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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 06/05/2000
Column 56

I suffer from a harmless but unpleasant malady known as benign paroxysmic positional.vertigo. It doesn't kill you and doesn't have serious aftereffects but it circumscribes your movement. Imagine walking along in a somewhat busy but titillating mall, poking into strange little stores, watching the pretty girls, and inspecting the more interesting personalities that go trudging, sidling, shuffling, skittering by.

Suddenly, the floor tries to rise up and hit you. Not an iota of warning, and abruptly you're on a violently spinning merry go round that threatens to hurl you off your feet and leave you vainly clutching the hard unyielding marble floor for a handhold to stop the vertiginous terror that's got everything blurring around you. so fast the eye can't find a still spot to fix a position with.

But I'm hard to knock off my feet. I've always had great balance. So this time too, I resist the nasty plunge to the floor, and force my staggering feet to a nearby bench for a handhold.

That's how it happened to me a few years ago in a Florida mall on Merritt Island, where I found myself being helped down onto that providential bench by a white haired elderly lady who had simply been resting there herself before resuming her own circuit of the mall. She wasn't in the least unphased by my condition. What's more she was sympathetic and understanding.

. "I get them all the time," she informed me by way of assuring me that I had nothing really seriously wrong. Altogether, her assurance made quite an impression on me. How did she know I wasn't suffering a stroke or a heart attack or an epileptic seizure?

Experience, I suppose. But she reduced my fears immediately by her matter-of-fact acknowledgment of a familiar shared malady, cutting it down to size, so I could relax while I held onto her arm and hoped this time the spinning would subside quickly. I managed to thank her while I clung to her, and mumbled something about really having to give up coffee. The doctor had warned, I said, that caffeine had a malign influence on this kind of vertigo. She shook her head. "I'll never give up my morning coffee, " she assured me defiantly. "No matter what."

Her challenge to this medical fiat impressed me. I even felt tougher myself and tried to stand. To my surprise, the spell had passed. I felt a little light-headed and decided that now I could make it to my car. My elderly rescuer tried to persuade me to rest a little longer, but prodded by her own determination, I thanked her and headed out, walking a bit like a sailor just back from sea, suddenly pitting his marine-acquired rolling gait against the stiffness of dry land. I got to the car, started it up and managed to make it home without incident.

But once I sat down and started to tell Kay what had happened, the vertigo resumed once more. It had apparently abated just long enough to let me drive safely home. After that, it lasted for eight days. For eight days I sat on the living room couch, keeping my head up, clinging to the cushions while Kay looked after me, fed me, washed me and helped me wait it through. We knew that eventually it would subside. As I say, it sometimes takes as long as eight days. It's a nasty ordeal. But it can't kill you.

There's something else strange about it. I seem to be able to drive with it. I don't mean that when it hits me behind the wheel, I just keep driving. But I can always control the car enough to find a safe place to pull over and let the seizure pass. For some reason, when I'm behind the wheel, it's never too severe and rarely lasts over twenty minutes. I don't think even the God of Malignancy would ever let me get stuck for eight days in a New York State Thruway rest area.

Sometimes, when I've been working at the computer and I stand up, I get a sudden seizure. The room spins for a second or two. And then it's gone. Or if I lie down and let my head go too far back, the ceiling starts to spin. But there's one other major inconvenience. It interferes with flying.

Let's leave aside for a moment the fact that I'm a specialist in flight, and that I taught Superman how to fly. On an ordinary plane, everytime it banks or rolls a bit, my head tends to do the same. After having flown thousands of miles every week covering all of Canada for the National Film Board, I find now that a simple flight from Ottawa to New York is far more complicated than simply getting into my car and driving the distance. So, for these reasons, next week, I'll be driving not flying down to The All Time Classic New York Comic Book Convention, sponsored by Joe Petrilak who runs Diamond Collectibles.

Anyway, this inner ear problem, as it's described, doesn't happen very often. Sometimes once in six months, sometimes for one of the eight day ones, maybe once in two years. But without my noticing, the fact of it has subtly changed my existence. Because I now live in a quiet paradise in the midst of rolling fields of corn and wheat and soy alongside a two miles long dirt road where a few scattered farmhouses are set- these are my neighbors who somehow are aware of when we have problems, like the last big ice storm that hit our area, these neighbors, mysteriously know that the ice is going to break through our roof, or there isn't enough wood to keep the stove going anywmore and unexpectedly they show up to help. Sometimes with a generator to pump the overflow from the sump pump in the basement since our electricity is out.

The village itself, is just another ten minutes walk in the other direction, with its supermarket, pharmacy, gas station, three restaurants and two banks and some really topnotch car mechanics. And of course the feed store. This is farming country.

