66 of 67 people found the following review helpful
on November 4, 2004
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. He uses it to give us a sense of the New York scene and to show the growth of the businesses on the edge of the mob, but it isn't followed through and all we are left with is links between former mob businesses. It would have been nice to have more of a sense of how the strong Jewish roots of the industry became eroded.
The same cast features prominently in the middle act of the book which chronicles the 1940s and the maturation of the medium. They are also followed through the last (third) act which deals with their post-1940s history. Jones glosses over much of the Silver Age and instead concentrates on how the first generation of comic book players faired in the post Comics Code world. The thread that ties the entire narrative together is Superman. From his inception, his influences, and his sale to the subsequent play and counter play between Siegel and Donenfeld. Jones never demonises either party and he aptly demonstrates how completely different life experiences created two people who simply didn't understand each other. Each party feeling fully justified to claim Superman as their own.
Jones's book is a rich look at the real world figures who inspired Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. A lot of the early material is based on extensive interviews with the surviving players and almost as importantly interviews with people from outside the comic book industry that knew the players. His writing flows easily and holds your attention, although the more well read fan may find themselves occasionally skimming through the more famous sections (a danger, as Jones often reveals new details). He digs into the industry's self reinforcing mythology and strips it away to show the real people and their personal struggles.
Most comic book histories, many of them excellent, are based on first hand accounts from the surviving editors and artists ("the Geeks") collected by fan historians (themselves "Geeks") that are often more focused on the creative process than on the social history. Jones's book focuses equally on publishers and the creators, and as I comic fan I was at times far more interested in the, to me, hitherto unknown world of Donenfeld and Liebowitz. This isn't an apologist work, but it is balanced towards a wider audience than most comic book histories will reach.
32 of 33 people found the following review helpful
on October 27, 2004
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.
12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on October 4, 2005
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!
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on August 17, 2005
"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.
It's a masterful volume that debunks some of the myths of the industry (Jerry Siegel's famed tale of coming up with Superman all in one fevered summer night is pretty much of a piece with George Washington and the cherry tree) while providing useful background on the familial and business connections of the writers, artists, editors and publishers of comics from the 1930s until the 1980s.
One of the best elements of Jones' work is that he avoids the frequent fan tendency (a tendency that life-long familiarity with comics only exacerbates) to see the world in black-and-white, good-and-evil terms. While not dismissing the unfairness of the treatment Siegel and Shuster received from DC Comics--especially after 1948--Jones also recognizes the businessman's point of view and explores it, without casting the likes of Harry Donenfeld and Jack Liebowitz as somehow living embodiments of Lex Luthor or the Kingpin.
Jones sees the risks the early publishers took in chasing their own dreams, and putting into print the dreams of their creative teams...and sees the forces, personal and financial, that pushed those men--and their successors--to protect their investments in these risks once they had paid off so handsomely.
At the same time, he observes and records how much of their own lives and dreams the early writers and artists poured into their creations and why so many of them have fought so hard to protect their less financial but more personal investments. It's this even-handedness that makes the book so welcome--it's not a tirade or a screed for or against either vision of the comic-book business.
If Men of Tomorrow has a fault, it is this: Jones' treatment of the resurgence of the comics in the 1960s is overly Marvel-centric. He virtually ignores Julius Schwartz's reinvigoration of the superhero genre at DC, except to note the long-told story that it was the success of Justice League of America that spurred Martin Goodman to get Stan Lee to create new superheroes. Yes, Lee, Kirby and Marvel in general rethought the superhero, made him fit even more into "geek culture" than before; but they would have had no market into which to sell their efforts if DC and Schwartz had not modernized the Golden Age characters first.
All in all, Men of Tomorrow is a worthy addition to the bookshelf of anyone interested in how comics have shaped today's world of entertainment.
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on October 6, 2005
I read the hardback and loved it, then read that errors had been corrected and new material added in the paperback, so I picked it up. I'm glad I did. The new material isn't extensive, but it provides even more fascinating glimpses into the twisty story of Jerry Siegel, both in his early days and his publicity campaign in the '70s. Also corrects the previous impressions of Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson and Siegel's mysterious son Michael. An even better read than before!
