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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 07/17/2000
Column 62

Welcome to Alvin's Literary Annex of the Golden Age
Enantiodromia Strikes Again!

We are in the midst of changes.

They are, in fact, great changes.

But for now, Justin and I have decided to keep our feet in both camps. To follow what's going on here, you might want to have a look once more at the review I reprinted in the column prior to last week's. Number 60 to be exact. I followed that up last week, in Column 61. The gist of that column, you'll note, lies in the fact that for many years in North America, comics has been regarded as the low man on the totem pole. That's because it was not considered the equal of literary publishing. All because a phenomenon known as "the critic" began to make its appearance as long ago as the 16th century, and informed the world of arts and letters that there were two kinds of creative arts- the quality kind that dealt with important and serious matters as determined by the critics. The other kind, known as pop culture, at best got expressed as: "I don't know much about art, but I know what I like." Comics, of course. has been relegated to the latter category almost from the beginning, despite a European tradition, in which artists like Daumier, Durer, Doré Hieronymous Bosch the Elder (not to mention straightforward comics like Asterix and Babar) were respected for the quality of their cartooning and the stories and ideas they expressed.

But, you see, there was this thing that started in New England, when Harvard College first began to recognize itself as an important and special part of the new world's own literary art- a kind of .literary declaration of independence (although, it should be noted that Harvard's great Transcendentalists like Emerson were very deeply involved and influenced by European culture even when shaping a different model.

But go back and read column 61. Then let's move on. My major point was that comics were low brow and literature was highbrow and never the twain could meet in the same salons. Oh, there were a few exceptions. But can you call Superman and Batman, and superheroes literature?

By the way, the French also pirated Batman and Superman. Would you believe-they probably thought our superheroes were, in fact, existentialists and not vigilantes?

I won't stop here to point out other equivalents among highly respected European writers. But you'll find them in Shakespeare's Tempest, in Marlowe's Tamburlaine the Great- and in fact, you can go all the way back and find them in Homer and Virgil, in the tales of Odysseus and Aeneas. And as for the tragedies- well- don't get me started on Sophocles. Do you really think characters like Superman and Batman sprang out of thin air?

But my beef isn't only about comics. It's also about literature. While in the process of calling comics lowbrow, major publishers who arrogated to themselves the ability to judge and publish the real literature of the English language, in America at least, were slyly doing something else even as they decried the comics as vulgar. (For vulgarity, by the way, I highly recommend some of the great writers of Europe, past and present, from Rabelais ( who so adroitly showed how of all the methods of wiping one's bum, nothing could quite equal the neck of a goose.)

Meantime, the biggest thing to hit the fine literary publishers of the twentieth century was that great drooling maiden lady's sentimental daydream and pointless classic, Gone With The Wind. The literary apogee of the century? I'm not making this up. This was exactly what the literary types were saying when the publishers began to move away from Henry James to Margaret Mitchell, from Theodore Dreiser to Ernest Hemingway. Funny, how long it took to discover what a fraud Hemingway really was. Perhaps because he fooled them by writing one good book- The Sun Also Rises.

All right, I can go on and cite critical chapter and verse for all of this. What I'm saying is that essentially, the publishing keepers of the flame, while laying claim to their old literary laurels are not only abandoning them. With their accountants now in charge, they are driving the old idealistic literary types out of the business. In fact, as I already explained, most editors who came out of academic English departments, are in a constant game of musical chairs with their jobs, because what the accountants really want are best-sellers at any cost; movie sales, book club sales- and anything too literary- we'll ship it off to one of the idealistic small presses. It happened to me. It's happening to a lot of others. And those of you who've been following this column can recognize it for what it is- enantiodromia- the turning of something into its opposite.

Last week, I think I established the literary rights of comics. Not all. Some are clearly mediocre. Some are better. But most are richly imaginative, remarkably well drawn, with magical lines and a freedom from cartoon school cliches I'm delighted with. Good and bad sit side by side in many cases, but the medium itself certainly deserves the respect of being a special and unique American art form. I have to confess here that I spent a part of yesterday drooling over episodes of one of my old comics, BUZZY, but especially I was taken by the dancing, lively lyrical lines that seemed to have a life on the page all their own by artist Stan Kaye. What visual legerdemain.

What elegance!

Now what about me? I'll confess. I've been writing what the publishers now call "literary" novels. I have endless letters from editors assuring me that "they, personally" like what I'm doing. But the market- alas- what do them punks out in the street there know about fancy writing? Sorry, but we can't afford to buy something way over the heads of those "know what I like" types.

As you know, I decided it was time to make a move and get my work directly into the hands of "the great unwashed". There was one critic, somewhere in Oklahoma, who was supposed to be one of the best in writing on the new ebooks. Oklahoma! No literary salons out there that I know of. And by now, you will have read his review in column 60. No hesitation about using the word "masterpiece." No confusion about what the book was about- the relationship between power and authority. And characters, endless varieties of them, out of all cultures and all segments of the globe. And everyone realized. Hey- I'm really basking in this one, especially where the reviewer says:

"This book has something for every adult reader. Romance, mystery, intrigue, adventure, surprises and much to ponder. I highly recommend this book."

Well, wouldn't you want to rub it in their faces? This book that's too good to publish because it wouldn't find a popular market, manages to hit all the pop genres at once, with something more besides. Now some of you may be skeptical. Maybe this was a fluke. But do you really think so? Many of you have read AN UNLIKELY PROPHET. You know my writings even from the comics I've done. And don't forget these columns. So think of it this way. We have a point to prove. We have, all of us, a lot of literary ground to retake. Comics has to be restored to its rightful place in the literary hierarchy as well. There's much at stake here. If you buy comics, you should buy THE SHATTERING PRESENCE. See for yourself if everything I'm saying here is not true. This long work, which grew completely out of ideas that I developed while working on Superman, is a must read. Soon, Justin will manage to find the time to set up a purchase site right here on this column. For now, click on the following site:

Get the book, read it, and come back and tell me what YOU think. And if you believe what I already know, there's more. Lots more and the whole of the Internet to carry on the battle.

Alvin Schwartz

<< 06/26/2000 | 07/17/2000 | 08/07/2000 >>

Discuss this column with me at my Round Table.

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