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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 10/22/2001
Volume 2, Number 23

In all the discussions in these columns about high brow and low brow literature and the place of pop culture against high culture in our society, I have managed to miss the most important change happening right under our noses. It has been transforming pop culture, has, in fact, already transformed it and even as we participate in the transformation, nobody seems to be noticing.

Something has taken over that is constant, insidious, inescapable, and that more than anything else may be responsible for the decline in comic book sales.

I'm talking about music. I'm talking about rock, pop, hop, hip-hop, and the dozens of Latino modes that younger people are spending their spare change on, abetted by a technology that provides more and better portable gizmos so that we can all go about our lives and never for a moment have the sound turned off.

The stuff follows us to work during the day, entertains us during the evening, and lulls us to sleep at night.

Now remember, all this sneaked up on us over a period of a few decades, starting in the late fifties. But how did it all happen? Remember, we are supposedly a supremely literate culture. We not only learned to read, but we even changed the whole way the world went about reading. Once upon a time, all reading, by the few who could read, was done aloud. Usually from a scroll. Then the book was invented, and again, for a time, reading was still done aloud, from pulpits, lecterns, and even to oneself in one's own library. Because reading was an upper class skill, for the most part, and the upper class had the libraries, and public libraries didn't exist. But with the invention of printing and then cheaper books came public libraries, and something strange happened.

Consider, for example, what it might have been like in the public library if everyone was still allowed to read aloud. Cacaphony! Chaos! Noise! No one could concentrate. So the new signs went up. SILENCE! NO TALKING!

The public library became the place where suddenly the correct way to read was without making a sound. You even had to walk on tiptoe. And soon,. the schools began teaching silent reading. After a time, even those silent readers who moved their lips began to be considered at best semi-literate. How well I remember my father who came here from Hungary at the age of 13 and went to work in a cigar factory almost immediately, he also went to night school and learned to read English, but never without moving his lips! My father who could read Hungarian, German, Hebrew and English was not considered a cultivated man because he moved his lips.

Remember the British "stiff upper lip"? That wasn'r only a reference to "true grit", it was also a cultural thing. The stiff upper lip was a sign of a gentlemanly education. You didn't move your lips when you read.

And then came, first, the deformalizing of music and the development of jazz. And that happened when jazz was still an underground music form, a mode of protest by oppressed blacks. And that slowly evolved into a whole illegitimate underground when, thanks to prohibition, the after hours night club with its primarily, at first, black musicians, played in the rash of speakeasies that broke out across almost all America's major urban centers.

Now there's a lot more to the story than this, and I'm not planning to write a book on it, just get quickly to the point where all this underground music, all the sounds of protest, of love under duress, of social angst got expressed in song. It transformed every young generation since the end of WW II when we conquered the Japanese and they conquered us with the Walkman. And now for the grim news, all you comics fans, have you ever considered that as the Walkman and its accoutrements and techno developments grew and became ubiquitous, the comic book industry started to decline? Have you ever noticed how the rise of pop record sales matches the decline in comics sales?

All right. The secret is out. Is there a solution? I happen to think there is. In fact, I had the solution thrust in my face way back in the forties when I was asked to write words (and even some music) for a couple of Superman operas which were sold on plastic 45 rpm disks in the millions. A rough indication of what the possibilities were. But nobody ever followed up. Nobody even thought of taking it one step further.

Today, if the comics publishers were to think seriously about the situation, they would find the answer starung them right in the face. Yes, the re is certainly a way to add music and song to the comic book story. There is certainly a way to reshape the comic book as we once thought of it and enrich it with the combined values of story, song and sound. And to test it out on a step-by-step basis. There is no reason why the record companies should be sopping up all the gravy of this regenerated-by-sound pop culture.

Interestingly enough, after I left comics in late 1958, I gradually found myself in the position of solving just this kind of problem for many of the Fortune 500's leading consumer corporations. I've had a strange career, commissioned to find solutions for everyone, as I used to say "from General Mills to General Motors." I became an official advisor to the American Association of Advertising Agencies. I developed various concepts of the need for the small car based on my studies of the way suburbia began expanding after WW II. I have columns of studies sitting in my closet that were written for the executives of such companies as Pillsbury, General Foods, on product development based on new cultural needs. I've written tomes on the way plastics, once regarded as cheap, could be turned into heirlooms. I covered the travel industry, the financial industry and others too numerous to mention. But that's a long story. I never did anything of the sort for the comics. The way DC was structured during my time, no one would have thought of asking. Not when the highest level of expertise was seen to be Mort Weisinger. In any case, if the above suggestions open the eyes of the comic book publishers enough, and they'd like my further advice, just contact me right here through this column.

It should be interesting to see if they're up to it, won't it?

--Alvin

<< 10/15/2001 | 10/22/2001 | 02/18/2002 >>

Discuss this column with me at my Round Table.

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