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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 01/05/2004
Volume 2, #107

As the years creep up on me and memory provides such a rich tapestry of the activities of one Alvin Schwartz, I cannot help but think that it's not really the same person who's the protagonist in all my scenarios.

I'm not saying I've changed over time, but from decade to decade, there's really a different consciousness that calls itself Alvin Schwartz. My beliefs are different, my behavior is different, my preferences are different, not in the sense that they've changed with time and maturity, but more as if there are about five different Alvin Schwartzes. As though, in reality, I suffer from multiple personality syndrome in serial order.

Not that I'm unique in that respect. There have been others I've learned about or read about who seemed to be a number of utterly different personalities over the course of their lives. For some of these, I've had the deepest admiration, which is to say my admiration was focused on one or a group of successive personalities that manifested within a single name and identity.

I've had some odd theories about all this too. That is, this Alvin Schwartz, writing in his late eighties, holds the theories about himself and the Alvins that came before, all four of them, to be specific. Now this is not an identity crisis. I know very well who I am at this moment and probably for the immediate foreseeable future.

Let's try to make this a little more specific. Today, living in rhapsodic contentment with my present wife, I know I would never have given her a second look back in my early twenties when I first got into this marrying thing. Never. Impossible. And the flibbertigibbets I did go for in those early days, to use a term of that distant time, were part of the vision of quite another Alvin.

That other Alvin was also a fully accoutred, convinced materialist, left-wing anti-Stalinist Marxist who did not believe anything was real unless it could be touched, squeezed, tasted, eaten or, you know what. A hard-bitten positivist straight out of the enlightenment, union organizer, rabble rouser and a speaker adept at stirring up political passions on the one hand, and editing an important literary magazine with the other. That Alvin, let me confess, started to write comics with the disdain of a frustrated literary poet and critic rather than the more common disdain of my contemporaries of the day who dreamed of writing Hollywood films and best selling mysteries. We were hard drinkers, pot smokers and often addicted to "speed."

That Alvin worked mostly for an editor named Jack Schiff who was probably the best that DC ever had, bar none. He worked with guys like me, talented slackers like Finger who never tried anything stronger than chicken soup, and word-wizards like Don Cameron who pulled it all out of a bottle. And because of Jack, despite our other dreams and appetites, he made it interesting and fun, and in my case, left me free to wrestle with Superman's and Batman's identity on a level that allowed me to act out in my scripts the growing awareness of other personalities of mine waiting in the wings to take over.

I had another identity outside the office, mixed up with Greenwich Village and a group of maybe thirty or so artists most of whom later became known and identified as "abstract expressionists." With names like Pollock, DeKooning, DeNiro Sr. As I said, there was also that disgruntled part of me that never wanted to do comics in the first place. So, out of that disgruntlement, I took three months off and finished writing my first novel, The Blowtop. At the time, novels didn't pay very much especially when the owner of the publishing company commits suicide when your book is coming out. So after the three months, I was back writing for Jack Schiff.

In the meantime, The Blowtop was becoming a cult-book at Columbia, and was turning into a best seller in France, things I didn't learn about till years later when the next president of Dial Press informed me. But, in those days, there was not enough money involved in serious novel writing, so I stayed with comics.

And then, the beast days began. Jack Schiff was squeezed out and Mort Weisinger took over Batman and Superman. And Whit Ellsworth was away in Hollywood, leaving no one to control Mort whose favorite indoor sport was tormenting artists and writers. He drove the very talented Wayne Boring out of the business, and after I'd provided him with Bizarro of whose meaning and value he had no real idea, kept me rewriting stuff so much, I had to leave. But just around that time, something else happened. First, the NY Times let out the secret that for years I had been the real but anonymous author of the Superman strip, and that my novel, The Blowtop was the first "existentialist" novel in America. (If you search these columns, you'll find one about existentialism and Charley Brown and Charles Schultz that explains the whole thing.) So The Blowtop became the proto-beat novel. That's right. Out of it, after it became a cult book at Columbia in the late forties and early fifties, the Beat movement spread out from Columbia and in its march from "beatness" to "beatitude" it paved a passage for the entry of the wild sixties

So I'd been writing comics for years, but reshaping them to follow the twists and turns of my psyche as it tried to cast off the shell of that early Alvin Schwartz. Actually, that was Alvin Schwartz Number Two. I'm not prepared here to bring up the original Alvin Schwartz that preceded him. Maybe someday....But, in the meantime, The Blowtop had come out and was leaving its mark on the world. Then something else happened. I fell or was thrust or was delivered into a new reality, one that completely separated from Alvin Schwartz 2, the positivist and materialist.

I've written in these columns about Roy, that disembodied presence that mid-wifed Alvin Schwartz Number Three into being so that while I looked the same on the outside, the old mind was gone. Instead it was peopled with visions and ideas and the capacity to relate to unimagined powers and realizations. With Schiff no longer in charge, this new Alvin was actually able to steer that blood-bucket of hashed stereotypes known as Weisinger into a venturesome new takeoff on Superman, an elegant deconstruction, named Bizarro. The new Alvin did it without Weisinger even being fully aware of what was happening, except that he bought it, all the way. And poof, Alvin was off.

No more Weisinger and no longer a comics writer. But suddenly a wild man thinking wild thoughts and unleashed on the business world.

That's right, the staid, orderly nine-to-five business world. But don't ever get the idea that because it faced the world in suits, that the business world was really staid. In fact, here, the new Alvin felt so at home, he never looked back-- well just long enough to note how the Beats were starting to seep their way through the Fifties In the meantime, he became very unBeatlike. He wore real suits and ties. He cut his hair. He spoke at business symposiums. He wrote stacks of books and reports for many of the leading corporations of the US, affecting sales, marketing, image. Yup, and he got rid of the flibbertigibbets and married the lady who was to be with him forever and ever, which so far is going on forty-eight years, complete with kids.

Now, folks, this doesn't end here. It's only 1968. And there are a couple of more Alvins still to come. I don't say next week, because I have something else in mind for that. But soon you'll be hearing about Alvin Schwartz number four. And a country called Canada.


<< 12/29/2003 | 01/05/2004 | 01/12/2004 >>

Discuss this column with me at my Round Table.

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