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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 06/19/2000
Column 58
June 19, 2000

The stated aim of THE ALL TIME CLASSIC NEW YORK COMIC BOOK CONVENTIONwas "to bring out the best professionals, to showcase the best comic book companies, to have the best dealers in one place, and to have the best overall Comic Book Convention New York has seen in quite some time."

Did it live up to its claim? I'm not an expert on comcons, having only the Mid Ohio Con and the recently ended New York con to go by, apart from some smaller cons to which Rich Morrissey introduced me in Florida. The New York Con, however, was purely a comic book affair, no show biz personalities, no pizzazz from outside the medium, but it seemed to this observer that everyone and everything from inside the medium was there, authors, editors, artists, writers, new and old comics publishers, and broadcasters , including the perennial Julie Schwartz. I also renewed contact with Ken Gale whose comics program on New York"s WBAI is winning wide national recognition especially now that it's available on the web.

I was especially interested in the number of creators well up into their eighties and still going strong, giving the Golden Age probably the broadest representation I've heard of anywhere else.

Even more interesting, these old timers were lively, talkative and richly informative about those early days on which the whole comics edifice was built. Being something of a talker myself, I had to admire the articulate and memory-rich offerings of so many of my contemporaries from the early days of comics, reaching well back into the thirties. In this department, I must also confess that artists outnumbered writers by a considerable margin, suggesting that the latter are at a disadvantage in terms of longevity. I'd like to mention especially my meeting with Henry Boltinoff whose art work has been syndicated and published in almost all the national magazines that existed before the development of the comics industry itself-and whom I used to see from time to time at the DC offices back in the forties and fifties. This was Henry's first public appearance in 25 years, and my first sight of him in close to 50 years. So I was astonished to see how little he seemed to have aged in the interim. Compare that with Julie Schwartz's first comments to me across a gap of over forty years: "Boy-did you get old!"

Notwithstanding, I found Julie still holding together enough of his former self to be readily recognizable. One point of astonishment:- Julie actually asked me whether it was true that Mort Weisinger used to get plots from writers, turn them down and then pass them off to other writers as Mort's own ideas.

"Come on, Julie- don't tell me you're the last to know."

"Well-you know, Mort was a good friend of mine-my best friend, and-"

"Sure- and so was John Broome your best friend. He was best man at your wedding, and you must know that John wouldn't have worked for Weisinger under any conditions. You can't exonerate Mort just because you went to grade school with him."

In general, this was a convention that lacked high points and low points. That is, it all stayed at an active and manageable and easily functioning level straight through, interesting, lively, never exhausting, and marked by a spirit of camaraderie among creators and visitors for which the sponsor, Joe Petrilak, of Diamond Collectibles with his constant attention and rather large staff of assistants, deserves special credit.

I also want to make specific mention of the quality of the food. Did I say food? I should have called it cuisine, a remarkable spread that Joe graciously made available to the very large number of creators at this show. There were two main meals, a sumptuous breakfast not of bits and snacks, but of well prepared enormous quantities of eggs, bacon, lox and other stuff that would have done a quality hotel proud. Similarly, the lunch/ dinner, served for a long period after the noon hour, provided a gourmet feast beyond anyone's expectations.

I noticed too that new and startup comics publishers all had plenty of space and recognition among the larger and more powerful publishing groups represented.

And that brings me to one of the personal high points of the last day of the convention- late Sunday afternoon. I know nothing about how the Paul S. Newman Award for Excellence in Comic Book Writing got started. But the award went to two of us- Roy Thomas and myself. And as Roy noted in his acceptance comments, he had no idea why it couldn't have gone to any number of other creators present. And if Roy hadn't said it first, I would have said it. But in accepting this unexpected token of recognition, the best part was meeting and getting to know the charming and lovely Carol Newman, Paul's widow whom Kay and I hope to see more of in future.

And now to business. I say that because the NY Con provoked some thoughts that I feel must be set down here, since they constitute a subject I had already discussed at some length with Paul by email and in the pages of Robin Snyder's COMICS.

In receiving the award I mentioned that Paul had made very plain a short time before his death that he would under no circumstances write any more superheroe comics. In the discussion between us that followed, I realized quite clearly what Paul's reasons were. In fact, we both shared the belief that superhero comics had degraded to the point where monstrous and overmuscled mindless superheroes were engaged in constant battles with equally monstrous and over muscled supervillains. And the bulk of the victims were innocent bystanders.

Why this descent into inanity? The reasons seemed to be marketing reasons. The publishers of superhero comics had decided (probably based on market research, since nobody these days makes any decision without market research) that teen agers and probably sub-teens were their real market and comics should be written for that market in order to rebuild its shrinking audience.

Comics, they decided, were really for kids.

In looking around at the New York Con , I could not resist pointing to the absence of kids. Almost all of the attendees were adults. Most were boomers. Of the few kids, as well as subteens in attendance, I had the feeling that the parents who brought them had been unable to find baby sitters.

