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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 02/02/2004
Volume 2, #111

Alvin is on secret assignment. In the meantime, please enjoy this classic reprint...

In the morning, there's the daily newspaper. Or it used to be so, before I took up the habit of reading newspapers on the web. The experience was different even though the news was the same. The same scandals, murders, war, famine, atrocities and threats of war-the shouting, screaming desperate ways of the world bursting into the serenity of the morning. But the old newspaper itself offered an escape. You could turn to the daily comic pages, even better on Sundays, and read about the mishaps and inconsequential bumblings of George Bungle or Gasoline Alley, or even about the nefarious (but still inconsequential doings of the Dragon Lady) or the angelic idiocies of Little Orphan Annie, the ever-late-for work struggles of everyman (bringing memories of Bill Finger in train) in the person of Dagwood Bumstead-each providing a different world, a different vision that you could look into, be momentarily amused or moved by, since the consequences ended when you put down the paper. The threatening world was wrapped away in the safe confines of newsprint and would never really touch you as the world always could and did when leaping at you from the banner headlines of the real news.

I remember when Superman first popped into my awareness as a new addition to the comics page. A bland addition, I felt at the time, swaddled as I was in the classics, (with thanks to my Uncle Yoineh) with years of Latin already under my belt, and TS Eliot on my tongue. This character who could do everything, solve any problem and leaped tall buildings in the process might just have seemed silly and boyscoutish at the time, but suddenly, he became a celebrity. Coming in an era that was just on the verge of a celebrity-maddened culture, Superman somehow was ahead of the pack. He wasn't just referred to in the movie magazines like Douglas Fairbanks, and John Barrymore and Greta Garbo and Gary Cooper and John Wayne. His name would pop up in learned disquisitions as an unexpected a propos, or as an image for the improbable or the possible in scientific discourse. In fact, one never knew when someone might refer to Superman in a brief but firm allusory way. I've already suggested that his appearance toward the last years of the depression and the beginning of World War II may have added a kind of messianic significance to his rough and brittle reality at the time, even as it gave birth to a string of imitations. And how was I to know how soon after one of those imitations, Captain Marvel, would suck me into the superhero world where, for a brief time, the word Shazam entered my literary vocabulary just long enough for me to recapture my early childhood belief in magic words- especially of the kind where, if I were lucky enough to acquire the right one, I could turn my nasty old Grade A teacher, Miss Keenan into a frog.

And then I was writing Superman himself. Slowly twisting him around, very slowly, by shaping him precisely into the possibility of something messianic, trying to give the character the strength of an unseen force, something powerful working behind the scenes, and rarely having him deal with ordinary villains except under pressure from editors, since he seemed to work best as that positive presence that protected various characters from their follies, their fixations and even their real world physical dangers. Then, there was the dance between Superman and Lois, with Lois the image of a humanity which, once aware of the presence of benign sovereign powers, constantly tempts fate, taking greater and greater risks, knowing as Lois did when she jumped or fell so unnecessarily and so often from high places that she would always be rescued by Superman. There was something in common, I think with Charley Schultz's Lucy in her endless unrequited love for Schroeder, the super artist at the piano.

And then too, knowing that mythic heroes also have to be well expressed in the language they use and move within, I tried gradually to improve the quality of the discourse, enrich the writing, and found myself, in this at least, well supported by my editor Jack Schiff who always sat with a copy of Fowler on his desk and never let an unqualified gerund slip by him. Is it this special element, this ability to slip from anxiety in a world furnished with makeshift shelters from an anticipated atom bomb attack to the comics with their mostly time-fixed characterizations of the unending and finite certainties of daily life among bosses, wives, neighbors and friends that gave the boomers their unending fixation on comics? The best of the comics never grew a day older. Only a few accomplished it successfully, but they somehow never became as legendary as the timeless ones.

Last week, I suggested that if any changes were to be introduced in Superman ( assuming the present wild leap can somehow backtrack toward a Superman more familiar) they should be small. I would keep the newspaper setting but connect the paper with a TV studio as well. The surroundings can be modernized, with computers on the desks, but the main characters, Lois, Jimmy Olsen should remain the same, their ages the same. This doesn't have to be explained. It will work as it always has, since it's one of the standards of the medium.

My mind is on a nostalgia track this morning. I wanted to share it with you. And I don't want to do it all by myself. I'd like to hear from you- about how you think Superman should be handled, what changes should be made and what should be left untouched. Just click on the Round Table and maybe we can get something interesting going.

Alvin Schwartz

<< 01/26/2004 | 02/02/2004 | 02/23/2004 >>

Discuss this column with me at my Round Table.

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