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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 01/13/2003
Volume 2, #62

This column boasts what looks like the sleepiest Round Table. Nobody shows up there. But behind the scenes, I get a lot of interesting email. Maybe it's the stuff I write about, or the way I write it. But almost no one wants to go public with their comments and questions. Take yesterday. I got this email-and I'll only provide half of it here, since obviously my correspondent didn't want to go public. But here's part of it.
"I am pursuing degrees in English and History and am preparing to start a paper on the evolution of comics from children's stories to a form of accepted adult literature. I was hoping that you might be able to give me some insight on, and possibly an interview(at a later date), the way that comics have changed from the days of, for example, Carl Barks to the present."
Frankly, I didn't know that comics had "evolved from children's stories to a form of adult literature". This is the old pop culture vs high brow literature again, and I was prompted to ask my correspondent into which category he would put works like Boccaccio's or The Canterbury Tales. I deliberately wanted to complicate the question because obviously Boccaccio isn't for children but neither is it high brow literature. So now we suddenly have three classes of stories-for children, for children and adults (according to CS Lewis who said that unless adults could enjoy it, children's literature wasn't worth the paper it was written on).... Oops did I say three? Make that four. There's stuff for adults-like pulps and some comics and all that genre stuff that seems to have a following even among hi-brows. And then there's the high prestige stuff-like Stephen Hawkings "A Brief History of Time" that sold 3 million copies and which, I understand, nobody has really read. Call it ! "show-off" literature. Guess tha makes five. Finally, we get to "literature" (litritchoor)-and I'm already counting six.

Let's stop kidding ourselves, folks. Everybody reads everything. But some stuff is complicated enough to screen out the skimmers and the under-educated. And there you have it. But actually, you don't. It's more like-the educated just read more. This is what education does. But in reading more, the educated don't just confine themselves to litritchoor. A well educated individual reads everything. Because understanding the high brow stuff often requires knowing something about the unliterary stuff.

But that's just today-or-let's say the last two centuries. After public schools started. Remember, not everybody could read not very long ago. And going back a little further than that, you suddenly discovered that people who lived in one village in the same country couldn't understand the dialect of people in a village only a few miles away. Even today, there's some of that. A friend of mine from Paris went to visit Quebec City in Quebec Province. She returned to Montreal (where English is now a partially forbidden language-did you know that?) and complained that she couldn't understand the Quebec French and they couldn't understand her.

Now-we're getting close to something interesting. Three or four hundred years back, when people couldn't read or talk to someone in a nearby village, they were nevertheless able to learn about the European vision of the world-that is, the Holy Roman Empire part of it which encompassed most of Europe-by going to church. The bible stories were illustrated in those churches by the stained glass windows. So, you might say, that the stained glass window was where the comic strip began. And maybe even the idea of some sort of super man. Right?

But now, here's another one to consider. Generations speak different dialects. Take it from me. I've been through three of them and am part way through a fourth! Also, some of the stuff I used to read as a kid-Peter Rabbit, Frank Merriwell, Nick Carter, Tom Swift...The Rover Boys... big stuff then. Kid stuff, but some of it was actually for adults. Now some stuff lasted and is still being read. Like O Henry, like Edgar Allen Poe, H G Wells, W. Somerset Maugham. Tolstoy, Dostoievski.... oops, I almost forgot everybody's favorite-Mark Twain. Adult stuff or kid stuff. Pop or litritchoor? Who decides? And does it matter? Then there were the super-best-sellers like The Foxes of Harrow. Anybody ever hear of it?

Gone With the Wind was kept alive by the movies.

Anybody read Dreiser or Sinclair Lewis these days? Anybody read Hawthorne lately? Maybe in special litritchoor courses at university. Too much new stuff is coming out and being hyped, so who's got time? And then there are factors like level of maturity, scope of language-all sorts of stuff. And depending on who's doing the reading, the work falls into a different category. I've talked a lot about Charlie Browne lately. I should also have mentioned that when kids read it, they see pop. When I and my friends read it, we see litritchoor! It's really all in the eye of the beholder.

Now I really shouldn't close this without touching on Superman. When I wrote it, it was a lot more than kid stuff. Others wrote it as straight kids stuff. So there's been some confusion about how people evaluate it historically. Now that the names are out, you can figure out which Superman is for whom.

Sometimes, I'm asked which of the many things I wrote was my favorite. And my answer is usually, HAYFOOT HENRY. This was a character I created. It was only a six pager, but it took more effort than any of "the big stuff". What's more, it was written completely in verse. The best doggerel you could find anywhere. The hero was a cop. But his primary interest was-transcendence. I'll tell you about Hayfoot Henry next week.

Alvin

<< 01/06/2003 | 01/13/2003 | 01/20/2003 >>

Discuss this column with me at my Round Table.


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