One-time comic-book writer Gerard Jones has written a remarkable history of the genre which emphasizes the people and cultures that created it.
Title: Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters, and the Birth of Comic Books
Author: Gerard Jones
Original Publication Date: 2004
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Men of Tomorrow takes us through the history of comic books, and the lives of the men who created and published the medium, who transformed SF and pulp-fueled dreams into a phenomenon garish and inspiring. He also draws vivid picture of the worlds these men inhabited, and the circumstances that fueled their dreams.
The industry’s history resembles more than a little the tortured chronologies of the DC and Marvel universes. Origin stories, only documented years later, conflict with and flatly contradict each other. Writers, artists, and publishers continuously rewrite and retcon their own lives.
The lives of many of the creators becomes tragic, but comics do something almost superheroic, growing from suspect origins and tightwad business practices into an industry run by people devoted to their creations, an industry with a remarkable record for taking the geeky fantasies of social underdogs and turning them into mainstream success.
Jones has obviously done his research, and made a real effort to piece together plausible accounts from a mixture of facts, unverifiable claims, and theories. I’m not certain, however, that an offhand remark supposedly made at a family gathering and recalled decades later, necessarily tell us anything about Jerry Siegel.
Uniqueness: 4/6. Much of what Jones relates has been in print before, and many people have speculated on how the immigrant Jewish experience shaped the superhero mythos. Still, Jones goes deeper than other books on comic history, and he gets beyond many of the legends, half-truths, and self-promotional claims repeated as fact in many earlier efforts to document the medium’s history.
Completeness: 4/6. Jones focuses on Superman and those associated with his creation and publication, often to the exclusion of others. However, he does a better job than any other author at untangling the contradictory stories that surround the early comic book industry.
Storytelling: 5/6 In narrowing his focus, Jones creates a strong narrative thread which gives the book a plot.
Imagery: 5/6. While his prose can occasionally become overwrought, he does an exemplary job of drawing us into places and times that, quite often, he himself has never inhabited. The working-class Jewish neighborhoods whence most of the great comic-creators came, the high school offices of The Torch where Siegel and Shuster first worked together, the rushed sets of the 1950s Superman show.
Emotional Response: 5/6. At its best moments this becomes a real-life counterpart to that most extraordinary of comic-influenced novels, Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. Not all of your favorite comic-creators come across looking well. Siegel seems pathetically nerdy and tragically clueless at times, and Bob Kane, the co-creator of Batman, far from admirable. A few of the publishers were downright reprehensible, sharing more than a few traits of the gangsters with whom they associated.
Overall Score: 5/6.
In total, Men of Tomorrow receives 33/42