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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 09/02/2002
Volume 2, Number 131

The Theoretical Physicist Julian Barber

The theoretical physicist, Julian Barber, has an interesting discussion with Science's own special literary agent, John Brockman, on the question of time and quantum physics. Time, according to Barber, doesn't exist at all. There's no movement-just a series of nows. Everthing is happening NOW. Blocks within cascading blocks, if you like. Although Barber doesn't quite say that. I'm not even quite sure what he was saying, nor is that his purpose. You see, he deals with some very complex notions which most scientists don't really accept. But what struck me almost immediately when he talked about Nows-chains of Nows-moving into other Nows-or rather, suddenly becoming other Nows-I had a flash!

Whether Barber knew it or not, he HAD to be talking about The Comic Strip! And most especially the comic book as it developed out of the late thirties and forties and early fifties. Look at it from my point of view-as a comics writer. I had a fixed number of pages and a story often hammered out carefully with the editor-and nobody ever measured to see whether said story would fit into the allotted amount of space. That was the writers' job. And he did it-shall we say, I did it, because I understood that a comic book story really was a series of Nows, just as Julian Barber had described. But that was only part of it. What Barber missed when he eliminated time was the only way it could possibly be done. If you have Nows, then you also have to have Negative Nows! That is, when you moved from one panel to the next, you crossed through sheer emptiness to get there. The Now wasn't on the page anymore, it was in the reader's head. And not always in the same way. What I mean is, some readers, in making the visual leap from Panel A to Panel B, passed through somewhat different territory than other readers. Each had his or her own vision of what transpired in the void between panels. Nothing really strange, since we all look at each other differently, react to a room differently-but because, in a comic, everyone is presumably following the same story, that in-between space has to be supplied by the reader in such a way that the next panel makes sense.

Is this important? Well-if you look at a strip of film, you'll notice that the eye has to make small leaps here too, but no one is expected to view a film like a comic book. We have projectors to tie it all into one flowing movement so it's not the same. But in comics, the writer has to make some arbitrary decisions to best get the reader from one Positive Now to the next and that's really the trickiest part of writing comics. It's why there are some people who can't even write comics. They can't resolve the mystery of Zeno's paradox. How can you get from one point to another without first having to get through the infinity of points in between? This has been a major philosophical problem which held a lot of the attention of such seminal thinkers as Henri Bergson and Alfred North Whitehead. There was also Alexander-but since he's not as well known as the previous two, I thought I shouldn't just flash his name around. But in any case, these distinguished philosophers denied the problem completely by insisting on a Now that contained everything. One long infinite Now. Only the word they used was PROCESS.

Instead of there being a series of small steps leading to an outcome as a comics writer plans, they offered us one straight unalloyed singular process. No stopping off point, boys. Keep marching. You cannot atomize time. It's one piece.

Of course there were a lot of philosophers who got into the act-all the way from Bishop Berkeley who said it was all sense perception to Kant who insisted on two kinds of reality-the real stuff (he called it "the thing in itself" which we can never know) and the phenomenon. A shadow of reality, if you like. But it's all we've got, Kant said. So we'll just have to work with that and trick it out with a few nice frills like "the categorical imperative" and stuff like that.

I bring all this up to show you how tricky it really is to write a comic strip where the writer has to break the action up into a series of NOWS and NEGATIVE NOWS in such a way that the reader can fill in his own blanks and enjoy the story which as we must now note is best told when only half told. It's even harder in a daily newspaper strip. Deciding when to tell it and when not to-that's the hard part. And it isn't as if other artists didn't have their own special part to play in turning still pictures into a vision of a continuous reality. One cute stunt by a master surrealist always impressed me. There was the Surrealist, DeChirico. What did he do? His pictures always had what I call an "empty center". Everything in a DeChirico painting, each line, each focus of the composition was to direct the eye straight to the center-and it was always empty! What a sensation, a negative broodily confronting one out of the heart of the positive. What utter loneliness. What quiet terror. I know of no comics artist who ever tried the technique.

And others had their own tricks, but I'm mostly concerned here with the writer's role, the development of that knack for leaving out just enough not only to fit the story into the allotted and arbitrary 10 or 12 page space, but to find that precise slot where the reader can provide his own connection.

In fact, I would even go so far as to say that comics happen to be the most frequently read and reread medium in the whole literary arcanum. Because in between each now, the reader, enjoying such infinite freedom, is tempted to come back and see what else he can discover - just time after time. And then some.

--Alvin

(DeChirico-the empty center-the Not-Now, the About-to-be-but-not yet!)

<< 08/26/2002 | 09/02/2002 | 09/09/2002 >>

Discuss this column with me at my Round Table.

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