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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 09/30/2002
Volume 2, Number 51

Qu'ils mangent des brioches! "Let them eat cake" Marie Antoinette said when told that the people had no food. The remark supposedly precipitated the French Revolution. But what really takes the cake, as many of you will be astonished to discover, is the way comics not only changed the way cake was eaten, but precipitated a revolution of its own so that cake became the symbolic expression of class. Education and neighborhood mores. That's right. This is all about cake. Cake? Really? Yes, really. Cake and comics. Just be patient. And even sex. It all took place somewhere around 1960-precisely at the beginning of that fateful decade when the baby boomers turned the world on its head.

The boomers did that in many ways, but the one nobody knows about has to do with cake. In fact, I'm really the only one that knows about it in detail, because I was the initiating cause. And it all happened because in 1958, right after completing my last Superman Daily strip-the one in which I created Bizarro, I left comics for good.

This is a strange and complicated story because of the unique elements that contributed to it. I've often explained that I left because I found that working with editor Mort Weisinger had become impossible. Other writers who had problems with Weisinger had developed their own unique ways of handling this confused, angry and unhappy pachyderm of a human being. (A bit politically incorrect, but what the hell-this is how it was) For example, Bill Woolfolk tells in an interview sometime back with Wizard Magazine how he used his wife, Dorothy Roubicek, to act as his surrogate in dealing with Mort because he knew that Mort was easily manipulated by a woman. Later, he applied his own well thought out techniques of manipulation and managed to handle Mort himself. Then, there was the unique and ultimate attempt on the part of that superb writer, Don Cameron, to resolve the Weisinger problem by trying to push Mort out the window. That didn't work either. In the first place, Don was a small man and in no condition to steer Weisinger's great bulk toward any target, let alone a window. And while it was not a small window, chances are that it would have taken some real engineering to get Weisinger through it.

Now this was the time when comics were starting to lose circulation heavily. Editors were all nervous and forcing writers to do rewrite after rewrite in hopes of finding the magic formula that would rekindle the public's interest. As for myself, with a wife and five kids, and no background to go anywhere else after having spent eighteen years doing nothing but comics and writing literary novels that paid even less, and a few potboilers that looked as if they might do well because, for those times, their salacious contents augured big sales-except that a congressional investigating committee so frightened the publishers that they gave up novels and went into medical books instead. So I was really, as they say, boxed in. What to do?

Those of you who have read AN UNLIKELY PROPHET will remember my strange account of the tulpa, Mr Thongden, who appeared to me many years later and managed to show me a great deal about myself and my unique involvement with Superman. But what I didn't feel it necessary to mention in that memoir was the fact that intimations of that overpowering experience presented themselves to me much earlier. Not in the form of Thongden, but in various and less spectacular ways, such as an early experiment in automatic writing at a time when I also met the great anthropologist Herbert J. Spinden whose own vast experience in hidden corners of the world opened my mind to possibilities beyond my small shared everyday world. So I became a little more open to suggestions and unlikely possibilities. I'm not sure I can explain it in any other way. But in one of those automatic writing sessions, the personality moving the pencil made the following statement in response to my query about the problems of making a living by writing comics:

"If a man is pursued by insoluble agonies, and there is nothing in front of him but a cliff-he can leap and land safely-if his necessity be great."

I puzzled over that one for many days and nights. In a sense, I realized I was probably telling myself to quit. Leap off. Trust life. Something will resolve matters. In fact, I told myself, I was in much the situation of the frog sitting in the pan of water where the heat was turned up so gradually, the frog, not realizing what was going on, failed to leap out and was boiled to death. It was like that writing comics in 1958.

In the end, I leaped. I quit. And I landed on real hard ground. The family and I went through three months of the most grinding poverty I can recall since the Great Depression. For one thing, our situation left us unqualified even for welfare. We wound up in a slum near our recent home that I could never have imagined even existed-especially so close to where we'd been living in easy suburban comfort. As I said, it went on for three months. Then one day, we had a visitor. He was one of those upper middle-class suburbanites whom I had met a couple of years earlier as we both participated with numerous other Yorktowners in the volunteer project of building a cooperative nursery school for our youngest ones.

