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The Rao of Superman


Alvin Schwartz wrote the Superman and Batman newspaper comic strips 50 years ago.  Now after journeys into the worlds of Tibetan monks, expressionist painters, Hawaiian kahunas and quantum physicists, he's examining the spiritual connection he has with his characters.

by Rick Chandler


I've talked to him twice by telephone, I've read his newest novel, and I've spoken with his publicist at length.  But I'm still not quite sure how to introduce you to Alvin Schwartz. 

The man is too interesting for words. 

I'll take a stab at it, though - Alvin Schwartz lives with his wife in the backwoods of Ottawa, Canada, in a small farm cottage where his only neighbors are cows.  One might call it his fortress of solitude -- it's a good place to write, to read and to entertain occasional guests. 

Like Superman. 

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.

That's a lot to digest when you think about it.  And it's just one idea from Schwartz's latest novel, An Unlikely Prophet, in which he examines his complex relationship with Superman, of all people, and how the Man of Steel led him to a mysterious stranger.  And in turn, Schwartz discovers The Path Without Form -- a Mahayana Buddhist philosophy in which people, through imagination, can create individual realities. 

"I guess you could call me a literary Lazarus," chuckled Schwartz, who was nearly 80 years old when he completed An Unlikely Prophet, his third novel.  "I came to many realizations late in life.  But better late than never."

Schwartz was the writer of the Superman and Batman newspaper comic strips in the 1940s and 50s and also wrote scripts for many of the popular Golden Age comic books in the medium's infancy.  He wrote everything they could throw at him -- titles such as The Flash, Vigilante, Tomahawk, House of Mystery, Date With Judy, Aquaman and Wonder Woman. 

"I am of the last generation who grew up without comics," Schwartz said.  "My points of reference were Sherlock Holmes, Mark Twain, Tarzan and H.G. Wells."

When Schwartz was in his early 20s, a couple of guys named Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster created a character called Superman and began peddling the idea around.

"Nobody would buy it," Schwartz said.  "Finally, they sold Superman to Detective Comics, and it took off overnight."

As the popularity of their character grew, Siegel and Shuster began handing off the writing duties.  Schwartz, who already had a full plate at the time, at first declined when offered the chance to write Superman -- being a bit turned off by the characters' seemingly limitless powers. 

It was only after he noticed a bland, neatly dressed young man at a local diner that Schwartz had the vision that led him to accept the Superman job. 

...  I suddenly made the connection with Superman's alter ego, Clark Kent.  The thought came to me that there was something necessary about Clark's blandness -- that it represented something universal, as though in the ordinariness in each of us there had to be a place of rest, of relief.  ...  The sharp contrast between the self as nonentity and the self as all-powerful seemed to suggest a secret, private but universal experience. 

Schwartz left the industry in the 1960s, but as time progressed he became aware of the powerful aftereffects of his 17-year comic book writing career.  He began lecturing on the subject, discovering more and more about how Superman, in particular, continued to play a role in his life. 

"Superman became popular at the end of the depression, and toward the beginning of World War II," he said.  "As a nation we were looking for a savior.  Superman was a Messiah."

As he developed the character, Schwartz began to see Superman as an archetype -- a guardian angel who represented our need to be secure in a hostile world. 

His publishing bosses allowed Schwartz free reign to make Superman his own.  And he did -- developing such an intimate portrait of the character that Superman "practically wrote the stuff himself."

It was 35 years after Schwartz quit the comic book business (he later wrote books, movie scripts and docudramas) that he was spending a quiet afternoon at home in remote Chesterville, Ottawa.  Suddenly a strange man peddled a bike to his door.  That man was Thongden, a 7-foot Tibetan monk whose first inquiry was, "Are you the Superman writer?"

"Ah," I figured.  "One of those.  Another comics fan."

Schwartz dismissed the man as a nut at first.  But Thongden soon brought into focus the author's true relationship with Superman and a new way of looking at the world.  Schwartz would then embark on a strange and wonderful journey among Tibetan monks, expressionist painters, Hawaiian kahunas, quantum physicists ...  and superheroes. 

"Our notions of reality are drawn from our culture, and what has been a bigger part of our culture than comic books?" Schwartz said.  "Some people believe that the universe is one great thought, many individuals making up one great consciousness. 

"Superman is like that.  He's us -- when we're truly impermeable, indestructible -- totally concentrated."

"Of course, there's a lot more to it.  But you'll have to get the book."

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"Unquestionably, this book makes us want to explore all that life has to offer on its roller coaster ride. The superficial will never do anymore."

-The Northern Light

"Unlikely Prophet is a book that cannot be described. If it were a painting, it'd be a vast spiritual landscape with translucent forms from the past and future merging into physical form now. If it were a song, it'd be an ancient vibration that lives only on the tongues of the wise."

-The Edge

"Unlikely is... your chance of putting this book down once you've begun reading it. It will captivate you from start to finish."

-Tony Isabella


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