Pub. Date:
Basic Books
Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters, and the Birth of the Comic Book / Edition 1

Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters, and the Birth of the Comic Book / Edition 1

by Gerald Jones
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Animated by the stories of some of the last century's most charismatic and conniving artists, writers, and businessmen, Men of Tomorrow brilliantly demonstrates how the creators of the superheroes gained their cultural power and established a crucial place in the modern imagination. "This history of the birth of superhero comics highlights three pivotal figures. The story begins early in the last century, on the Lower East Side, where Harry Donenfeld rises from the streets to become the king of the 'smooshes'-soft-core magazines with titles like French Humor and Hot Tales. Later, two high school friends in Cleveland, Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel, become avid fans of 'scientifiction,' the new kind of literature promoted by their favorite pulp magazines. The disparate worlds of the wise guy and the geeks collide in 1938, and the result is Action Comics #1, the debut of Superman. For Donenfeld, the comics were a way to sidestep the censors. For Shuster and Siegel, they were both a calling and an eventual source of misery: the pair waged a lifelong campaign for credit and appropriate compensation." -The New Yorker

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780465036578
Publisher: Basic Books
Publication date: 10/10/2005
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 416
Sales rank: 1,214,327
Product dimensions: 5.25(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.87(d)
Age Range: 15 - 18 Years

About 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.


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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Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
notasecretagent on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This book is a great, well-written, readable overview of the comic book industry in the United States. It reads more like a novel than a history, but the reader leaves feeling informed. Huzzah!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago