Monday, 28 May 2012

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


Men Of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters, and the Birth of the Comic Book
By Gerard Jones

Available now from Islington Libraries
You can reserve this item for free here:

So. This is my 300th book post (and if you count the posts about other stuff - it's actually the 331st). So what the hey - let's make this special (any excuse - right?)

If you didn't already know: It wasn't my idea to set up this blog - the idea actually came from the people who came to the Comic Forum meeting - who said that they wanted a place to hang out online (although that hasn't gone so well - HELLO? GUYS? WHERE ARE YOU?). There was another Islington Comic Forum blog before this (see: here) run by a guy called Steve Hawkins and so I thought that it could be cool to start something like it that held up books I really liked and said: "Hey! Look at this! This is good!" (and you know: it's good to have something for when I send out the monthly email - there was a point when I used to write little one line blurbs for all the books - but now I can just put a in a link). Back when I first started out I didn't really think that things would get this far - I mean - as I'm sure you can all tell - I'm not really much of a writer (and it's not really what I want my life to be about - in my free time I much prefer making music - yes I know: Scott Pilgrim eat your heart out - and as a medium it feels like I'm much more into music and films than comics - but whatever): but it's been fun evolving from short little descriptions of what a books about (and trying not to give the whole plot away like most so-called reviewers tend to do) to - well - using the book as a springboard to try and talk about other things (and not always successfully I know - there's a lot of books that I've given short shrift to - mainly just because my shift at the library would be ending and it just seemed easier to click "publish" rather than just wait until the next time I was at work). And there's starting to be more times now when I've found myself writing stuff at home (much to the chagrin of my girlfriend) which I guess means that I'm taking things more seriously (and there's so many posts on here that I'm planning on going back and re-writing) and also - because - I guess that it's important to try and use whatever small influence I have (and I realise that it's very very small type of influence) to do somekind of good (because that's the kinda of thing Superman would want): and so - instead of going: "Hey! Look at this! This is good!" I'm going to try and go: "Hey! Look at this! This is good! And also: think about all the stuff that surrounds it." [1]

Because: from where I'm standing - 2012 seemed to be the the year when comic fandom discovered it's radical side and/or it's social conscience. Not so much that it has anything to do with the Arab Spring, Wikileaks, Occupy or anything like that - nope - the inspiration for the revolutionary fervour sweeping the interwebs (best place to start for anyone curious would be this 4thletter article: Before Watchmen: “there’s a war going on outside no man is safe from” which includes a link to a Comic Journal interview with iZombie writer Chris Roberson who got so sick with the moral compromises that come from working for DC that he decided to quit/get fired) comes from two places: The Watchmen prequels and The Avengers movie.

The Watchmen prequels because of how it's the latest and maybe most blatant example in a long long line of the folks at DC being unscrupulous in their dealings with Alan Moore (who - let's be honest - even if you can't stand his Mr Twit style facial hair - is someone who everyone who reads and enjoys modern day comic books owes some small debt of gratitude) and The Avengers movie which (regardless of whether or not you enjoyed it) stands in a morally dubious place because even tho it's broken book office records (taking in something like $200 million in it's first three days): not a penny of that cash will be going to the family of the person who created all those characters and concepts in the first place: Jack Kirby. (But - hell - David Brothers describes it all so much better than me here).

But I guess the main point is this: for an industry that has built itself around the idea of the superhero and all the truth, justice stuff that comes with it: it's coming as a bit of a shock to it's loyal readers and supporters to discover that under the hood - the bad guys have been running the show (*Gasp*! It's as if Mark Miller's Wanted was right all along!). Or to put it another way - I can't imagine a Superman story ending with Superman saying that everything is alright because hey - we're sticking to the terms of the contract. ("Oh well - in that case - you guys take care now! And I'll just fly off this way!")

Yes - we all know that all businesses are there to make money and look after their stockholders and that if they were human beings then they'd all be psychopaths: but it's becoming clear that the comics industry is - even when compared with the low low standards adopted by all the other entertainment industries out there - pretty damn sleazeball (like: you don't see Steven Spielberg vowing to quit making films or complaining about the way he's been treated or anything like that).

