Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book

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"Gerard Jones, a longtime insider to the comic book business, draws on years of research and interview to reveal how the collision of Yiddish and American culture shaped the modern vision of the hero. He recounts the frightened counterattack against comics that nearly destroyed the industry in the 1950s and traces the underground resurgence that inspired a new generation to transmute those long-ago fantasies into art, literature, and blockbuster movies. Along the way he uncovers never-before-told stories about the makers of America's most ...
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"Gerard Jones, a longtime insider to the comic book business, draws on years of research and interview to reveal how the collision of Yiddish and American culture shaped the modern vision of the hero. He recounts the frightened counterattack against comics that nearly destroyed the industry in the 1950s and traces the underground resurgence that inspired a new generation to transmute those long-ago fantasies into art, literature, and blockbuster movies. Along the way he uncovers never-before-told stories about the makers of America's most peculiar art form." Far more than the story of superheroes, Men of Tomorrow tells of the growth of geek culture from its birth in the science fiction fandom of the 1920s to its conquest of mass media sixty years later and tracks pop culture's transformation from the freewheeling, pickpocket entrepreneurship of the early twentieth century through immigration, technological upheaval, and a pair of world wars to the corporate control of the AOL/Time Warner era.
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Editorial Reviews

John Hodgman
Superman was just a smiling strongman until Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster went back and gave us his origin: his fatherless exile from a lost paradise; his adoption by smiling heartland farmers; the secret powers he did not dare reveal. He ultimately split his identity in two, leading his true life in the air so as not to threaten his assimilation into everyday life on the ground. That's when Superman became a metaphor, Jones says, for the ethnic experience in America and later for our homegrown outsiders, the bookish and the bullied, the weirdos and geeks and, well, cartoonists.
— The New York Times
Library Journal
In this superb, insightful history, Jones (Killing Monsters) tells the story of the early days of the comics industry-the late 1930s to mid-1950s era commonly referred to by fans as comics' "Golden Age." The biggest names of the time are all here: Jack Kirby, Will Eisner, Bob Kane, William M. Gaines, and others. But Jones gives special focus to the career of Jerry Siegel-the writer who, with artist Joe Shuster, created Superman-following his days as a young science fiction fan, his phenomenal success, and his battles with DC for credit and compensation for his creation. Jones displays a firm grasp on the minutiae of comics history, but he goes far beyond those facts, exploring the psychology of the comics' creators and publishers and presenting a wealth of detail on the cultural background of pulp magazines, Prohibition, and Jewish immigration from which the comics arose. Jones's earlier The Comic Book Heroes (o.p.) superbly covers the era after 1956 and is recommended for comics fans, while this book will have wide appeal to fans and mainstream readers alike. Highly recommended. Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
An industry long in the shadows gets its due with a mainstream historical text. Although the tide has lately turned toward respect for the more literary subfield of graphic novels, the critical community still largely ignores the superhero pulps that constitute the vast bulk of comic books. Fortunately, this punchy new history dives right into that world of brawny, ridiculous heroics and implausible scenarios with commendable and unapologetic gusto. Michael Chabon explored the Lower East Side, Jewish, immigrant roots of the industry in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (2000), but Jones (Honey I'm Home, 1991, etc.) digs deeper, limning the grubby details of an always-disreputable business and coming up with a fistful of gold. He excels at describing the early-20th-century New York milieu that nurtured the art form, "the bed in which the comic book was born: countercultural, lowbrow, idealistic, prurient, pretentious, mercenary, forward-looking, and ephemeral, all in the same instant." Jones profiles such key figures as Harry Donenfeld, a pioneering comics kingpin (and buddy of gangsters like Frank Costello) with a lust for the deal and an unerring eye for what would sell, early industry greats like Jerry Siegel and Wil Eisner, and some not-so-greats as well (Batman creator Bob Kane had limited talent, to say the least). In one of the more astonishing scenes here, publisher Lev Gleason gets a great deal in 1941 on a few million pages of pulp stock, provided he can get it printed in a weekend; on Friday, he grabs a team of artists, who put out a 64-page Daredevil issue by Monday. If this sounds familiar, it's the basis for one of Kavalier's best set pieces. Bold and brassy, with asolid grasp of its material. Author tour. Agent: Carol Mann/Carol Mann Agency
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780641886690
  • Publisher: Basic Books
  • Publication date: 10/11/2004
  • Pages: 416
  • Product dimensions: 6.42 (w) x 9.46 (h) x 1.32 (d)

