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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 08/09/2004
Vol. 2, #135

I look back down a long span of years to the forties. And I begin reflecting on what it took for me and many of my colleagues to write superhero stories, most particularly Batman and Superman. In those days, remember, we were all writers. Our metier was in story. Some of us, incidentally, could also draw. I myself could draw somewhat, certainly not well enough to draw for comics, but I knew a great deal about drawing and art in general. I even taught classes in elementary drawing during the days of Roosevelt's WPA (Works Progress Administration). But I was primarily a writer, a story teller, who also managed to get earlier works published in the little magazines of the day and wrote somewhat successfully for those well-paying magazines known as "the slicks". I even had some of my poetry published.

The same was true for most of the other writers I met at DC during my earlier years there. They had begun as writers. They knew something about developing a story and delineating a character. For almost all of us, comics was a way station, a stopping point on the way to more significant writing recognition. It took a while before it dawned on some of us that writing comics, especially superhero comics, was as demanding of a writer's skills as any other story-telling medium. And for some writers, provided a genuine and important outlet, that, moreover, could be relied on to bring in a steady living. That remained true for as long as Whit Ellsworth remained at DC, along with editors like Jack Schiff.

Weisinger's gradual takeover is another tale indeed and has been well laid out and expressed, particularly in the words of his long time buddy, the recently departed Julie Schwartz who said, "I have never in my life heard such self-hatred pour out of any human being." He was offering this to explain Weisinger's destructive and often vicious treatment of other writers and artists who fell within his control. But that's an old story.

The real story, for me, begins with the realization that writing about superheroes, and most particularly Superman really demanded that I get inside the character. Made up, the fantasy of two young men from Cleveland, it would seem that here was a character so artificial that there could hardly be an inside to work from. But the fact is, that Superman was the latest, in his day, of a long line of superheroes which, if you like, can be traced at least as far back as the gods of Olympus. And they did indeed have insides, things like jealousy, hatred, vindictiveness, anger, all the worst human vices. Not Superman, even though, in a way, he had descended from this superhero tradition. Superman was more in the boyscout tradition, honest, virtuous, law-abiding, just a little too good to be real. But there was still an inside, because he had to live a double life. And all that was there to be explored, how, living among ordinary mortals he could have human relationships, human feelings, hold human values and maintain his integrity.

My first contact with Superman, I was in jail on a traffic charge and there was nothing else to read, so I had to read Superman. Certainly not stuff for me. Not at first. Not until I was offered the chance to write the character and had to sit down and figure out what story material could be drawn from a personality in his situation. One, there was the relationship to his own unique powers, so overwhelming that left to themselves they could threaten not only everything around him, but himself as well. I explored that in a powerful story in which Superman, losing control of his powers, lays down a path of sheer destruction. In flight, he can't veer fast enough from the path of a building he's flying toward. He smashes it. He hurts people inadvertently. He sees things with his supervision that he doesn't want to see. It takes a tremendous struggle with himself to overcome his own delinquent and uncontrollable abilities. His greatest lesson is to curb his great powers so they not exceed the minimum requirements for what needed to be accomplished. Then there were stories of other powers not like his own that he had to find a way of overcoming. Ways that he had to trump with his mind rather than his powers.

Then, like a true human, he loses touch with himself. A kind of amnesia. He knows himself as Superman but doesn't know anything about Clark Kent. But there are clues he has to follow up. And so he tracks himself down after many vicissitudes in the famous story known as SUPERMAN'S SEARCH FOR CLARK KENT.

Then there was the problem of leading a normal life in a world where not a soul was his equal. So he had to reduce himself into the role of Clark Kent and then expand the Clark Kent disguise into a personality that could live and function and relate to others as an ordinary human being. There were stories in all of these.

In a certain sense, the superhero is like a disabled person. There are things he must not and cannot do without causing great harm to others as well as to his personal relationships. Batman was truly a disabled individual, the creation of a man, Bill Finger, who found in Batman a means of transcending what he saw as his own personal weaknesses and inadequacies as a man. To some extent, Bill achieved this. But I know, perhaps more than anyone else, what it cost Bill in the end.

In the final analysis, I discovered that the world's special interest in the modern superhero genre stemmed from the helpless feeling so many experienced as we drifted into that most horrible of World Wars following Pearl Harbor, and ending with the dropping of the bomb.

In fact, even the bomb became grist for my mill in doing Superman. During its construction, I happened to know some of the great scientists involved in its development. I particularly remember Dr. Martin Kamen, the man who, among other things, discovered Carbon14, the radioactive substance that made possible the dating of artifacts many thousands of years old by measuring the radioactive decay of this basic substance in the relics and artifacts under examination. He and a group of others were, for a time, the only ones who knew how to put the bomb together, since, at one point, it was still more of an art than a science. They were men all too keenly aware of the destructive horror their efforts were about to unleash on the world.

They were not so much opposed to using it to end World War II, as they were opposed to letting the Military have control of it. They wanted its secrets kept in secure civilian hands. So they took up refuge in Greenwich Village, visiting the studio I then shared with my girlfriend, later my wife, who had known Martin through her former husband, also a physicist.

Vain hope and noble try. In the end, the army found them, the bomb reverted back to army control and did its work at Hiroshima and Nagasaki and drove the Japanese out of the war. Now please note that when I used the bomb in the Superman daily around that time, I did so without any knowledge of the terrible secret Martin Kamen and his friends possessed. They were careful, circumspect and said nothing of significance beyond their problem of who should control the bomb.

However, the FBI stepped in and tried to censor the Superman strip because of its mere mention of atomic energy, in the form of an early particle collider, known as a cyclotron which I learned all about in the pages of a 1935 edition of Popular Mechanics. Really old stuff.

Then the Bureau wanted to talk to the writers of the script. And for the most mysterious of reasons, perhaps because they always felt a little outside the law, the Donnenfeld-Liebowitz axis sent them after the wrong guy, Jerry Siegel, then doing service in the armed forces. Once a shady character, always continue to act like one, yes? Why else didn't they want it known that Siegel was no longer writing Superman, but I was?

When the real story broke in the New York Times Book section where my novel The Blowtop was being discussed, Liebowitz was flummoxed. I was sitting in the office plotting with Jack Schiff. Liebowitz came in, waved the story at us, choked a bit on his tongue, then turned and strutted out. Nothing more was ever said about it.

But we were talking about getting good stories out of superhero comics. Well, all I hear these days is that the stories go on endlessly and really aren't stories but extended and incomplete "bits of business". Because the business is being run by artists these days.

Since I've pointed this out before, I won't belabor it. But I'd like to hope that the new upsurge in the graphic novel will change things around, with writers in the saddle and good stories on the way. Let's hope it doesn't take too long.

--Alvin

<< 08/02/2004 | 08/09/2004 | 08/16/2004 >>

Discuss this column with me at my Round Table.


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