Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Men of Tomorrow by Gerard Jones

Jones, GerardMen of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters, and the Birth of the Comic BookNew York: Basic Books, 2004.

Reviewing Gerard Jones’ history of the comic book industry makes me feel like I’m pitching a new show to the cable networks.  It’s a little like Mad Men.  There is less suavity, but plenty of smoking, drinking, and womanizing.  There is room for some gratuitous nudity.  Many of the comics publishers came from got started in spicy pulps and nudie mags.  They were hustlers from the street, too, many with mob connections.  So we can have a touch of Boardwalk Jungle, though the violence is contained to the muscular fantasies of young men wanting to overcome a sense of powerlessness.  Of course, there may be comparisono to The Big Bang Theory, especially when you have scenes of young men working side-by-side at typewriters and drawing boards, helping and competing with each other.  Most aren’t geniuses, but plenty are awkward and pretentious.  It even has a great name: Men of Tomorrow.

The book is a mostly chronological look at the development of comics.  It starts with the pulp publishers.  As the pulps declined for various reasons of economics and taste, the comics rose their peak in World War II.  Patriotic superheroes were depicted punching Hitler in the face before America entered the war.  Superhero comics declined after the war, especially due to competition from television, though other genres did well.  Some of them, especially crime and horror, attracted the attention of reformers who wanted a clean and upright media safe for children and a culture longing for conformity and peace.  Comics found a new life as baby boomers came of age, partly because of interest in new dysfunctional heroes of Stan Lee and his collaborators and partly because cheap underground comics were exploring the youth counterculture.  Finally, comics became an almost mainstream medium, especially superheroes who successfully moved into film and other media.

There are almost too many people discussed in this book to mention.  Harry Donenfeld and Jack Liebowitz built a shady distributor of sex stories and porn into a pillar of a major media corporation.  Along the way, their conflict with Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster became the stuff of comics legend that occasionally broke into mainstream consciousness.  In many retellings of this story, Donenfeld and Liebowitz are demonized and Siegel and Shuster lionized.  Jones mostly resists this urge, treating the New York publishers with some fairness and showing how the cartoonists from Cleveland were the cause of some of their own trouble.  There is a host of other notables from trash publishing (Hugo Gernsback and Bernarr McFadden), organized crime (Frank Costello and Mayer Lansky), failed teachers and academics (Charlie Gaines and William Moulton Marston), and finally from comics (Charlie Biro, Bob Kane, Jack Cole, Jack Kirby, and many more).

Many of these people grew up in Jewish immigrant families.  Their successes and failures in the 1920s and 1930s, their readiness for war in the 1940s, and their search for an identity both American and Jewish in the postwar year reflects the journey of a larger community.  In addition to being a story of comics, it is a story of how Jews, immigrants, science fiction, and geeks moved from the edges of American society toward the mainstream—or maybe the mainstream widened to encompass them.

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