In a very strange way, Henry had heard about where I was living, couldn't believe it and came over to see for himself. As head of a small ad agency in New York, he was in the process at the time, of actively promoting the books of the famous Hindu sage, Sri Aurobindo. Henry also happened to have as his houseguest at that moment one of Aurobindo's more advanced disciples, a man he chose to call Ta-ta. Extraordinary in his own way, Ta-ta, otherwise known around town as Mr. Satvapalli, was getting a good dose of the local economy of abundance, as he called it, because he was constantly measuring it against his own east Indian economy of scarcity. He had become, he claimed, peculiarly sensitized to this strange American suburb, so much so that one morning he had approached Henry and simply told him that one of his friends was in trouble. I won't explain any more about it here because, some years later, in fact, some decades later, or more precisely, recently, I put it all in a novel called The Consuming Impulse. I anticipate print publication of the work reasonably soon. My agent is working hard on it. In the meantime, if you're curious you can download a $5 e-version by going to http://go.to/e-pub2000 and visiting the Alvin Schwartz Literary Annex. After you click on Annex, you'll find it along with some other nice surprises.

But to get back to Henry who unexpectedly came to pay me a visit at my slum, his reaction to my situation was one of horror. "Look," he told me quite spontaneously. "This won't do. I happen to know of a local think tank just outside Peekskill (about five miles away) "where they've got some big degree people doing a lot of big commercial studies and they need some interviewers. Call them up, use my name, and tell them I sent you. You've got to get some money in your pocket right away. Even a small amount. I'm sure you can do interviews, can't you?"

Henry didn't realize what he was getting me into. That business about "cake"-- the real subject of this column, was about to put in its magical and unexpected appearance. All because of the many years I spent plotting comics. I still had to borrow some change from him to make the call, and the interview materialized for the next day. But Henry, looking me over, refused to let me go just like that. I needed, he said, a proper suit.

It turned out that Henry had an extra suit-a real Madison Avenue pinstripe of a kind I'd never worn in my life. But it nearly fitted me. Henry couldn't wear it himself any more because his dog had one day mistakenly confused him with a burglar (because of the perfume he'd absorbed from a woman client earlier in the day, presumably) and put a couple of holes down low in the trousers.

My wife, Kay, did a little fixing up with a needle and thread, and I was finally reasonably presentable. I won't say I was comfortable. In all the years of writing comics, I'd never come even close to wearing a pin-striped suit. Especially one a couple of sizes too large.

I arrived at the stone mini-mansion that had become the headquarters of a company called THE CENTER FOR RESEARCH IN MARKETING. An older man wearing jeans splattered with paint-I had apparently turned the old ringer at the iron front door just as he was in the middle of some maintenance task that involved a paint brush he still held in his hand as he pointed toward a large double-door at the far end of the wide lobby. "Just go in," he said. "They're waiting for you."

"They?" I wondered. How many people did it take to hire an interviewer? But I proceeded as directed, pushed open one of the swinging doors and found myself in a large sun-lit room. Four men and a woman sat around a long conference table on which stood a disordered jumble of packaged groceries. I had seen all those items before in the supermarket.

A dark haired burly man who I later learned was company president introduced himself using only his first name. Then, in quick succession he named the others. Next, I was invited to sit down on the other side of the table facing all of them. I knew from experience that they were all academic types. As I mentioned earlier in these memoirs, I had, during my long tenure with DC Comics, taken a couple of years off to spend at the University of Chicago, all without interrupting my comics career because my editor at the time, Jack Schiff, insisted I continue doing the Superman daily while I was away. I might mention parenthetically that the post-graduate degree in sociology never actually materialized because, in the end, I didn't attend any classes. In fact, with my first novel (The Blowtop, the one that laid the groundwork for the still to come Beat movement) providing me with a certain initial status on campus, my home soon became a discussion center, a kind of permanent symposium, which just happened to be attended in various rotating orders by almost all the great sociologists for which the U of Chicago was known at that time, Daniel Bell, Morris Janowitz, Benjamin N. Nelson.... it's a longish list. So with the frequent presence of these distinguished academics at my home, I found it more interesting to avoid classes, write my Superman dailies (even putting some of my academic visitors as secondary characters into the strip. But I got to know academics. I knew how they sat, how they talked, what they wore and how they carried themselves. So I knew that my interlocutors in that conference room at The Center for Research in Marketing were academics too.

Introductions over, Bill, the president of the company, pointed to a package of toilet paper among the items on the counter. "What do you think of that?" he asked tersely.

I knew something was up. I certainly wasn't being interrogated for an interviewing job. I found out later that that had been the intention, but Paul Fine, the executive vp had come up with an idea to get some additional mileage out of me-by using me as a respondent to get some early ideas on a study they were doing. But I didn't know that then. I just looked at the package which was designed to hold two rolls of paper in such a way that to my mind they really looked like the rear end of a naked squatting humanoid. I said so. But not in the way they expected.

