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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 12/16/2002
Volume 2, Number 58 (11/16/02)

BB & BS

Two important things are on my calendar for analysis today. One is the "Big Bang." To save typing effort, I'll refer to it from here on in as BB. As for the other matter of importance, it's Superman. Or the Big S. Better yet- for brevity's sake here, let's just refer to him as BS. Of course there's a double-meaning in that. A lot of savvy thinkers and so-called critics think Supes really is BullShit. But hear me out. There's an important connection between Supes and the Big Bang or BB.

But let's retrace our steps first. I've been away from this column for a few weeks. Even near immortals like me (I say that because I just read something in today's NY Times that reminds me somewhat staggeringly that during the midst of my Superman career---a time when I purposively and carefully introduced major changes into the character to keep him au courant during the great sociological changes many of us foresaw for the coming end of World War II- at that time, around 1946-7, 90 percent of all Americans had not yet been born. That kind of makes me a near immortal, doesn't it? And, by the way, near-immortality sits better on some than on others. There are still a surprising number of us around. Judge how well they fit for yourselves.) But-as I was saying before getting sidetracked into this long parenthesis, I haven't written my column for some weeks.. Bronchitis, coughing, lots of anti-biotics, fighting off pneumonia-and great gobs of fevered reading. Along with lots of inner communication. The time wasn't wasted. As proof of that, I'll start off with BS.

In my last column, if you'll recall, I was talking about transcendence. I cited Charley Schultz's Snoopy as a magnificent image of transcendence which Schultz dangled before us even as he presented Charlie Brown in the role of the trapped, endlessly despairing Sartrean vision of man-the primate at the top of the evolutionary tree who never, ever has any hope of kicking the football. Going further still, I also referred to transcendence when the NY Times described my early novel, The Blowtop, written in 1946 as the first American existentialist novel which differed from Sartre's vision by showing how the existential reality demanded transcendence to be fully experienced, as I underscore very graphically in a scene on pages 146 and 147 in the recently republished second edition of that work. Before that, the Sartrean vision of despair tended to be prevalent among the French during the War. However, the French version of The Blowtop became a best seller there, but they waited until after the war-long after it could have served a more transcendent purpose. But there were also counter-visions. For any people to go through the horrors and miseries and self-sacrifice of modern warfare, there has to be a compensating vision. So they pirated Superman in France. They really needed him.

That's just part of the story of how Superman seized the popular imagination everywhere and opened the door for a host of imitators, known as super-heroes. That, in fact, is how and why the comics as we came to know this unique new form of paper book, took over the newsstands and all the popular outlets for pop reading material, outpacing the movie mags, the Bernar MacFadden Confession mags and even threatened the powerful reign of the slick magazines. Interestingly too, as my friend Michael Feldman likes to point out, the funds that provided the roots for this new medium of which Superman was the flower were as dirty as roots properly should be. No fancy backing here from banks and investment brokers. But it seems as if all the spare cash lying around from bootleg activities and porn publishers were somehow channeled into comics, tied to the meteoric personality of Superman. And properly so. A savior rises up from the lowliest of places. A messianic image of power, caring, morality and infinite possibility flowers from the dung of the financial world. In a way, Superman burst on the scene in true mythic fashion to be read by half of the allied armed forces, and talked about and referred to-even by those who never or hardly ever read a single Superman story. As though by cultural osmosis. In point of fact, we were waiting for him. Because actually, we were. We always have been. It's something built in to being human. Maybe along with our ability to dream. Perhaps even as the Australian aborigines claim, that's where we really started--in our dreams. A Maori myth puts it this way:
From the conception the increase,
From the increase the thought,
From the thought the remembrance,
From the remembrance the consciousness,
From the consciousness the desire.
In wartime, it seems, the most glorious, most unbelievable and most marvelous concept of humanity can become a vision and an inspiration. In fact, as though to counter the Sartrean vision of despair, Superman was, as I said, simply pirated in France where it was read widely during the war.

