By Celia Coates
Alvin Schwartz wrote the storylines and dialogue for the Superman strips that appeared in newspapers during the golden age of comic books. Between 1942 and 1958 Schwartz wrote for DC Comics – a company that was a merger of three companies, two of which he had worked for – and Superman became an extraordinary part of his life.
Schwartz began with wondering about superpowers and how to make the character interesting. He was sitting at a Chock Full o’Nuts sandwich shop in New York City when he noticed a neatly dressed young man sitting at the counter:
“I kept looking at him without quite understanding at first what intrigued me about him. He was probably one of the most ordinary-looking people I had ever seen. He was as vapid as the thin cheese-and-nut sandwich he was almost daintily munching on.”
(From Alvin Schwartz’s book, AN UNLIKELY PROPHET)
Schwartz suddenly realized that the young man was like Clark Kent, Superman’s alter ego, and that the blandness was necessary. He thought that the two qualities of the character, the ordinariness and the extraordinariness of Superman, although highly exaggerated, represented something universal in all of us. He wrote,
“The sharp contrast between the self as nonentity and the self as all-powerful seemed to suggest a secret, private, but universal experience.”
Posts in WINN explore a kind of doubleness of experience too – what the personal self can discover and how often the public self is not able to disclose what we have come to know about the nature of material and non-material realities. To differing extents we all have super powers although we live in a culture that suppresses and denies them.
Schwartz describes some human superpowers this way:
“I found myself fascinated by the complexities that seemed to lie hidden within the ordinariness of each of us. And that led me to recall some of the inexplicable gifts and capacities I had found in so many outwardly ordinary people. I remembered a musician who heard extraordinary Mozartian flashes of music in her head that she mostly never troubled to write down; a housewife who always knew when anyone in her large extended family was in trouble, no matter how far away the family member lived; one young man who worked at our local post office who could predict the weather several days in advance with virtual infallibility; a certain German refugee who had been too brutalized by the Nazis to hold a job anymore but who could walk into a betting parlor, make a modest wager, and never fail to walk away with enough to get him through a few days. Then there was Warden Day, a master lithographer who saw people’s auras so that she always seemed to know their state of health and even their mood of the moment.”
I’ve often found in conversations when people feel comfortable, pretty sure they won’t be laughed at or thought crazy, that many, many of us have similar memories. Or, we’ve experienced our own non-ordinariness. What happens most of the time, though, is that we normalize what we’ve seen, felt, or heard. We explain it away or diminish the details or chase the event into the back of our minds. It’s important to bring these experiences forward into focus and examine what they can teach us. And, of course, some of them can then be explained in very ordinary ways, but it would be great if we could overcome having been trained to simply dismiss them.
Schwartz writes of being friends with artists Jackson Pollock and his wife, Lee Krassner, when they were neighbors in East Hampton and learning to see in some non-ordinary ways. Lee said,
“We usually just see what we expect to see. … The good stuff is always hidden back in the shadows where our expectations don’t reach.”
Have you known anyone with unusual abilities, or have you had any experiences that are hard to explain but you know are real? What are your expectations, and what might you be hiding back in the shadows?
Schwartz’s book is a page-turner that I first read when it was republished in 2006. I’ve kept it on my shelves and was very glad to look at it again because it isn’t just a wonderful story, it’s wise, true, and wild. This post and next week’s are drawn from it.
* * * * *
Alvin Schwartz gave up writing the Superman stories when he came into conflict with a new editor who insisted on a storyline that Schwartz thought was completely out of character for the hero. He switched careers completely and went on to more than twenty years of success in marketing and advertising. In 1994, when he was 78 years old, Superman came back into his life with a whole new force.
Schwartz tells the whole story in his book, first published by MacMurray & Beck in 1997 as AN UNLIKELY PROPHET: Revelations on the Path Without Form.
In 2006 it was published by Destiny Books as AN UNLIKELY PROPHET: A Metaphysical Memoir by the Legendary Writer of Superman and Batman.