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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 11/04/2002
Volume 2, Number 56

THE BOX (v2 of Col. How We Live)

We live, we plan, we shape our days by our expectations. The best and the worst we anticipate during our waking hours are not necessarily what happens but what we expect is likely to happen. It's generally thought all this is based on past experience. It certainly looks that way. But in fact, it's not past experience at all that sets us up to live our lives within a narrow statistical box.

Past experience tells us nothing, because we preselect it. Past experience is a way of looking at what happened to us in the past based on what our group, our social milieu and the biases of our education tell us is possible.

But there are in fact a thousand things always going on that we do not see or notice. How can that be?

It's really so simple. Right from the start, we're handed a box. In that box is the whole list of things that are cited as possible or not possible. So from then on, we look for and characterize events in terms of their likelihood or possibility. And we miss all the other stuff that's going on that isn't even collected in the box. Again--how can that be?

Well, we all know (you'll even find this in the box) that occasionally, some people have experiences that are unique-that never happen to us. Things like out-of-body events, or poltergeists, or extra-normal phenomena of one kind or another. We know because these unusual or lucky or freakish experiencers come back and tell us about it. But, the influence of the box is so powerful, the experiencers tend to tell us about their strange encounters in terms we already know about. In actual fact, what these experiencers often go through is so unfamiliar, it doesn't fit any categories. Someone will tell you about what he calls an out-of-body event, for example. He calls it that. But what actually happened is so different, that by the time he talks to you about it, it's kind of shaped and patterned by what others have already said about out-of-body experiences. In other words, to make it communicable, the experiencer fits it into a familiar pattern-right out of the box!

A couple of years ago, in this column, I described meeting a lady at a shopping mall who just happened to be glowing! Remember that one? It's in Col #36, Jan 17, 2000. After a time, she had me watching the various passersby and noticing that they too were glowing. She taught me how to see in a certain new way that I've never really been able to pass on to anyone else. Because when I describe glowing, people look precisely for what that word implies-a kind of shining forth. But it's really not exactly like that. It's close-but I haven't yet been able to describe the experience well enough to pass it on.

But hold on. I'm getting at something much more important. Last week I did a whole column on the fact that I never really found any disconnect between writing Superman and writing "literary" novels, particularly something like "The Blowtop" which has been classified as the original beat novel because it had become a cult book at Columbia when Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg were making their first moves as "beats" through a combined interest in the already fading Bohemia of Greenwich Village, abstract expressionist art and French existentialism. The Blowtop dealt with all three of those. But the heart of that work, as opposed to Sartre's vision of despair, was its tilt toward what I called "transcendence."

Let me establish here that the human need for transcendence is, in fact, so powerful that it was hardly strange that in a time of war and depression, a transcendent impossible character like Superman should become the biggest kid on the block. And became, for just such a reason, particularly interesting to write for the guy who had written The Blowtop. There was a very definite connection.

But now, let's take a giant leap forward. Let's meet a new comic strip-that in a different time for a different world-also provided its own vision of transcendence. That strip was-Peanuts. It was mostly dedicated to showing how marvelously Charley Brown, the protagonist, expended heroic efforts to break out of the box that was himself. He never did. Schultz, his creator, never quite allowed that to happen. Endlessly, he dangled the possibility before us. Some day, Charley would kick that football. Someday things would go precisely as he planned. Someday, he would transcend himself. Schultz, in his precise and incisive way, showed us the agony of non-transcendence. And left the rest of it to us to figure out, although he planted a clue right out in the open. That was Snoopy. Snoopy, just a dog, was nevertheless, all transcendence.

Now-this word I'm playing around with---this transcendence. Let's see if I can break out of the box just a bit and make it a little clearer. In a certain sense, it involves a shift in the common view of what's possible. It involves opening the door much wider than we customarily do. It allows for a bigger gob of reality to introduce itself to you than you ever previously thought was around. But reality is far more flexible than the box would ever allow you to imagine. Hence that familiar exhortation, "Think outside the box" turns out to be precisely what you have to learn to do. And it doesn't come easily. In fact, first efforts are often frightening. You begin to encounter stuff that seems to threaten your world. Ever notice when you try to walk around a familiar room in darkness how it seems to expand before your touch? That's what stepping out of the box is like when you first try it. But after a while, something happens. Things like new discoveries, surprises, even what seem to be new powers emerge although, as you'll soon learn, they're only your real capacities starting to stretch themselves.

