Alvin Schwartz (1916 – 2011)
By Brad Mackay
It is with great sadness that I report the passing of Alvin Schwartz, a writer and born polymath whose expansive career spanned eight decades and saw the creation of the iconic Bizarro Superman for DC Comics.
Schwartz died on October 28th at his home in Chesterville, Ontario (just outside Ottawa, Canada’s capital) from heart-related complications. He was 94.
The US-born Schwartz was a notorious firebrand who resisted conventional thought, even if it meant challenging his own ideas or dismantling his own creations. In the nearly 20 years he worked in comics he wrote countless Batman and Superman stories (in comic books and in newspaper strips), came up with the idea (and title) for World’s Finest comics, and was behind the remarkably durable villain Bizarro, the mirror-image anti-Superman whose pop-culture bona fides were cemented when he inspired an 1996 episode of the popular sit-com Seinfeld (1996’s “The Bizarro Jerry”). Though he often bristled at being defined simply by the peculiar, white-skinned character, its creation was representative of how Schwartz approached his art —he was more interested in deconstructing popular myths in order to see how they worked than the myths themselves.
In fact, in some ways his life was a Bizarro mirror-image of Joe Shuster’s, the Canadian-born cartoonist who left Canada for the U.S. as a boy, and later co-created Superman, one of the most enduring pop-culture phenoms of all time. Shuster created few other lasting comics works, but remained in America where he became as well known for his life-long battle for compensation and copyright with DC Comics.
Schwartz meanwhile, creator of the anti-Superman, was born in America (indeed, in “Metropolis”), which he left in the 1960s in favour of Canada where he led a fruitful creative life outside of comics as a poet, essayist, novelist and filmmaker.
Born on November 17, 1916 in New York City, Schwartz’s first foray into the arts came as a teenager when he created a literary magazine called Mosaic which published his own early writings along with those of Ezra Pound, Getrude Stein and William Carlos Williams. After high school he wrote criticism and poetry for journals such as the Lion & Unicorn, American Scholar and Voices.
In 1939, struggling to make a living as a writer, he turned to comics after a friend—Jack Schiff—mentioned that they were in need of people. At the time, Superman had just ignited the nascent medium of comic books, spawning countless other superhero titles like Batman (which launched in 1939). Schwartz began writing children’s stories for Fairy Tale Parade, and soon moved on to the A-list superheroes Batman and Superman in 1942. He started by providing scripts for the Batman title and then two years later began writing the Batman newspaper strip. Impressed, his editors handed him the reins of the high-profile Superman strip shortly after.
Schwartz would go on to write dozens upon dozens of comics for DC (including Aquaman, House of Mystery, Wonder Woman, The Flash and Green Lantern) and moonlighted at other companies, including a stint on Fawcett’s Captain Marvel. In 1941 he came up with the idea to pair Batman and Superman — by far DC’s most popular characters — in one of the industry’s first team-up books, World’s Best. After a rival company with a similarly named comic threatened to sue, the title was changed to World’s Finest for issue #2.
One of his Batman stories during this period, “The Duped Domestics,” gained notoriety among comics fans for a story in which Alfred (in costume as Batman) disciplines Catwoman by administering a firm spanking. In 2009 Schwartz reflected on this story in a collection of Batman stories:
“Looking back, I’m as shocked as anyone that this ending made it to the page. What can I say? Back then the comics industry (at least at DC) was a big game; I still remember Jack Schiff jumping up and down on his chair and waving his hands like a madman as we brainstormed new storylines for Superman and Batman. It was a big game and everyone was playing. I guess sometimes we got carried away and the results were a little… offside.”
Other noteworthy accomplishments included a Superman operetta that Schwartz penned in 1947. Released as a record and storybook, the musical featured characters and villains breaking into song and remains a rare and prized collectible for Superman fans.
In the midst of Schwartz’s comics career he wrote The Blowtop, a novel that was credited by the New York Times as being the first consciously existential novel written in America. Written in 1946, it was inspired by his close relationships to such famous abstract expressionist painters as Jackson Pollock and Willem DeKooning and explored how the post-war years affected the bohemian class in New York’s Greenwich Village, where Schwartz grew up and lived. Due to its frank language and unflinching portrayal of drug use and sex, The Blowtop wasn’t published until 1948—and even then it was repackaged as a pulp mystery novel.
