Men of Tomorrow
Geeks, Gangsters, and
the Birth of the Comic Book

by Gerard Jones

Review by
William H. Stoddard

Basic Books: New York, 2004
384 pages

January 2006

Creators & superheroes

Comic books are one of the odder byways of Twentieth Century literary history. They've contributed characters with the same kind of lasting imaginative attraction as Verne's Nemo, or Doyle's Sherlock Holmes — characters such as Batman, or Scrooge McDuck, or, more recently, Death of the Endless (in Neil Gaiman's Sandman series) — to a culture that holds their medium in even less esteem than the genre fiction that Verne and Doyle helped to create. In Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters, and the Birth of the Comic Book, Gerard Jones gives us a history of that medium and many of its characters; and despite its specialized topic, this book is a model of how good literary history should be written.

In the first place, Jones gives us a clear account of the characters themselves — especially of the superheroes who dominate American comics. In brief summaries, he offers insights into what makes the most memorable of them distinctive: the revenge fantasy of Batman (akin to that of the Count of Monte Cristo), the erotic utopianism of Wonder Woman, the self-doubt of Spider-man. Jones is an informed reader, and Men of Tomorrow enables others to be informed readers as well.

In the second place, he offers portraits of the creators of these characters. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, whose creation of Superman brought the genre of superhero adventure into clear definition (in the same way that William Gibson's Neuromancer later brought cyberpunk into clear definition, despite antecedents ranging from Philip Dick to Vernor Vinge), are the main focus of his narrative: their inspiration, the wrongs that were done to them, and their eventual vindication. But many other writers and artists appear here as well — and Jones shows the differences between them.

Comics, crime, & culture

In doing so, he situates them in a larger cultural context. Two elements stand out in this. One is the impact of science fiction: Jones cites the often remarked role of Philip Wylie's novel Gladiator in inspiring Siegel and Shuster, but also points out their inspiration by Edward E. Smith's The Skylark of Space and by the cover of its first installment in Amazing Stories. Not only Siegel and Shuster, but other science fiction fans such as Julius Schwartz and Mort Weisinger, played a part in creating comics and superheroes. And the other is the Jewishness of many of these creators, and the appearance of Jewish themes in their work — notably, again, in the Superman mythos.

A different aspect of Jewishness appears in this book's other major theme: the organizational aspects of comics publishing. Jones links Harry Donenfeld, the creator of the publishing venture that eventually became DC Comics, to organized crime leaders such as Charles Luciano and Frank Costello, a link that grew out of the Prohibition era, when shipments of Canadian paper to American pulp publishers often concealed smuggled Canadian whiskey, and when newspaper and magazine trucks also carried bottles of liquor — and condoms, which could not legally be sent through the mail.

This book is a look at the actual workings of a certain kind of American business, and at their impact on creative people whose work it sold. Jones traces the long process by which comics publishers legitimized themselves, and the compromises they accepted to do so, especially during the 1950s, when Fredric Wertham's Seduction of the Innocent and Estes Kefauver's presidential ambitions threatened the survival of comics in any form.

Drama & scholarship

Jones achieves two things in Men of Tomorrow that deserve praise, especially for his managing to do both at once: he makes the history of the superhero comic dramatic — in the best sense, in which drama emerges from the characters — and at the same time he attains the virtues of good scholarly writing: judiciousness, careful attention to sources, and impartial concern with truth. Both made it worth reading.

My interest flagged only at the end of Men of Tomorrow, when, after describing how Siegel and Shuster finally won better treatment from DC Comics — financial compensation and, more important, recognition as the creators of Superman — Jones turns to the current state of the medium. In the short space he allows himself, he hasn't room to analyze his material, or offer insightful portraits of the creators, the characters, or the industry. Instead his tone turns to celebration, as if the history of comics was over and all that was left was to acclaim what had happened. Surely as much could be said about present-day creative figures — about Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, or Warren Ellis, for example — or about the present-day industry, shaped by issues of licensing and copyright, as about the period that Jones describes.

And since it would have been unreasonable to expect Jones to write another entire book, it would have been better to keep his denouement shorter, and more focused on the original protagonists. Jones makes their story a compelling one, more than strong enough to stand on its own. He seems to want to prove its relevance to the present day, but the relevance is all through it, to any informed reader.


© 2006 William H. Stoddard

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