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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 05/26/2003
Volume 2, #78

And There's One More Thing You Probably Never Realized About Superman...

Self awareness is a very intricate concept, but there are a few things that can be said about it that might be helpful in understanding what it does for us and what it requires in order to get us through each day. I was led to this thought by a friend's recalling to me a remark I made to him at a comics con a few years ago. He reminded me that I'd insisted that all creative work depends on a definite bipolar mood variation. I went even further and proposed that an underlying manic-depressive condition is necessary for all sustained creative work.

It's become politically incorrect to speak of someone as manic depressive. We now use the term bipolar disorder. And in a way, I don't mind the change for the simple reason that I've come to believe that the condition is universal. We're all bipolar or we couldn't have any self-awareness. Further, if the bipolar waves are not strong, it would virtually eliminate creativity. Without distinctive up and down curves, often precipitous ones, art and literature would disappear. In all its forms.

And finally, I believe that the Superman comic strip offers perhaps the best description we have of the human bipolar condition. Superman starkly proclaims that condition in the bipolar existence he shares with Clark Kent. He makes it easily apparent that life in this world at the Superman extreme of his identity would be almost impossible. On the other hand, every Clark Kentish wimp dreams of becoming his opposite. The more wimpish, the more extreme are the yearnings in the opposite direction. Not literally, of course. If our wimp is an intellectual failure, he strives for intellectual successes. There are sexual wimps, emotional wimps, physical wimps-wimps of all kinds whose imagination drives them to the opposite extreme of their situation.

In fact, the reason for Superman's early decades of great popularity is precisely the fact that it revealed the human psyche in such stark dramatic outline that we "recognized" ourselves in the character. Don't think so? Think about it-and read on.

If Superman isn't as revelatory anymore, it's because too many other elements have been inserted into the strip that have diluted its central significance. But discussing those dilutions are for another time. For now, I'm referring to the Superman of the Golden Age and the early years of the Silver Age-up to about the late fifties.

Last week I wrote about the young man whose highest ambition was, in reality, to become Superman. In the very strength of his desire, he was demonstrating what I call "the Superman effect."

In the final analysis, though, I can think of no better individual for demonstrating the operation of bipolar states in the creative process than myself. Hey-I'm a creative fellow, by gum. I've done just about everything folks like to label creative. Just take a moment and read the Alvin Schwartz bio posted on this site. Comics, literary novels, even what I call "high pulp"-in the form of three novels for Arco Publishing. Porn? I got into that in a big way for a while along with Henry Miller and Anais Nin and my old friend Bernard Wolfe-if any of you remember him. He wrote a number of interesting novels. Did you know that I taught drawing during the days of the WPA? Well-I actually did learn to draw. My younger brother, long deceased, I regret to say, left a trail of his distinctive sculptures around the country. When he went to art school, I was sent along with him. When he had private tutors, I had the same tutor. And we used to go out together and practice one minute sketches on the New York subway.

There's still one of my brother Bert's sculptures gracing the lobby of the Sterling Drug Company building on Fourth Avenue (if Sterling Drug is still around, I don't know, but the sculpture is.) And at its foot is a long windy statement called The Ascent of Man-a piece of prose discussing the sculpture that my brother asked me to write for him. And if you ever check out Jackson Pollock in the encyclopedia (at this date I'm not sure which one) it starts out with a statement from Jackson: "When I work, I like to walk around my paintings..."

Well, Jackson didn't write that. He asked me to do it for him. He would grow weak in the knees at the prospect of having to express himself in prose. But he's also the one who persuaded me to try painting-which I did, for a very short while-like two weeks. Very good stuff, I'm told. I've still got them. They're all hanging in my living room for anyone who visits me in Chesterville to see. Only they're not oil or acrylic but pastels.

And then there were the strange studies I did for a number of the Fortune Five Hundred companies. Maybe fifty of them on subjects ranging from "The American Woman" (circa 1960) to "The Popular Vision of the Automobile"-or, 'How to Introduce the small car to the American public through understanding and utilizing the symbolism of the automobile.' Both Ford and General Motors were clients of mine.

Now these weren't simple statistical studies. They were full of what the agency people like to call "insight and creativity." Then I "created" some totally new interviewing methods. Completely eliminated interviewer bias. Got really accurate qualitative readings. A long long list of "creative" activities that included the ghosting of some 25 full length books on various subjects and personalities. I did a little composing as well. Nothing fancy there. I wasn't an arranger, but I wrote the melodies for the Superman operas that turned into best seller records way back in the forties sometime. I tell you, I was manic to a degree you wouldn't believe. And I had help, as you'll discover below.

I played a number of instruments badly, but learned to play the piano well. Mostly because it became my "creative" way of stalling when I had to produce a certain amount of comics material. A strange twist in the loop of the creative bi-modal process. And there's a lot more that I won't bother mentioning here because it might sound like bragging and it really shouldn't be. I was simply in the grip of the bi-modal pressures that really kept me wound up in several directions. And that's what I want to discuss in more detail right now.

In order to get working, get the ideas to flow-not just one or two ideas, but a steady stream until the job was finished, I had to get into a kind of state that resembled euphoria. It wasn't quite the same. A lot of writers get it from alcohol. I couldn't use it. Too much of that and my system wouldn't tolerate it. Pot? That didn't work either unless I was sitting around with a couple of special friends and getting dissociated enough to speak with them in rhyme, or iambic pentameter. But nothing useful like writing a comic or working on a book or trying to tease a philosophic concept into clarity. No-that took another kind of state for me.

