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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 08/06/2001
Volume 2, Number 14

Mythic Powers and Copyrights

There was a time when history was passed on through the memories of the elders, a time before agriculture and fixed human settlements. And because the human families, grouped into tribes, were always on the move, they encountered other tribes and shared their stories which developed a certain consistency. Then came agriculture and with it, fixed human settlements. The result was that those settlements, because they were static, had no contact with each other. By the time of the middle ages, communities had grown so isolated that very often, though only a few dozen miles apart, they spoke independent dialects of their common language such that occasional visitors from different villages could barely communicate with residents not from their own village. Dialect was more immediate and local than the basic structures of the broader common language. Nevertheless, despite this general separation of custom and speech, anthropologists noted that somehow there was a body of myth that remained common to the isolated communities within a language type. In short, while individuals from different communities could barely talk to one another, the basic human origin stories, the nature myths and the spiritual ideas remained very much the same among all the different villages.

Why am I making a point of this? Actually, I'm trying to establish a very difficult notion about story that the modern mind has trouble grasping. To make it all clearer, let me now go directly to comics, and more particularly to the kind of comics that developed in the 1930s around the idea of the superhero. The first of those was, of course, Superman. And since I was involved with this unique superhero from early on in the forties, I can cite my own experience as an example. I've already mentioned in these columns that as a result of lecturing on the superhero idea at various universities in the US and Canada, I had finally written a paper for the journal, Children's Literature, originating editorially from the University of Connecticut in which I stated:

"I was not to understand until long afterwards... that it wasn't I, or any of the other writers or the editors, or even the originators, Siegel and Shuster, who directed Superman's destinies. Superman directed his own destinies. All of us were merely his pawns. But the realization seems to be, long after the fact, mine alone..."

Since the rest of this quote is indexed on this site, I won't repeat the whole thing here except to say that I went on to explain how Superman, in spite of our efforts to manipulate him. developed on his own terms, often counter to our efforts to control him. I bring all this up now because I've finally discovered that this insight about Superman (which is not universally shared) was only part of a far more significant truth that wasn't to be revealed to me until a few more years had gone by. The fact is, it happened only last month, when I was a guest at the San Diego International Comics Con.

The realization came in the midst of all the visiting and renewing of relations with various representatives of the variety of comics publishers at the con. It was as though all the talking and exchanges of ideas, all the visual excitement and the intentness of the crowds converged into a single and sudden Eureka! experience. And then abruptly, I knew it. I knew that in the process of creating fictional characters, in almost every instance where those characters enjoyed a certain continuity, covering at least a few years, those characters tended to evolve by themselves!

Once I would have been tempted to say that within story, characters tend to take on a certain logical consistency. So they have a natural tendency to resist change. But it goes further than that. It has something to do with ideas. Ultimately, an idea is the materialization, or the imaging of a fragment of consciousness. I want to avoid going into a long discourse here about the philosopher Kant's notions of how something new develops in thought primarily as a result of imagining (Kant uses the German word, anschauung), or that visionary William Blake's statement to the effect that "nothing has ever existed that was not first imagined." I'll lay it down here directly, that ideas are fragments of consciousness. They are the means through which consciousness becomes aware of itself, by establishing boundaries, a kind of distinction between self and not-self. I'm trying to avoid getting too complex here about a complex subject that is already shaking up the field of quantum physics. Just go along with me for a bit so I can let you apply your own experience to clarifying what I'm trying to say.

For one thing, go back in your own awareness and re-examine all the comics characters you've followed since childhood and ask yourselves, are they exactly the same characters that you remember from the beginning? Or did subtle changes and new shades of significance gradually insert themselves.

Apart from any major changes that editors or writers tried to insert, and they would have had to be major changes, because writers simply cannot think in the kinds of tiny nuances that take place over time that gradually reshape a character. In fact, when a character grows on a creator, it means that the character is in fact changing the writer to a degree. Think about it.

Think about one that comes easily to mind, Charles Schultz's great Peanuts strip. Did it happen all at once? Hardly. Once begun, its own generative idea began to reshape the creator's intent. It changed the creator as it changed itself. In this case, of course, we're dealing with a work that had only a single conscious source. But now, let's take this whole discussion and bring it back to the comic book industry and its superheroes.

These were mostly created by one individual but constantly re-created by numerous other writers and artists. Let's start straight from the fact that Jerry Siegal created Superman.

At that early moment of creation, Superman didn't fly, he could only leap tall buildings. He had x-ray and telescopic vision which later was to expand into a type of ray that could emit heat, light and power in various strengths and concentrations. And as time went on, various Superman spinoffs began to emerge, Superboy, Supergirl, Superdog, the Legion of... etc. And then suddenly, with all that came a really major and sudden change, the whole story of the death and revival of Superman from which the character emerged with a new look. And the fans were outraged! But wait, there's a lot more to this story.

