Thursday, February 12, 2009

Gods, Geeks, and Gangsters

Gerard Jones' Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters, and the Birth of the Comic Book delivers on its title. The author weaves together a tale starring bootleggers, pornographers, and socially awkward science fiction fans that coalesces into the birth of Superman with the release of Action Comics #1. The story culminates with today's mass media acceptance of comics and the rise of literary graphic novels such as Art Spiegleman's Maus and Will Eisner's A Contract With God.

The main character whose story weaves together the book is Harry Donnefield, one-time publisher of such “smooshy” titles as LaParee Stories and a line of “art nudie” magazines containing photos of nude women, ostensibly for artists to use to hone their anatomy skills. Donnefield, who was also an associate of bootleggers and gangsters, went on to become part owner of National Periodical Publications, better known as DC Comics.

Jones outlines the early days of science fiction fandom, which help give fuel and inspiration to the adolescent fantasies of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the creators of Superman (first published by Harry Donnefield of course). The author picks up many threads known to anyone who has studied the history of comic books: Siegel and Shuster's struggles with National Periodical Publications over acknowledgement and payment for their creation of Superman; Bob Kane, “creator” of Batman and the many ghost artists who worked for him; and Frederic Wertham's crusade against crime comics in the 1950's. What Jones does so well is take these familiar stories and firmly sets them in context with the experience of first and second generation Jewish immigrants (which many of the early comic book creators were), the rise of the science fiction pulps and the subsequent American hunger for mass entertainment.

Men of Tomorrow starts out rather slowly, with lots of background on the Jewish immigrant experience and how their outsider looking in perspective combined with the American dream of remaking yourself birthed this new and uniquely American form of entertainment. But once Superman appears on the scene, the story literally takes off. As someone who has been reading about comic book history on and off for the last twenty-five years, this book pulled together many things I had heard about before and provided a lot of new information.

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