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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 06/18/2001
Volume 2, Number 9

My best ideas come when I'm half asleep. That's because the tight focus on normal reality slips away and new things have a chance to reveal themselves. So I had this memory coming back to me from somewhere about why everyone's so worried about what's happening to comics, the market is slipping away from us, and there are lots of good writers around who can't find any work. And comics is dying, because we're not focusing on the kids, or was that the adults and the whole schtick? And at the same time, I remembered something else from the Golden Age, the period of comics' greatest sales and widest success.

When Superman and Batman and the rest of the superheroes came along, nobody worried about who was buying the stuff. We knew.

Kids were part of the market, and adults were part of the market. We didn't have to figure that out at all. For one thing, Superheroes were in big demand by the armed forces of the nation at war. That's where most of the adults came from. Then there were those grownups who were trapped by the depression and they saw the new superheroes as a way to daydream themselves out of their misery. So we had both adults and the kids. Right? In fact, comics seemed so adult in those days that not only were the kids attracted to them, so too were the swarms of blue-noses and psychologists and educators who insisted that comics were doing kids real harm. Let me tell you, that attracted the kids in droves. Without harm too. Today we all know that. Today, I actually have school teachers coming up to me and telling me it's wonderful that kids read comics because it helps them so much with their reading.

Suggests something, doesn't it? If we want kids, we shouldn't be writing down to them. We should be getting more sophisticated, more adult. I mean adult, not sexy. I mean stories with some vocabulary, with some ideas, with plot twists and images that tax the mind. In short, write adult stuff and you'll get the kids.

Example: Way back around 1945 or so, I did the famous Superman daily where the FBI thought Superman was tipping off the world about the secret of the atomic bomb. But I was simply trying to show two types of thinking, revealing the mind of an English professor and that of a hard-nosed scientist. The latter was totally skeptical about Superman's powers. When hard evidence was presented to him, suggesting that Superman's powers were TRUE, he scoffed, and said: "In science, we're not interested in truth. For truth, go to the philosophy department."

Now that was a complicated idea for kids. They had to do some digging to figure out that science worked with probabilities, and that truth belonged to a category of thought that science had nothing to do with. But somehow, that was the kind of stuff that kept Superman interesting. Along with humor. Sophisticated humor that Jerry Siegel was good at, Don Cameron was good at, and, er, well I also contributed stories like "the Ogies."

Also, during that half sleep, I remembered something else. It had something to do with consciousness. And the exact memory from somewhere was: "Consciousness has to surprise itself, or it ends up repeating itself." And of course, that means it would no longer be conscious. In other words, life needs to be unpredictable or it lacks verve. It becomes deadening routine.

Let's make this a little clearer. The outcome of a story line, a life, a personality, that is, the suibject who experiences, like a comic book hero or villain, needs to be unpredictable or it isn't interesting. But that means the unpredictablity is meaningless if you keep changing the character. You need a fixed point to start with. You need a familiar "I". Otherwise there can be no surprises.

Now let's take those two things I remembered and see how I put them together when I came fully awake. First, I realized that there has been too much of a conscious effort to focus on the kid's market. There's been a total forgetting of the dictum of that greatest of all children's writers, C.S. Lewis, to the effect that good children's stories are only those that adults find interesting to read. Note too, for a good recent example, what a large percentage of adults are reading Harry Potter.

Aim at the children's market alone and you lose the adults. And finally, you lose the children too.

Now we can look at our second problem. How do we get back the adults?

Dare I suggest that comic book stores are folding because of the strong emphasis on the ideas that comics are for kids has kept adults out of comic book stores? I don't have any research to back this up. Except in a reverse sort of way. Go into the real bookstores and you'll find that sales of graphic novels are on a steep rising curve.

Well, for one thing, they look more like adult books. And they are. In fact, if you look back a century or so ago, you'll find that works of fictiion were all rather profusely illustrated. They weren't the first graphic novels. They were actually part of a long tradition. Think of Dante's Divine Comedy. How many readers of Dante in almost any European or English translation can even think of Dante without thinking of the illustrator Gustave Dor? I can cite dozens of similar examples. But I won't waste the space. Check it out yourself.

So what's the solution? Take the old popular widely known comics, the best superhero types, and start doing them as adult stories, in the form of graphic novels. Don't be afraid of a little sophication. Consider how much the literary types have started to open their arms to pop culture, in music, in the arts, and in science fiction. Acceptance is waiting for comics if the comics publishers will take the one necessary step, the plunge into the graphic novel with more sophisticated stories.

Recently, I was asked to do a 7 page comic for DC, a Bizarro story. I hadn't done anything in comics for fifty-three years. So it was an interesting experience. But all through the weekend I worked on it, I kept thinking: "If only they'd start looking toward the adult market. I could take these characters, Superman, Batman, all the ones I used to work on, and, by the way, I wrote the first Bizarro story, although it came out later than Otto Binder's because I did mine for the daily, and I conceived of it as an essentially Jungian idea. Superman's Shadow figure. This is one that needs care to keep it from being "juvenalized". It has real possibilities. Anyway, if any of the publishers would like to know more about what I call an adult approach, they can reach me right here.

-Alvin

<< 06/11/2001 | 06/18/2001 | 06/25/2001 >>

Discuss this column with me at my Round Table.

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