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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 07/30/2001
Volume 2, Number 13

I can't wait to hear about your time at the Comic-Con. Was this your first time at the event?
Tony (Isabella)

Yes, Tony, it was my first time. I had been primed for it. I figured I'd heard enough about it from others so that there wouldn't be any real surprises. But there were, not least was the courtesy, care and dedication Kay and I enjoyed from the staff. I don't know all the personalities involved, but first, I'd like to mention the good offices of a volunteer named Vicki who graciously welcomed us as we were deplaning at San Diego and steered us and our baggage so painlessly and efficiently right to our hotel room. There was the constant accessibility and helpfulness of Sue Lord. Even on the floor, there was the readiness of Sue's staff people, such as the suave, able and charming Tony Matt to provide any assistance we might require in getting around, getting our exhibit section set up and, in general, making us feel comfortable. We had expected this much, but in the vastness and crush and complexity of the entire event, we began to realize that it took a great deal of detailed planning and dedication to provide such efficient support.

There were refresher meetings with people at DC as well as my own book publisher, Olmstead Press whose booth, under the sponsorship of the LPC Group, the expanding book distributor that created Olmstead, to promote the just published new edition of my 1948 novel The Blowtop (Now recognized as the first "beat" novel and very likely a source of inspiration for Allen Ginsburg and Jack Kerouac while they were students at Columbia U where Blowtop had become a cult book shortly following its publication in January 1948.).

On the Golden Age panel, which I shared with Julie Schwartz, among others, I can also claim that I managed to get in better than a few words edgewise, despite rumors that it would be impossible. In fact, Julie and I discovered that way back in the days of our bright and shining boyhood, we had actually been neighbors, living just a few blocks apart and not knowing it until that very moment when we shared that panel.

Later, at the Eisner Awards, Will, whom I had known since high school, mentioned that we tended to meet in one way or another every twenty years. He had forgotten that our last meeting was in Florida, only seven years ago. I can't imagine how he could have forgotten. He's the one who paid for the lunch.

But at those same awards, I missed a great opportunity. The MC who conducted the affair showed up wearing a big cardboard Bizarro #1 badge. After going on for some time, and introducing a variety of outstanding comics industry talents, he began speaking of somebody named Alvin Schwartz, and various things this Schwartz person was responsible for in the field of novels and memoirs and comics, including the creation of Bizarro... a lot of stuff which sounded vaguely familiar but which I only half heard. Until suddenly, Dave Siegel, sitting alongside me at the guest table, began to nudge me. "You're supposed to go up there."

It was a magical nudge. It got me to my feet and sent me trundling up onto the platform where I proceeded to walk right past the speaker's stand, bypassing an open mike that was waiting for me, heading straight for the far end of the platform until someone grabbed me and steered me back in front of the mike so I could receive an unexpected Inkpot Award, a big glittering thing that looked like an Oscar attached to a large plaque with a brass plate and a lot of lettering that also had my name on it. Not expecting anything at all, I muttered my thanks, my appreciation for being there and only after I got back to my table did I realize what I should have said, which would have been along the lines of: "Me deeply unhappy to receive big ugly Golden figure on plaque for terrible work on comics so many years ago. Me apologize to all people silly enough to make fuss over me..." Something bizarre like that, and I probably would have brought down the house. But I didn't. So, well, maybe I was talked out. Earlier, I had run on for a straight hour and a half during my "spotlight" appearance, and people actually came over to me and said they enjoyed it. So what with my plaque and a few such unsolicited encomiums, it really hadn't been such a bad day.

For me, however, one of the personal high points of San Diego was my meeting our host and Webmaster, Justin, with whom I had carried on a network friendship for almost two years but whom I had never really seen except as a wraith of my imagination. At San Diego, he turned up in the flesh, a lively and still somehow wraithlike young man, but more specific and more diminutive than I'd imagined. I'd somehow thought of him as a big guy. He wasn't, but he had a big presence. In fact, the whole experience was, well, awesome.

Kay and I also had some interesting discussions with people who visited our table in Artists' Alley and purchased copies of my memoir AN UNLIKELY PROPHET. I fully expect that we'll be hearing from a number of those folks again in the not too distant future. There's stuff in PROPHET that almost always leads to a long train of idea exchanges and discussions. Let me announce here that AN UNLIKELY PROPHET seems to have a continuing life as a work in progress since I'm proceeding with plans to publish a new edition that will include a second volume bearing the title INFINITE SPACES, already discussed in earlier segments of this column.

I was also pleased to be able to renew my acquaintance with Barbara Kesel, whom I'd met at my very first con several years ago in Tampa Florida, with Barbara now providing, it seemed to me, the intellectual girding and vision behind CrossGen. I also had an interesting meeting with Tom Morrow, of TwoMorrows publishing.

Let me pull back a little and acknowledge my pleasure at an unexpected encounter with editor Joey Cavalieri at the DC Booth after I'd been told that Joey wouldn't be at San Diego. Not only was he the one who had gotten me to accept my first comics assignment in forty years, he was responsible for a special Bizarro volume filled with absolutely delightful, well drawn and well written spoofs on the major DC properties that, I'm convinced, took not only a lot of vision and daring to put together, but probably also a great deal of persuasion. It was an original and apparently highly successful venture in which I'm proud to have been able to play a small part after these many years of operating in literary and business fields far from the comics world. I should add here too that my reinvolvement in comics owes much to the efforts of my late and sorely missed friend, Rich Morrissey.

