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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 08/25/2003
Volume 2, #91

One of the mysteries that has always intrigued me stems from the growing realization that everything in what we call nature has its opposite, or mirror image. Anti-matter is not a product of science fiction, for example, but a normal feature of the real universe. In the giant particle physics lab at Cern, for example, scientists have actually succeeded in creating antihydrogen atoms. In any case, physicists profoundly believe that antimatter should look and behave identically to ordinary matter. But the mirror image and the image can never meet without obliterating each other in a flash of fearful energy.

My interest in this startling fact has to do with the whole notion of what we call creation. Creation, even as the opening of the Old Testament suggests, is really a process of division. Or as I would prefer to put it, what we call reality is the result of several stages of division from pure energy or something indefinable into sticks and stones and living things. Each step backwards in the process reaches beyond our normal conceptions into a kind of energy field not interpretable at our level of division. In fact, I'm actually describing here a process that underlies almost all religious history, that all mystics of all religions have in one way or another described as a doctrine of emanation. Individual religions are versions of these discoveries arrested at some stage on the long way back to the source, to the ultimate vacuum (remembering that the word vacuum does not mean emptiness, it comes from the root Sankrit term vac, vache ---cow. Or simply, fullness, allness, totality. Fine, all this is not really new. But I bring it up here in a special context.

In 1958, just before I left comics, I created Bizarro.Mort. my editor then, in his stubborn, thick-headed, ego-stretched need was really looking for something that would carry him beyond the South Pacific range of his talent, his profound attachment to older successes. So leading him onto new ground was quite a task but somehow, magically, he came along, What was leading him into?

I have variously explained my purpose as an effort to express the superhero idea in a new form, something more appropriate to the time which differed so radically from the days of Superman's origin, a time of war and deep depression. I have at moments referred to it as a "deconstruction" of Superman, that is, a kind of breaking up of the meaning embodied in the whole idea of the character. I was striving, you might say, for that mirror-image, that opposite. And out of a machine (think of the Cern particle smasher, if you like) which would reveal the negative Superman, came the mirror-image,--always remembering that in a mirror everything is reversed. Not bad, but reversed. Not evil but involuted. The same but different. Nothing ever knew ever took hold without having a foothold on the old. Or it becomes unintelligible. So how did I proceed?

The times were such that one-dimensional characters, your standard superheroes, even in comics, seemed rather simplistic, like paper cutouts. What was demanded was the full dimensional personality, a figure that carried a shadow, if you like. I was certainly inspired to some degree also by C.G. Jung's archetype of "the shadow", and Bizarro certainly reflected that, as well. Also important in establishing the fact that Bizarro was not a monster in any way in that original version of mine was his ability to love. And appropriately, his love was also Superman's love, Lois Lane. Unfortunately, subsequent early versions of Bizarro, once I had gone (and I had no control over any stories except a persuasion I could no longer exercise) turned Bizarro into a monster. I must admit it had been difficult enough to get Mort Weisinger, the editor who unfortunately displaced Jack Schiff in my comics career at DC, to understand the concept, and when Mort, in his usual manner passed it on to another writer, in this case, Otto Binder doing Superboy, Bizarro was simplistically seen as just another Frankenstein creation.

But reality has strange ways of manifesting. In the long run, the inner logic of the Bizarro creation resisted the monster element that Mort tried to shape it into simply because he was really incapable of understanding it. Understand, after all these years, that while Mort actually had some seniority over Schiff, the front office, that is, the naive Donnenfeld-Liebowitz team, selected Mort because they were impressed by the fact that he was constantly publishing articles in the slick magazines, like Readers Digest, and Saturday Evening Post. It never struck them, as it did most of the others in editorial, that usually Mort didn't know what he was talking about and, in fact, provided the subject matter for one of the funniest spoofs of his writing ever done by The New Yorker's great parodist, S.J. Perelman. Mort, as I've already mentioned here, was delighted to be mentioned in The New Yorker, no matter how. The rest of the editors were mostly embarrassed by his delight. Now this is not to say that Mort was the worst thing that ever happened to comics. Yet Mort was, at some level, imaginative and innovative, but all too often, as the world moved from the forties toward the destructive and powerful openness of the sixties, he was an unfortunate anachronism, responsible for missing an important turning point that DC comics might have taken.

However, in Bizarro's case, there was a new reality introduced into the Superman idea that Mort could not distort. As I said in one of my lectures on pop culture at the University of Connecticut some years later, we writers and editors thought we were controlling Superman, when, in fact, Superman tended to go his own way and I was perhaps the only one who knew it. That lecture subsequently appeared in the UConn learned journal, Children's Literature, and ultimately was one of the factors that weighed heavily in my favor some years later, when I won a prestigious Canada Council Grant to continue my investigations of the metaphysical underpinning of much of pop culture.

But back to Bizarro who continued to grow within the DC stable to such a degree that it burst the bonds of its origins to become, to my personal delight and amazement, a part of our very language. Even more remarkable was how that growth, despite the number of hands who continued to work on Bizarro scripts at DC, maintained a consistency that was quite remarkable.

I've been reading various news accounts of the difficulties Time-Warner's film division has been having trying to develop a new Superman film. Somehow, they can't seem to make their most significant and precious property work for them. As far as I know, they haven't yet settled on a film idea. If it isn't too late, I'd like to suggest that their next Superman film should recognize the obvious. They really need to do a film about Bizarro.

What would happen? At one fell swoop, they would pick up the advocates of the entire contrarian trend that has seeped through pop culture, especially its music. They would have advanced the notion of Superman as a comfortable fit with the less structured art modes of the new century, and best of all, they would have secured my permission and blessing in advance, since I have an unlimited interest in the shared growth of this art form myself, beyond the focus of lawers and copyrights and the demands of shareholders.

Consider the recent success of the Bizarro hardcover edited by Joey Cavalieri. DC latched onto something important there, not merely a trend, but a real change in the cultural paradigm. When art turns a corner, those who recognize it first are most likely to be both astonished at its success and encouraged to go on in the same direction.

This column, which slightly picks up on an older one of mine, can be of special importance. It can mark a turning point for those who are ready to grasp its significance and move on it. And for this old creator who as he continues to fill in the years, can still claim never to have called it wrong.

--Alvin

<< 07/28/2003 | 08/25/2003 | 09/01/2003 >>

Discuss this column with me at my Round Table.


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