Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Book Reviews: From political histories to bad comics, to bad comics of political histories. And the occasional rant about fiction and writing.

Mimsy Review: An Unlikely Prophet

Reviewed by Jerry Stratton, October 24, 2002

An Unlikely Prophet is a book about those moments in our lives that have touched the unknown and the unexplainable. In the face of unbending rationality, we need to be reminded to wipe the dust away that so quickly obscures our second vision. While such moments always return, we may gradually lose the capacity to see them.

The subtitle is “Revelations on the Path Without Form,” and the book begins with a quote from Rainer Maria Rilke: “We must take on our existence as broadly as we possibly can; this is the only courage that is demanded of us: to have courage for the most strange, the most inexplicable.”

RecommendationPossible Purchase
AuthorAlvin Schwartz
Year1997
Length242 pages
Book Rating7

After “The Blowtop”, Alvin Schwartz left novels for a highly varied writing career: first comic books (which he had already been doing at the time of “Blowtop”), and then he left comic books for joke books and a stint as research director for Donnelly Marketing.

Thematically very similar, “An Unlikely Prophet” is a completely different kind of book from “The Blowtop”. Where “The Blowtop” used the mystery genre to discuss the young Schartz’s philosophy, “An Unlikely Prophet” uses the new age genre. “An Unlikely Prophet” is a “spiritual memoir”. You’ll find it in the “Metaphysics” section of your bookstore, not in the fiction section. It isn’t just told as a true story, it is marketed as one.

He dedicated the book not to Rilke but to Rich Morrissey. Rich (who died in 2001) was the comic book fan’s comic book fan. He also was a big fan of older comics, and worked to bring some of the “old masters” back into the comic book convention spotlight. One of those was Alvin Schwartz. Rich was such an encyclopedia of comic book lore that the people (like Schwartz) who wrote the stories would turn to him for confirmation of what they did or did not write. He was one of the most coveted “trivia” contestants, and as a member of the Black Ink Irregulars managed to keep the Fan team in the running in their regular matchup against the Pro team. They either won or came close to winning against the people who actually wrote the stories the questions were about.

The entry for the 2001 “Golden Age of Comics” panel in the San Diego con book, in which Schwartz participated, included “And we’ll pause at the outset to remember our friend Rich Morrissey, who wouldn’t have missed an event like this if he could help it.” At the 2001 convention, Alvin Schwartz also received an Inkpot award for lifetime achievement at the convention’s annual awards ceremony.

Alvin Schwartz is also known (due in large part to Morrissey’s research, I suspect) as one of two possible creators of the Bizarro character from the Superman comic, a very tulpa-like character who was the opposite of whatever Superman was, except that in a very zen-like manner he also shared Superman’s powers.

This is a long way around to an explanation of how this book is written as a memoir--and marketed as such--instead of as fiction. The main character, who used to write comic books before becoming research director for the Reuben H. Donnelly Corporation, is Alvin Schwartz. His wife is a supporting character. The issue at hand is that he has been carrying Superman around with him ever since he left the job of writing Superman under less than amicable circumstances.

Superman, however, keeps coming back to him. In the Hawaiian islands, he meets a kahuna (priest) who tells him how Superman saved the Hawaiian islands from extinction.

Schwartz had originally taken the job of writing Superman because he thought it gave him a venue to explore the parts of human existence that interested him, and that made “The Blowtop” an underground classic.

There really had to be some sort of deeper hidden self of which our outward Clark Kent personality was but the dim reflection... if I tried to write Superman, if they let me do the stories my own way, if they let me explore more fully that division between the ordinary and the extraordinary... it would mean something more than just doing another comic strip with superpowered monsters punching each other out.

Surprisingly, he did get this freedom. But when the editor changed, so did the freedom. And Schwartz, in the story, leaves the Superman as unfinished business. He forgets it, but it can’t go away. Covered in dust, Martin Buber might say, but it’s there nonetheless. One of “the things that are left over,” as Archie Grau might say from “The Blowtop”. And when a Tibetan monk bicycles up to his Westchester home from New York City, it all explodes into the open. Thongden, the monk, tells him “You created your own personal living Superman.” And if Al Schwartz is ready (or eager) to believe such a possibility, there is also his cynical wife to contend with.

The story weaves in and out of reality--Thongden or Schwartz would say “what you call reality”--with historical references to Superman, and comic books, and Greenwich Village making up the weave. Alvin Schartz in the book mentions Jackson Pollock, and Alvin Schwartz the author did know Pollock back in the village. And then steps into another reality, one created by the creative mind of man, where Superman exists not just as a conceit or an icon but as an idea, in a world where ideas have form. This world co-exists with ours, but, in the book, we choose not to use the fact of its existence.

Besides carrying Superman around with him, Schwartz has also been carrying a tulpa of Mort Weisinger, the editor with whom he left under unresolved differences over the Superman storyline. It passes almost as a joke, but it underlies perhaps the most important point that the book wants to offer. “We aren’t just ourselves.” Nor are we just ourselves and the fictional characters we create. Everything is one. “There’s no outside, just different angles.”

I vacillate on this book, like a newborn tulpa. On the one hand, it comes across as almost brilliant, the kind of philosophical novel that would be an underground hit if there were still an underground in the village. On the other hand, I am one of those rational, bound individuals who can’t quite approve of its being marketed as nonfiction. In an odd turn that Schwartz probably would find both funny and appropriate, Amazon’s computers have (as I write this) decided to pair “An Unlikely Prophet” with “How to Give Her Absolute Pleasure”.

So I don’t know what to recommend. It’s your life, you decide. (Ah, but if we’re all one, it isn’t just your life, it’s mine also. But if that’s the case you’ve already read it and enjoyed it.)

An Unlikely Prophet

Alvin Schwartz

Recommendation: Possible Purchase

If you enjoyed An Unlikely Prophet…

If you enjoy Alvin Schwartz, you might also be interested in The Blowtop.

If you enjoy comics history, you might also be interested in Alec: How to be an artist and Understanding Comics.

If you enjoy life is unreal, you might also be interested in Idiots, Imbeciles, and Morons, Tortilla Flat, and The Secret Bookshelf.