So. Cut to: last month's meeting of the Comic Forum - and we're all discussing Grant Morrison's Batman and Robin. Things started off jovial - quite a few people digged the day-glo attitude and the pop art simplicity and all that - and then we started to veer off in a different direction and we start talking about the way that Grant Morrison - well - operates. I think that someone was saying that they were a little bit disappointed by how it didn't really feel like they weren't getting the whole story and it felt like it was a little bit - incomplete. "Ah" I said (Except I'm not exactly sure if "Ah" was exactly the thing that I said or indeed any of the stuff that follows - but hey I'm trying to make a point here - so just roll with it and let's pretend that I did.) "That's because Grant Morrison's Batman stuff isn't something that you can just dip in and out of - it's more like each story is a little piece of the pie - and if you want to really feel full satisfaction - then - well - you've gotta catch them all and all that. Because the thing about Grant Morrison's mainstream superhero stuff - is that he's basically the ultimate corporate writer - a company man in that he writes stuff that - while it has lots to recommend it and other merits and all that - it also works to make people buy as much stuff as possible (see: The Black Casebook - which is a load of old Batman stories from way back when - repacked as part of a: "Hey - The Grant Morrison Batman stuff isn't going to make sense unless you read this - so BUY BUY BUY): and yeah - ok - so maybe this is being a little bit harsh - and maybe we can just take him on face value when he says stuff like he just wanted to explore the continuity and make a more three-dimensional Batman (or whatever): but the fact is - that reading his stories does have the (unintended or not) consequence of making people go out there and buy more and more comics (because otherwise the whole story isn't going to make sense). And there's no way that a writer could be more corporate friendly. Which is why - I guess - lots of comic critics have gone off him (According to Matt Seneca he's a "small and miserable man." While David Brothers opts for the slightly less harsh: "stooge.")"

And that small push kinda knocked us off Batman and Robin and into talking about - well - how the sausage is made and the Watchmen prequels and Jack Kirby and all the rest and - basically - how the comics industry (not to put too fine a point on it): was set up - and continues to be run by people - with - well - let's just say: a very loose attitude to morality [2].

I was all like - yeah - you guys should check out 4thLetter! and The Hurting [3] - and all the rest (because - hey - it's the 21st Century right?). But then two other members (independently of each other) were like - erm actually Joel - the best place to start with this stuff is with a book called "Men Of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters, and the Birth of the Comic Book" by a guy called Gerard Jones - because he lays it all out and goes into the history of how the comic book industry first got started and goes into the roots that - erm - continue to sprout the weeds that grow today (metaphor!).

Aha! A book you say! Well - hell - as a librarian - I'm all about books! And trying to get people to read them! And if people are recommending a book over websites - then it must be pretty good - right? And - hey - yay! - Books! Books! Books! (Although the old timey yayness was slightly mitigated by the fact that someone showed me the cover by using their iPhone - but hell - at least they didn't just said I should download it on to my Kindle [4])

So - I reserved myself a copy - and finally we can be done with all this preamble and actually get down to talking about it...

So - like we said - Men Of Tomorrow is a history book about the birth of the thing that we now call "comic books" (or - *sigh* - if you really insist - "graphic novels" - altho - technically - that didn't come until 1980s - about 40 years later - and also: like Alan Moore said (and he's my one man comic guru whose every proclamation is gold being poured into my ears): "It's a marketing term... that I never had any sympathy with. The term 'comic' does just as well for me... The problem is that 'graphic novel' just came to mean 'expensive comic book' and so what you'd get is people like DC Comics or Marvel Comics—because 'graphic novels' were getting some attention, they'd stick six issues of whatever worthless piece of crap they happened to be publishing lately under a glossy cover and call it The She-Hulk Graphic Novel...." (taken from: here). But - whatever. The thing with the all pictures and the superheroes flying around and doing superstuff: Men of Tomorrow is the story of how it all began.

Of course - because it's a popular history book (as opposed to a dry bit of academia) it makes sure to provide the entertainment along with all the historical facts and knowledgeable titbits and it's pretty canny in it's use of subtle (and not so subtle) foreshadowing [5] - so that it feels less like a dry recitation of the historical facts and more like a story - never skipping over a chance to drop in a little moment of human interest [6]: and yet always keen to point out where the facts differ from the rose-tinted legend [7].

