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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 08/07/2000
Column 63

You go on a vacation and find yourself looking at places, people, things you're not accustomed to seeing every day. At least that's what's supposed to happen if you go on the right sort of vacation. The idea is to get away from "more of the same." When you do that, it just might happen that you start thinking a little differently. Different stimuli and very likely you'll experience a shift in your normal way of viewing things. Maybe even one of those changes of focus I wrote about some months ago in this column. Well, I experienced such a change of focus.

We drove about 750 miles north to Bathurst, New Brunswick, a fishing and mining village on the Bay of Chaleur, a junction point between the Atlantic and the St Lawrence. It's Kay's home town. We hadn't been back for a few years. Not much had changed. There were relatives to see, old friends to look up, walks along the beach, treks deep into the woods to stand on the shore of the rushing, cavorting Nepisiquit River around whose rocks the Atlantic salmon used to be so plentiful that old timers would talk about being able to cross the river on the backs of the salmon. There was gossip to exchange. And a few new faces. There was also the feeling as I felt my mind relax from its customary focii that maybe I had been putting in too much time thinking about comics and not enough time on what I considered my real creative interests, literary work, poetry, the refinements of the intellect that I tended to believe were my proper starting point-the place where I actually began before necessity sucked me into writing comics.

But as the thinking process expanded, the picture opened up a little more. The idea that comics was something added on and not necessarily intrinsic to my real life as a writer, faded. Because, while at first I thought of my earlier literary influences, my fascination with writers like Proust, Thomas Hardy, Faulkner, Bernard Shaw, and poets like Gerard Manley Hopkins and Hart Crane and John Donne-even my classical favorites such as Sophocles and Plato and Virgil (thanks, as I explained in an earlier column, to my Uncle Yoineh) I had a sense that there was something not quite right with that picture.

What led me to it? Well, I had taken this monster of a book along with me for reading in the evening. From Dawn to Decadence by Jacques Barzun. It was a 900 page history of the last 500 years as only a scholar like Barzun, now in his nineties, could present it. Anyway, in the course of poring through this great work, I came across the following: "Inventors made machines before anybody knew how they worked." For example, as Barzun points out, men made pumps long before understanding them. Many decades later, Torricelli and Pascal arrived at an understanding of air pressure, finally explaining how the pump worked in the first place, and making additional refinements possible. Barzun then adds: "This sequence of practice before theory has its parallel in literature and the fine arts, which says something important about the workings of the human mind and the essence of culture."

Reading this, a light went off in my head. All those comics I'd been writing for years hadn't come about because I'd read all those marvelous literary works. I'd forgotten that long before I was even old enough to read the so-called great stuff, I'd been reading something else-something very much like comics, in fact, and they went by names like Tarzan, and Tom Swift and The Rover Boys, and Mutt & Jeff and Bringing Up Father and Little Orphan Annie and Frank Merriwell at Fardale. I'd forgotten about all the childhood reading that gave me the foundation to then go on and read other popular works such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and HG Wells and some of those great science fiction stories in Hugo Gernsback's Amazing Stories, and C.S. Lewis's Perelandra, and Alice in Wonderland, The Tales of Arthur-well-it's quite a list. And as for poets, there was also Longfellow's Hiawatha and some of Walt Whitman's simpler stuff like his lament for Lincoln in the poem, Captain, My Captain. And then what about James Russell Lowell and Edgar Allen Poe and....actually, the list is so long it would fill up this page. But the main idea was most of it wasn"t "literature" by critical standards, some of it barely shaded into "literature"-like The Three Musketeers-but all of it formed the foundation for what I later came to know as literature. In fact, I realized, the stuff we call popular culture which is generally regarded as inferior to highbrow stuff like Proust-well-the pop stuff was there first. It was the real foundation. Just as technè preceded science, so the broad popular mass culture, the stories everybody read and grew up with provided the foundation for those later refinements we now snobbishly proclaim as literature, refined works of highly developed sensibilities that actually couldn't have been written without the foundation of popular art.

My teachers at school got it all wrong. When I was reading Edgar Rice Burroughs under my desk and they took it away from me because it wasn't great literature-well-ask yourself, if I'd been sneaking a look at Shakespeare under that desk, would they have taken it away from me? On the contrary, I'd have been held up as a fine example to the rest of the class. Indeed, if you consider Shakespeare, you have to take into account the fact that he got most of his material from the pop culture of his day, stories that were in circulation among everyone at the time, most often by word of mouth.

So what does it all mean? It means that what we call literature sits very snugly on the foundation of popular culture. We wouldn't even have a refined high literature except for the actual sense of story provided by pop culture. Im fact, we wouldn't even have critics. They came along to help us decide which was literature and which was pop. So, essentially they invited the whole idea of a pop culture. I mean, they invented the technique of turning their noses down at everything they decided not to classify as literature. And that has been the case now for quite a while. According to Barzun, it began in the Fifteenth Century when artists and writers stopped being just master craftsmen and began tro decide for themselves how to write or paint stuff ordered by the Duke or the Royals.

So let's admit it. No literature or art of refinement has ever existed anywhere in the world all by itself. Such a literature is entirely a superstructure of the folk foundation on which you might say the entire society rests. Now comics is really sticking out of that foundation somewhere. And then, as comics refined itself, some comics also became part of the superstructure. It's a fact. To put it bluntly, there are highbrow comics and lowbrow ones. I can write a whole column, even a book on that. Maybe I'll try that some other time. Today, I just want to make sure that I now put in perspective my latest move-how I propose to present my contribution to the superstructure out of its original base in comics.

I've already discussed in these columns how years of working on Superman and finally recognizing his social role in the foundation as a kind of messianic representation. A naive messianic idea, to be sure. But naive doesn't necessarily mean false or irrelevant. But, since the purpose of a foundation is to build something on it, I decided to build my novel about an actual 20th century messiah on thst foundation. In other words, I asked myself, what would a real messiah do in the twentieth century, how would he operate, what would his human aspect be like and how would it fit within his suprahuman mission? I had in mind, of course, a literary work. But a literary work that acknowledged the foundation from which it had arisen.

In the course of writing that work, I was also writing other literary works. I found it interesting that I could work both sides of the street, as it were, puttering with the foundation and the superstructure at the same time. I'm not the first to try that by the way. Dorothy L Sayers comes to mind at once. But there were many others. Anyway-I tried to involve Justin in a project that would epublish my literary works as well as my commentaries on the comics and everything else on this site. I finally refined my project down to the idea of a literary annex, and Justin liked it. So we talked a bit more about it,. but somehow it never quite got off the ground. Justin was simply too busy to add this project to his already long list of chores. He had to serve his paying clients first if he was to survive, so it didn't happen on this site. Had we been able to pull it off, it would have been interesting to have both the foundation and the superstructure represented here. Then came that wonderful review of The Shattering Presence I reprinted here recently.

It changed the picture. A very interested web publisher came forward. He made an offer on setting up my Literary Annex. The new site is taking shape rather rapidly as our plans take on broader dimensions. I will announce it here as soon as it's completed and provide a direct link between it and WF Comics. It is my hope this will expand both sites and further clarify the underlying relationship between popular art and literary art, even bring them together in a new way. And this time, it's really happening. Watch for the official announcement.

Alvin Schwartz

<< 07/17/2000 | 08/07/2000 | 09/11/2000 >>

Discuss this column with me at my Round Table.

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