Very recently, as announced here, I submitted a book to appear on Booklocker, one of the new web epublishers and booksellers. I actually put my latest work, The Shattering Presence up on that site and sold a few copies. But I also find that even having a web publisher is an unnecessary hindrance. In the old days (back in the time of Hardy, Trollope, and even further back) a writer would go to a printer and get his own book printed, then distribute it by himself through subscription and word of mouth. Where the web is headed will not be exactly the same, but I've discovered that it's very easy to be my own publisher and editor and promoter. All the tools are at hand. And if print publishers want to pick up from my site, we'll see.

In any case, while I shall try to continue this column and keep in touch with the comics community of which I've come to feel so very much a part all over again, I'm venturing off on my own as well. I began setting up my site yesterday. I will be exchanging commentary on it, and will be welcoming visits and comments, and certainly readers as I move along. It will be known as: THE OLD MAN'S HOUSE. It offers views and visions that were over eighty years in the acquiring. I invite you to come and visit me, leave your comments and buy my books and let me know what you think of them. By now, through these columns, you will have become accustomed to my style of thinking and begun to note how they tend to tie together the two different strands of my writing history. If that style of mine still interests you, stay with me, and visit me often at THE OLD MAN'S HOUSE. There will be books to buy, ideas to discuss, and maybe a genuine coming together that transcends the generation gap.

Finally, I want to thank Justin for his help, support and advice. I'm hoping we can continue in this relationship, especially if I can persuade him to webmaster my new site.

Now, I need a few more days to set things up. I have a URL, but I'm not ready to use it until there's something for you to read. It will be mostly a print approach, with no dancing alligators and no dog and pony show. You can do a lot of interesting things with just plain type. And from time to time, I have every intention to show up here and continue this column.

Alvin Schwartz

<< 03/06/2000 | 03/20/2000 | 04/10/2000 >>

Discuss this column with me at my Round Table.

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