But wars end. And visions, like the tattered kites of children get caught in the rising branches of newer more appropriate visions, like Charlie Brown's kite. And it was just before all that started to happen to Superman, threatening to make it at least irrelevant, that I began to introduce some important changes. I shifted as much as hidebound editorial vigilance would allow from stories of outward villainies to inner problems. I had Superman less involved in mighty tussles with monstrous and powerful bad guys as with himself, as with alienation in general--the way all of us do when suddenly the process of growing up provides us with both the biology and the brain-power to look inward, to seek--ourselves. Who am I? Where am I going? What is my real place in this family, this city, this nation--? Superman loses contact with his alter ego Clark Kent and begins, in essence, a search for himself. Like all of us, he's asking-what is the difference between myself and the image I present to the world. What's the difference between what's going on inside of me and my actual position among those I know?

One story was Superman's Search For Clark Kent. Another in that same vein was the story that dealt with the loss of his super-powers. Without those unique and overwhelming powers, how did the real inner Superman really relate to the world around him. In fact, was there actually an inner Superman? Even in my long comic sequence about the Ogies which ran in the newspaper strip, there were numerous readers who saw how an unleashed imagination can threaten the greatest of physical powers. I also did stories that looked at Superman as embodying a kind of inner vision through which people in real difficulties could find new capacities and new ways of dealing with their problems. In one of the better known and earliest of these shifts, I showed, through Superman, an important scientist struggling to keep his vision of science free of the clutter of metaphysical ideas-as represented in this case by Superman, but emerging in many other places to challenge scientists everywhere who felt that empirical studies and a narrow positivism were capable of solving the world's problems--this in the very midst of the terrible problem of World War Two whose horrors were exponentially abetted by man's scientific skills. That was in 1945, and the story involved the possibility that Superman, or rather, this writer, was about to give away the secret of the atomic bomb. Even the FBI got into the picture---but while I didn't know anymore about the bomb than I could get from an old copy of Popular Mechanix dated 1935, I did know something about the struggle within science to hide its own atomic bomb. That was the Big Bang. Well,. maybe BB is really a misnomer, maybe it was really a scientific Achilles heel. But to most scientists in those days, the solution for everything that troubled mankind would never be found anywhere but in the human mind-through science. A science that arose out of and was fimly founded on BB. In fact, as long as 25 years after the war, note these words about a major Nobel Prize winning biologist-
"Jacques Monod in his 1970 treatise Chance and Necessity, ... maintained that God had been utterly refuted by science. The divine is fiction, faith is hokum, existence is a matter of heartless probability; and this wasn't just speculation, Monod maintained, but proven. The essay, which had tremendous influence on the intellectual world, seemed to conclude a millennia-old debate. Theology was in retreat, unable to explain away Darwin's observations; intellectual approval was flowing to thinkers such as the Nobel-winning physicist Steven Weinberg, who in 1977 pronounced, "The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless."

* From a piece by Gregg Easterbrook, a contributing editor for The Atlantic Monthly and author of the book The Here and Now. Copyright (C) 1993-99 The Conde Nast Publications Inc.
That single detail--the Big Bang--was, unknown to these scientists, the completely overlooked fly in the ointment. Because it was itself pointless. Not only did BB have no point, it had no origin. Nothing caused it. It was out there without any reason at all. It wasn't even properly speaking, "a singularity." Because as the point of origin, there was nothing yet in existence against which its singularity could be expressed. It was, in short, meaningless, as its scientific espousers rather proudly (if absurdly) claimed, and in that very fact, was its own theoretical undoing.

