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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 11/28/2005
Vol. 2, #181

Mostly, when I write about Superman in this column, I'm trying to use that long and complex experience of creating that character in a way that both fitted in to what was required of me by my editors and yet to make the Superman image malleable enough to give it a sort of literary credence based on its archetypal roots. We know that Jerry Siegel's Superman was simplistic, original and perhaps exhibited a kind of amazement at its own success. Holding onto that success, whatever it was, proved to be a life's work for Jerry who, though a competent and ofttimes original writer, had too much to handle when it came to exploring and analyzing the Superman character that brought him such a flood of success that for years he had trouble finding his own place and his own balance, let alone a balance among editors, former pulp publishers, distribution moguls, mob circulation wars, contending with the army and the like. He did the best that he could. I wish he could have gone off and created a new version of the same idea--he was quite capable of it--and would have succeeded if he hadn't elieved you couldn't grab the gold ring twice. At that time and in that world, it was very possible.

By the time I came along after an introductory stint on Batman, I was faced with the need, just like Jerry to make a living at it, and also to satisfy a long standing literary history, I had been a poet, a serious novelist and a literary critic as well as a "little magazine editor" that brought me in contact with a kind of literature as art, so that my first reaction on being asked to take over Superman, was to resist. I had little feeling for this character who could beat up anybody and whose powers were so unlimited, and his problems so limited, catching bad guys whom he vastly overmatched and defeating them or throwing them in the clink. Usually without benefit of due process, for that matter. So I demurred until, as I've explained elsewhere, the vision of a typical Clark Kent personality in the anonymous person of an individual I found myself watching while I was gobbling a sandwich at a little eatery on Lexington Avenue near Grand Central Palace gave me a new insight into that element of ordinariness concealing a personality almost godlike that needed to function in some normal way in the normal world, that needed, in other words to adapt his superabilities to a far lesser reality or be condemned to an existence of utter loneliness and aloofness. In a sense, this was a real problem, a version of the descent of a god into the world of men. There were elements of the savior myths of many cultures in it. There were psychological problems to be explored and there was work to be done, lots of it, to make a world in turmoil and trapped in a terrible war, as good a place to live as was possible under the circumstances.

In fact, I found myself confronting the archetypal problem of the hero compelled to measure himself to the beat of the ordinary world while doing his part to keep things stable as possible. And above all to break out of the rigid Superman stance, provide human reactions and human desires, introduce humor in the form of special characters and broaden the strip's reach as though I were writing a kind of Odyssean saga for a war torn world. To some extent I appear to have succeeded, with much support from editor Jack Schiff, much enrichment of my notions of comics continuity to my friend Bill Finger, and my own special sense of the unique continuity required in a daily newspaper strip where no matter what the story-line was, each day's segment had to end with an element of crisis sufficient to draw the reader back each successive day. The Sunday page required a different kind of continuity, but I mastered and really learned to enjoy it all, even to testing out new Superman possibilities and superpower variations.

However, in a sense, because Superman became a kind of symbol in himself. I decided in doing this column, that I would explore as many of the philosophical and anthropological notions of what might be involved in an apparent ordinary human with respect to feelings and values, for Superman, in the end, despite his physical prowess was as thoroughly human as any of us. And, in these columns about Superman, I was able to deal with such overwhelming problems as homosexuality, gay marriage, abortion, by getting at the simple substance of them behind the Superman mask. I revealed the inescapable biological mixture of X and Y chromosomes in every single one of us, so that there's no such thing as a pure male or a pure female, but aspects of each of these tendencies in all of us. I simply did a very quiet study of the way x & y chromosomes were so distributed that it was impossible to say, from the outside alone, who was entirely male and who entirely female. I was able to go on and examine the peculiar American addiction to guns and how they had their roots in slavery. I was able to take up problems of value, of meaning, of history and politics in ways that I could not have had available without the wonderful symbolism that the Superman character offered. I was particularly fascinated by the role that superhero costumes play and did some digging into the subject, showing how the costume enables us to embody certain significant values that are symbolized by the things we wear, their colors, their uniformity, their expressiveness. And I even used Superman to discuss different levels of reading, the relation between different modes of cultural expression and how they all tended to fit together into a society, except that sometimes we needed in the midst of all the clamor to stop and be reminded that many of the so-called problems have the simplest of solutions. In the end, I have found the Superman idea, the superhero, a doorway into revealing us as we really are and how the disguises we undertake so often tell us more than all the clamor of the religious right and the political labels that so miss the point.

So, as the years go on, and I manage to get my books out from one year to the next, and continue to grasp what I can of the mysteries of consciousness and mortality and love, outside the too tainted context of dogma and the manipulations of the political system with its hidden economic underpinnings, I expect to continue in this same vein, bringing to light as much as I can from the experiences of the years and the work of my hands what's really going on.

I've slowed down lately. My health, family health, diminishing mobility have all contributed, but for as long as those of you who are interested in this column continue to respond, I shall do my part to keep this particular ball rolling.

And thanks for all that special support I've been getting from quite a number of you.

--Alvin

<< 11/21/2005 | 11/28/2005 | 02/06/2006 >>

Discuss this column with me at my Round Table.


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