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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 10/21/2002
Volume 2, Number 54

REMEMBER-YOU SAW IT HERE FIRST!

First, there was this phone call. A man identifying himself as John Doe---yes-John Doe, for reasons you'll soon discover-wanted to know how to get to my house. He was lost, he explained, on a narrow country road somewhere between the Village of Winchester and Chesterville.

"You're on your way to see me?" I said. "And your name is John Doe?"

"For good reason," he said. "But I may have an interesting business proposition for you. Anyway, you know this isn't the first time people have had trouble finding your house-like that reporter for the Ottawa Citizen, Shelley Page. In her article about you, she describes finding your house as though it were hidden somewhere in a magic glade-real fantastic stuff. But where are you, really?"

It somehow never occurred to me to ask him what his business was. Out here, we don't get too many visitors and when we do, we never have any reason to worry about them. In fact, anyone dropping in unexpectedly simply offers a welcome break in the day. So I told this John Doe person he was only a half mile away and proceeded to give him more detailed directions.

Then, about ten minutes later this long black car pulls into our gravel driveway. It wasn't exactly a stretch limo. But it was long and important looking. It also had New York plates with the letters DOE.

Was it really his name? Anyway, I watch through the kitchen window as he gets out, a tall fiftyish man in a dark business suit and rimless glasses. His gray-brown hair is obviously blowdried. He carries a leather portfolio under his right arm. I go to open the door for him.

He steps into the anteroom and looks me over carefully, then nods. "I thought you'd look older," he said.

"Most people tell me that. So you're John Doe?" I led him into the living room and offered him a seat on the couch.

He glanced around. "Looks like Greenwich Village, 1940," he said before settling down.

"I am Greenwich Village 1940," I admitted. "Can I get you something? Must've been a long ride. You know about my book, The Blowtop?"

He waved me off. "Being a collector, I find John Doe useful."

"A collector of what?" I said, taking a seat facing him on the big rocker.

He laughed. "Collectibles, valuables, investibles. One of the biggest and fastest growing businesses around these days. And then he proceeded to tell me with a suddenly serious expression: "You don't at all look like what you really are."

"And what's that?"

"One of the world's most important people," he said without blinking an eye.

"I think I just heard you say-"

"I really didn't have to tell you that. I'd have been in a better bargaining position. But I don't operate that way. I'll let you figure it out yourself. What in your opinion is the most important literary figure of the twentieth century?"

"O boy---that's a real toughie. I used to think Proust, or Joyce-then I switched to Shaw. Then I thought possibly T. S. Eliot. You could possibly even think Samuel Beckett, or maybe Saul Bellow-"

"Bellow?"

"That's Bellow's opinion, anyway."

"Yeah-well-none of the above. I wasn't thinking creators as much as creations. Usually they go together. But not in this case."

"Then who--?"

He raised his head and looked me straight in the eye. "Superman," he said.

"Superman?" I sank back into my chair and stared at the wall over his head. "You said-literary-"

"You're thinking too narrowly about literature. Think of a work that somehow changed the reading habits of a generation-of a character that became a kind of universal image-and I don't mean Nietzsche's Übermensch-who wasn't a character anyway. Think of a personality that produced innumerable imitators, a new kind of book format and at one fell swoop transformed the literacy habits of an entire generation so that there was a vast switch in behavior from cursive writing to graphic expression. And then, of course, there's the mythic power and-and-" He looked at me for help.

"Okay-I see your point. But you did say 'literary'?"

"Oh come on-those critical distinctions change every decade. Was Sherlock Holmes literary? Was Tarzan literary? What about the guy who wrote "Miss Lonelyhearts" and got picked up as a real literary find by that great arbiter of literary taste during your generation-Partisan Review. Besides, we're into Post-modernism now. Everything's literary. As for Superman, he and his copycats have even reshaped the movies. DC, I understand, is merely the testing ground for future movies. There's a lot more-like number of copies sold in its heyday-"

I waved him off. "All right. Point taken. But how does that involve me? I didn't invent Superman. I only-"

He held up a hand and reached into that portfolio he'd brought with him. Then he held up a videocassette. "I've got a recording here," he said. "You must have seen it already. It was made at a recent White Plains comics convention. It shows a man named Arnold Drake- you know Arnold Drake, don't you."

