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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 03/14/2005
Vol. 2, #160

I was asked last Saturday on my Round Table by Steve whether there was a specific mythology from which I developed my Superman stories. It was an interesting question and I chose to make it the entire subject of this week's column.

Mythologies are immanent. In other words they pervade the whole culture. This is not the case, of course, with the Golem story my questioner posed as a possibility-- which is not exactly a myth either, but an aspect of one segment of the beleagured cultural and ethnic group, from which I too came, via Hungary and Vienna, dreaming of a savior in terms of its traditions. So it's possible as Michael Chabon intimates in his novel about the comics that Jerry Siegel (Joe wasn't the idea man) could have been influenced by the Golem tradition. Personally, I don't see how it ever made its way as far as Cleveland and then New York.

However, when I was first asked to do Superman, I had a number of problems, beginning with a very good editor who was totally a materialist and a Marxist. So to him, you take what you had in Superman and find ways of elaborating on his story. No mysticism please. Within those strictures, give us some good stories, even though, ultimately that made Superman a rootless freak from an unreal planet, not much more mythic than your average sci-fi mechanism.

On the other hand, I saw a character, as I've explained before, who was a human, with a human upbringing--a small town upbringing and small town values, encased in a body that was, in fact, a super machine. In my previous column, I discussed how you could define Superman best by what he didn't or couldn't do--by his small town morality, his pop virtue, and his boy scout view of the world. Except that I didn't think that way myself, so I had to be especially ingenious in trying to squeeze more sophisticated stories out of this set of givens. I used Superman (Bill Finger sometimes did the same thing in some of his stories) to impersonate or act out great mythic behaviors of the past from other cultures, especially Greek. By that, I don't mean that I took Homer's Odyssey which was one of civilization's great visions of the true path of the development of consciousness for example--experiencing all the tugs and challenges of different life stages, the warrior, the lover, the seduced one, the mated one (Penelope and the suitors) Scylla and Charybdis, the clashing rocks-- where he experienced the great tug of opposites that consciousness always experiences as it grows, the development of choice in avoiding temptation, and, I'll skip a lot of detail here to come to the solitary consciousness venturing off into the unknown on its own, leaving all earthly passions behind as he sets out on a newer and higher quest--already a massive leap forward in understanding and, in effect, a new consciousness.

I didn't use such myths directly but did indeed manage to slip such ideas into my stories so that often they were readable on two levels--the literal story level--bad guys cause problems and Superman sets out to remedy same and dump bad guys in jail. Behind all that was another Superman story in which, to cite one famous example because I included stuff on the atom smasher of the time that caused the FBI to try to shut down the strip because they feared it would give away the Nagasaki venture, then in preparation. However what I was in fact attempting was to pit the values of art and transcendental elements (in the person of the English professor, John Lyly, named after the original creator of Euphuies--cf euphemisms like "the finny tribe" for "fish"--for example) as against the materialistic scientist who doubted Superman's reality until he was led into experiencing a transcendental emotion like love. Now I'm simplifying vastly, but as one newspaper put it in my then Canadian summer home town of Bathurst, New Brunswick, "Schwartz, like Superman, leads a double life." In other words, I was seemingly doing one thing, writing exciting Superman adventures acceptable to my editors and, behind all that, writing stories whose real meaning lay in the literary background I brought into comics with me--as a serious student of philosophy, as the first American existentialist novelist (according to the NY Times) as a published poet and a novelist of ideas. In a way, this is not so strange, since so many writers have played this dual identity role--and even Superman, who was not a novelist, of course, but could have been many things and probably was in his true inner self--or--in his Fortress of Solitude where, most likely, we can allow ourselves to imagine, he was most truly himself.

Incidentally, this whole idea of how Superman was really written embraces another question recently discussed in this column. I want to deal once again with the whole idea of what it means when people say they "love" comics, because effectively I don't know what they're talking about, even though the attitude towards comics, as I've learned, seems to be quite different than that of my generation which was brought up on many other things, of which comics was only the three panel newspaper strip and part of the "funnies". That's the week after. Watch for it. And thanks for your very interesting question, Steve.

--Alvin

<< 03/07/2005 | 03/14/2005 | 03/28/2005 >>

Discuss this column with me at my Round Table.


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