In fact, all those packages had suddenly taken on in my mind the status of what in comics plotting we called springboards. That is, at DC, I'd come into the office with some ideas for stories on any of a number of characters I might be working on-Batman, Superman, Buzzy, Vigilante. House of Mystery.... and offer a one-line suggestion, a springboard for a story plot. Sometimes a springboard would come from Jack Schiff. And one usually got a few springboards from Weisinger, except that with him, you never knew whether he wasn't just passing on some other writer's idea. He rarely had ideas of his own until someone else had produced them.

In any case, I started to free associate on the toilet paper package.

I offered some ideas about how such a strange package might look on a supermarket shelf, and suddenly I was telling a story about how the package affected various consumers as they examined it. I suggested, for one thing, that the package might look naked to some people. Even obscene to others. I began to ratiocinate further on these notions. My interviewers started to look up. Two of them proceeded to take notes. They began offering me a few other packages to comment on. I remember that it seemed fairly easy after all the years of plotting sessions, to interpolate reactions of consumers to the sight of each of those packages on a store shelf. My listeners were getting more and more intrigued by my packaging stories.

They held a hurried conclave, whispering among themselves. Then, they reached into the jumble of packages on the table and carefully selected three. They were all boxes of cake mix. I remember each of them clearly even today, some forty-four years later. One was a Duncan Hines cake mix. The other two were Pillsbury and Betty Crocker. The designs were all very different and each one in its own way told its own story, as I'll explain in a moment. But first, a word about cake and cake-mixes and what they meant by the time we got to the sixties.

The sixties, may I remind you, was one of the high points in the process of the emancipation of women. There were now more two earner families required to maintain the suburban Levittown cottages and cars that the fifties had created. Most women didn't have time to mess around in the kitchen anymore. So instead, the major food companies provided them with quick fixes, fast foods-- especially in the baking area. At that particular time, the cake mix was really big stuff, and the competition for the suburban market among the major food companies was intense.

So there I was, looking at these three packages and sounding forth-telling the stories of each. "Ahh, yes," I said pointing to the Duncan Hines package. "The lady who'd buy this-well-she'd probably be the wife of, say, a banker. She'd have one child who goes to a private school. She doesn't let him play with just anyone. A hostess who entertains a lot, she'd probably have a day maid...." It was along those lines, I described what I saw as the story of the Duncan Hines package. Then I went to Betty Crocker. "Big appeal to an older lady, maybe in her fifties. Old fashioned. Possibly a spinster... who likes to bake cookies for her sister's children when she'd go to visit..." And finally, looking at the Pillbury package which showed crumbs from a chocolate cake spilling all over the table, and a dark haired youngish woman in a low cut frock, cutting a slab of cake. "This one-well-the lady is kind of sloppy. Also kind of sexy. Warm. Not a great housekeeper, but..." And on I went.

Somehow my listeners had gotten very excited. I went on to suggest, suddenly discovering I had a great talent for market research, that we write up the story I had given that described each package, but we not tell anybody which package each story referred to. Instead, we'd ask respondents to tell us which of the three imaginary ladies I had described went with each package. In a couple of days, my suggestion was tried on a small group of women. There was a staggering 100% correlation with my original typology for each package.

I didn't get that interviewing job. I got a job as Senior Study Director at a salary much greater than I had ever made in comics. I still had a long way to go from there. But to those comics writers who find that writing comics isn't such a great way to make a buck, I can pretty much assure them that there's a very lucrative market for their talents in advertising research and copywriting.

And that's how I got out of comics after that blind leap to nowhere just three months earlier. As I say, I carved out quite a career thanks to my comics-generated skills. But it wasn't until many years later, around 1991 when I was first contacted by the late Rich Morrissey, who not only made me aware of what had happened in the world of comics but secured the credits for my work in that field, where until Rich came along, I was so unknown that some historians of comics doubted that I'd ever existed. It helped when my old friend and fellow writer, Arnold Drake stepped forward and confirmed what Rich had been saying. So if any of you reading this have had your fill of super-heroes, have a stab at cake-mixes. Or some other kind of quick fix that today's consumers think they need. You'll be amazed at how far your comics-generated skills will carry you.

--Alvin

<< 09/23/2002 | 09/30/2002 | 10/07/2002 >>

Discuss this column with me at my Round Table.

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