Hey-there was this gal I met when I first moved to the Village and she set me up with bennies. I'd found the perfect takeoff product. After a while, it got so I couldn't work without them. They produced the speed of mind, the dry urgent euphoria that was precisely what I needed. Speaking of bennies, I recall my older friend, Charley Green who used to write the Phantom Detective and a lot of stuff for Leo Margolies Thrilling group of magazines. So, since a bunch of Leo's editors had moved from pulp to comics-to DC, actually, they asked Charley to join them and write comics.

I had already been doing stuff for Shelley Mayer at Max Gaines' shop way downtown, so Charley, who didn't know anything about comics brought me to a DC Christmas party and introduced me to all the editors he used to know at Thrilling, because he refused to do comics on his own. He wanted me as a partner. In the end, he quit and I stayed. But Charley continued to work in pulps and, since we both used bennies to be "creative", he announced to me one day that he'd found something that really "enhanced" the creative powers of amphetamine.

A deadly poison called atropine in sulphate form. The stuff Latin American Indians used to poison their arrows with. So I tried it.

Wow! You really took off with that stuff. It left you with a dry mouth and some kind of hangover, but a few drinks after your work was done, and you'd get back to normal. So I got into a routine like that until the doctor told me that my blood pressure was so high, it was approaching the stratosphere. I had to learn not only to give up atropine, but bennies. It was awful. But I made up for it by swallowing gallons of caffeine. And I managed to stay "creative."

Today, at 86, I've got a few stomach problems to which caffeine is not friendly. But I find I'm worse off if I don't use it. All right, I slowly learned to titrate the caffeine dosage and so far have gotten it reduced. But I can't and won't do without it. I still put in a normal ten hour day working at the computer, being creative. In other words, I still need to get to that drop-off point where what I call "the little euphoria" sets in. And then, suddenly I'm in the kind of easy, manic state that enables me to churn out work at a steady clip for a long enough time to get my thinking machine and my hands coordinated and grind out dancing, elegant sentences, ideas, fresh thoughts, walk through a doorway where I find stacked away in various corners, all sorts of new insights and magical visions about the nature of reality and manage to set it all down in some form or other.

The point is that almost every creative person I ever knew had some kind of magic potion or pill that got the creative juices turned on. My dear friend, Bill Finger, couldn't handle anything like alcohol or bennies or even coffee. The latter was enough to make him feel faint. He found it in chicken soup. And frankly, it helped some, but it was slow acting and it didn't have the strength of the more common alternatives. Frankly, chicken soup has been highly overrated. So Bill was often late getting his stuff in. He couldn't turn on his euphoria machine fast enough or easily enough.

There are, of course, creative people who can manage to turn on the euphoria and get into the right state by meditation, by breathing or by some kind of personal inner magic which isn't always conscious.

But my idea of a man who worked entirely without euphoria-who wasn't bipolar at all-was a writer from the early days of DC known as Joe. I won't give his full name-in all fairness. But Joe was like a piece of clockwork. He did quite a number of DC's smaller, back-of-the-book characters. He was never late. He was never stuck. He met every deadline on time. He came into the office at 9 AM promptly, sat down without hesitation and typed away for several hours and turned in his various assignments. The guy was amazing. But his stories-well-they were all right, but they certainly weren't amazing. Let's say he managed to fill the book. He was a machine. He never wrote anything worth reading twice but he never let an editor down. He was smart too. He had a Ph.D in chemistry. But during those early years, there were no jobs around. When the time came, Joe just left and took up his rightful place as a chemist, I presume. He's the perfect negative example of my claim that the creative process depends on that bipolar thing we were talking about. Joe was never down. He was never up. He was a straight line. Go figure.

Now most of you know about the late Bob Kanigher. I never worked with him, but we were comfortable with each other and often exchanged gossip in the DC hallway when we'd meet. Bob really had a clinical case of manic depression, in case some of you who didn't know about Bob happened to run across him when he'd get into some of his odd moods. But basically, Bob somehow had it all under control. He milked his manic states to turn out an enormous body of comics of really fine quality. In these last years before he died, whenever I contacted him, he was always working on something like six books and three comics---he just continued riding his manic wave and controlling, somewhere out of sight, his depressive moments. Or perhaps, as Nietzsche put it, "Our heights lean upon our depths"-and Bob had mastered the technique elegantly.

Now, since I'm not prepared at this moment, to write a book on the subject, I thought I'd just sound off about it. There's a lot more I can say-it's a big subject. But just keep this in mind. In fact, roll it around when you think of the marvelous bursting forth of the comics industry. Superman and Clark Kent are the joined creative antipodes without which the industry as we know it might never have happened.

Back down here on the plane of the ordinary, keep in mind that if we didn't have moods of one kind to look at our opposite moods, we wouldn't be conscious of ourselves. How it was with Joe, I can't really say. But I seem to recall that while we spoke to each other at some length on numerous occasions, I can't seem to remember a single word that was exchanged. Now that I think about it, I can no longer be absolutely certain that he was ever really there.

Bipolarity, in the end, is almost a kind of breathing of the psyche. People who suffer severe forms of bi-modal disorder are pounded in all sorts of ways, using anything from lithium to electro-convulsive therapy. Attempts are made to manipulate the major neuro-transmitters like serotonin in all sorts of ways as though precisely the right amount controls the problem. It often erases the person. The problem with our literal-minded medical profession is its firm belief in the existence of only one kind of reality. But what you can control through neuro-transmitter manipulation is only a tiny part of the whole picture. There are non-medical means, meditation, psychic touch, transpersonal realities that may prove far more effective and less harmful. I know of cases to justify these comments. As I've said many times in these columns, it's really a problem of transcendence. Study Charles Schultz's Snoopy more carefully and discover how to ride the bipolar wave pattern like a skilled World War I aviator.

--Alvin Schwartz

<< 05/19/2003 | 05/26/2003 | 06/02/2003 >>

Discuss this column with me at my Round Table.


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