All right-you get the idea, I'm sure. But what really happens? What's it like? I think I can answer that too. When I wrote The Blowtop, I was discovering the real need for transcendence. It's described in some detail in the segments quoted on the Blackmask.com site. But many years had to pass, and certain experiences that didn't fit into the box needed to be given a second look. It took a lot of experience and a lot of tight and desperate situations, but I finally reached a condition where the walls around me simply expanded. It had all been building up slowly, of course, because writing a book is in itself an experience of growth and when The Blowtop set me on a path toward transcendence, that path continued for decades afterwards. And finally, I couldn't hold back anymore. I wrote my memoir, An Unlikely Prophet. (There were some significant books in-between, such as a sequel to The Blowtop called No Such Mirrors, but we can discuss those at another time) I wrote Prophet out of an awareness of a world so much larger than I had ever imagined, that I could hold back no longer. But that's not all.

An Unlikely Prophet was itself only the opening half of a much larger story. Remember, I'd spent 18 of my earlier years doing Superman. And Unlikely Prophet emerged from the Superman part of it. I still hadn't finished my memoir, only the first half of it. The other half, which had to do with Batman, took an additional year to complete. And in the meantime, Prophet began to get noticed. Reviews came from everywhere. I found myself talking about it on radio. On the Laura Lee Show, I spent seven hours talking about it and answering questions. I began to receive mail from people telling me that Prophet had somehow expanded and enriched their lives and they wanted me to know about it. I never expected such striking, almost confessional feedback. But obviously, my correspondents had experienced a real transcendence of their own.

And then came a sudden interruption. At the height of the build-up for Prophet, my small press publisher, as so many of them do, went out of business. For one thing, I really hadn't finished the second part of the work. There was the part about Batman which balanced things out by revealing an even broader aspect of transcendence. How do I mean that?

Remember all those years I spent writing such a major portion of the world's two most popular literary figures? Each in its own way was a unique approach to the experience of transcendence. Each had different aspects to reveal. Superman was magical and powerful and poetic, with a kind of special elegance. Batman was more earthbound, more enmeshed psychologically and physically in the reality he was trying to transcend.

Did any such thoughts ever stir the original creators? In a certain way, I believe they did. But they hadn't gone through the experience of writing The Blowtop and confronting the need for transcendence so directly. In any case, for me, the story was not complete and the vision of transcendence not fully expressed until I had completed the entire work with both its Superman and Batman aspects. Then I had the problem of overcoming the prejudices of editors and publishing houses. When a copy of An Unlikely Prophet fell into the hands of Pam Dorman, senior editor at Viking, she told my then agent, Bob Diforio, "I wish WE had published this book." But later, when I had the rights of Prophet restored to me and finished its second part about Batman which I titled A Gathering of Selves-Ms Dorman backed off. It no longer seemed to her, as she put it, like a Viking book.

It was, indeed, very far out of the box. Viking's or anybody else's. So I published it here, chapter by chapter, week after week-in these columns. I got some interesting responses, but a site devoted essentially to traditional comics doesn't really offer the audience for a work that demands to be read at nearly one straight sitting. I've learned by now that I write this column for a fairly small and rarified bunch, although here too, I've gotten reports of changes in life and vision through reading Prophet. But there's a new kid on the block, as I mentioned last week. With a site that's beginning to stir the e-book world with its unique approach. Blowtop is now also available as an e-book and, wonder of wonders, is doing remarkably well.

The site, run by the writer, David Moynihan, has been doing a few things that seem to be right for getting the new e-book publishing world off the ground. I've discussed these before.

There are thousands of free literary works offered. All you have to do is unload them. There are also a very few special works available at prices as low as $1.65 (if you buy three) or $3.98 for one. But these are only for books that Moynihan sees as "foundational"-works on which something of literary significance is occurring for perhaps the first time.

I'm going to try to get him to do Prophet in the new combined edition under the overall title of THE PATH WITHOUT FORM. Book 1 of that new edition will be a somewhat revised Unlikely Prophet, but will be titled The Coming of Mr Thongden; and Book 2 will be called: A Gathering of Selves.

I should mention here that The Blowtop's second edition print publisher, Olmstead Press, recently declared bankruptcy. So, following the bankruptcy, The Blowtop now has a new print publisher-Moyer Bell. Look for it at most major book outlets, including Barnes & Noble and Amazon. My feeling is that the success of the e-book version will stimulate interest among those who still need to have print.

Next week, I'll let you know how Moynihan responded to my proposal that he do The Path Without Form. Visit his site anyway, It's at www.blackmask.com. Scroll down the left side of the site to find Blowtop. Scroll down further and read those lines about transcendence.

I spoke above of expanding the walls. Actually, you can get rid of walls altogether. It's explained in detail in Book 2 of The Path Without Form. That's the Batman segment of the work. And remember, this is a memoir. You'll get the most out of it by how far you've been able to expand the walls to begin with. But don't give up the chance to try if the Blackmask.com site makes it available to you.

If it doesn't, then pick out A Gathering of Selves right here on After the Golden Age.

--Alvin

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

Discuss this column with me at my Round Table.

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