This past week I finished Gerard Jones’s Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters, and the Birth of the Comic Book. As I had blogged last week, I’ve had this book for several years, but I had just not gotten around to reading it. What prompted me was a recent comment that Chris Marshall made on his Collected Comics Library podcast highlighting the book. That sold me, and I finally picked it up. I certainly wasn’t disappointed, in that the narrative of the early comic-book years in the U.S. was told through personal biographies where you got to go inside the lives of the individual players. The most prominent figures, at least those that Jones kept returning to time and again, included Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, Harry Donenfeld, Jack Liebowitz, Bob Kane, Charlie Gaines, and Mort Weisinger. In this way, the book was much more about the history of DC Comics than it was about the early comics industry–specifically in superhero comics–in general. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby are brought into the discussion a few times, but for the most part Jones remains in the realm of National Comics as a growing company. One of the most fascinating aspects of Jones’s study was the role that organized crime played in the growth of the American comic book…if not directly, then as a unsettling half-sibling that refuses to be pushed aside. The stories surrounding the shadows of Donenfeld’s past, and Liebowitz’s early tolerance of Donenfeld’s links to crime and his later efforts to sweep them away, were some of the most intriguing in the book. I appreciated the history of how Siegel and Shuster were strong-armed out of their own creation, but that was an older story and one with which I was quite familiar. I wasn’t as aware of the specifics underlying Donenfeld’s past.
In Jones’s book, no one single player in the birth of American comics comes out looking innocent or pristine…although perhaps the closest you get is Joe Shuster. The story of his failing eyesight and his lonely, and at times destitute-sounding, situation is the primary biography that pulls at your heartstrings. Other than that example, Jones presents all of his figures as a mixture of admirable and unattractive qualities. Perhaps I’m off base here, but I got the feeling that Liebowitz and Weisinger came off looking the least attractive. While, on the one hand, their assertiveness and business/editing acumen were showcased as the reasons behind DC’s early success, at the same time their acerbic and single-minded personalities undermined any potential sympathy. Even Jerry Siegel comes across as a compromised figure. Jones spends a good deal of ink highlighting his manipulative, scheming character and his quest to get as much money and recognition as he could. Then again, who could blame him? On the one hand you want to kick Siegel for being so blind to the business deals he entered, and on the other you get a glimpse inside the crucible of the moment and can understand why the young kid with a sci-fi obsession did what he did.
I was pleased with the fact that Charlie Gaines–and to a much lesser degree, his son Bill–was included in Jones’s story. He wasn’t the figure that Donenfeld and Weisinger were in the founding of the DC brand, but he was definitely a player. Personally, I’m a little more interested in the history surrounding the founding and growth of EC Comics, its successes and its eventual fall, than I am in the background of DC, especially since the former is much more of a tragic tale. What’s more, when we get to the machinations of Bill Gaines, the story becomes one of defiance and rebellion, the antithesis of what you will find in Weisinger’s and Liebowitz’s biographies. I appreciate a good rebel tale, especially one that is linked to a (perhaps flawed) romantic vision of what should be, as opposed to a resignation to what actually is.
Another thing that struck me about Men of Tomorrow is its ethnic import. From the very beginning, Jones is careful to point out that the American comic book was a media phenomenon largely created by Jewish creators, publishers, and distributors. He states as much in his prologue, where he says:
Jerry Siegel, [et al. were] born in the course of a generation, all acquainted with each other, all Jewish kids, the sons of immigrants, many them misfits in their own communities. They were all two or three steps removed from the American [i.e., Anglo] mainstream but were more poignantly in touch with the desires and agonies of that mainstream than those in the middle of it.
In fact, a perusal through the book’s index will show an extensive list of entries concerning the American Jewish experience and its links to comics and popular culture. While this isn’t a book that focuses on the Jewish component of the comic-book industry in the U.S., it’s nonetheless one that corroborates many of the assertions that have been made by Danny Fingeroth, Arie Kaplan, and Paul Buhle in their various works.
The one part of Jones’s book that bothered me a bit was the very ending. I thought it was a bit too sentimental, praising as it does these famous personages from comics’ golden past. After presenting a realistic portrait of the major figures in the early days of American comics, it’s almost as if Jones lapses a bit at the end and falls prey to a rose-colored wrap-up. Maybe he can be excused for this, wanting to end on an upbeat note and highlighting the significance of comics’ cultural history. Overall, though, this was a book well worth reading.