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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 01/14/2008
Vol. 2, #200

I've been away a long time. Not just from this column, but far earlier than that.

Half a century ago, I quit comics and abandoned Bizarro to the niceties of Mort Weisinger. It wasn't until 50 years later that I wrote another comic, the lead story in the DC book celebrating Bizarro.

But I had not disconnected from comics so much as the world had reconnected in a new way. I brought Bizarro into the DC universe when our whole culture was just starting on the long shift from the end of World War II and the beginning of the drift toward suburbia.

The GI Bill enabled many to return to civilian life and start the mad rush to the suburbs. All through the fifties, the Levittowns sprang up and spread suburbia across the land. The man in the grey flannel suit was the new image of the American hero. But not for long. Because something else had happened when we were becoming a suburban nation. The Blowtop began to drift around through Greenwich Village and eventually made its way uptown to Columbia University where the seeds of the movement that was to follow the suburbanization of the post-war era were already in the making.

Two literature students at Columbia started to pick out of The Blowtop those new ideas, that were to ring a new act onstage to challenge the new suburbia with the revolution of the beats, led mostly by those same two stalwarts, Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. They made The Blowtop their bible, just about the time when Blowtop's publisher, Dial Press, smashed up in the breakdown of its war-damaged President, Burton C. Hofman, who made a mostly successful and mind-damaged effort to kill all the books his vice president, George Joel, had been handling. So, in effect, no one ever really heard of The Blowtop because it wasn't promoted. Not in the US anyway.

But in France, under the title of Le Cinglé, it was published by Les Editions de l'Elan, Paris 1950. And it sold like crazy. But since France was not a signatory to the international copyright convention at that time, neither Dial nor myself, the author, ever collected a dime. But the New York Times Book Section of January 14, 1948, picked up the story, interviewed Alvin Schwartz, and discovered, like the French existentialists, Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and others attached to that movement, that The Blowtop was an existentialist novel, one that even challenged the existentialism of its leading French advocates.

The Times Book Section, in fact, described it as "the first existentialist novel in America." But even beyond that, the Times exposed the greatest myth that had been promulgated in the history of comics by headlining the fact that Alvin Schwartz and not Jerry Siegel had been the real author of the Superman newspaper strip for some years but had never received the credit.

And Schwartz himself, me in my addled youth, if you like -- then proceeded to push off the New Yorker Magazine which tried to cover the story, by telling Claw, the then New Yorker editor who conducted the interview, that I wrote existentialist novels and Superman at the same time by living in a room divided in half, trimmed in different colors and separated by a phone booth. So quite effectively I connived with the DC powers that be to avoid any publicity about my central Superman role and all the changes I introduced during my tenure, for no other reason than youthful clownishness.

So effectively, I was the father of the beats but no critic was around until a number of years later to point out that I was the true proto-beat novelist. Not until years later when An Unlikely Prophet was reprinted by another publisher. But by that time, the world had changed again. The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit and the suburbia he arose from had already vanished into the dark caverns of history and the stage was set for the new world of The Beatles.

But this bit of personal history is minor. I mention it largely to introduce and analyze a story that has an important bearing on the great gulf between west and east which in its own way reveals the Global Village concept in all its Macluhanesque superficiality and was manifesting just about the time the world was switching away from suburbanism to Beatlemania. And out of it comes an east-west misunderstanding that touches the heights of comedy.

I mean comedy in its best sense. It's a story I picked up some years ago when, toward the close of the Levittown era, I, like so many of my contemporaries had settled just north of Peekskill into my own suburban haven, in the village of Shrub Oak, in the north end of Westchester County. Shrub Oak was part of the Township of Yorktown, which burgeoned out of the village of Yorktown Heights in the late eighteenth century and whose famous and historically distinctive press, the Patent Trader, also dates from that time. The area was one in which I soon felt quite at home -- so much so that I brought Superman with me.

More precisely, proceeded to induct the then Town Attorney of Yorktown into one of my Superman newspaper continuities for eight weeks to the utter delight of this rising politician and his acquaintances. I even persuaded my friend, the DC artist, Win Mortimer to come down to Yorktown to do some drawings of Ray Margles, the Town Attorney, to further authenticate the story which was written up in the Patent Trader, but only after a decade from after it had actually happened, which was some years after I had left DC. Certain characters like Mort Weisinger named me as the leading culprit, of course, and then miscredited the art work to Wayne Boring whose name appeared on the strip although Wayne had long ceased to have anything to do with it.

The point of this little tale leads me to that more important story about the gulf between east and west in that it brought me into contact with another important member of the Yorktown community, the man who headed the ad agency, headquartered in New York City, that was responsible for promoting the books of one of India's great contemporary sages, Sri Aurobindo.

To many of you, his name will be familiar. To others, I will merely say that his studies of the Gita and his unique work on cell theory and ancient Hindu doctrine earned him an international reputation for wisdom and practical philosophic action. In any case, one of the leading disciples of this great eastern sage, a man I will refer to as Tara Sattvapalli, visited Yorktown Heights around this time in order to oversee the promotion of Aurobindo's books by the agency. While visiting Yorktown, he remained the guest of the agency head, and wandered freely about the Village, meeting people, becoming acquainted with many, to him, astounding western ways and cultural mores. In fact, this man of multiple spiritual and yogic accomplishments was truly astounded by his experiences of this unique and very untypical American suburb. The suburb was more than astounded by him.

Sattvapalli's arrival and visit gradually took shape as a major cultural clash, nearly verging, if you like, on cataclysm. Tara and Yorktown certainly shook each other up and in ways that amply illustrate how far we really were from Marshal MacLuhan's then widely touted Global Village. But because I managed to find myself at the center of many contretemps that so shook the Village and Mr Sattvapalli, I knew I had to write about it. Using the simple mirror of two societies, one of abundance and one of scarcity, I was able to make apparent the scarcity in the abundance, and the abundance in the scarcity.

The suburban universe, its mores, characters, the local nursery school, the local supermarket particularly, and the American suburb in general have probably never been so magically highlighted as in the culture clash that followed in the train of Mr Sattvapalli's visit. Even Sattvapalli was changed, in ways wondrous to behold. And because it is now about the fiftieth anniversary of that story which began with my bringing Superman into Yorktown Heights, a story now mostly forgotten, I'm going to present the whole thing for my Superman fans-right here, allowing everyone to see what Supes was really up to at the crucial historical time when the world was transitioning from the epoch of suburbanization to the era in which my first novel The Blowtop opened the way for Beatlemania and the Baby Boomers and a truly radical change in American and world culture. So don't miss next week.

-- Alvin

<< 06/18/2007 | 01/14/2008 | 01/28/2008 >>

Discuss this column with me at my Round Table.

Recent Columns:
NEWESTVol. 2, #205 I have been away for months... (03/09/2008)
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02/11/2008Vol. 2, #203 Section 3 - Introducing Mr. Sattvapalli
02/04/2008Vol. 2, #202 Section 2
01/28/2008Vol. 2, #201 Section 1
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06/18/2007Vol. 2, #199 Superman as more of a process than a fixed creation
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03/26/2007Vol. 2, #196 Consciousness visiting. My arcane subject for today.
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