So I live in this tranquil community where we all know about each other and never hear the sound of a siren, and very rarely the distant drone of a plane wandered off the standard air lanes. The most noise comes from our mourning doves. And sometimes the crows hold a noisy convention in the giant conifers at the farther end of our piece of land. But I've gotten so used to this condition of utter tranquilization, that even watching some violent scenes in a television show gets to seem painfully obtrusive. On top of all that, for the past three years since we wandered into this bucolic dreamland, we simply haven't gone anywhere. What for? Where's to go? We're in touch with everyone through the web. We read the NY Times, get all the news. have access to all the books we want. So transporting ourselves bodily all the way to New York to see a bunch of old editors and writers and artists with whom I used to work- well- it's become a major undertaking. Can we fly? Of course not. So- we'll drive.

Figure from the Ottawa area, twelve hours on the road. Such a sudden stirring of action and planning. It seems like a vast expedition after the past three years. Even the dozens of radio appearances I've made, were always from my home. We never had to go anywhere.

Only three years ago, we used to travel by van back and forth between Florida and Northern New Brunswick where we had a summer cottage. We seemed to be packing and going somewhere all the time. After I was awakened from my Rip Van Winkle sleep by Rich Morrissey following my separation from comics for 33 years, and he dragged me to my first small Florida con, I slowly became aware of a comics world so vastly changed from what I had known that I was really forced to reflect on it. Especially on the phenomenon of the comcon.

Such things didn't exist when I was writing comics. For one thing, there wasn't yet a generation that had been brought up on comics, so there wasn't any nostalgia- not yet. We were just in the process of building that.

My first real con, apart from a couple of small ones in Florida, was the MidOhioCon. An interesting experience. But I didn't quite know how to make the most of it. I didn't really understand how to enjoy it. After my long absence from the field, I could write my memoir, AN UNLIKELY PROPHET and make a stab at selling it, and even attend the panel they'd set up for me. But I didn't know how to go around and meet people. None of my old familiars were there. Although I met some wonderful new people- like Tony Isabella, and Roger Stern and his wife, Carmela. But I didn't get to any other panels. In short, I didn't understand how the whole fascinating mechanism of nostalgia and collecting worked. But later, when I had time to think about it and discovered that so much of our contemporary world was built on nostalgia, I tried to look into the reasons.

Today, you can travel almost anywhere in the world, and more and more, you find a kind of averaging down. World tourism has homogenized so many places that, as I see it, we may soon be tempted to stay at home and visit our neighbors instead. Paul Theroux, that consummate traveller describes travel as "a kind of disappearance," that is, a way of getting out of touch. Of being detached and insulated from the familiar world. But you can't isolate yourself today. Not with satellites and cell phones and the web and MacDonalds.. Why is it worthwhile then to go anywhere? You've got it all at your fingertips.

Not quite. We can still time travel. One of the most striking phenomena on television recently has been the enormous growth of the audiences for the Antique Road Show. Both the British and American versions have huge followings. Why?

Going back in time is one mode of dropping off into a realm that is recreated by its artifacts and leftovers. They speak of a way of life we can still explore and wonder about. Same thing with the tremendous growth of interest in genealogy. The family as we know it is changing radically, breaking up, losing its roots. But genealogy allows us to get them back to a great extent by carrying us through our private histories. And finally, there's that nostalgia we early artists and writers in comics were creating in the thirties and forties with the characters, the stories, the personal histories and the mania for collecting bits and pieces of our childhood.

How is it that the comics publishers have been able to stimulate their bus iness at a time when current comics are on the decline? By stimulating the urge to collect- by having these huge gatherings in different parts of the country where folks can sell and exchange old comic books, present themselves on panels to discuss the characters and what they were like in the old days, and avidly seek to learn which writer wrote what and which artist drew what. A genealogy of childhood in a time when the old landmarks and symbols are thinning out, fading away, because families are thinning out and fading away so that Christrmas and Thanksgiving fail to provide the rich loam of togetherness that held us all at one time.

The fact is that we're missing something important that was somehow always present. It's something that I call the expanded NOW. Not too long ago, in that expanded now, in every moment, we also had the sense of the presence of people and things, relatives, friends, ethnic communities, national pride, social connection that our current virtual communities do not provide. For one thing, they're not stable. They don't give that feeling of going on forever, especially a forever of which we're a part, so that when we had a sense of the word NOW, it contained all of these modes of connection.

So a comics con is a way of bringing it all back together again, of collecting the artifacts that represent the bronze or silver or golden ages to which we feel our childhoods attach us. And we buy the old books and discuss the old stories and meet the old artists and writers and passionately discuss those who are no longer among us.

At The All Time Classic New York Comic Book Convention, I expect I'll be seeing a number of fellow survivors of the Golden Age. Like myself, they have become icons of a sort, and in the deepest sense, representatives of a time when NOW was a lot longer and fuller and more involving than it is today. Or is this just nostalgia sneaking in?

I'll let you know when I come back.

Alvin Schwartz

<< 05/29/2000 | 06/05/2000 | 06/12/2000 >>

Discuss this column with me at my Round Table.

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