From reading about it afterwards and looking at the affectionate quotes at the back (the top one's from Alan Moore!) and - I guess - from the fact that two people at the Comic Forum were like - hey yeah read it: it seems that Men of Tomorrow as secured a special place somewhere between comic geekdoms heart and it's brain (it's heain? Brart!): it's a story of the genesis of a medium so many love so much - and I guess - you can't know where you're going if you don't know where you've been (or something like that). But the one thing that struck me as I made my way through it's pages is how I didn't really care. (Wait - that sounds harsh - let me try again): I mean - as you can tell from reading this blog and the fact that (yeah - let me say it once more) - this is the 300th post - I like comics. I really do. I think that they're great and smart and funny - and hey comics - do you want to go out for a coffee sometime or what? But pretty much all of the things that I really like about them (and I guess it has this in common with music and films): is that the thing I find myself most excited about is where they'll go next. In that - I'm a sucker for things on the cutting edge and a self-defined futurist - not in the sense of the art movement or that I think I can predict what happens next (and I'll take this point to quote a lyric from the latest Future of the Left album: "I have seen into the future/ Everyone is slightly older." - Andy Falkous I love you) but in that I like seeing and hearing and experiencing the things that haven't been done before. And I mean - it's not that I'm into the new over the expense at all else - and I'd rather take something that was well constructed and thought-out and good - rather than something that was just shiny and new - but: well - I guess this is all just my roundabout way of saying that - mostly - I don't have a lot of time for stuff that's old: for the past and the history. Like - maybe I'm just misunderstanding everyone else (always a possibility): but I just don't get why people are still interested in old time comic books from the 1940s, 50s, 60s and 70s. I've already mentioned Alan Moore twice already and there's a good reason for that: Alan Moore and the whole vanguard he came up with (Frank Miller, Neil Gaiman, and - I dunno - Art Spiegelman I guess if I have to) were pretty much the first people to write comic books that grown-ups could enjoy. There's a almost semi-mythical headline somewhere that goes: "Bang! Pow! Zap! Comics Aren't Just For Kids Anymore!" (can anyone point out the first instance of this?): that as much as it has been derided contains a fat load of truth namely - for a long, long stretch of time: comics were just for kids. And while - yeah - I do love the handsome and (mostly) intelligent grown-up it's become - I don't really wanna spend time hanging out with it when it was still wearing nappies - does that make sense?

But then again - hey - history is important (right?) - and it is interesting watching the birth of a medium and (and this is what got my interest) the introduction of business practices that still hold sway today (in a nutshell: "Writers and artists believe in an ownership that transcends money and contracts, but salesmen and accountants don't."). Of course - way back in the day no one had any idea that comic books would amount to anything - but with the introduction of Superman and the rest of his buddies - for a while there at least (according to one survey) "ninety precent of fourth and fifth graders described themselves as "regular readers" of comic books." Of course this was a development that no one was really expecting which is how the entire ended up being run by some of the most shady characters around - namely street-hustlers and ex-socialists (the horror!).

Although the two stars of the show are two young geeky Jewish men from Cleveland: Jerome Siegel and Joe Shuster who first had a dream of a man who could fly (or more accurately - first had a dream of a man who could jump really high: the flying came later and (as with some many things) - nicked from elsewhere). The kind of guys who were so starved for female company that they hired a model to play Lois Lane just so they could meet a girl - (and Lois Lane ended up looking nothing like her). Tracing their early beginnings and awkward missteps - which doubles as an exposé of the first sproutings of what has become known as "Geek Culture" (although - hell - looking around I guess nowadays it's just "Culture"): whose most significant step came when one science-fiction magazine (Amazing Stories) decided to publish people's full addresses on it's letters page - which allowed fans to communicate with one another and thus beginning a cross-fertilization of friendships and ideas that spawned an underground movement that then took over the mainstream - the book follows Siegel and Shuster as they start gathering their influences and combining the ideas that would make them immortal up until that fateful moment when Superman first saw print: "Jerry and Joe got a check for $130. They signed a release surrendering all rights to the publisher. They knew that was how the business worked... None of them could have foreseen how they would change the popular culture of America. None of them could have imagined how different their own lives would become, how huge the money and the fame and the ruination would be."

When I first started reading it my quick capsule review was going to be "Citizen Kane x Broadwalk Empire + Comic Books = Men of Tomorrow." Citizen Kane because William Randolph Hearst makes a few appearances early on - and it does that same kind of showing the rise of people up through the publishing industry (altho that is a bit of a guess - as still - to my eternal shame - I still haven't sat down and watched Citizen Kane yet). Boardwalk Empire - because it's the same kinda time-frame and does all the gangster stuff - altho it's mainly stuff on the periphery - if you're expecting gun fights and mob hits - then you're reading the wrong book - there's more stuff about balancing the books than there is about concrete shoes: it's all more of "people with connections" type of thing and the type of guy who talks a lot without actually ever doing that much to get his hands that dirty (like one of the other stars of the book Harry Donenfeld - former pornographer and con-man - who - through a series of lucky flukes - ends up rich and wealthy beyond his wildest dreams). But - like Boardwalk (which for some reason I've watched 1 and a half seasons of - altho I wouldn't really describe myself as a fan) - it does get all the period details right and you do get a nice sense of life as it was lived back then [8].