The book became a cult success, and was a favourite of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg when they were students at Columbia University; which led to some claims that the book sparked the Beat Generation of writers. The book became a best-seller in France in 1950, when it was published as Le Cingli. Despite the success of the book, it fell out of print in America and Schwartz continued to work in comics until 1958. That was the year he created Bizarro Superman for DC Comics, but a clash over credit that same year would lead to his sudden farewell from comics.
As noted elsewhere, some confusion exists over the exact provenance of Bizarro Superman. The character made his first appearance in Superboy #68, which was written by Otto Binder and drawn by George Papp. Bizarro’s next appearance was in the daily newspaper strip, scripted by Schwartz. According to the accepted history, this makes Binder and Papp the creators of Bizarro – but it’s not the case. According to Schwartz, he came up with the idea for Bizarro in 1958 after reading Carl Jung’s writings on “mirror-images” and in short order had written a storyline that introduced him in the strip. The strip was completed and lying around editor Mort Weisinger’s office when Binder came in for a meeting. Weisinger showed the yet-to-be-published strips to Binder and asked him to work the character into the comic books. Deadlines being what they are, Binder’s Superboy comic hit the shelves before Schwartz’s strip saw print – and Binder ended up getting the credit (both versions were published within weeks of each other in the late-Summer and Fall of 1958). Schwartz was displeased by this in part because Binder and Weisinger never corrected the mistake – he considered Weisinger a talentless hack — but also because he didn’t approve of Binder’s portrayal of his character as a simple-minded monster. Schwartz imagined Bizarro as a dark mirror to Superman, who by 1958 had become a paragon of virtue and American spirit—something that Schwartz had grown bored of writing.
Angered, he left DC that year and would not return to the world of comics again for nearly 40 years. He spent the next decade working in market research, where he helped develop research techniques such as psychographics and typological identification. He rose to the level of Research Director for the cutting-edge Institute for Motivational Research, where he provided advice to the likes of GM and General Foods.
In 1968, following a divorce from his first wife, Schwartz moved to Canada and began writing documentaries for the National Film Board of Canada. He also devised economic and social studies for the Canadian government. Later, he received a Canada Council Grant for a book on pop culture and religion with an unlikely focus on his former ward Superman.
In 1997, Schwartz returned to the world of superheroes in his 80s when he published An Unlikely Prophet; a meta-autobiography that imagined Superman as a tulpa, a mind-created reality or “thoughform,” a concept adopted from Tibetan Buddhism. The highlight of the book is Schwartz’s claim that he physically encountered Superman in a taxi in New York City.
In 2006, he published a follow-up of sorts titled A Gathering of Selves in which the Superman tulpa character helps Schwartz transcend the realms of personal identity and travel to a realm inhabited by “a multitude of selves, including the dark figure of Batman” to quote the book jacket. Both books were optioned for movies by the same company that produced the popular documentary, What the Bleep Do We Know?
That same year Schwartz was awarded the Bill Finger Award for Excellence in Comic Book Writing during the San Diego Comic Con; an honour he shared with writer/cartoonist Harvey Kurtzman.
For the last 20 years of his life Schwartz and his second wife Kay lived in a small home on the outskirts of Chesterville. He remained busy writing a number of novels, and taking to the internet where he penned a regular column, “After the Golden Age”, in which he discussed the roots of existentialism, philosophy, the publishing world and even occasionally, his old friend comics.
In more recent years comics fans increasingly sought him out, making the pilgrimage the small town to try and make his acquaintance and possibly break bread with him. He turned away more people than he welcomed in. I consider myself lucky to be among the latter.
In person he was alternately accommodating and argumentative; a true firebrand with a heart of gold living out in the country — as far from Metropolis as you could get. He had long come to terms with his fame from comics, but was not comfortable resting on these laurels. At some point an ardent fan had glued a small Bizarro figure to his mailbox, perhaps as a totem for future visitors looking for the characters creator. Alvin could just as well snapped it off, but I think he was happy to let them have their fun.
Schwartz died a few weeks before his 95th birthday. I called him in September about a review of his novels that was going to appear in a Canadian literary journal. He seemed pleased, though he seemed preoccupied with juggling his unpublished novels and mounting a Supreme Court of Canada case against Ontario’s Ministry of Transportation, who had taken away his driver’s licence a few months earlier. He didn’t want to talk about superheroes at the time.
The last time I checked, Bizarro was still perched atop his mailbox.