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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 11/11/2002
Volume 2, Number 57

Essentially, I'm trying to open up a new path in criticism. An usable criticism. Something that doesn't simply judge what you read, which is essentially gamesmanship, but suggests ways to use what you read. It embraces so-called high brow literature and it also includes comics. It does not include film even though I was once a fairly prolific film writer, because I've not actually seen a film for about ten years except for bits of ancient reruns that have passed through our home television.

By the way, I think film is a wonderful medium. With me, it's mostly been a question of time and too many other things to do, to learn, to discover and to create. Hell, I haven't had time to read even a good novel for over a year. Comics-well, I've looked at some for research purposes and spent some time on Bizarro just in order to note the changes that occurred since I first created the character. But that was for practical reasons. DC asked me to write one.

I said here last week that I'd let you know how the Moynihan site (www.blackmask.com) would respond to the idea of e-publishing my now completed memoir, THE PATH WITHOUT FORM. The first part of that work was An Unlikely Prophet. Finishing that work meant stepping up onto a larger stage and adding a second half-A GATHERING OF SELVES. Well, Blackmask has asked to see the whole work, so I suspect we're well on the way to getting some real circulation. Please note, everyone, that's because Blackmask.com is on the way to becoming the major e-book publisher on the web. It could well be where e-books finally initiate the reversal that will mark, after many fruitless attempts, the ultimate demise of the paper book. Not only is paper too environmentally wasteful, but it's unnecessary. Trees, on the other hand, are necessary.

Books need to be portable and, as things are turning out, the new readers and PCs are rapidly becoming smaller, more portable and better suited to transmitting the printed word. But it's taking among other things, a generational change to form the electronic reading habits that will soon become universal. Over my 86 years, I've watched many things come and go. I was recommending wireless as far back as 1957 to big manufacturers like Reliance Electric. I was so fixed on its inevitability that I completely missed the cultural lag that would hold wireless back until well into this century. And now it's coming to books.

But all this is an aside. Today, I'm announcing and celebrating a gradual shift in our vision, in the very way we view the world. I'm talking of the major new human paradigm, which is gradually reshaping such fields as psychology, medicine, and the arts. It goes further than that. But for starters, I want to speak here, in this place, in this unlikely comics site-of transcendence. Transcendence always emerges from the unlikely and the limiting. In fact, that's what transcendence is about.

Last week, I presented a metaphor of what's to come when I mentioned Peanuts. In that remarkable strip, I've never seen a clearer or simpler example of how we spend our lives in a box that despite our most Herculean efforts, we cannot break out of. It was Charles Schultz's genius to show that through Charlie Brown. At the same time, Schultz kept transcendence dangling constantly before us in the character of Snoopy. No need to name or describe or give academic taglines to it---Snoopy stood for transcendence without qualification even as Charley Browne failed like Sisyphus to kick that football.

In the literary world of the forties, especially in France, existentialism had gripped the imagination of all thoughtful people. Another word for existentialism was perhaps "blocked" transcendence. As Sartre and his school showed all too often, because we could never catch up with existence, because time continued to pass even as we sought answers, we were really looking for answers in conditions already obsolete. You could never catch up with time. You could never leap ahead of yourself. It was all, as in the title of Sartre's book, "huis clos" No Exit. And with that came despair. La Nausée. The world was closed. Man was trapped in his condition. In France, with the Nazis in control, it seemed that despair was indeed the only possible solution. Despair by definition is not transcendable. Not even in Kierkegaard's vaster existentialism. In fact, Kierkegaard with his remarkable insight, his astonishing psychological perception was, it gradually became clear to me as my admiration took in a larger aspect of this great Danish thinker, eternally bound like Prometheus to his rock of Sin. He stood before his God and the Fear and Trembling always remained with him. And he never transcended Hegel, his real daimon, as he had hoped.