And it doesn't skimp on the rest of the pantheon of comic creators: as we also get treated to the secret origins of (to name just the most well known three) Bob Kane, Jack Kirby and Stan Lee (albeit in the guise of their Clark Kent style alter egos: Robert Kahn, Jacob Kurtzberg and Stanley Martin Lieber - and how cool is that?). And it's fun after spending a lifetime only knowing the names from what they've created to actually get a sense of what these people were like as - well - people. It's like finding out that Shakespeare (real name: Wilhelm Shackstein?) was really into regicide or tupping white ewes (or something?) - it just makes you realise that all these ideas and comic book mainstays didn't just magically spring into existence out of nowhere (which - obviously - is what the Big Two would like to believe) but rather reflected in lots of bizarre ways the hopes and neuroses of the people who made them: so Jack Cole - the creator of Plastic Man - he's almost exactly what you would expect - wild and crazy and impulsive and William Moulton Marston - the creator of Wonder Woman - well... I'll leave that one for you to discover yourself.

Stuff I learned from reading Men of Tomorrow: Gerard Jones writes very lurid prose: Best example: "A few months later he moved his mistress into a suite at the Waldorf-Astoria. That two-towered palace on Park Avenue was the pinnacle, the twin peaks of the hustler made big, the great tits of the bitch goddess of Manhattan herself." (my best guess: he's a failed superhero writer he's somehow got caught writing popular history books). Also (altho should have realised before): the upstanding image of the superhero was created not down to any moral concerns - but because the publishers wanted to avoid the wrath of the censors [9]. Truth, Justice and The America Way? Hell - who could disagree with that? (Apart from - you know - the ever-so slightly crazed psychiatric avenger Fredric Wertham (author of: Seduction of the Innocent!) who it seemed was prone to saying stuff like: "If I was asked to express in a single sentence what has happened mentally to many American children, I would say that they were conquered by Superman.") Plus (and this is another thing that I should have figured out myself): if it seems that comics are stale and stuck in the same never-ended loops and battles it's most likely coming from the editors and the publishers (who don't want to rock the boat - even if it's sinking) rather than the writers and the artists as in - In 1940 (barely two years after Superman was first introduced to the world) Jerry Siegel tried to change one of Superman's central conceits - namely: letting Lois Lane into the secret of Clark Kent's secret identity ("Then it's settled! We're to be - partners!" Superman smiles down at her. "Yes - partners!") But the powers-that-be never published the story [10]. Because - hey - "It was the character and the appearance of creative continuity that mattered, not the writer or the artist." And that's how you stall and stifle an art-form.

But topping all of those was an insight that I didn't really expect: like I said Men of Tomorrow is - mainly - the story of the creators of Superman - Jerome Siegel and Joe Shuster and it's a story that - altho tipped with gold and glory ends up in lots of depressing and sad places (the worst I think is when - in a desperate bid to create a new character they create the most lame superhero of all time: "Funnyman" - which just adds to all the tragic dimensions - but then again there's also the point where - after all seems lost - Jerome ends up back writing Superman - but only as a freelancer - which seems like the most ignoble twist of all). And yet and yet - after spending time with these guys - and especially Jerome - who it seems had quite a few issues about being the underdog ("But he was about to learn that the world was not a superhero script, and victory does not go to the most injured and most angry.") that I wasn't as much on their side as I thought I would be. Because - yeah - I do agree with creator's rights and I do think it's awful how the comics industry has screwed over so many people, so often, so much: but the things that Gerard Jones says made me feel that (in solidarity with what would become DC) that maybe these guys did just get lucky - and what was so important wasn't the fact that they were great writers or great artists - but merely they were in the right place at the right time. Of course I realise that a lot of me thinking that is down to the fact that (like I said above) I don't really respect or admire old time comic books that much so yeah - I'm prejudiced and really I should be more respectful to the guys who (inadvertently) gave birth to something that has brought be so many good times. And - daganmit - it's not as if I'm saying that the people who ran the corporations were the good guys (because they weren't) but maybe (and this is a good place to leave this on I guess - so I will): yeah - real life isn't like it is in the comics and (oh well): maybe superheroes don't exist after all.

[1] Also: as you can probably tell - I have recently discovered the joy of footnotes! Which - erm - I don't know what - but - hey! Look:  Footnotes! Yay!

[2] Or maybe I should just say "crooks."? Hell - I'll say it - crooks.

