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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 10/15/2001
Volume 2, Number 22

Today, I will be talking about epistemology. It's not as complicated as it sounds. It simply is the philosophy that deals with how we know. What makes knowing possible, how it works, that's epistemology. And for a long time in western civilization, it's been believed, for the most part, that what we know comes to us through our five senses. There's a something out there and our senses apprehend it and enable us to go on with our lives.

Actually, that's rather simplistic. You couldn't even read a comic book if you depended on your five senses. You'd see a blur of color; you'd smell paper and ink possibly. You'd feel the texture of the book. You might hear the rustle of the comic book pages. Unless you like chewing on paper, chances are you wouldn't taste anything at all. So, what do we need besides the five senses? Yes, of course, memory. But memory of what? Memory of how to read, what the letters stand for, what the character is supposed to be about and a recollection of how stories work. We'd also have to remember how the lines in the drawing represent a picture. Peoples not familiar with drawing or writing or even photographs, when shown such things, usually have no idea at all of what they're looking at. So at best when we look at a comic book, the senses note concatenations of sensual vibrations, with absolutely no meaning. It's rather like a radio without a tuner. It picks up sqwawks, squeals and various unintelligible sounds, but offers nothing unless there's a tuner, a way of focusing in on what only becomes intelligible because we already know about it!

Let me go over that again, in a different way. Everything about that comic book, the pictures, the story, the paper, the book itself are actually symbols. Symbols are things we create. A certain mix of lines and colors, well, we call that Superman, for example. Change the lines and colors a little and we get Batman. A book doesn't contain information. It transmits information. In the same way, physical objects represent reality but are not, in fact, reality.

Listen to what the physicist Roger S. Jones has to say. (In Physics As Metaphor, New American Library, N.Y. 1982, p.3) "I had come to suspect, and now felt compelled to acknowledge, that science and the physical world were products of human imagining, that we were not the cool observers of that world but its passionate creators. We were all poets and the world was our metaphor."

Still another way to put it is to recognize that objects have solidity only as we require that solidity, say if we're a carpenter, and need a solid piece of wood to build a solid bench. But to a physicist, the wood isn't solid at all. You know, atoms and molecules. He/she is creating something different. If you check back to an earlier column of mine, you'll discover my mentioning that very naive radio commentator who was complaining of his discovery that nothing was really solid after all, that he'd been mistaught. Because now, he said, everything turns out to be just plain air.

But not hot air, let me add. And in that case, you might ask, why am I bringing up all this stuff at all? Well, I'm getting around to the fact that everything is really story. Our lives, our culture heroes, our comics, our art. Story is where you'll find reality. And in the case of individual creators, they become interesting when they can take the common set of symbols, or story we all share and shape them into something a little different that maybe makes the whole picture a little more interesting for all of us. A new twist in the plot!

For example, this week, I received an interesting letter from one of my readers. He was quite pleased about the recent reprinting of THE BLOWTOP. He informed me that he had one of the original copies and had read it over many times until it was a rather badly chewed up book. He also said that a copy of the original edition might easily cost well over three figures today. But even more interesting was his claim that another favorite of his, was an Archive edition of Batman containing a story called: "A Case Without A Crime." Also written by Alvin Schwartz.

Here are two stories, in two widely different media, supposedly bridging an unbridgable cultural gulf. Except that one reader's personal esthetic, and certainly many others, links the two disparate media together. But isn't one of them, comics, supposed to be "low brow"? I've visited this question before, but just briefly now, let me explain again that so-called "cultural" gulfs are temporary props invented by critics trapped in certain "literary" fashions. This writer, however, has in the total body of his work linked together Batman and French Existentialism through his own personal output, adding just a slight enlargement of the cultural picture by breaking down the limiting critical scaffold. But this breaking down goes much further. In The Blowtop, for example, I'm offering a picture of the dark side of Greenwich Village during the time its creators and story-tellers were shifting the center of the art world from Paris to New York by creating the "abstract expressionist" movement. At the same time, my so-called "low-brow" identity was completing the picture, showing Greenwich Village's bright side in a unique Superman story written around the same time as The Blowtop, a story called The Chef of Bohemia. But since I've discussed that story here before, I only mention it now in the context of that entire picture I'm trying to present, having to do with epistemology, or, if you prefer, how the world we share with each other changes its shape and appearance not simply through the stories we tell ourselves about it, but how individual artists themselves, creators of stories and works of art, are the major contributing factor.

I tried to discuss some of these things when I appeared on Ken Gale's WBAI radio show Nuff Said last week, but an hour on the air didn't give me a chance to cover it as fully as I'd have liked. I'm also curious about how many of you were able to tune in via the web connection that now appears on this site. If you were able to listen in, drop me a line via The Round Table and let me know.

--Alvin

And, oh yes, if you haven't already, you can get your copy of The Blowtop right on this page, and by doing so, give our Webmaster, Justin, a little bit of the financial support he really needs to keep all this going.

<< 10/01/2001 | 10/15/2001 | 10/22/2001 >>

Discuss this column with me at my Round Table.

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