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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 10/28/2002
Volume 2, Number 55

Back in 1948, when Spencer Klaw of The New Yorker approached me to ask how I could write philosophical novels like The Blowtop and write Superman at the same time, I couldn't resist turning the whole thing into a joke. You might say, I was "too beat" to understand the publicity value Klaw offered. So when he asked me how I managed to keep the two things apart, I told him that I had these two differently colored rooms separated by a phone booth, writing my novels in one and doing the low brow stuff in the other.

In actual fact, I was already behaving like a "beat." I was incapable of valuing the established goodies of my society. So it wasn't at all remarkable that The Blowtop expressed a kind of "weariness" through its sensitivity to what I have elsewhere called "the things that are left over"-the detritus of meaning and sensibility that had afflicted the old Bohemia after the horrors of the Holocaust and the Second World War.

It was precisely such a "weariness" which the beat movement that emerged from Columbia University in the early fifties expressed, where it seems The Blowtop had become a cult book for reasons I offer in detail in my introduction to the second edition of that work now published by Moyer Bell.

Today, I am more interested in dispelling the notion proposed by Spencer Klaw that the supposedly "low-brow" Superman strip was, in fact, something separate from my having initiated the Beat movement through The Blowtop.

"Beat" at that time intimated the casting aside of the goodies and values of our society. Now consider the developing super-hero world of comics, especially as it evolved out of the war. It was not only taken up by the young and frowned upon by respectable society (represented by the psychologist, Dr Wertham, for example), but it had its own origins in a miscast, misfit and chaotic world-its publishers originally funded by bootlegging, pornographic publishing, and mob-driven newsstand circulation wars. By some remarkable alchemy of events, all these elements conspired to create Superman (and the rest of the superhero crowd)-which enantiodromically (please look up column # 54 on that remarkable word) produced the virtuous, all-powerful pseudo-messianic image that was Superman, as well as a whole variety of colorfully accoutred imitators, where all misdeeds were writ clearly in black and white-and life among the comic book publishers, editors and writers was as free-styled and uninhibited, especially among the creators who frequently depended on booze, amphetamines, pot and sex to grind out their stories. Exactly like the lives of the best and greatest of the abstract expressionist artists of the day. I've mentioned many of them in this column before and was, indeed, married to one of them.

So what I'm trying to say here is that I really didn't have to keep apart my literary life and my comics life. That was a mere folkway of the times when distinctions between high-brow and low-brow were circulated by those who regarded themselves as high-brows, while the low-brows never even gave it a thought. As the fifties got under way and the GI bill created a new and larger middle class and used the automobile to spread into the suburbs, a new kind of weariness set in. And the beats, like Ginsberg and Kerouac, who had at first professed a kind of campus-affectation of "weariness" especially since the old models and mores had fallen apart, began to move toward a more positive mode, an internalized one that took on a new metaphysics, a value that expressed itself in the term "beatitude."

In the practice of any art, there seems to come a time when mere rebellion or negativity such as "weariness" fades into a more stimulating kind of pattern. The emptiness of the growing suburban sprawl, with its new conformities and organization men lured the avant garde into a subtle shift of perspective. "Beat" became "beatitude" and a new bohemianism arose in which, for the second time since the war, all the old values really came into question, including the superheroes themselves. The rebellious sixties were upon us, abetted by the presence of such a large new generation that sheer youthful ebullience and change became irresistible. But this is a story that's been told many times. My purpose, for the moment, is somewhat different.

Comics has faded considerably in the new century for many of the reasons adduced above. But, looking back, I can point to a movement that I made, a movement emerging both from Schwartz the Superman writer and Schwartz, the author of that initial Beat novel, The Blowtop.

It was really the big step in what today we like to call post-modernism. It abolishes the distinction between high-brow and low-brow. It puts all literary work, whether mass market or high sensibility, as being determined only by its circumstances, its unique historicity. This notion now has a solid foothold in the academies. And I'm strongly opposed to it, even though I also participated very directly and consciously in the deconstruction of Superman. That is, in 1958, feeling that the one-dimensional aspect of the superhero had reached its end when Superman himself began to fragment into Superboy, Supergirl, Superdog and Superwhatever-I created Bizarro. I created what I felt (to use the Jungian term) was the Shadow side of Superman. It was an effort to provide some subtance to a new paradigm ushered in by science and particularly some aspects of quantum theory. I say "some aspects" because I mean precisely that. I mean that's what's known as "the quantum potential" introduces something called "non-locality" in which a kind of universal instantaneous connection is posited. Suddenly, there are no "causes" as we understand them. Rather, everything is enfolded with everything else. But, brushing aside technicalities for the moment, this new scientific paradigm revives a kind of universal knowledge, something known as "the doctrine of emanation". This is hardly the place to explain neo-Platonism (one form of that doctrine) and levels of value. We're only talking comic strips here, right? But what I'm really trying to say is we need to forget about historicity and circumstances and periods of time and get back to pure value.

I invite all of you to get your hands on a new work by the literary critic Harold Bloom, simply titled "Genius."

Efforts to explain literature as a function of the author's social milieu or historical context, Bloom shows, are really pathetic attempts to ward off the terrifying force of genius, to reduce it to something harmless.

Literature often produces, quite on its own, in undetermined and surprising form, works of sheer revelation or even wonder. As I stated in last week's column, Superman is just such a character. But we need now to de-historicize him. Clear away the clutter that is dimming his magic. Restore him to his original form. Let's at least get back to the Superman and the Metropolis of the early forties where the character was in full bloom. I say this out of the knowledge, as I started out by saying, that I do not believe there was ever any real need to separate my literary work, The Blowtop, from my work as a Superman writer. It's interesting that The Blowtop is, in fact, having a remarkable revival. It's available almost everywhere in a new edition. And I've also just made it available on a site that should be of interest to readers of this column. This is a site where thousands of great books can be downloaded without cost. And a few, presumably, foundational works, like Blowtop-well, how about a mere $4.98, or less, in any format you're comfortable with. Go to www.blackmask.com and explore this lively site. Then, in the left column, scroll down to Alvin Schwartz which is underlined. Follow the underlines with your clicks. And that's it.

I know that the readers of this column will find the entire site fascinating. But again, there's Superman. Let DC know that you want him back too. Just the way he was. His time too is here again.

--Alvin

<< 10/21/2002 | 10/28/2002 | 11/04/2002 >>

Discuss this column with me at my Round Table.

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