Meet the Author

Gerard Jones is a writer whose credits include the New York Times, Harper's, Batman and Spider-Man comics, and Pokémon cartoons. Recently, he has developed the Art & Story Workshops for children and spoken on fantasy, aggression, and the media at institutions around the country. He is the author of Honey, I'm Home: Sitcoms Selling the American Dream and The Comic Book Heroes. He lives in San Francisco with his wife and son.
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Interviews & Essays

An Interview with Gerard Jones

Barnes & Men of Tomorrow chronicles the early days of the comic book, and its very unlikely fathers. How long did it take you to do the research involved in writing it?

Gerard Jones: It was 2 years of hard work and 15 years of collecting stories. When I wrote DC and Marvel comics for a living I'd seek out the old guys who'd been in the business since the beginning, most of whom were still alive, many of whom were still showing up at comic book conventions, and listen to their competing versions of the crazy early days. I met Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the creators of "Superman," and was struck by how gun-shy they seemed, how battered and insecure they were for two men who had essentially created the modern symbol of potency and self-confidence. Even before I conceived the book, I had to know what that was about.B& It sure seems like Siegel and Shuster were ill served by their employers. Was there anything they could have done early on to better protect their rights?GJ: There were a hundred things they could have done. At one point their editor, Vin Sullivan, while he was in the employ of the men who bought the rights to "Superman," drew Jerry aside and said, "You should really talk to a lawyer about these negotiations." And Jerry said, "I don't need a lawyer, I know what I'm doing." Jerry was a wounded young man, a mama's boy whose father had been murdered, trying to pass for a man of the world. He wanted to be a hustler, a deal maker, a big shot. But his timidity and steaming, self-defeating rage kept tripping him. The guys who owned DC Comics, Harry Donenfeld and Jack Liebowitz, really were hustlers, and there was no way Jerry and Joe could win that game. They wanted to keep Jerry and Joe subordinate but happy, and Jerry could never make peace with that.B& How much did their original vision of the Man of Steel differ from the version that eventually became so popular?GJ: You could almost say they had no original vision. Or let's say they had several visions, aimed at different markets. Jerry Siegel claimed in later years that he'd dreamed up "Superman" one hot summer night, run to Joe's house the next morning, and they'd cranked out pages of comic strips, a full-blown version of the "Superman" we know. But as with nearly everything else, Jerry was rewriting his own history. He actually worked with at least three different artists before settling with Joe, and some of those may have helped develop the idea. There are earlier drafts showing Superman as a tough guy in a muscle shirt and a silly cartoon character. Even the early issues that saw print veer wildly between a mean, hardboiled Superman, a goofy, practical-joking Superman, and a noble Superman. The coming-together of Superman is a fascinating puzzle, completely distorted by later retellings.B& Would you say that many of the characters in Men of Tomorrow wound up doing comics as an accident, rather than thru some carefully laid out business plan?GJ: It was pure accident. The comic book itself is a glorious accident. Harry Donenfeld wanted to publish girlie magazines, sleazy men's adventure pulps, and true-crime rags. He made a lot of his money off bootlegging and then off other sorts of illicit or quasi-illicit distribution. His partner, Jack Liebowitz, wanted something more stable and less likely to get them in trouble, especially in the wake of the repeal of Prohibition. which made comics attractive. But they all thought of comics as reprints of newspaper comic strips. No one saw the "comics magazine" as a medium unto itself. Siegel and Shuster wanted to get into the newspaper comics too, and hooked up with DC as a means to that end. "Superman" was pulled off a slush pile and slapped into print when they needed material badly. It all happened because these guys were looking for success somewhere else and accidentally tossed something onto the market that caught fire.B& "Batman" creator Bob Kane was a very different sort of individual than Siegel and Shuster, wasn't he?GJ: He was what Siegel and Shuster wanted to be. In the book I keep laying his story alongside theirs to show how differently the same game could be played. When "Superman" took off and a market opened for imitations, Kane jumped right in but negotiated a great contract for himself. Like Siegel and Shuster and nearly every other creator of the comics, he was a son of Eastern European Jewish immigrants, born around 1915, lower middle class. These guys all came from the same cloth. Bob was also a mama's boy. But he knew how to advance himself as effectively as Jerry and Joe knew how to shoot themselves in the foot. The dark side of Bob, though, is that he cheated the people around him. He manipulated other young artists and writers to make their work seem to