Superman began his attack early on this vision of an over-arching and ultimate science. First there was this long tussle between the physicist, Professor Duste, and his academic friend, Dr John Lyly--a name I deliberately derived from the early author of Euphuies, who could not call anything by its right name, but rather by allusion and metaphor--as when he would refer, for example to a simple fish as a member of "the finny tribe." Lyly, in fact, carried to the absurd the very sensible idea of seeing things in their metaphoric and poetic validity. Duste called a spade a spade. Except for one spade he wasn't going for. Nothing Superman could do could persuade him that Superman actually possessed such a thing as "extra-physical" powers. If Einstein's special relativity demonstrated that nothing could exceed the speed of light, then even if Superman actually demonstrated his ability to do so by the use of a cyclotron, Duste couldn't accept this challenge to the new scientific dogma. Suddenly, it seemed that the whole scientific vision had been turned upside down. Superman provided the empirical demonstration that lightspeed could be exceeded. Duste denied the empirical evidence by affirming what had now become for him--horror of horrors--a metaphysic. When the scientific applecart was first upset like that--yes--it all started in Superman. Kind of surprising, wouldn't you say?

From that point on, all through 1958, I continued doing the Superman daily, and even as questions were beginning to be asked about BB, first whether our universe, our very lives could really be predicated on something meaningless, and how, then did our lives acquire meaning and from what was it derived over which science continued to insist the BB was primary---such questions were being asked by more and more scientists. But in the meantime, university departments were fattening on grants based on the ultimate primacy of positivism, of matter. of physical experiment. So a vested interest had developed in keeping science blind to meaning. It had embraced a metaphysic of meaninglessness in its effort to resist metaphysics. It had, enantiodromically, turned into its opposite.

But as Greg Easterbrooke goes on to mention in the article quoted above:--
"Ever so gingerly, science has been backing away from its case-closed attitude toward the transcendent unknown. Conferences that bring together theologians and physicists are hot, recently taking place at Harvard, the Smithsonian, and other big-deal institutions. The American Association for the Advancement of Science now sponsors a "Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion." Science luminaries who in the '70s shrugged at faith as gobbledygook; including E. O. Wilson and the late Stephen Jay Gould and Carl Sagan; have endorsed some form of reconciliation between science and religion. "
Why the turnaround? Because people were beginning to ask questions about BB.

People like this writer whose Superman raised questions about how the BB could occur at all out of nowhere. And if there was no causality to account for it, which would have denied its primacy, then the whole question of the eternal beginning became alive again--a basic metaphysical question. Otherwise, the BB was not merely pointless, it was absurd. So, yes, I like to think Superman contributed to that turnaround. I like to think that I was there at the right time and the right place to expose the hubris of science that has now opened itself to a serious examination of not just what's "out there" but of what's "wirthin"-making possible the examination of other dimensions, destroying tbhe validity of such simple time-based questions as: Which came first, the chicken or the egg"-by suggesting that it was neither. It's all part of one process. And time, as we understand it, is no more than a folkway, of which there are many others for us to confront in our lives with-many others that offer more meaningful, more rewarding visions. And speaking of visions, that is exactly why I consider a legend like Superman a major element of our literature and not just the BullShit that old fashioned academics, pre-modern thinkers, have tossed among the literary goats as they line up images and and arts and ideas as belonging either to the insignificant or low-brow culture, or the significant or high brow culture. Nothing in culture ever became significant without first having risen from its mucky sources-its dirt. "Our heights," as Nietzsche said, "lean upon our depths."

And that was how I approached Superman during the years I was doing it. With utter seriousness, as befits a culural basic---significant and active in ways I have only begun to describe, and very much part of the tradition of cultural iconography that form our roots and our values.

Superman, the comic strip, is now in other hands. My last contribution to its iconology was the creation of Bizarro, a reconstruction of the Superman idea that had become necessary as accretions that had become mere sentimentality and repetition of old ideas built up. Bizarro was a way of breaking all that down. But it's now, I repeat, all in other hands. I can only hope that the current inheritors of it are capable of reading these words of - well-why not say it?-from one of "the old ones" and understanding the direction to take in keeping the great myth alive and relevant. All the possibilities are still there, waiting to be used. Always changing but ever the same. You're not sure? Discuss it with me. This is one of my ongoing projects.

Alvin

<< 11/11/2002 | 12/16/2002 | 12/23/2002 >>

Discuss this column with me at my Round Table.

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