I have in front of me a copy of COMICS BUYERS GUIDE #1219, dated March 28, 1997.

According to CBG, here are some typical reactions to a major editorial change in Superman. The change I'm referring to has been widely discussed. It was when Superman died and came back.

"They destroyed the whole mythos," a Virginia-pilot reporter quoted one reader as saying.

"We all know that this is a cheap sales gimmick..." said comics retailer Mitch Cutler to the NY Times.

Mark Voger in an analytical piece for The Asbury Park Press, declared that the New Superman is the crowning event of a decade which he dubbed "The Dark Age of Comics."

In response to these and a veritable flood of criticism, Mike Carlin told a Star-Ledger reporter: "I'm sorry if this sounds rude to people, but, the last time I looked, the character of Superman was the property of DC Comics, and DC is not a charitable firm. We want to sell comic books and make a lot of money. We can't do that unless we keep the character relevant, and that means making changes from time to time..."

There's a lot more here, but essentially, I agree with Mike Carlin that the aim is to make money and he had the responsibility for taking steps to accomplish that. A man can't be faulted for doing his job. Nor was it Mike's fault that he couldn't have known that any steps he took in that direction would be fruitless. He didn't seem to know it, and neither did anyone else. Superman had gone far beyond any single editor's ability to change him. And, in the deepest sense, none of the changes cited here, neither the existence of Supergirl, or Superdog or the New Superman has had any effect whatsoever on changing the original image of Superman. When the name Superman was cited anywhere, the image accompanying it never seemed to include any of the new components, the new superbeings, even the new Superscowl. In fact, I was struck by the laughter that greeted the image of a scowling, angry Superman as represented by a sales poster available at the DC site when I brought it up at my spotlight appearance at San Diego. No one was offended actually. It's just that no one believed it. The crowd all had its own image of Superman which was essentially still the benign, caring, rescuing and sometimes humanly bumbling personality that Superman allowed himself over the years to turn into. DC does indeed own the Superman copyright. But there is an essential Superman image that belongs to the world (and is perhaps better expressed by the ailing actor Chris Reeves than anyone else) and that Superman, despite all efforts to change him, continues to create for himself.

Consider this. Over the years, subtle changes have indeed taken place. Superman's powers have gradually become broader, more generalized, less definable. In an effort to make some sense of these diffuse but undeniable abilities, John Byrne, when he did his stint at Superman, actually tried to demonstrate this by explaining that Superman had psi powers. In other words, he was a being who transcended the practically or scientifically definable. Now nobody had ever actually had this idea. It just turned out that way and continues to stay that way in the world's view of Superman. What am I saying here? I'm saying that Superman is basically a fragment of consciousness, an idea with a life and trajectory of its own. To anyone who has actually written about powerful archetypal characters that enjoy wide recognition, this is not so astonishing. Falstaff, Othello, King Lear, Hamlet, all created by Shakespeare have, for example, taken on significances of their own. If those significances change as the world changes, it is because ideas, or characters, themselves moving on the current of time, subtly change themselves. And they do so within the universe of the entire culture, of all the people who have ever heard or read about them.

Having presented this whole notion of self-changing characters, let me just add here that one of the important new fields of cognitive science deals with the fact of self-organization and self creation. It is now well established that various webs of complexity tend to organize themselves through an emergence of properties that were not present in their earlier more simple form, For example, at the sub-atomic level, there is no such thing as heat. As systems increase in complexity, however, heat becomes an emergent property of that increase.

This is the closest I can come to explaining the way characters do in fact change themselves. They do so as we ourselves contribute to the complexity. But the change takes place as the complexity emerges. In this sense, big characters and big stories tend to be self-organizing and ultimately self-creating. And that brings me to an element in the complex Superman story in which I too played an accidental role. That is, I contributed another set of strands to the complex idea that was Superman. My purpose was not exactly correlated to what emerged in the end. In other words, I never knew what I was getting into. I was attempting, in fact, to bring out a certain hitherto unexamined aspect of Superman. His dark side, in fact. There was an interesting psychological idea behind this. I had gotten it almost directly out of my readings in that great Swiss psychologist, C.G. Jung. And so, I created Bizarro. I introduced Bizarro in the Superman newspaper strip back in 1958. But I wasn't exactly expecting what finally came out of the whole idea.

I'll tell you about it next week.

- Alvin

<< 07/30/2001 | 08/06/2001 | 08/13/2001 >>

Discuss this column with me at my Round Table.

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