05 December 2011

Sexy Stuff from Bizarro Superman's Creator

Les Scott and Robert W. Tracy [pseud. Alvin Schwartz]
New York: Arco, 1951

Alvin Schwartz died six weeks ago at his Chesterville, Ontario home, just short of his ninety-fifth birthday. It wasn't until this past summer that I first encountered his name – courtesy of my pal Stephen J. Gertz – but I've read much of his work. Schwartz was one of the foremost figures of comic books' Golden Age, writing adventures for Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, The Flash, Green Lantern and Captain Marvel. He's probably best remembered as the father of Bizarro Superman, an accomplishment that should be overshadowed by his existential novel The Blowtop (1948), inspired by his friendships with Jackson Pollack and Willem de Kooning.

A lesser book, Touchable, the story of a small town girl who runs off to the corrupt and corrosive big city, follows a post-war pulp template. Anyone looking to read this novel is well-advised to ignore its jacket flap, which gives a pretty accurate rundown of what's in store for heroine Ruth.

How much Schwartz had to do with Touchable is anyone's guess. His pseudonym appears on the front of the book's dust jacket, but not the spine; the title page credits only co-author Les Scott. Another of Scott's Arco titles, Lady of the Evening (1952) features the very same ingredients – sex and drugs and Greenwich Village – but in different qualities.

In Touchable, the sex begins on page two, when eighteen-year-old Ruth quite literally takes a tumble in the hay. Drugs don't appear until the mid-point, when she's offered a reefer by lipstick lesbian Tony. Here marijuana proves to be a gateway drug, "the first turning of the key that unlocks a gate of terrors". Next thing you know, poor Ruth is turning tricks and mainlining horse supplied by her pimp.

The one thing that sets Touchable apart from Lady of the Evening is an odd account of the 1930 Ohio Penitentiary fire. Fourteen pages in total, it provides a detailed description of the institution, events leading to the disaster, the fire itself and the aftermath. For the first and only time, Ruth disappears from the narrative and attention shifts to her imprisoned boyfriend Blackie... only we don't see much of him either.

The Chicago Sunday Tribune, 27 April 1930

New York is later referred to as "the Inferno", but the whole episode is otherwise entirely incongruous; indeed, it reads like something lifted from another work. Perhaps it was.

I imagine a good deal of fun and frustration can be had in studying Alvin Schwartz's œuvre. Here's hoping someone does just that... and is able to figure out who, Schwartz or Scott, deserves credit for this novel's final line:
Chin up, her breasts pointing bravely, she walked back to the Inferno.
Trivia: As Robert W. Tracy, Schwartz wrote several other novels for Arco, including Hot Star, City Girl, Man Made, Sword of Desire and Sinful Daughter (with Jack Woodford). All were published in 1951 and 1952. Touchable co-author Les Scott was even more prolific, supplying Arco with She Made It Pay, Three Can Love, Twilight Woman, Twilight Women, The Girl from Hell's Kitchen and Lady of the Evening over roughly the same period. An earlier Scott title, Pick-Up (1950), was published by Toronto's own News Stand Library.

Object: A cheaply produced hardcover in ugly grey boards with red letters. My copy has notes by a former owner that direct the reader from one sex scene to the next.

Access: Worldcat reports Touchable in just nine libraries – all of which are in the United States. Only one copy – Good in Fair dustjacket – is listed online; the good news is that it's priced at US$20.

Addendum: I would be remiss if I didn't point out Brad Mackay's very fine tribute to Alvin Schwartz.