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Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters, and the Birth of the Comic Book Hardcover – International Edition, October 12, 2004

4.4 out of 5 stars 44 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From The New Yorker

This history of the birth of superhero comics highlights three pivotal figures. The story begins early in the last century, on the Lower East Side, where Harry Donenfeld rises from the streets to become king of the "smooshes"—soft-core magazines with titles like French Humor and Hot Tales. Later, two high-school friends in Cleveland, Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel, become avid fans of "scientifiction," the new kind of literature promoted by their favorite pulp magazines. The disparate worlds of the wise guy and the geeks collide in 1938, and the result is Action Comics #1, the début of Superman. For Donenfeld, the comics were a way to sidestep the censors. For Shuster and Siegel, they were both a calling and an eventual source of misery: the pair waged a lifelong campaign for credit and appropriate compensation.
Copyright © 2005 The New Yorker

From Booklist

The comic book's early days have received heightened attention in the wake of Michael Chabon's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Kavalier and Clay, about the cutthroat businessmen and naive artists who then populated the industry. Although Jones' history limns dozens of the young writers and artists, most from working-class Jewish neighborhoods and many still teenaged, and the bosses who exploited them, its central figures are Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, who launched the superhero genre by creating Superman, only to sell the rights to the character for a pittance and spend decades in obscurity and near-poverty. Jones continues the story through the censorship that nearly destroyed the industry in the 1950s to the 1960s superhero revival that continues today. Jones' experience as a comic-book scripter, albeit decades after the period he chronicles, gives him the advantage over most previous writers on the comics milieu, and his vivid writing suits the subject. But it is his impressively thorough research that makes this one of the most valuable books on a distinctively American storytelling form. Gordon Flagg
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books; export ed edition (October 12, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0465036562
  • ISBN-13: 978-0465036561
  • Product Dimensions: 9.6 x 6.6 x 1.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (44 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,086,445 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
By Gerard Jones's own admission this book is a biography and not a bibliography, it's more about the real world Golden Age players than their brightly costumed alter egos. It should technically be described as a comparative social biography of Superman's creators (Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster) and Superman's publishers (Harry Donenfeld and Jack Liebowitz). The introduction is dynamite and really sets the scene for where Jerry Siegel was on the day Superman The Movie was announced. The first act paints a broad picture of 1920s and 1930s New York and Cleveland, and illustrates how different social conditions shaped the lives of very different groups of immigrant Jews.

The dense, dangerous world of early 20th century New York is perhaps the most emotive and Jones expertly draws the reader into the world of the street gangs and Prohibition era alliances that gave birth to the Jewish dominated New York mob. His portrait of Harry Donenfeld is as an opportunistic, if charismatic, rogue and he portrays Liebowitz as a humourless straight man - a real-life double act. By contrast Cleveland comes across as an icon of suburban American life and we get a real sense of Jerry Siegel's childhood - including the revelation that Siegel's father had been murdered. Of the four leads Joe Shuster remains the most enigmatic.

Woven through the these histories are the side stories of the elder and younger Gaines, Bob Kane, Bill Finger, Julius Schwartz, Mort Weisinger, Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Will Eisner, and a host of other names. Most of them were from the same generation, most of them were Jewish and most of them were drawn to New York by a powerful new medium. Something Jones doesn't do is to carry the sense of the Jewishness much further.
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Format: Hardcover
Gerald Jones, himself a sometimes comic book and superhero screenwriter, describes the real origins of Superman and other superheroes in the gritty urban streets of the 1930s. In this mostly chronological narrative, we follow high school collaborators Jerry Seigel and Joe Shuster, who created Superman, the first of the superheroes who reemerged in recent years to dominate the box office.

Jones also profiles Bob Kane of Batman fame (portrayed as a less than admirable figure) and Stan Lee, impresario of the Marvel superheroes, like Spider-Man and the Hulk.

But this is not a gee-whiz comic book portrayal, or a series of personality profiles. This is rich cultural history brought to life. By following these characters, readers will learn as much about Prohibition and the Depression, and what it was like for immigrants scrapping to make it in the teeming cities. Perhaps among the surprises is the involvement of gangsters in the success of the crime-fighting superheroes.

Jones shows how the superheroes established the comic book in American culture, as a kind of combination of several genres: the daily newspaper comic strips (so popular and important in immigrant life---as well as a way that many immigrants learned English), and the similarly popular crime and science fiction pulp magazines.

This book's publicity calls it "A real-life Kavalier and Clay." I read it just after reading that mesmerizing Michael Chabon novel, and though this non-fiction book is mostly about a different era, it also tells an engrossing story very well. I was also impressed by the author's care in telling what is known, what is generally believed but doesn't quite check out, and what is still speculation.
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Format: Paperback
I've read basically everything out there about the early history of comics and I wasn't expecting any new bombshells--so I was amazed by Jones's discovery of the "true origin" of Superman in the violence that occurred to his father, and his tracing of the way Jerry Siegel rewrote his own life story to portray himself as an innocent victim when in fact he was a much more complicated man who brought about his own destruction in many ways. What Jones uncovered about his abandonment of his first wife and child for a younger, prettier other woman (the model for Lois Lane!) shows a side of Siegel I'd never seen before. And the information on the publishers, Harry Donenfeld and Jack Liebowitz, has never appeared anywhere as far as I know. Who knew the roots of comics lead back to bootlegging and lapsed socialists? No wonder this got such high praise from Michael Chabon, Alan Moore, Art Spiegelman, etc. etc. It changes our understanding of the comics medium!
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Format: Hardcover
"Their relationships with masculinity, sexuality, power, individuality, violence, authority, and the modern fluidity of self were so tangled and so heartfelt that their work spoke to the anxieties of modern life more sympathetically, more completely, more acutely than they could have foreseen in their most inflated summer daydreams. With the passage of time, their creations become only more relevant. They forecast and helped shape geek culture. They laid the template for the modern concept of the entertainment franchise. They created the perfect packageable, marketable fantasy for the culture of consumer narcissism, They spawned artistic subcultures. All without quite knowing what they were doing. All by rushing frantically forward, trying to stay a step ahead of the wolves, santching at the cultural scraps they found around them on the Lower East Side and in Glenville and the Bronx and shaping them into something that could be sold quick and cheap. All by banishing yesterday from conscious thought and draming of the score they would make tomorrow."

That's the concluding paragraph from the Prologue to Gerard Jones' Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book. It pretty much sums up the thesis of the book--that the men who created comic books (and he includes the businessmen and editors as much as the writers and artists) created much that we think of as modern popular entertainment.
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