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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 04/14/2003
Volume 2, #73

As I said, the cafeteria was kind of quiet at this hour. Only deHirsh Margolies sounding off about something at another table a few yards away.

And here I was, sitting with Clark Kent who had just announced that World War II which had not yet ended, had, in effect, given Superman his reality, which was why he was unable to use his enormous powers to put a stop to it.

When he told me that, I recalled arguments we used to have in the DC editorial department about just that. "Keep Superman out of war incidents. Because if he starts interfering in some incidental way here and there, people will want to know why he doesn't just go out and stuff all the Nazis into some convenient cesspool, along with their Japanese allies. And if he didn't, maybe Superman wasn't so super after all. Perfectly logical.

As a matter of fact, only a few days ago, in normal 2003 time--I say normal because I need some kind of marker, because time is strange stuff. Like silly putty. And for me, sitting there with Clark in the Sixth Avenue Cafeteria of 1945, it had stretched quite beyond the bounds of ordinary belief. Anyway, in 2003, I had been sitting at my desk in Chesterville, Canada, when my phone rang. It was none other than the comics feature reporter from the Cleveland Plain-Dealer, Mike Sangiacomo. I call him the double sainted one, because his name translates directly into Michael St George. One angel and one saint.

You'd think with a name like that he'd have all the answers. But he wanted to ask me, he was doing some kind of feature on Gulf War II, how did we handle Superman back in World War II. What kind of war stories did we do then? And the answer I gave him was that, to the best of my recollection, we tried to keep Supes out of the war because otherwise people might ask why he didn't just put a stop to the whole thing, which none of us believed he could do.

Why? Simply because none of us thought he was real. As most of you know, I've come a long way since that time, changed my view of reality quite drastically (as those of you who've read my memoir, Unlikely Prophet, know well) so that now, in 1945 when Clark Kent himself brought the question up, he gave it quite a different twist by saying that he owed his reality to the War. He went on to explain, in response to my confused expression:--"Before WW two actually started, back in the mid-thirties, the whole world was in a pretty depressed state. You remember the depression, I'm sure. Because you grew up in it. You know how lives were disrupted. You know about the hunger marches and the shanty-towns and the dust bowl, and the desperate rush to California by starving farmers, the breadlines in the cities. As you grew up," he added, "you even got into some of the labor disputes that erupted when the CIO was first formed so that ordinary workers could fight for their rights alongside the pampered skilled craftsmen of the American Federation of Labor. In fact, you were on the picket line yourself at Republic Steel when the state troopers fired and killed a couple of guys."

I nodded. "Mostly I was just too young and stupid to realize I could've been killed," I acknowledged. "But--?"

"Okay, I'm getting to that. People needed something they could believe in. The Nazis were rampaging through Germany and threatening the rest of Europe. Even Einstein had become a refugee. So when these two guys, Siegel and Shuster came up with their Superman idea, it had to take off. The world needed some kind of savior. You've often said that yourself. So, you might say that those conditions kind of gave me my reality. You understand?"

"No," I said. "To me, when you have reality, you have a, a self. I guess that's what I mean. How did you become a real self?"

Clark stroked his chin. His eyes exhibited a sudden whimsical glimmer.

"The Buddhists say there's no such thing as a self," he said.

"Are you saying the Buddhists are right?" I pressed.

Clark's glimmer organized itself into a full smile. "I'm not a Buddhist," he replied. "In fact, if anybody ever tells you there's no such thing as a self, don't you have to ask yourself, 'then who's making the statement?' Don't you see, the comment is self-contradicting. Can a non-self contradict selfness? See what I mean? The whole idea is a tangle of incomprehensibility. In short, questions about the self are nonsense."

"All right, then. How did you become a real self?" I repeated.

Again, that touch of a smile as Clark responded with something I couldn't quite make out, because over at the nearby table, my friend deHirsh had suddenly raised his voice and was exclaiming: "They're trying to take everything away from us."

I turned and yelled at him. "Hey, deHirsh, you old dog. We know you won't let them do that. Only keep it down. We're trying to talk here too."

DeHirsh waved a hand at me, and leaned closer to his companion. I turned back to Clark.

"You," Clark said, pointing a finger at me. "I'm asking you the same question. When did you become a real self? Can you answer that?"

I protested, half rising in my seat with the effort. "But I know I'm a self. I mean, I was always, " Then I broke off. I realized he had me.

"Look at it this way," Clark said. "You yourself pointed out that all you DC writers who worked on Superman stories thought you were controlling me. Only, we were wrong. Because Superman controlled himself..."

"Hey, wait. I didn't say that until some time in the sixties. At a lecture I gave at the University of Connecticut. I was..."

Suddenly, a funny sound came from Clark's throat. I could swear it was a guffaw. "I know. It was in your book. But the point is you can't deal with individual units of reality, like selves. What's the big thing in science today? Do you know..."

"Today?" I queried. "Like which today."

Clark shrugged. "Started around the fifties with cybernetics. Norbert Wiener. People like that. All built around the idea of positive feedback. Then people, scientists, I mean, began to realize that looking at the individual units, the so-called elementary, basic, ultimate things, didn't tell you anything. In fact, development of any kind came from groups of units. Things emerged from groups of units that didn't exist anywhere in the primal units themselves. You know all about that, right?"

"You're talking about emergent properties."

"Right on," he said, grinning. "And so we come to the realization that you have to think in terms of systems of units. Systems, systems, systems!

Forget all that self stuff. We're part of a web. And your reality, and certainly MY reality, about which you're so concerned, only takes on significance as part of a system. In my case, you might say I'm an emergent property of a system that..."

"I know," I broke in. "I know. I've said something like it so many times myself. But, it's still such a difficult concept. the whole word, reality, is the prob..."

"Hey," another voice broke in. "You want reality? Let me tell you, I've just broken through the solid walls of reality..."

I looked up. It was deHirsh. He evidently was finding our conversation more intriguing than his own and couldn't resist coming over to join us. "You know how I did it?" His voice broke with excitement. "By breaking away from the transparency of watercolor. How? Everything I do in watercolor is now completely opaque." He pulled out a chair and prepared to join us.

Readers take note that a lot of things are being introduced here. Too much to resolve in one or two columns. More next week. Much more.

And by the way, deHirsh Margolies was one of the great watercolorists of his day. A student of the master water-colorist, John Marin, de Hirsh showed his stuff regularly in well-known 57th Street galleries and was lauded by the critics. He also filled in his income with an extra job as a nightbeat reporter for City News, a syndicated operation that provided major input to the NYC press in those days. A hortatory and unstoppable talker, deHirsh also put in a lot of hours holding forth at the Sixth Avenue Cafeteria. He was a good friend of this writer for some years.

--Alvin

<< 04/07/2003 | 04/14/2003 | 04/21/2003 >>

Discuss this column with me at my Round Table.


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