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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 09/25/2000
Column 69

Two things came to my attention this week. First, there was the article in US New & World Report predicting the doom of the comics industry, especially in pointing out that circulation figures had dropped from $850,000,000 in 1993 to a measly $275,000,000 last year. The article then proceeds with a recommendation to the industry that their most viable possibility seems to be in the direction of graphic novels which presumably would win the dying comics ventures a foothold in the bookstores. No mention at all of how many bookstores are folding these days as the great chains take over.

Then, as chance would have it, I stumbled across Mark Alessi's new Florida venture, CrossGen Comics and did a careful survey of the information on their web site. I came away with the impression that here was a company falling into all the old traps- taking a leaf from the successes of Harry Potter (but leaving out his grounding in the world) by introducing magic and wirzardry of many forms in the various worlds that make up its universe, using the same old slickly presented hard edged comic style drawing in which wasp waisted, long legged, mechanical looking full breasted, 7 head tall female heroines and villainesses go skittering around expressing their various cliched and infantile emotions (jealousy, rage revenge seduction- the whole gamut) and expecting, with the aid of a lot of money, to be able to rescue the sinking business. Well, if great buildings can do it, then-and they've surely designed one- then here's my hat off to architecture. See it all at

Mention is also made in the US News & World article of the fact that DC is not particularly concerned, and from where I sit, they are in fact, in the best position of all to hold on, but I don't think they really understand the reasons why.

And that's what I'm now going to bring to your attention. Let me begin by saying that the most exotic of worlds and the most exotic of characters have always shown at their best and most interesting wherever they can exist alongside of, and somehow in contact with, the world as it is today- yes- our present, mundane, ordinary, daily familiar universe where we get up in the morning and go to work and school and read the continuation of yesterday's stories in today's newspapers. I happened to notice this a long time ago when, as an inveterate star-trek watcher, I observed that the most engaging stories were always the ones in which the advanced minions of The Federation found themselves mixing with today's society. Echoing in my mind are stories in which the Enterprise crew come to earth's present in an effort to save the great whales, in the course of which Checkov, approaching an officer aboard a US battleship floating in the harbor of a great American city, naively asks "vair do dey keep de atomic veapons?"

Another one that comes to mind was Kirk confronting and, in fact, getting involved with two groups of competing Chicago mobsters. But there are dozens of such stories of this kind which, without excluding many good stories that do not engage a present earth, provided a kind of grounding that always gave almost all successful series a positive foundation- that foundation being the now in which we live, especially when it's directly contrasted with future or exotic life styles by direct contact.

Let me step back a moment here for a further illustration of this truth. In the era when superheroes and superman especially enjoyed its greatest popularity and its peak sales, Superman operated exclusively on this earth. And it would seem, with the passage of time, and editorial changes and new artists and writers, that as Superman and other superheroes got further and further removed from the earth as we know it, circulation tumbled. In fact, we can take it as an axiom that interest can be shown to decline in direct proportion to the domination of stories by far-from-earth locales. And by far from earth, I also mean 2nd earths and that whole panoply of multiple universes introduced over the years.

In pop culture, the stories that succeed, based on my own subsidized studies in this field (Canada Council, University of Connecticut) my reports show a clear relationship between what I call present grounding, and present separation, with the latter, when maintained too long, leading to a drop off of interest and readership. Let's look at this a little further. Superman, as we know, was completely grounded in the present (even Smallville being a kind of present, and in fact a nostalgic one). Superman has also never fully lost that present grounding. Television has been a great help in this. But let's go back even further.

In the Edgar Rice Burroughs Martian series, John Carter was always an earthling and his earth roots were always present as a contrast against his Martian experience. He WAS earth on Mars.

Even with Tarzan, whom I regard as something of a freak from the perspective of not really belonging to a present-but even he operated in an African present, on a contemporary, for the time it was written, African earth.

Now if you look hard enough, there are exceptions, but looking even harder, you will always find the contemporary earth element operating as a field of contrast, as a kind of reality base. Consider the strong earth connections in Babylon 5 for example.

Maybe the best way to explain it is to introduce a few ideas about story. Our need for story is as innate as our need for having a focus on the world around us. Not only its known aspects but its unknown ones. Like the tree which has its visible trunk above ground and its roots buried in the dark. Even in the New Testament, Jesus says: "I am come so that those who see not may see, and that those who see may be made blind.Together, the familiar and the unfamiliar, the visible and the invisible, the earth and the unearthlyform a unity."

Now because of that,there is also another need-and that is to change focus from time to time. A story is a way of shifting our focus on reality. By doing so, we get a fresh look at our experience. This is so because nothing happens to us except through our way of seeing or experiencing it. In other words, our experience is really created by the level of consciousness we happen to be in when events happen to us. And if we're not to be caught in an endless rut of awareness, we have a psychic and perhaps even a physical need to shift our focus of consciousness- to change the scenery, as it were, from time to time. That's what story does for us. In fact, what we think of as "the self" is really the story we make up about who and what we are. We do so out of many kinds of events and experiences, biological and sensual. But we need to change the scenery from time to time. And good stories do that.

So to CrossGen, I would seriously recommend coming back to present earth from time to time or your various oh-so-interesting universes will die for lack of roots. To Paul Levitz, I would say, how lucky we are at DC- I still think of myself as part of the DC family- since however many earths we travel to, we still tend to touch familiar ground from time to time. Let's make sure we keep doing it. And perhaps with greater frequency.

I have asked readers of this column about their reading habits. I've gotten a few interesting answers. I was most impressed by the number of those interested in reading history because, here too, the need for a grounding in our own earthiness seems to be expressing itself. What I didn't question closely enough was the kind of science fiction stories that our readers, overwhelmingly readers of sci-fi, found most interesting. How much was the question of earth-grounding a factor in your sci-fi preferences?

As I close, let me call your attention to my own stories, to which one more novel has been added:
It's called THE STRAIGHT TREE. Read the review at The Alvin Schwartz Literary Annex-


<< 09/18/2000 | 09/25/2000 | 10/01/2000 >>

Discuss this column with me at my Round Table.

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