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How A Medium Was Born

An expansive look at the birth of comic books


No one knew what to expect when the first issue of Action Comics hit the stands in the late spring of 1938. Comic books then were barely a step removed from novelty items, promotional giveaways to help sell soap powder or children's shoes, and the first crude pamphlets of reprinted or rejected newspaper strips that were offered for sale on their own produced, at best, inconsistent results. Neither was there anything auspicious about the publisher of Action Comics, a low-rent publishing and distribution company run by a fast-talking salesman with mob ties and a one-time socialist accountant. And as for the creators of Action's lead feature, well, they were just a couple of shy kids from Cleveland, Ohio, barely out of their teens, whose sheer exuberance outpaced their skills at writing and drawing and who'd happily sold all the rights to the gaudily colored character who appeared on Action's cover for the grand sum of $130.But the rest, as they say, is history. Within a few months, kids all around the country were haunting the burgeoning racks of comic books at newsstands and drugstores and asking for "the one with Superman in it," and an industry was born. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster's Superman -- a character who was himself an all-American assemblage of influences, from science fiction pulps to body builders to comic strips -- inspired a multitude of other characters that in their heyday collectively sold 10 to 15 million comic books a month.

As Superman and his imitators made the jump to cartoons, radio programs, movie serials, and countless other licensed products, the comics industry, as Gerard Jones notes, "laid down the template of the modern entertainment franchise."

The obscure origins of comics are illumined by Jones in Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book. In a briskly paced yet lovingly detailed narrative, Jones takes us from the ghettoes and cloistered neighborhoods of the Jewish immigrants whose first-generation American sons would create the comics industry, up through the long party of the 1920s -- when gangsters, hucksters, and visionaries rubbed elbows in a fly-by-night world of booming magazine sales and wildcat publishing -- and on into the glory days of what would become a popular culture institution.

A former comics writer himself, Jones thoroughly understands the history of the medium and deftly introduces us to virtually all of the major figures of comics' golden age. But what's even more impressive about Men of Tomorrow is its depiction of the broader social landscape: the tides of immigration and assimilation in 20th century American life, the shifting border between legal enterprises and criminality in the 1920s and 30s, the passing fads, the byzantine business arrangements that eventually paved the way for huge entertainment conglomerates.

At the heart of Men of Tomorrow, though, is the interlinked story of four men: Siegel and Shuster, the creators of Superman, and Harry Donenfeld and Jack Liebowitz, their publishers. Though the story of Siegel and Shuster and the disastrous business deal by which they lost the rights to their creation has been told before (though never as fully or as sympathetically as here), as Jones notes, "The men who founded the companies, bought the characters, and created the multimedia marketing empires kept their stories to themselves."

Until now, that is. Jones traces the intersecting paths of Donenfeld, a small blustery man with a silver tongue, and Liebowitz, the somber adopted son of a socialist organizer, who both learned early to live by their wits on the rough streets of the Lower East Side of New York. Donenfeld eventually took over and expanded a small family printing company, making connections and profits under the table by smuggling bootleg liquor from Canada alongside paper for his presses, till he hired Liebowitz as his business manager and moved into publishing himself, specializing in racy magazines that just skirted -- and sometimes passed over -- the edge of pornography. As one of Donenfeld's writers explained the formula for stories in his "girlie pulps," "Boy meets girl, girl gets boy into pickle, boy gets pickle into girl."

It was only as politicians began cracking down on the rackets and indecent publications that Liebowitz in particular -- who was always more interested in respectability than Donenfeld -- began casting about for "safer moneymakers" and decided to take a chance on comic books. After a few fledgling efforts, lightning struck when one of Donenfeld's editors fished the rough samples of Superman from the slush pile on his desk.

For Siegel and Shuster, of course, Superman was both a dream and a nightmare. They signed a 10-year contract with Detective Comics, Inc. and were promised a percentage of the licensing fees, which somehow never quite materialized. But they had lost control of their creation, and when they tried unsuccessfully in court in 1947 to regain that control and the profits they felt were owed them, they were fired and began a long downward spiral that would last for decades.

Siegel and Shuster's story, though, is only the most famous of the creative struggles that litter comic book history. Jones also details the murky history of DC's other superstar, Batman. Though officially credited to Bob Kane, a cartoonist of middling gifts but far greater business savvy than Siegel and Shuster, Batman's nocturnal disguise and tragic origin were actually the contributions of Kane's collaborator, a brooding, ambitious writer named Bill Finger. "He was the first to bring a novelist's questions to bear on a superhero," Jones writes. "Why would a man choose such a life? Bill Finger . . . saw how the pain of loss could harden into a rage that made a man unlike other men."

Yet over time, as Jones shows in his final chapters, even the comics industry became respectable. As DC was itself absorbed by the Time-Warner Corporation and Superman was poised to debut in the first of Hollywood's multi-million dollar superhero epics, the industry made a little peace with its past. Under the glare of news coverage that had been sparked by a tirade of angry letters from Jerry Siegel, who was now sorting mail in a post office, DC comics offered Siegel and Shuster a generous annuity and lasting credit for the creation that had built an industry.

In telling the story of Siegel and Shuster, their publishers, editors, colleagues, and fans -- and of the times in which they lived -- Gerard Jones has performed an essential bit of critical archeology. Superman and his minions are now a lasting part of our cultural landscape. Men of Tomorrow tells how that happened.

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