Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters, and the Birth of Comic Books
Author: Gerard Jones
No gangster or geek, no Harry Donenfeld or Jerry Siegel, could have imagined what would come of his work and his daydreams. Harry and his peers were just trying to make some money, have some fun, and print some pictures of naked girls.... Jerry and his fellow geeks just wanted to see their fantasies out in the world and make a living without having to work a real job.(339-40)
Men of Tomorrow, published in 2004, takes us through the history of comic books, and the lives of the men who created and published them, who transformed SF and pulp-fueled dreams into a phenomenon garish and inspiring. He also draws vivid pictures of the worlds these men inhabited, and the circumstances that fueled their dreams. Much of what Jones relates has seen print before, but Jones goes deeper than other books on comic history, and he gets beyond many of the legends, half-truths, and self-promotional claims repeated as fact in many works that document the medium's history. Similarly, many writers have commented on the American Jewish experience and its influence on the comic-book superhero. Few, however, create such a plausible, palpable sense of places and times as does Jones: the early twentieth century working-class Jewish neighborhoods whence most of the great comic-creators came, the high school offices of The Torch where Siegel and Shuster first worked together, the rushed sets of the 1950s tv show that sold Superman to the children of his original fans.
The industry’s history resembles more than a little the tortured chronologies of the DC and Marvel universes. Industry origin stories, only documented years later, conflict with and flatly contradict each other. Writers, artists, and publishers continuously rewrite and retcon their own lives. Charlie Gaines generally receives credit for inventing the comic-- and, without question, he popularized the comic as we know it-- but Jones shows the real story to be more complex. Siegel and Shuster gave many different versions of how they first conjured Superman; at least some exist to detract from the influence of Philip Wylie's novel, Gladiator. They did so with good reason; Wylie later sued them for plagiarism.
Jones has obviously done his research, and made a real effort to piece together plausible accounts from a mixture of facts, unverifiable claims, and theories. At times he seems too willing to accept testimony that supports the story he's telling. I’m not certain, for example, that an offhand remark supposedly made at a family gathering and recalled decades later, necessarily tell us anything about Jerry Siegel.
Jones focuses on Superman and those associated with his creation and publication, often to the exclusion of others. The stories behind other characters receives short shrift, and a few individuals who have no significant, direct connection to the Man of Steel may be overlooked. However, Jones manages to find significant space for Jack Cole, Will Eisner, Bob Kane (born Robert Kahn), Jack Kirby, (ne Jake Kurtzberg), Bob Finger, Stan Lee (Lieber), and many others. He even touches on histories of phenomena that influenced comics: early science fiction fandom, muscle and fitness fads, sensationalistic and often pornographic pulp magazines, alliances between cheap publishers and racketeers. Jones’ narrative narrows in places, but by doing so he creates a thread which helps tie the disparate elements together.
In its best moments, Men of Tomorrow becomes a real-life counterpart to that most extraordinary of comic-influenced novels, Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. Not all of your favorite comic-creators come across looking well. Siegel seems pathetically nerdy and tragically clueless at times, and Bob Kane, the co-creator of Batman, a far from admirable figure who relied heavily on ghosts and took greater credit than he deserved1. As for the comic-book publishers, many treated the writers and artists like low-level assembly-line workers, and some were downright reprehensible, sharing more than a few traits of the gangsters with whom they associated.
While the lives of some of these people become tragic, the comics themselves do something almost superheroic, Starting from humble and suspect origins, subject to shocking business practices, they bloomed into an industry run by people devoted to their creations, an industry with a remarkable record for taking the geeky fantasies of social underdogs and turning them into mainstream success. As Jones states in the final chapter:
No characters have survived the shifting mass-culture sands like the superheroes. Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck live on as company mascots. Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck are still good for the occasional revival, but they've never been successfully reinvented for the present. Blondie Bumstead hangs on in the newspapers by habit and nostalgia. The pulp heroes, the Shadow and Doc Savage, are just gone. But after nearly seventy years, the comic book superheroes are still flying through the movie theaters, TV screens, video game consoles, and toy stores of the world. They may be more popular and more culturally relevant now than when they were new.
1. This appears to go beyond even the now well-known fact that Bob Finger gave the Batman his origin story, which has significantly affected the character’s development and continued success. Kane used and (arguably) exploited ghosts throughout his career. Incredibly, it appears that he even hired a ghost to create "fine art" paintings he exhibited later in his life.