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After the Golden Age by Alvin Schwartz
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AFTER THE GOLDEN AGE for 12/01/2003
Volume 2, #103

The joke, as I remember it, goes something like this:

Joe: So you see, for a man standing on the train platform, and another man traveling on a high speed train-- a third man, keeping track of these two fellows will notice that the watch hands of the high speed traveler will move more slowly than the watch hands of the man on the station platform.

Sam: Einstein said that?

Joe: Yep.

Sam: (incredulously) From this he made a living?

Well--let's just say that this little anecdote illustrates the futility of simplification.

The phenomenon of the modern comic book rose just two decades after Einstein developed his special theory of relativity. There was a special connection between these two dates. But it took a couple of decades for it to be realized. Before Einstein, there could have been no comic heroes with the special and non-human powers displayed by Superman and his various copies and imitators. This is because motion itself, let alone superspeed, was not understood. Einstein showed that by itself, motion did not exist. Not as a separate reality. Only as something that happened in relation to another object. Because where a thing happened to be was fixed and final. Motion became apparent only when another thing seemed to draw closer by means of something known as acceleration. If there were no acceleration, there was no detectable motion.

Consider this. In the newtonian universe, the clocklike and regular motion then posited meant an unchanging, fixed reality in which nothing could ever really happen. Because the motion was always precisely the same. This thing moved around that thing at a special speed. But when Einstein discovered that motion wasn't visible without acceleration, it was realized that Newton's world was simply a fixed unchanging charade Nothing ever really changed or went anywhere.

Superheroes are the literary expression of a culture in which it became possible to go anywhere.

From unchanging to constant change demanded a huge intellectual jump. That's why it took a couple of decades for comics strips to come into being and express this reality.

Now it will be argued that the gods and immortals of earlier cultures all expressed motion. But this is a misunderstanding. As mythic figures, they went through the same stories over and again. They got carved into the pyramids, and architecture:-- there was never a next issue. Nothing ever really changed or was added. They were frozen into clockwork imitiations of motion that kept repeating over and over again. They were legends, not history. The legend never changed. The history never grew beyond the legend. Lives were fixed into permanent patterns. Classes were tightly and impermeably organized. Vocations were for life. Everything that moved played its fixed part in the overall pattern. It was the same story told over and over again. Had this not been the case, then life would have had no meaning or purpose. The constant playing out of the same themes were the meaning and purpose of the day. All the churches firmly insisted on this too. In fact, they were the most insistent in establishing that everything had a meaning or purpose.

But in order to grow, to expand, to achieve full creative consciousness, something more was needed, something called novelty. And that took the form of new and irregular and unanticipated changes in the story. And even led to the superheroes.

Think, as you read these strange lines, these challenging lines, if you like, of what superheroes really mean. Why they're not distant and removed from us‹on another plane of reality. Today we even ask for their autographs. And everyone can become some kind of superhero, even if we only use the world celebrity. But also ask yourself why this is the first time in history that everybody aspires to celebrity. So we can all get in the act.

I have deliberately written these odd lines to stir things up. I have thrown things at you that should start you thinking about where you really are, and where you're moving toward, and why. So now, maybe you'll finally be induced to tell me where you think you might be going. Then we can really go places we've never seen before. Believe me. Just try it.

--Alvin

<< 11/24/2003 | 12/01/2003 | 12/15/2003 >>

Discuss this column with me at my Round Table.


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