It's also possible that without the active support and encouragement of that forcefully obsessive and effective perennial fan, David Siegel, Kay and I might not have been fully persuaded to make the trip to San Diego. And once there, we enjoyed Dave's constant attention and support, he even resolved the "heavy" problem of carrying three weighty cartons of books from our hotel room to Artist's Alley, after first bringing the books all the way from Las Vegas by car where he had provided a storage place that allowed us to be certain the books would arrive in San Diego on time. We couldn't store them at our home in Canada without getting involved in costly import and export duties.

I finally had a chance to meet Paul Levitz with whom I had heretofore had only telephone and mail contact. Here was a man who impressed me by his unique gifts of attention and sensitivity, who somehow held together the complex and vastly different visions of each DC segment, doing it apparently through personal skills that went far beyond anything I had ever known at DC prior to 1958, the year I left. Which is not to say that even back then, there were not some among the editors who were uniquely gifted and caring. But Paul seems to be precisely the right man in the right place at this particular time in DCs complex history.

There were also certain general things about the con and San Diego itself that struck me. San Diego is an inordinately youthful place. If Florida, where I'd spent some recent years, is the place for retirement, then San Diego is the place for beginnings. It's where the new century seems to be opening up generationally. Don't misunderstand me. There was no abundance of kids at the Con. It was, like most major comics affairs, an adult show for adults, but these were largely adults in their prime, at the very beginning of whatever careers they were launching their lives upon.

And then, there was something else, something that set me to speculating long and hard. What was the meaning of that special quality which I can only describe as a determined and eager quest that seemed to pervade the expressions and movements of this vast swirling throng of a new generation? What was the significance of the intensity with which these young adults traced their intricate and multifarious weavings among the various enti cements offered by the exhibitors? (Boy, does that sound like "splash page" language or doesn't it?) Were they simply searching for collectibles they could cherish and show to their friends and perhaps, at some distant date, realize gains on investments? I didn't think that was really happening. I sensed something very different was going on. Maybe one of the clues I should have noted immediately was precisely that concentration of younger visitors, reflecting much more than the makeup of San Diego itself. Because it was a concentration of youth from across the country rather than a mix of all ages. It was that which, after some reflection, provided the answer.

This is clearly a generation without explicit ties to the past. In a certain sense, it lacks a past that can in any sense be descibed as personal. Our whole western society, remember, is an atomized one. The extended family is completely gone. Even the atomic family is beginning to vanish. There are simply no elders, no grandparents around to tell about how things happened yesterday. There aren't even the old family dinner table conversations where several generations sat down together and passed on personal stories. In fact, even the institution of dinner is disappearing along with the shift to two-earner families. Times and places no longer have a center. The human race is shifting into a style of relationship which, on the one hand, binds everyone together in a global electronic web, and on the other, isolates everyone in his or her own private space.

Suddenly then, an entire newly adult population is cast back upon the relics of its own childhood in order to locate its own history. To a growing extent, they can't find this even in their immediate families because in an increasing number of cases, those families are not the families they started out with. Kay and I have been married for forty-four years, but our five children also fit into what has been so neatly labelled "his, hers and ours." We have both had children by different spouses as well as each other, but oh so long ago. So now, how do we find the ties that bind? We find them in the things we knew as children, that stayed with us more consistently than any other human experience that contains our past. For decades, we read the same comic strips until the characters became "real" to us. They were, in effect, landmarks, villages of collective memory, permanent and archetypal personalities. Here were the stories our absent grandparents might otherwise have provided. For it is story that binds a people and a nation into some semblance of common identity. Our superheroes provided us with those visions of personal guardian angels, of connection with one another, of the values of caring, of justice, of mutuality, and even with the substance of small talk so essential for sociability. We saved the stories that our grandparents were no longer around to repeat for us in tattered comic books that provided a talismanic bond with our childhood and early youth. We kept them as mementoes in the way families formerly collected old family photographs, and family heirlooms. We kept them as reminders of places where we once lived before we moved dozens of times and hundreds of miles from the places we grew up in so that there was never anymore that sense of a locale where our roots were. But the comic books we read over the years, that kept their basic characters, their original locales, their unique kind of problems and challenges, these we now must have in lieu of the lost extended family and the old place of origin. This is also why radical changes in the concept of these comics characters are risky. The best radical change that can be accomplished today is to restore the characters to what they were at least a full generation back.

One might think that movies can serve the same purpose. In a small sense, they do. But we never lived on such intimate terms with movies. There's something about reading that is so personal, so shaping of the early imagination, so particularized, that the experience of watching a film in a theater crowded with unknown and anonymous others simply cannot compare. What's also interesting about movies is the way in which the medium's sources of inspiration seem more and more to come from comics.

And so we come at last to the International San Diego Comics Con, an institution that grows year by year, providing a kind of haj, a pilgrimage to our roots. Alongside this major yearly event, there spring up comics museums, a multitude of larger and smaller cons around North America, and even, for much the same reasons, that growing TV phenomenon, The Antique Road Show.

How will it all evolve? Who can say, except that generally there has to exist some mode of social contact with our yesterdays that reach back before we took our places en scene. In the absence of grandparents, we relive and so retain our developing stages of consciousness and socialization in the comics. Comics is now one of our significant means of access to the sense of personal continuity.

- Alvin Schwartz

<< 07/16/2001 | 07/30/2001 | 08/06/2001 >>

Discuss this column with me at my Round Table.

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