But now-unless those of you who read this haven't been watching, the publishers have one premise right. Kids like violence. That's the fact, straight, unvarnished and obvious. They like violence in animated cartoons, in movies, and in normal play because the subteen notion of violence is something verey different from what an adult thinks of as violence. It is a violence without consequences, a bursting forth of natural aggression (the proper functioning of growth hormones) and only distorted by imposed feelings of guilt. This is the subject for another column. But here, I only want to point out that the absence of kids was probably also due to the fact that most of them had taken up video games with which comics can never hope to compete in terms of violence.

So this is what I was saying in response to receiving the Paul S. Newman Award. Simply that the market research is flawed, and that the reason for comics' shrinking market is the fact that for the most part, the publishers are trying to reach the wrong market. In fact, it doesn't take much acumen to recognize that today's flourishing comics cons bear a greater resemblance to The Antique Road Shows, both British and American, whose fabulous popularity on television has not been clearly noted by comics publishers.

The comics audience is vastly focused on its own nostalgias, its attempt to recapture a past in a world that suddenly seems too fast, too different, too ephemeral to provide that creative pause, that moment of refreshment that more and more tend to be found, whether falsely or not, in the magical stories, and the comic book characters of childhood, not only in terms of the actions these stories depict but the values in whose name they (the superheroes) acted.

It's interesting that archived comics have become one of the mainstays of the industry while new comics are constantly losing readership like toy balloons slowly leaking air. Yet the answer isn't at all difficult to find.

I spoke of bad research that directed publishers to the kids' market. I say this with some authority since in the world of market research for some 20 years I established a reputation as one of the leading market-researchers in the nation. My client list, if I may say so, reads like a who's who of the top 400 US Corporations, from GM, Ford, Chrysler, Pillsbury, General Foods, General Mills, Monsanto, Johnson & Johnson, Merck. . . etc. etc. I have written volumes of studies for US Industry including compendious analyses of the suburbs, the new American woman, the role of the small car, the role of plastics vs. the image of heirlooms, the proper inventory structure of the American supermarket, site selection and mall promotion, and even the role of entertainment and movie-going for segments of the film industry. I am also the creator of that fascinating market-research instrument known as psychographics. This is only a partial list and I put it down here only in order to point out to any comics publishers who may be reading this, that I am not just blindly sounding off. In fact, to the publishers of Superman and DC editors in particular, who are slowly losing the value of a great licensing gold mine, I would urge that they pay particular attention to the following story.

Some years ago, as Research Director of the Institute For Motivational Research, I was approached by the company who produced a household cleanser universally known and used. It was then called Old Dutch Cleanser. Those of you old enough to recall the original package, it was a round can on which a bonneted determined lady wielding a big stick was chasing dirt creatures.

The brand managers felt that their package was getting too old fashioned and they wanted to modernize it. They had a number of ideas of their own which not only involved lettering changes but getting rid of the old graphics, and even removing the big stick in favor of a package that was totally modern and new. I did the necessary testing which I won't describe here, since an experienced market researcher often knows the answer without testing and this one was obvious. In any event, I advised the company to avoid such a far reaching change or lose brand recognition altogether. I said that it was fine to modernize but dangerous to do so in such a drastic way.

The company did not agree with me and put their completely changed package on the market. I remember looking for the radically altered brand on the supermarket shelf one afternoon and, truthfully, I couldn't find it. Somehow, the key elements that made recognition possible were missing.

Some short time later, I heard from Old Dutch's brand manager. He acknowledged that they had made a mistake by going too far. They were restoring the basic logo with the determined lady and her big stick, but reducing it in size, etc. In other words, the market's reaction had finally forced them to agree with my finding that they not make as radical an alteration in the brand as they originally intended. The brand is still to be found today on the supermarket shelves. The determined lady with the big stick, vastly reduced in size, is still there, saving the brand from extinction.

Now-let's look at another case of radical brand tampering. It was known as the Death of Superman, and resulted in the enormous changes in that character which, because Superman was already so much more than any other superhero imbedded as an idealized image in the public mind, did bring about a burst of publicity and a temporary increase in sales. But because this new Superman did not accord with the values and images held by its real market, the boomers, that market gradually began shrinking. I believe it would have shrunk even faster if the TV show had not, in spite of the comic book changes, held onto some of the old values.

By now, of course, there are vested interests and egos involved, so backtracking is not so easy.

But if there is no backtracking, Superman will continue its slow fadeout. This is guaranteed. I do not think, however, that no changes should be made. What Superman provided in the form of a supporting icon for the times marked by the depression and World War II are not exactly the same as those required now. Certain changes of emphasis in that original idealism are called for, having to do with offering people new symbols and new expressions of value as against the high pressure times of today and the rise of the single parent family and the double-earner family as well as the speed of the rate of change. This is not the place to go into details of how that should be developed out of the current strip, but it isn't difficult to backtrack, especially when one might offer, through Superman, something that more accords with rising interest in the inner self, in New Age self-reflection and a whole host of areas that can be tapped, keeping in mind that the boomer market is big enough not just in itself but in its ability and willingness to influence its own children.

Is anybody listening?

Alvin Schwartz

<< 06/12/2000 | 06/19/2000 | 06/26/2000 >>

Discuss this column with me at my Round Table.

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