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AFTER THE GOLDEN AGE for 03/28/2005
Vol. 2, #161
About Sword of Desire, an Alvin Schwartz Novel Hiding Behind a Pseudonym
Nice to know I've got readers in the UK. Woodbridge, Suffolk no less. The other day, from that distant shore, I received a query which speaks for itself:
Dear Alvin Schwartz,
My reply which I'm presenting here in somewhat greater detail because it concerns the way life went on in the Golden Age of Comics when DC lived at Grand Central Palace and DCs writers and artists often ran into cross currents of one kind and another in that building housing so many different kinds of cultural activity. In fact, right next to the DC office was one of the most active porno publishers in New York, Arco Press. Because of the propinquity of the two offices, I often ran into Dave Turner, one of the Arco owners. In fact Dave was the literary side of a team that consisted also of his partner Milt Gladstone, and because I had also been a published poet and little magazine publisher, Dave and I would often talk books. But they were literally cleaning up with porno novels that appeared under the house name of Robert W Tracy. They had a fixed and steady market, printed just the right number of books for each edition, and had a couple of guys who simply pounded the stuff out, and I mean pounded literally because they were all about boys pounding girls and vice versa, a very smooth and successful business run by two very cultured gentlemen who, when they saw Congress begin to investigate the porno publishing field, were able to move fast enough to switch their entire operation into an equally successful medical publishing business. But before that, as has been noted, there was the question of a book named Sword of Desire by Robert W Tracy which was written by Alvin Schwartz who also wrote Superman comics. And it came about thusly:
Apologies for troubling you with a question about the distant past, but I hope you can solve a little query which has been troubling me. I have been doing some research which has involved checking through the multi volume 'Author bibliography of English language fiction in the Library of Congress'.
This mentions your book 'Sword of Desire' but refers to it as being published as by Robert (W) Tracy. This name also appears to be a housename, as there are other titles listed under the name. Oddly, the Library of Congress catalogue lists the book under your own name (although it is known that the catalogue seldom lists books under a pseudonym but under the author's true name).
Could you tell me if this reference is correct, that your book did appear as by Robert W. Tracy. If it did, can you tell me anything about the name and if it was used widely, or just on the odd occasion.
Many thanks and best wishes,
My friend Turner from Arco, having literary interests of his own, probably decided he'd like to publish something quite a step up, but not too far, from his ordinary porno stuff. He wanted to give Robert W Tracy a face lift, and maybe also another kind of lift. He stopped me in the hall one day outside the DC office and asked me if I could write a novel like Colette. Now Colette was among other things a "literary" writer with a major reputation in France. Yes, her novels were "sexy" but not pornographic. But I also gathered that Turner had never really read Colette but that didn't bother me. I said "Sure," accepted a comfortable advance from him, and six weeks later, in the midst of my DC chores, presented him with three books "like" Colette. Turner, somewhat abashed, accepted the work with some concern about the fact that they had never published anything quite like these before, and confessed that he had, in fact, never read Colette and hadn't really known what he was asking for.
BUT, he decided to take a chance. He did Sword of Desire in his normal run of 10,000 and, as always, sold out every one. But more than that, Sword of Desire actually got a bunch of fine reviews. Arco had never gotten a review of any kind in its history. And so, they were all set to do the other two I had written when the Congressional investigation started and my friend David and his partner, Milt discreetly got out of publishing fiction and went into medical publishing, as I had mentioned above. So what happened to two of the three books, I have no idea. But Sword of Desire bears my name in the Library of Congress catalogue and it deserves a full presentation in my own name.
