Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book
by Gerard Jones. Basic Books. 384 pages. $26.
A couple of misfit, Depression-era Jewish kids in Cleveland pour their fevered dreams into the tale and imagery of a mighty crime-fighter in tights. In so doing, they launch a new narrative form of dazzling imagination, energy and popular appeal.
That, in essence, is Gerard Jones' story about the origins of Superman and the comic books. That, plus the pain, the pulp, and the porn, the betrayals, the backlash and the unmistakable undercurrent of sexuality, rage and despair.
It is exactly the roiling, often disreputable back story you could only hope lay behind the origins of this brassy strain of artistry. "This was the bed in which the comic book was conceived," Jones writes after introducing many of the fractured characters present at the creation: "counter-cultural, lowbrow, idealistic, prurient, pretentious, mercenary, forward-looking, and ephemeral, all in the same instant."
If Jones, an established author on all manner of fantasy writing, has not produced the definitive book on the boisterous history of comic books, it is hard to imagine that he has not written the most insightful, engaging and, yes, erudite accounting of how comic books elbowed their way to the very core of mainstream popular culture.
If anyone has any doubt about that last assertion, just take notice: the surest way of creating a Hollywood blockbuster in the last quarter century has been to put what might once have been considered "kid stuff" on the big screen -- from the Superman and Batman movies to the Raiders of the Lost Ark series to The Matrix and X-Men films. All of that, Jones persuasively contends, demonstrates the ultimate triumph of what he calls the "geek culture," which is what gave rise to comic books in the first place.
At once adoring and clear-eyed, Jones recreates the liars and losers, the scoundrels and romantics who came together at the dawn of a new era in mass entertainment to create this vibrant, novel way of telling stories -- one that captured the anguishing otherness of the immigrant experience, the sexual longing of adolescence, and the universal ambition to triumph over tyrants, bullies and authority of all kinds.
Perhaps the star -- and chief victim -- in Jones' tale is Jerry Siegel, from whose slights, cravings and resentments -- along with the artwork of Joe Shuster -- emerged the one character who has always shone brightest in the galaxy of superheroes who followed him. Famously, and naively, Superman's inventors cut themselves a lousy deal when they first offered up their creation to Harry Donenfeld and Jack Liebowitz, the publishing team who would take comic books from infancy to mega-success, even as they treated the comics' creators as piecemeal workers. It would only be toward the end of their lives -- after near poverty and obscurity -- that Siegel and Shuster would be recognized for their seminal contribution.
Jones delights in the sleaze and excess that were necessary ingredients in the rise of comic books. He shows a remarkable command of the intricacy of publishing and distribution in the early years, and a nuanced understanding of the disparate forces that both spawned comic books and threatened to constrain them. He is also deeply attuned to the unique Jewish-American sensibility that pervaded the comic books -- both in their invention and their marketing in a cutthroat market. Superman may be the ultimate Jewish fantasy -- too powerful and cool to be persecuted -- but he also anguishes with secrets of identity and detachment that are painfully familiar to Jews of a certain experience.
But what Jones gets most of all is the pure pleasures of the art form. "The genius of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster," he writes, "was to combine movie slapstick with pulp adventure, make fun of their fantasies as they indulged them, retreat into childhood as they made themselves act like grownups, and laugh at the world that saw them as cowards as they held back their rage, just as America was skewered on the conflict between its wishfully innocent self-image and the most terrible necessities."
For anyone who ever craved (or still does) the next issue of Superman or Mad Magazine or the Fantastic Four, Jones will remind you what that thrill felt like. And why.