be his.B& What was the most surprising bit of comics history you uncovered?GJ: The fact that Jerry Siegel's father was murdered in an armed robbery just a couple of years before Jerry created Superman, his bulletproof crime fighter. As one bookstore owner put it to me, it's "the secret origin of Superman." Jerry never told anyone in the comics business about his loss. He always wanted to appear invulnerable, above such pain. It was his own superheroic fantasy. But when I began to interview members of his family, there the story was, right in the middle of everything.B& Fredric Wertham's infamous anti-comics book, Seduction of the Innocent, had an enormous effect on the comics industry. Do you think Wertham had ostensibly good intentions?GJ: The story of Wertham's clash with the comics business is a fascinating twist on the cultural narrative in this book. So much of the history of the comics business and the superhero is the history of the Jewish transformation of American mass culture. Donenfeld, Liebowitz, Siegel, Shuster, all of them, one generation removed from the shtetl and the ghetto, bringing to cheesy publishing what men like them had brought to movies, popular music, Broadway, and so on. And here comes Wertham, a left-wing German Jew, denouncing comic books as a capitalist exploitation of the masses. He had very good intentions. He wanted to save children from what he saw as the psychological poison of comic books. But he just didn't understand mass culture. He didn't understand kids and fantasy. He thought Superman was a Nazi. He didn't understand what the lower-class Russian and Romanian Jews understood intuitively.B& What do you think would have happened to the comics industry if the Wertham book had never existed?GJ: Comics were already in trouble because of distribution problems, TV, a whole host of forces. But prior to the scandal over crime and horror comics, which Wertham helped flame, huge numbers of teenagers and adults were reading them. One market survey from the beginning of the '50s found that half the readers of comics were 20 and older. Comics might have matured into a full-fledged entertainment medium, as they did in Europe and Japan. But the scandal chased away older readers and brought about a self-censorship code that kept comics at a juvenile level. The medium nearly died, and has fought its way back only from the underground, from the cultural margins.B& Your book would make a great film, either conventional or documentary. Do you think we might see a film adaptation of some sort?GJ: I should hope so! I constructed this book as a great American success story juxtaposed against a great American failure story. Here's Jack Liebowitz, rising from poverty and radical socialism on the streets of the Lower East Side to become a board member of Time Warner by the end of his century-long life. And Harry Donenfeld, getting rich with Liebowitz but unable to shake off his gang connections and getting shuffled to the side. And over here is Jerry Siegel, creating the character that launched Liebowitz upward and at 60 taking a job as a mail clerk for the State of California. And Joe Shuster, going blind and living off his brother's charity. Then comes the public campaign to win the rights back, the amazing reversal, the happy ending, more or less -- it's great Hollywood stuff. American stuff.B& What's your next project?GJ: In the course of doing this book I discovered some remarkable things about the sexual culture of the early 20th century and the commodification and reconceptualizing of the human body. There are books that have to be written about Margaret Sanger's birth-control movement in the context of Prohibition-era money and politics; about how the bootlegging gangs and other outsiders transformed American pop culture through publishing; and about the whole strange subculture that grew around bodybuilding: Bernard MacFadden, Charles Atlas, and, oddly enough, the birth of radio and TV. I'm already working on one of them!
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 6, 2004

    A must for any comic fan or a history lover

    I ahve been reading and collecting comics for thirty years now. I have always loved the history of the industry. It is a fasinating look into the America of the early 30s, 40s and into AMerican Pop Culture. And Men of one of the definite books on the history of comics. From it's early days as publishers of Pulps through the creation of the superhero through today. If your a comic fan and think you know the history behind Jerry Segel and Joe Shuster's creation of Superman, think again. But not only does Gerard Jones give an account of the industry but more importantly he tells us of the men behind the industry. Not just the writers and artists. But the publishers, the men who put the money up for this new form of entertainment. I could go on but you need to pick this book and find out for yourselves just what a rich history of the comic indsustry is. Even if your not a comic reader but a lover of history this book is for you. It will give you a look into the industry that created a pop culture that to this day has change they way America looks at ourselves.

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    Posted October 27, 2008

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