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In Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book, Gerard Jones writes the history of the comic book as the confluence [End Page 370] of the energies of nebbishes, street kids, bullies, and racketeers, all caught up in the American Dream of making it big, and desperate to escape the confines of poverty-filled, Jewish immigrant childhoods. The comic, in its conceptualization and its history, is, in Jones's telling, the Jewish immigrant's dream writ large. With it, a generation of Jewish American kids, born to immigrant parents, wrote themselves from the social and cultural margins of America into its very center.
The story of the Jewish origin of the comic book has been told in bits and pieces, most notably in Michael Chabon's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (2000). Loosely based on the biographies of some of the key players in the comic book industry, the novel conjured up a Jewish world in which despair, anxiety, dreams, and disillusionment provide the fuel for the creation of the superheroes which would conquer the American imagination in the 1940s.
Gerard Jones, a journalist and former comic book writer, takes the story of the birth of the comic book from its early roots in the science-fiction fandom of the 1920s, the bravado salesmanship of the early publishers, and the superhero craze of the late 1930s and WWII to the creation of modern media conglomerates like AOL Time Warner. Densely populated with colorful, creative, ambitious, gutsy, unscrupulous, and angry personalities, ranging from Margaret Sanger, Eddie Cantor, and Philip Wylie to Meyer Lansky, the story of the creation of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and Captain America is as boisterous and crowded as the streets of the Lower East Side which were, in many ways, its cradle.
Men of Tomorrow is, at its core, a story of Jewish heroes and Jewish villains. It pits the shyster Harry Donenfeld, a Rumanian Jew with a street-honed talent for self-projection who turns his family printing business into a print-and-distribution company for sex and crime pulps and later for comics, and the allrightnik Jack Liebowitz, who lends his accounting skills first to socialism and the International Ladies Garment Worker's Union and later to corporatism and Donenfeld's Independent News Company, against the nebbishes Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the dreamy, timid, insulated, Cleveland-born writer and illustrator of the original Superman. Jerry Siegel's lifelong and uphill legal battle with Donenfeld and Liebowitz to regain the rights to his creation, and receive a share of the enormous revenues of the Superman craze, which as early as 1941 spawned radio series, cartoons, toys, and puzzles, gives Men of Tomorrow its pathos.
Donenfeld and Liebowitz, raised on the streets of the Lower East Side in an environment of corruption, raw competition, and ethical compromise, focused their energies on the conquest of the real world, by whatever means necessary. In the case of Donenfeld, that included a high-living [End Page 371] life style and extensive ties to the mob; in Liebowitz's, an unscrupulous adherence to the bottom line. For Jerry Siegel, born in 1914 in Cleveland as the youngest son of the Siegel family, and his high school friend Joe Shuster, the combination of ambition and inhibition, and the trauma of the murder of Jerry's father, inspired a retreat from the world. Raised on pulp magazines, the muscular masculinity of Tarzan, the "scientific fiction" of Hugo Gernsback, and newspaper comics, they created an imaginary universe populated by invulnerable, avenging, crime-fighting heroes.
For all their antagonisms, Siegel, Shuster, Donenfeld, and Liebowitz, creators, peddlers, and promoters of Superman, were united in their instinct for self-invention, their belief in stories, and their "refusal to submit to the tyranny of the real or the possible"(2). They were also united by the fact that for Jews in the early decades of the twentieth century, mass entertainment—disdained by the snobbery of established America...