Saturday, October 2, 2004


By Gerard Jones

Basic Books, $26, 350 pages, illus.


Superman made his comic book debut in the now legendary (and very valuable) first issue of Action Comics, in June 1938. He was at the center of the cover, hoisting a car high over his head, and the hero of the first story. But he wasn’t yet the Superman we came to know. He couldn’t fly, only jump. He didn’t have X-ray vision and his strength was still not monumental: He might lift a car with ease, but stopping a speeding locomotive required some effort.

He caught on fast. By the time that DC Comics brought out a quarterly named just “Superman,” in 1939, comics with his image on the cover were selling 1 million copies a year. Soon they would sell even more and give birth to a host of spin-off costumed superheroes, from Batman to Wonder Woman, who would sell in similar numbers.

In “Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters, and the Birth of the Comic Book,” comic book and screen writer Gerard Jones captures much of the magic and excitement of those early, heady days when superhero comics became the staple reading of pre-adolescent and teenage boys, though older guys read them, too, and so did many girls.

“Men of Tomorrow” covers much of the same territory taken up by Bradford W. Wright’s excellent “Comic Book Nation: The Transformation of Youth Culture in America,” published three years ago. But where Mr. Wright’s well-written book was sober and scholarly, Mr. Jones writes with an energy and inventiveness that suggest the vitality of comic books at their best. Michael Chabon brought similar energy and invention to his magnificent novel about comic book writers and artists, “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay,” which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2001.

Superman, the first superhero of all, was the brainchild of two young, Jewish fellows from Cleveland, writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster. Indeed, as Mr. Jones shows, most of the writers and artists involved in comic books and superheroes were young and Jewish and always male, though not always from Cleveland. Robert Kahn, Batman’s creator, who took the name Bob Kane, came from the Bronx, for example, and Captain America’s artist, the great Jack Kirby (born Jacob Kurtzberg), was a kid from the Bowery.

They also tended to be nerdish lads who found dates hard to come by and who spent a lot of time alone (often reading science fiction) or in the company of other boys similarly afflicted. Mr. Jones describes Joe Shuster as “short and scrawny as a boy, badly myopic, temperamentally timid.” And the other comic book artists and writers weren’t much different.

What they did have was ambition and imagination. Mr. Jones is excellent on the popular culture out of which Superman, the superheroes, and comic books sprang. Siegel, Shuster, and the others knew and loved movies such as Douglas Fairbanks’ “The Mark of Zorro,” which came out in 1920 and in which Fairbanks holds, in Mr. Jones’ words, “himself down to play the timid man in a hostile world who transforms himself in secret into his hidden truth” — just as Clark Kent would do, before changing himself into Superman.

Why comic books? Why did these talented and ambitious young Jewish men not choose some other means of expression? Mr. Jones points out that comics had been around since the 1890s and had become widely-read sections of many newspapers. There was also the tremendous popularity of magazines, beginning in the 1920s. Over 2,000 different ones were available at the newsstands, notes the author. According to one study, “Americans spent more time reading fiction magazines — pulps and ‘slicks’ — than any other leisure activity.”

Moreover, the juvenile market was growing as never before, so why not put something together that appealed to all these markets, the young, avid readers of pulp fiction, and lovers of comics? Comic books fast became a very lucrative business, attracting, in Mr. Jones’ words, “visionaries, oddball hobbyists, exploitationists, racketeers — and sometimes one man was all four at once.”

But the author is at his best when he writes about the artists and writers themselves, and the changes wrought by comic books on American popular culture. He describes the boys who created the comic book superheroes as belonging to the first generation “to grow up understanding that the very nature of experience and perception could be transformed by machine and artifice, making the ‘make-believe’ as palpable and dignified as the ‘real.’”

That seems about right, as does his observation that “Movies, pulps, radio, the phonograph, comic strips — they all combined to give the new generation an inexhaustible supply of emotional and imaginative experiences that required no participation in reality.”

Mr. Jones calls the comic book undertaking an “ecstatically American” enterprise, and it was. Readers and commentators soon saw that the concerns of the superheroes were those of the country at large: most of all sympathy for the underdog, be he poor or a member of a racial or ethnic minority. And during World War II, when comic book readership was at its height, the heroes took on Adolf Hitler.

Mr. Jones’ book is packed with a great deal of pure Americana. He notes that by the summer of 1939, baseball great Joe DiMaggio was being hailed as a “superman,” an early real-world application of the comic book hero’s name. And he points out that around the same time, Hitler heard about the Man of Steel and denounced him as a Jew (Benito Mussolini followed suit soon afterward, using the same words).

Mr. Jones takes up the origins of such later superhero manifestations as the Fantastic Four and Steve Ditko’s Spider-Man. He writes about the great parody comics of the 1950s and ‘60s, “Mad” and “Help.” “Mad,” he accurately notes, “was the first full flowering of comic-book geekdom.”

The book rightly closes with the final chapters of the lives of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. For a number of reasons, the two had lost control of the Superman they’d created. Others made millions from his name and exploits. Siegel by the early 1970s was a postal clerk, and Shuster a sick old man living with relatives.

Then, in the mid-1970s, angered by all the publicity around the making of the new big Superman movie, Siegel wrote 400 letters to newspapers and TV and radio stations, complaining about their plight.

His voice was heard. Fans took up their cause and the two men died fairly rich. Their story, like so many of the Superman tales they’d told over the years, ended on an upnote, the good guys triumphant.

Siegel and Shuster had the fame they deserved and there was widespread recognition of their significant influence on American culture, an influence still strong and continuing. Today one of TV’s popular programs, after all, is “Smallville”; its main character is Superman as a teenager whose closest friend is black. This young, as yet unformed Superman is coming to terms with his superpowers, not knowing quite what to make of them, just as Superman was 66 years ago in that first edition of Action Comics.

Stephen Goode is a writer in Maryland.

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