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on October 19, 2004
A wealth of books are on the market exploring the 70 year history of the comic book industry. This riviting and revealing book may very well be the best. Jones presents a history of breathtaking depth going back into the early 1900s to develop detailed origins of the major personalities that, almost by accident, combined to create Superman and DC comics.Fans of comic history may know some of these stories,but never have all of the fascinating pieces been put together into such a fully formed and complex continuous narrative. The story is meticulously researched, and told with the vigor of a pulp fiction thriller. At the same time all of the personalities are treated with respect and nuance.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on June 21, 2005
Veteran comic-book writer Jones, whose past book credits include The Comic Book Heroes (a fan-focused survey of post-"Silver Age" "mainstream" comics) and Honey, I'm Home! (a history of TV sitcoms), here attempts to, in his own words, "dig through the tall tales, drunken misunderstandings, and self-protective fudgings" that have obscured the early history of the comic book and provide a semi-definitive history of that wild and woolly era. The first generation of comics creators are fast slipping from the scene (as the recent death of Will Eisner reminds us), so it's just as well that Jones tackled this ambitious project when he did. Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster's struggle to develop and sell Superman - and then to gain some measure of permanent credit for their accomplishment, which merely set the future course of an entire industry - is the centerpiece of the book, as it should be. You'll also learn just how, um, questionable the backgrounds and ethics of several of the comics pioneers were. (DC Comics patriarch Harry Donenfeld and Batman creator Bob Kane come off particularly badly here.) Jones effectively links comicdom to other aspects of the "junk culture" of the 20s and 30s, not to mention Prohibition, the growth of organized crime, and the struggle of swashbuckling Jewish entrepreneurs to make it in corporate America. He also resists the temptation to turn the Siegel & Schuster imbroglio into a simplistic tale of screwed creators vs. greedy moneymen, making it clear that, while S&S were hardly treated fairly, they (especially Siegel) share a heavy chunk of the responsibility for the implosion of their careers. If you're interested in the history of pop culture, or are simply curious as to where those peculiar funnybooks that your child/boyfriend/husband/etc. dotes on originated, this will be a highly entertaining read.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on January 31, 2006
Those reviewers who have trashed Jones's scholarship in this book are--if I may speak bluntly--wrong. The research of the book is indeed impressively thorough, and the long section "Notes on Research" at the book's end is that rarest of literary beasts, a bibliographical section that is actually (gasp!) pleasant to read. Jones documents every quotation and thoroughly, explicitly names all the sources, published and otherwise, for his information, excepting those few who requested to remain anonymous (mostly for legal reasons pertaining to the ongoing legal struggle over royalties from Superman). In creating any historical study, a writer must fill in some gaps through speculation and induction, and Jones calls particular attention to those few passages in which he has had to engage in guesswork, explaining his conclusions yet openly allowing for other interpretations. This is a fun, impressive book: Jones has skillfully woven sociological, economic, personal, and other sources, along with his own interviews, to create an enlightening, eminently readable work of history.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on March 9, 2005
Once again, the old adage that truth is stranger than fiction seems to resonate. Michael Chabon's recent fictional history on the comic book pioneers may have been beautifully written but this book is utterly fascinating. People may think that Jones is rehashing events that are `well known' within the annals of comics history but the author does a masterful job of placing this subject within the broader context of popular culture and for that matter, 20th century America. In doing so I can guarantee that you'll never look at a comic book in quite the same way ever again. There's lots of information in here on a variety of subjects: you'll have no problems reading this book twice. Buy it.
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on November 25, 2004
I was a comic book fan from my earliest age to about 10 years ago, when the whole thing seems to have gone to the dogs. I was brought up on the Mexican editions of DC comics, and didn't become familiar with Marvel Comics until I visited the US in the second half of the 1970s and learned to love the cheeky humor and mindless action, plus the wonderful artwork of the Romitas, Buscemas and Ditkos of this world, and their little mannerisms ("true believers", "'nuff said", "excelsior!", "no-prizes" and such). Although I did learn a bit about the origins and evolution of the medium, I must confess I was never too interested about the creators themselves. For me, they were subsumed within the characters and stories they told, drew and inked. I guess this may be a consequence of having learned about comics from reprints of 1960s Superman and Batman books, where the writers and artists were hidden under wraps, and strong individuality was discouraged. Although I knew that Siegel and Schuster created Superman, that Kane and Finger did the same for Batman, and that Lee and a host of other talents (like Kirby, Ditko et a.) gave forth the Silver Age, I didn't know much about the guys themselves, or the business they were in.
This book has introduced me to the inner workings of the "House(s) of Ideas", both those of the creators and the businessmen. It is certainly interesting to find out how such basic concepts as secret identity, origin story, motivation, super-villains and love interests came to be, and what was the business model that would enrich a few managers at the expense of some of the creators. I was aware of the essential "American-ness" of comic books (that was, after all, part of the pleasure they gave to a foreigner in the days before color TV and cheap international travel). "The Adventures of Kavalier and Klay" showed me that this was a particular brand of "American-ness", very deeply interwoven with a particular immigrant experience. "Men of Tomorrow" fleshes out this landscape, and populates it with fascinating characters. Even if you are not a comic book fan, it would be a very enjoyable read, since it is not a book for "geeks" and fleshes out all the stories for a general reader. I give it four stars because it could have used more pictures. Memo for the editors: people who read comics like pictures! Put some in in the next edition.