[3] Of particular note: The Four Laws of Ethical Comics: 1. Ideas belong to their creators. 2. Any permanent transfer of intellectual property ownership from a creator to a corporation is and always has been morally wrong. 3. Permanent intellectual property transfer under any circumstances is and has always been theft. 4. All money made my corporations from the exploitation of stolen intellectual property is and will always be stolen money. (I agree with the above).

[4] For those unaware: Kindle's are the swore enemies of all librarians everywhere. And no - I don't own one and don't plan to either - and for anyone who knows me who's reading this - please don't buy me one because I would hate to have to smash it in front of your stupid face.

[5] "They're write and draw a comic book strip based on an action hero of their own creation and sell it to Humor Publishing. To make it stand out, they wouldn't copy Dick Tracy or any other strip but take their inspiration, like Buck Rogers and Tarzan, from the pulps. They'd draw on Gladiator and the ads for Doc Savage to create a pulp adventure about a brawling do-gooder of extraordinary strength... He even had a title: The Superman."

[6] So: there's a nice bit about how Frank the chauffer acts as more of father than a kid's own father takes a bit tear-jerky even if it does sound like something someone would say in a Spielberg movie: "He went to very baseball game I was in. He'd sit there and watch, and on the drive back he'd talk to me about it. My father went to one of my games. And after a couple of innings he just stood up and left. Frank stayed."

[7] "Jerry Siegel was a young man of commercial instincts, and when he saw that Superman was going nowhere with Joe, he went looking for another collaborator."

[8] Like this lovely sentence: "Such promises of perfection flourished in the 1920s. The breakdown of old orders and wonders of technology came together to make any imaginable future seem realizable, if only the right system or device could be found: scientific socialism, fascism, positive thinking, technological progress, spiritualism, or health regimens."

[9] Speaking of - can I just say that I love this comics condemnation: "The effects of these pulp-paper nightmares is that of a violent stimulant. Their crude black and reds spoil a child's natural sense of color; their hypodermic injection of sex and murder make the child impatient with better, though quieter stories. Unless we want a coming generation even more ferocious than the present one, parents and teacher throughout American must band together to break the 'comic' magazine." (There's a part of me that's half tempted to use this as the blurb on the flyers for the Islington Comic Forum).

[10] "DC was changing it's philosophy of editing. In the beginning... The writers and the artists decided what their heroes would do and sent the pages in. Now, with one colossally lucrative property under their control and other with potential, Jack Liebowitz and Whitney Ellsworth agreed that they needed more editorial control. Jerry Siegel might have started the Superman industry, but that didn't give him any right to mess it up now that so many people were depending on it."

Links: Charles Shaar Murray Review, SF Site Review,

Further reading: Kirby: King of Comics, Alan Moore: Storyteller, Superman: All Star Superman, Marvel Visionaries: Jack Kirby, Supergods,

All comments welcome.


Tam said...

Good review. Have to say I found the book fascinating. I'm not remotely interested in those old comic stories from the 40s for their own sake, (I still appreciate good childrens' stories as an ostensible adult, but these weren't even any good) but I am interested in history and I think you can sometimes learn a lot more about a period from examining its low brow culture than the more self-aware highbrow stuff, which is why I occasionally look at that stuff even now.

Similarly, it's become apparent that superhero movies have become one of America's main cultural exports and have replaced Westerns as the main genre for telling moral fables to a generation of adolescents, (despite often containing some fairly dubious morality) and I suppose what I found most interesting about the book was how the small group of Jewish Romanian immigrants brought this state of affairs to pass.

Islington Comic Forum said...

Thanks for the kind words Tam. As with pretty much everything I've put on here - it only feels half finished - but I'm glad you liked it.

And I very much agree with your assessment that you can learn way more about people from their low-brow tastes than their high-brow ones (there's an Alan Moore quote that would be appropriate here - but I just can't think which one it could be): there's a bit in the book when Jones traces the rise and fall of superhero comics with the beginning and climax of WW2 (after that: superhero comics were never as popular again) which speaks volumes.

Re: superhero movies as the moral fable for our generation.
This is good: (altho spoilers if you haven't seen The Avengers yet): "Why should he (or anyone else) take orders from Captain America, who, throughout the film, presents as a perfect ninny unacquainted with the simplest aspects of the modern world? And why, more importantly, does a proficiency at violence establish a right to command – indeed, make that right so self-evident that a challenge to it becomes retrospectively ridiculous?"

Any chance we'll see you at the Comic Forum tomorrow?

Tam said...

I didn't like the characters in the avengers much to begin with, but when some cretin, (can't remember who and don't care) said 'Because if we can't protect the Earth, you can be damned well sure we'll avenge it!' I started rooting for the bad guys

Islington Comic Forum said...