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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 12/06/2004
Vol. 2, #150

Two years ago in these columns, I mentioned how my Uncle Yoineh made me a present of two volumes of great classical stories, Homer's Illiad and Odessey, plus Virgil's magnificent Aeneid. I realize today, of course, that the greatest classics have mostly been about superheroes, men who represented what was the acme of conceivable strength and power for their time.

There was Christopher Marlowe's Tamburlaine the Great whose influence on the great Shakespearean heroes as well as on the many types of superheroes that followed are well known. I could compile quite a list of early superheroes, but will just mention a couple closer to our day, as Edgar Rice Burrough's Tarzan, and his John Carter, Warlord of Mars. Dozens more can be added to this list, but the idea of the superhero, while archetypal, did not always mean the same thing to the people living during the time of their greatest popularity. For example, the Homeric heroes such as Odysseus and Achilles were read or chanted about by professional balladeers for decades. People loved hearing of their exploits and their struggles, and provided a mass following of the young, and even the not so young, in their day. But there also was a significant difference between the feelings those heroes engendered and the kind of feeling aroused by the superheroes of today's films and comic strips, specifically, the Superman types that arose out of the comics. The two were vastle different because the former were products of a preliterate society, passed on by bards who memorized the stories and varied not an iota from the originals

Try telling the same Superman story twice to today's fans and you've lost them. For a very simple reason. There was a unique functional difference between the pre-print societies that found a certain social cohesion in the repetition of the same stories, and the post print stories of today, written and distributed by the millions, and made into movies to boot. That difference lies in the fact that there has to be a cliff-hanger at the end of every day.

This made sense to me. You had to give the reader an inducement to stay with the story the next day. And then there were the cliff-hanger movie serials I used to watch as a kid. Then I began to notice another significant factor. We weren't just inducing people to continue with the story the next day. The suspense was part of what the market demanded. People wanted suspense. Nothing seemed to be interesting unless it involved some sort of cliff-hanger. How many times did I read how boring an election was because the outcome was pretty well known in advance. A ho-hum election. Of little or no interest. But why? Why wasn't it of any importance that the shoo-in candidate had universal support for something that everyone favored, that was considered important for our well-being? Why that ho-hum?

On the other hand, if two characters in an electoral race were in a dead heat, the press, the broadcast media and the public tend to debate, study, analyze and become overweeningly preoccupied with the outcome. What is there about our society, I began to wonder, that required this basic element of suspense? This was not just a normal human condition.

The actual facts are quite otherwise. Back in the days of the oral tradition, the best stories were the ones that were told over and over again -- the antics of the gods, the way the world was formed -- important, significant stories whose outcome was fully known. It was the process, the importance of the events being described that fascinated the listener.

But somehow, the invention of cursive writing, followed by the invention of moveable type changed the world completely. The big change lay in the fact that, in the new world of print, when it was possible to keep and distribute clear and precise records, it soon became known that the past was different from the present. Completely unlike the world of the oral culture, in which the past and the present were always one and the same.

And because the past was different, and because the present was a development of the past, all things present were necessarily better than all things past. In other words, the invention of movable type provided us with the notions of continual evolution and continual progress. To begin with, the number of words, the basic units of communication, since they can be stored, could only grow. A typical college dictionary contains about 150,000 words. That's far more than any single individual can ever learn in a lifetime. That means any one individual's ablity to share in the total cultural accumulation is highly limited, unlike the individual in the oral culture where any individual can share completely in the culture since all share the same limited and fixed vocabulary.

Today, yesterday's story is yesterday's news. Pause a moment and consider the term 'yesterday's news.' In Homo Ludens, (Man, the Playing Animal) the great Dutch sociologist, Huizinga, showed how man's aims and purposes in the post printing press world were basically the acts of a society addicted to play in the sense that elections, wars, football games, comic strips -- all deal with ludic events. If there's no cliff-hanger involved, nobody's interested. But why? Why this need to be left dangling at the whim of the never ending, ever changing story?"

Despite the current war against terrorism, the fact remains that never before have humans in the so-called literate countries enjoyed such complete personal security. Add to that our long life expectancies, enriched by the sense that today is different from yesterday, that everything is always changing, that if it doesn't change, it's passé. "So yesterday." "So eighties." "So nineteenth century." Isn't that what they say?

We are moving closer to the great secrets of the universe. We are on the verge of breaking out of our universe, finding other universes, everything is open and possible and everything is, angst.

For these and multiple reasons that would expand this column into a book, it follows that if there's no cliff-hanger involved, nobody's interested. We can plan a lifetime and a long one at that, for the most part. We sit in front of our TV sets and watch a war. No one's going to invade us. Random attacks? Yes. Sporadic threats? Yes. But overall our lives are really so secure, they're rather boring. Maybe that's why so many people voted for Bush. His invented threats, far exceeding the reality have added another level of excitement to our lives.

So, on the whole, story today is the supreme expression of suspense. If something doesn't have a story whose ending is unknown, we have little interest in it. Contrast that with the preliterate's need to have the story always the same.

This has special significance for the role of the superhero in today's world as opposed to the superheroes of the ancients. In the latter case, the superhero was an element of the story, where today, because we don't really know or want to know how the story will end, the superhero plays a somewhat different role. In the uncertain world we're so insistent on enjoying, we still need some kind of guarantor that, in the end, everything will come out all right. In the U.S., a lot of people still assign this role to God, assuring themselves that, in the end, the bad guys, the sinners, will be cast into the pit.

So the superheroes of today are, you might say, the policemen of order, where, in the old stories, where everyone knew how it would end, the behavior of superheroes was often erratic and unpredictable.

This whole subject involving the difference between literate and preliterate societies needs further exploring since the mindsets are so vastly different and so little work has been done to examine them.

With the help of my readers, I hope to look further into this in future columns. In the meantime, your thoughts would be much appreciated on The Round Table.

Alvin

<< 11/29/2004 | 12/06/2004 | 12/13/2004 >>

Discuss this column with me at my Round Table.


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