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

Ger­ard Jones
  • Review
By – August 13, 2012
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.

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