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Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book
Gerard Jones
Basic Books, 320 pages

Art: Chip Kidd
Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book
Gerard Jones
Gerard Jones is the author of five books, numerous graphic novels, a nationally syndicated comic strip, and many articles on mass media, childhood, and American culture. His creations have been turned into an animated television series, a line of toys, and video games. He has appeared on The Today Show, Nightline, The BBC World News, and The Howard Stern Show, and in feature articles in USA Today, The Los Angeles Times, and The Boston Globe.

Gerard Jones Website
ISFDB Bibliography

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Hank Luttrell

When Gerard Jones read Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, the gorgeously written, exciting novel about the creation of the American comic book by New York Jewish immigrants. Jones must have thought, this story could be an exciting non-fiction book, as well. Of course he was correct.

There are many complications when trying to write a history like this. In Chabon's novel, well known stories and legends could become ingredients without wondering just how true they were. Jones has to consider conflicting versions of the history, and whether familiar legends of the comics' creation have any basis in fact. Some details may not be clear, and some parts of this history are controversial. A novel might focus on a particular theme, certain locales, and a limited number of characters to create an artistic unity, while in a non-fiction history, a certain comprehensiveness is desirable. Jones' focus is on the New York based superhero publishers, especially DC/National, and particularly Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster's Superman, the great success of that character, the controversy over corporate exploitation of the rights to Superman, and the lack of participation of the original creators in that success. While Siegel and Shuster's story is the most tragic, affecting and dramatic part of the story, the business history of DC Comics is like, well, an old Warner Brother's gangster movie: exciting stuff. (As an aside, I think that if anyone should be rich, it is the creators of Superman. However, the fact that Jerry Siegel wound up working for the Post Office doesn't seem that tragic. Lots of us should be so lucky to have jobs like that!)

Even when I was a teenager in the 60s, I understood that magazine distributors might have gang connections. It was just something that people knew in St. Louis where I grew up. As Jones lines things up, Harry Donenfeld, a DC owner, had more than the usual mob ties. It seems that printers such as Donenfeld, importing paper from Canada, had the infrastructure needed to import booze as well. So a colorful set of characters were associated with Donenfeld, such as Frank Costello, Moe Annenberg, Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky.

Make no mistake, it is a fascinating story, full of fantastic situations and characters nearly as exotic as anything published in four colors on newsprint. Nevertheless, it seems sort of unfair to reduce other areas of the history to background details, such as Fawcett's Captain Marvel, and humor comics like Donald Duck and Archie.

It could easily be argued that the New York-bred superhero wasn't the mainstream of comic book publishing. The Dell/Western/Gold Key/Disney/Looney Tunes/Little Lulu humor comics easily outsold the superdudes for most of their careers. Ultimately superheros seem more important because somehow they have outlasted their humorous colleagues, and have become pretty much the only survivors. (Histories are written about the survivors, right?) Not only are new superstories still being published every week, in all their modern digitally rendered, three dimensionally modelled, glowingly colored, glossy paper splendor, but their low circulations are offset in the public consciousness by big budget, mass market theatrical movies.

Interestingly, Fawcett Publishing's Captain Marvel, a superguy competitor, also outsold Superman. Jones contrasts the New York superhero's strongly Jewish heritage with that of Fawcett, dismissing the later as "Minnesota Protestants." Clearly Fawcett's great success with Captain Marvel was additional motivation for DC Comics' litigious harassment of Fawcett over intellectual property rights.

About this "Geek" word used in this book. Jones wants it to mean many things, but doesn't actually define it clearly. Certainly, he wants it to denote outsiders, non-conformists possibly, innovators, sometimes. Science fiction and comic book fans, absolutely. All those kids who didn't do well in high school, who didn't fit in socially and maybe didn't apply themselves academically. I realize that this word has come in to more common usage, but "geeks," you know, are carnies who bite the heads off chickens. That is a bit extreme. Maybe "nerd" or "dork"?

Apart from the word "geek," I'm also a concerned about the word "men" in the book's title. It might be true that mostly men were involved in the early history of American comics. Feminist critics have often identified examples of art and cultural histories where important contributions by women are simply ignored. Trina Robbins has done some wonderful work in this area, restoring the stories of important women creators in the comic book field. About the only mention of a woman in Jones' book, aside from wives, daughters and girlfriends, is a note about Toni Blum, in which Jones writes that a wife of an Eisner studio artist also contributed work, apparently as an example of what a large amount of work was available. In fact, many women worked as editors, writers and artists, and did significant work, especially for Fiction House. (See Women and the Comics by Trina Robbins and Catherine Yronwode, Eclipse, 1985 and A Century of Women Cartoonists by Robbins, Kitchen Sink, 1992.)

Jones makes a point of trying to give Frederic Wertham a fair shake (as he does for all the colorful characters in this book). Wertham is frequently (always?) demonized in comic book fandom. Jones points out that Wertham was well intentioned. Among Wertham's legacies, apart from contributing to a witch hunt in the comic book field leading to the formation of The Comic Book Code Authority, was providing data and evidence that helped Thurgood Marshall eliminate "separate but equal" educational standards.

I'd like to add a bit more to the Wertham story. I had a slight acquaintance with Wertham, as did many of my friends. In the 70s, Wertham subscribed to my science fiction/popular culture fanzine. He subscribed to a lot of fanzines during this period, and even wrote letters of comment from time to time. Eventually, he wrote a book titled The World of Fanzines. I don't have a copy of his book anymore (hey, sorry, I'm a bookseller, I sold it, it's what I do), but I read it, and I recall it as very positive and supportive. It seemed to me that Wertham considered small press publishing creative and constructive. Hey, he made favorable mention of my work! This, even though "Starling" (my general circulation fanzine) frequently published articles about comics. After the hubbub of Seduction of the Innocent died down, I don't recall Wertham having much more to say about comics, negative or otherwise, and I wonder if his growing interest in fandom might have moderated his views. I don't believe he dealt with that issue in The World of Fanzines.

I've been reading bits and pieces of comic book history for about forty years. While much of the information here I've seen before, some of it was new to me, and all of it better organized and accessible than in piles of old magazines with interviews, and articles and chapters scattered in various books and journals. I can remember being confused about some of these details even when I was a kid in the 50s, reading comics at friends' houses. It is useful and fascinating to have all these people and details and events placed in proper order. Answers are provided to questions such as, what was this "All-American Comics" and "National" stuff, and how did these differ from DC Comics? There seemed to be so many bosses lurking about. Harry Donenfeld, Jack Leibowitz, and who was that Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson guy? How on earth was Charlie Gaines, Max's father, involved with the early DC/National? Didn't Charlie invent American comics and start EC Comics? How was DC involved with ACG; weren't they competitors? How was it that Joe Simon and Jack Kirby seemed to be working for every publisher, creating all those character franchises and genres, all at the same time?

I just want to make it clear that I loved Men of Tomorrow. In fact, it is because of my enthusiasm for Jones' work, and my interest in his topic, that I have all these reactions and reservations about this volume.

Copyright © 2004 Hank Luttrell

Hank Luttrell has reviewed science fiction for newspapers, magazines and web sites. He was nominated for the Best Fanzine Hugo Award and is currently a bookseller in Madison, Wisconsin.

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