"Of course. He was a major DC writer for many years."

"Well-this tape shows where he introduces you as the man who wrote more Superman stories than the original creator. Want to hear it?"

I shook my head. "I remember all that. But-I didn't create Superman."

"You still don't understand, even though you talked about it when you lectured at the University of Connecticut-when you said Superman created himself--"

"Come on," I protested. "That's the same argument I went through in my book."

"Yes-your memoir, An Unlikely Prophet." He looked like a man who has scored a point.

"Meaning what?"

"I'll lay it out as simply as I can. In my opinion, no one person created Superman. This was a new literary form. All the people who worked on him changed him, enriched him. The idea of a person with super powers is as old as mythology. But the particulars of the Superman that Jerry Siegel started all came from different creators, most of all, yourself."

"No-I don't buy that. I--"

Suddenly my John Doe friend is on his feet. "An Unlikely Prophet-that's the real reason I'm here. Forget all that other stuff. You wrote a book that not only expressed what was intrinsic to Superman. You wrote it through a series of remarkable experiences that reveal for the first and only time this character's significance, the meaning of his origin, his effect on his so-called creators-in fact, it's the purest literary outcome of the most important literary character of the last century. Boswell, for example, was merely the biographer of Dr Johnson, important as that was. And I mean that in a literary sense. You were Superman's Boswell, interpreter, part-time creator, myth-shaper--" He stopped, shook his head. "I'm overdoing it. I'm pushing too hard. Not that I don't mean every word. But that book-I want that book."

"An Unlikely Prophet?"

He resumed his seat and wiped his head. "No-not the paperback. I understand that a little over a hundred copies of the first edition were special-in hardcover. You sold a bunch of them way back in 1988 at the Mid-Ohio Comics Convention. I know you have some left.

They're priceless. The original publisher has gone out of business, ceding you all rights. How many do you have?"

"Exactly fifty," I said.

"I'm ready to pay you $200 apiece for them," my visitor said.

"Two hundred? What'll you do with 50 books?"

"It's an investment. A year or two from now I can get five or six hundred each for them. Especially with your signature. In ten years, maybe $10,000 each. But you wouldn't want to hang onto them until you were - 96-right?"

I nodded. "In ten years and three weeks, I'll be ninety-six. If I get there."

"You only look about seventy," he said.

"Thanks."

"So-do you want to sell me those books?"

Well, it went on like that a while longer. In the end, I said "no." I really didn't need to sell those hardcovers. If John Doe, who turned out to be a guy named Doherty, who stopped by to see me while taking care of other business in nearby Ottawa-if he was so ready to pay $200 for those hardcovers, I figured they might be worth even more. So I decided to wait. But the one thing that really interested me was Doherty's claim that Superman might be the most important literary figure of the twentieth century. As I turn that one over in my mind along with the various and ever changing parameters we use to determine what "literary" is, I realize how right the historian Jacques Barzun was when in his recent work on the last five centuries, he posited that the idea of "literature" as opposed to junk came into existence with the birth of the critic. Someone who could tell you whether something was good or bad, whether you liked it or not. I think, in fact, that we're entering a new pre-literate era, when personal opinion over-reaches taste. In some ways that's good. In another sense, I don't feel comfortable with it. All worth discussing in another column. But for now, was Superman the most important literary figure of the twentieth century? There are some astonishing notions wrapped up in that. Something really worth discussing on The Round Table. Let's hear from you.

--Alvin

<< 10/14/2002 | 10/21/2002 | 10/28/2002 >>

Discuss this column with me at my Round Table.


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