I had done the book--my way--knowing Dave knew nothing of Colette and here was a chance to write what I considered an interesting take-off on Reichian Orgone psychology--big stuff in those days. All the "in" people (including Saul Bellow, among others) were getting orgone boxes. If you're not familiar with Wilhelm Reich who basically broke with Freud and developed an "orgone" therapy that essentially involved a reversal of the Kundalini Yoga way of raising the consciousness from the lower regions through the centers to the top of the head. Reich, quite unknowingly, simply reversed the procedure. And invented the "orgone box" to facilitate the procedure. In fact, Reich's box was basically a giant sized Leyden jar, which, put simply is a device for generating static electricity by rubbing the rod extruding from the top of the jar. But with the orgone box, the patient simply stepped inside and thus began generating the energy thast Reich claimed would start the "orgones" flowing. Well, this acrtually moved the Kundalini for some, but downwards. And in that sense, it woprked, but backwards, as opposed to the Indian tradition of raising it to the spiritual high point at the top of the head, and, in fact, many claimed increased happiness and improved sexual activity. In fact, for Reichians, sexual activity was the sign of success.
In any case, when I delivered my story--it was sexy, but not a dirty word in the book--nothing that could categorize it as a "sex" story despite the presence of "ladies of the street" and a horny Congressional Committee. So I'm making sure that Sword of Desire, with some modest changes, such as eliminating girdles from a couple of scenes, yes girls wore girdles in those days, will once again see the light of day. I"ve currently got four books in play, this will make five. But the point of all this comes back to a subject we discussed the other day when I was so surprised to discover that the comics fans and writers who followed my generation, which didn't "love" comics, all now claim to "love" comics. Well, I've had some additional thoughts about all that and decided to present them to you.
As you'll note from the Arco story, we DC writers were, for the most part, always alert to the possibility of being able to tell our stories in some other more significant medium, in slick short stories, in novels, in TV series. In fact, most of us tried them all with varying degrees of success. But no, we didn't "love" comics as a medium, we liked writing in any number of media of which comics was not at the top of the list. Now, with a few exceptions, today's comics writers are mostly just comics writers first, and storytellers second. I've already explained why in these columns. Because most of them started out as artists, a few as editors, and so they were not storytellers so much as comics storytellers. They read comics, they drew comics and so far as I can tell, their reading was quite narrow. My dear friend Tony Isabella who has proven he can write a pretty mean story himself, he was recently the co-author of a pretty good Star Trek novel, especially claims to "love" comics. But I think this has to be more a mode of speaking than an exclusion of other kinds of literature from his affections. To me, even as recently as a couple of years ago, when I did the title piece in DC's BIZARRO book, it was written because I had read widely outside comics. Tony once criticized one of my Batman stories, about the Joker kidnapping a house and holding it for ransom. Tony declared it was not a "typical Batman story."
Precisely, Tony. I always tried to avoid writing typical Batman, Superman or anything type of stories. I chose instead to break out of the pattern, expand the character and the strip by drawing them into those broader ancient mythic cycles on which all our western literature is founded. Since this would require a treatise to enlarge upon, I"ll leave it to you to grasp what such an approach offers for the enrichment of the comics medium, and if my critics, for the most part over the years are right, I have had a significant part in that expansion. Looking at the best of our comics writers, Bill Finger, Don Cameron, Alan Moore---and a few special others whose names drop out of my leaky memory as I write this, (ah, the Sandman author, for one), none of these people wrote typical stories. On the contrary, their work made what was typical richer and more grounded in the basic myths, our ancient heritage. They wrote stories because of literary influences they had experienced, not simply comics influences. By the way, Weisinger, who didn't write out of literary influences, managed to bring comics down quite a notch overall, except where he would borrow from better sources than he had within himself.
So, as I say, when the opportunity came to write the Superman radio show, I turned it down. I was overloaded with comics assignments. And I had a few other book ideas in mind. In the end, following a long detour into advertising, marketing and motivational studies for industry, and then via Canadian politics and the documentary film, I've finally found my way back to the novel, a long long time after Sword of Desire. Major things in the novel department will undoubtedly start up this year. Oh yes, and I still love comics, but not exclusively.
<< 03/14/2005 | 03/28/2005 | 04/04/2005 >>
Discuss this column with me at my Round Table.
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