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  Bookends: Dan Davidson

Men of Tomorrow:Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book

Reviewed: April 1, 2007
By: Gerard Jones
Publisher: Basic Books /Harper Collins Canada
384 pages, $17.50

What on earth could be the possible connection between the New York rag trade of the early 20th century and the world of the four colour comic book? The answer, surprisingly enough, turns out to the plethora of low brow men’s pulp magazines that cluttered up the news stands before Hugh Hefner invented Playboy.

The men who converted their publishing empires of “spicy stories” into a venue for superheroes battling against criminals were, ironically, men who spent most of their careers living on a moral and ethical knife edge, pandering to the lowest taste of the male half of the human race - at least the North American subspecies.

Harry Donenfeld, the head of the firm that eventually became DC Comics (by way of National Periodical Publications) comes across as a sharpie and con artist who wouldn’t hesitate to engage in a shady business deal if it would promote his own dream of becoming a Somebody.

When two kids from Cleveland, one of whom had begun his life in Toronto, came to him in the 1930s with the idea for a new kind of graphic story telling, one that borrowed from the newspaper adventure strips, but expanded the format into magazine size, Donenfeld had no idea that he had found the real goldmine of his life.

Jones’ book is partly about the roots of the superhero, tracing Superman back to the pulp magazine (Doc Savage) and science fiction (Gladiator), and muscle man ads that inspired the two Jewish kids, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster to create the original comic book superhero.

While the book starts with Siegel deciding to sue his former employers at the time of the first of the Chris Reeves Superman movies, Jones has dug behind that to provide material that explains a lot of comic book staples. Why are there so many kid gangs in the early days of the genre? That would be because Jack (Kirby) Kurtzburg and the other future stars of the industry grew up in crowded urban environs where young Jewish boys, many of whom seemed to have newspaper routes (“The Newsboy Legion”), stuck together for protection from other ethnic gangs.

Yet, this was a generation more concerned with becoming Americans than with their heritage, and while that very heritage, with its themes of struggle against perceived persecution and evil, played a big part in their stories, the heroes they created were mostly believers in “truth, justice and the American way”; aliens trying to fit in like Clark (Kal-el) Kent or J’onn J’onnz, the Martian Manhunter; wealthy men who could pursue evil, like the Batman and the Green Arrow, or patriots like Captain America.

And as Kurtzburg became Kirby, so did Stanley Leiber become Stan Lee, and Robert Khan, Bob Kane

As time wore on the pumped up heroes of the first age were replaced by angst ridden characters like Spider-man and the Hulk, or even by idealized geeks and eggheads like Ray Palmer (the Atom) or Reed Richards (Mr. Fantastic), but the central of idea of wish fulfillment didn’t change much. It happens a lot in popular entertainment of course. The detective Spenser is, in some ways, the man his creator, Robert B. Parker, has daydreamed about being.

Gerard Jones is just about the perfect fellow to write this book, having been involved in the industry for a dozen or more years as writer on books as diverse as Green Lantern, the Justice League, El Diablo, Wonder Man, The Shadow, PokŽmon, and Batman. His work includes all three of the current major publishers - Marvel, DC and Dark Horse - as well as a number of smaller presses.

Like many in the industry today, he is not part of the ethnic mix that characterized the first 40 years of the field. Today, creators come from all over the world, and an artist in the Philippines may be working in collaboration with a writer in the north of England. The fax machine and email, have allowed industry people to live in places other than New York

In the early years the genre was controlled by shysters and businessmen looking to make a quick buck, signing on artists and writers for the same sort of piece work contracts that had once paid them a pittance for cutting bolts of cloth in their kitchens (ah - you wondered when I was going to get back to that).

Today the field seems to be controlled by men and women who grew up loving the books and love the work. As a result there are creator’s rights settlements and reprint rights and all sorts of other reforms, things that Siegel and Shuster, whose seminal creation made their employers hundreds of millions of dollars, had to fight for decades to get for themselves.

For any comic book fan this is an exciting addition to the history of the form. For those looking for more detailed accounts of major characters and creators, may I recommend Wikipedia.com and Don Markstein’s toonopedia.com. Both are places where fans of the comics have been able to create bodies of reference work that would never have made it into a print encyclopedia.

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