The comic book industry was invented by a group of hard-edged Jewish businessmen and a bunch of naive Jewish kids. The former were merely seeking to survive “on the edges of mass entertainment” because that is where the quick-buck opportunities were for Jews in the 1930’s; the latter were dreamers who created characters who were free of sometimes confining reality. Their convergence is a cautionary tale of exploitation of the innocent.
Gerard Jones weaves a compelling story of the meek and the perfidious in Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book. Jones populates his narrative with a skillfully depicted group of Runyonesque characters. His book is set against the backdrop of mid-20th century America, when the comics introduced early “geek culture” that foreshadowed its contemporary manifestations — ”comics, computers, video games, collectible figurines.”
The creation of Superman provided the seminal impetus for the industry. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s invulnerable “man of steel” led to a countless number of imitations — Batman, Captain Marvel and Wonder Woman were among the more popular — as well as radio and television shows, movies and collectibles. Siegel and Shuster, who had earlier relinquished their rights for a pittance, failed to share in the millions of dollars that their creation generated, which ultimately led to unsuccessful law suits and consigned them to dismal economic straits and to anonymous lives. Then, in 1975, the two men settled their lawsuit against Warner Communications— eventual successor to Harry Donenfeld and Jack Liebowitz, who regarded “writers and artists (as) hired hands, what skilled cutters were to the rag trade.” The price: $20,000 apiece and credit as the creators of Superman “on all printed matter, TV, and movies.” Shuster died in 1992, Siegel four years later.
The Superman tale is a compelling one. For Jones, it is the root to understanding the emergence of the superheroes industry, whose creative artists were often lonely introverts whose connection to others was best forged in pen-and-ink through their inventions, rather than through social exchanges. But understanding that Superman is an iconic representation of Jewish- American imagination is also a key to understanding the post-immigrant era. Superman has a secret identity, and as Jones writes, “Jewish immigrants…were so much about the wearing of the masks that enabled one to be an American, a Modern, a secular consumer, but still part of an ancient society…when safely among those who knew one’s secret. A Clark Kent in the street and a Superman at home.”
Time’s passage has eliminated the need for masks but children still dream of escaping gravity or attaining superior strength and incomparable power. Men of Tomorrow recounts how children of an earlier era turned these common fantasies into a phenomenon.
Noel Kriftcher was a professor and administrator at Polytechnic University, having previously served as Superintendent of New York City’s Brooklyn & Staten Island High Schools district.