In 1948, while writing Superman, quietly and stealthily changing him from a superpowerful meathead to something in whose basics I detected a capacity not just for supra-physical deeds, but, the expression of a suprahuman potential. In my own sneaky way I was also trying to express transcendence, a going beyond even the naively imagined great powers of Superman which, left untouched, required little more than gimmicks to write. So I tried to wring other meanings out of the strip, converting what was there into something more significant-something the times really demanded. . So I wrote stories like "Superman's search for Clark Kent" and another where Supes completely lost control of his powers. (Can't recall the title) but he really smashed things around for a while like the sorcerer's apprentice.

Which made him a vehicle for more important human dilemmas than catching bad guys. I really wanted him to transcend the power of those special gifts of his that never really lifted him. Even though he could fly. So I sometimes treated his powers as dilemmas, or used him to highlight other human dilemmas-when I was able to bypass naive editorial direction.

Also, while I struggled with Superman, I wrote my first novel, The Blowtop which is essentially about using the power of choice to deny the tramelling conditions of unusual gifts. As gifts alone, like the curse of genius, they were as much challenges as advantages, as much limiting as liberating. On Page 146-147 of the current issue of The Blowtop, I unfold the actual anguished process of self transcendence. Go to the Blackmask site, click on the search box for Blowtop, then when it opens, scroll down to those significant pages. You will there see the leap beyond despair. How so?

Sartre and the French school tended to see man in simple Cartesian terms. They saw material man, the product of a very complex mechanism that had no power of going beyond itself. Mechanisms have to follow mechanical laws. The fact that the mere awareness of those laws added something beyond them never occurred to the Marxist oriented Sartre and his followers. The fact that they could decide to look at the mechanical factors and accept their inexorability already presaged something beyond the world they were seeing. In Gödel's theorem we discover that you cannot judge the correctness of an idea based on the principles of that idea. That is, you have to step outside a mode of belief to characterize it. Otherwise, you're caught in an infinite regress. No Exit-right? There really is no such limiting factor then, only the box which I discussed last week. Essentially, this is the foundational assumption of the new psychology of transcendence-and it's gaining a deservedly powerful foothold in that sometimes black art which likes to mask itself as a science.

I'll take this a step further. All art is about transcendence, about breaking out of the box. The box is there, but it's only a shadow. It has no power over you. You give it its power. When that greatest of all art critics, the former curator of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, said all art is about God---he was talking about an experience that can only occur outside the box.

"There is no need for new Superman stories ever, because the great ones have already been written," Rick Chandler says in his column, WHEN WORLD'S COLLIDE at Perpetual Comics (www.perpetualcomics.com), "and ironically, none of these is from the pages of DC Comics.... They show what would happen if great writers were let loose with this character, allowed to flesh him out into something more than a cardboard cutout." And then Rick proceeds to mention An Unlikely Prophet as among the three. He also names Kurt Busiek, and I regret not having the third name he mentioned. But you can find it by looking through the back issues of his columns to Tues. August 6th on the Perpetual Comics site. Anyway, no one is going to be let loose on this character by its corporate owners. Not even an editor. These days, editors are looking for what they think will increase sales. Their jobs depend on it. Flesh out Superman? Where's the market?

In fact, DC had a few good editors. They never had any great editors because no one could ever see the characters as paths to greater possibilities, as transcendent ideas. Not that the editors weren't inventive. If they weren't, the major strips wouldn't be so cluttered with dead-end characters. But these guys worked for a paycheck. They weren't artists.

Anyway Rick has some good dreams. Maybe one of these days, there'll be a sort of transcendent editor. In the meantime, we remain the mirrors and creators of our own transcendent powers. For us all, that's a unique and private gift, The more you understand that, the more you'll learn the truth about the box. And then you'll will find ways to transcend it. Even if you're an editor. Take my word for it.

--Alvin

<< 11/04/2002 | 11/11/2002 | 12/16/2002 >>

Discuss this column with me at my Round Table.

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