Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, gangsters and the birth of the comic book, by Gerard Jones

Myths of men in tights
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The Independent Culture

The grand archetype of the modern comic book emerged just before World War II, with Superman's appearance in Action Comics 1 and the torrent of garishly-hued long-underwear characters following in his slipstream. "Nowhere was Jewish influence greater than in popular culture," writes Gerard Jones, himself a recovering comic-book writer, "Jews ran the movie studios and wrote the songs." Like Hollywood films and Broadway pop, the superhero comic was a Jewish creation, primarily brought into being by second-generation emigres whose parents had arrived in Brooklyn, the Bronx and the Lower East Side of New York from Romania or the Ukraine on the cusp of the 19th and 20th centuries. Jones explicitly locates the origins of these potent new myths in the immigrant dilemma of reconciling the challenges and demands of the culture in which we are raised with those of the culture in which we are required to function.

The Eastern European Jewish expat community he chronicles produced both the writers and artists (the "geeks" of his title) who created the great comics protagonists, and the publishers and agents (the "gangsters") who marketed them into the forefront of the junior division of the American Dream. Superman's creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, were exceptions, but mostly the dreamers tended to anglicise their telltale foreign names. Thus Bob Kahn became Bob Kane, Stanley Lieber Stan Lee, Jacob Kurtzberg Jack Kirby and Eli Katz Gil Kane, whilst hustlers like Harry Donenfeld and Yacov "Jack" Liebowitz, only mentioned in the small print, retained theirs.

Jones's framing narrative is the story of Siegel and Shuster's decades-long battle for royalties and recognition. Their original deal with National Periodical Publications (better known as DC) saw the desperate pair of Cleveland nerds sign away all rights to Superman for a mere $130 with no longterm share in the profits the character generated.

When DC retaliated to their demands for a bigger share of the pie they baked by replacing them with younger, cheaper and more versatile labour, they were left high and dry: their post-Superman ventures making little impact. Shuster's sight was failing, rendering it harder and harder for him to function as a working artist. Siegel was virtually destitute, wage-slaving as a clerk, when he discovered that Godfather guy Mario Puzo was about to receive $250,000 from Warner Brothers for a Superman screenplay: more than Siegel and Shuster themselves had ever seen for creating the classic characters of Clark Kent,Lois Lane, Lex Luthor, Perry White and Jor-El in the first place. Meanwhile publishers Donenfield and Liebowitz were living large on the proceeds of an empire built almost entirely on the success of the caped Kryptonian. Jack Liebowitz, DC's accountant, was raised by idealistic socialists from whom he learned enough about capitalism to be able to master it. His father wrote and designed left-wing leaflets which were printed by the family firm of Harry Donenfeld, the company's distributor and gladhander, whose godfather was legendary wiseguy Frank Costello.

Many years later, when Liebowitz was in financial dispute with several key DC creatives, he reminded them that he had been a socialist in his youth. "The problem," said writer Arnold Drake, "was that Liebowitz had a youth of ten minutes."

The artist who did best out of the early comics boom was actually a hybrid of archetypes whose entrepreneurial talents were rather more highly developed than his artistic skills. Bob Kane, whose name is as firmly welded to Batman as Walt Disney's is to Mickey Mouse, was effectively the front man for a coalition. Writer Bill Finger (the brilliant, depressive alcoholic who originally suggested that a darkly-garbed "Batman" might be a more effective pseudo-winged hero than Kane's original concept of a red-suited "Birdman") and "ghost" artist Jerry Robinson (an eager wunderkind who came on board for the third Batman story, designed the vertiginous nocturnal cityscapes which became one of the strip's dominant motifs and went on to create The Joker) contributed at least as much as he did, jointly inventing Robin without Kane's participation. However, it was Kane who cut the sweetheart deal with DC; Kane whose distinctive signature appeared on every Batman story published until the mid-Sixties, and Kane whose name is still, to this day, firmly attached to each and every trademarked Bat-artefact. Even the oil paintings he produced in his later years were ghosted.

Standard histories of the period utilise the lives of individual creators and executives, and the changing fortunes of individual companies, to illuminate the trajectories of their iconic characters. Jones reverses this approach, analysing Superman in order to tell us more about Siegel and Shuster, using the content of the comics to generate insights into the community which created them.

"This was the bed in which the comic-book was conceived," he writes, "counter-cultural, lowbrow, idealistic, prurient, pretentious, mercenary, forward-looking and ephemeral, all in the same instant." The major players, geeks and gangsters alike, were "all born in the course of a generation, all acquainted with each other, all Jewish kids, all the sons of immigrants, all misfits in their own communities - two or three steps removed from the American mainstream but - more poignantly in touch with the desires and agonies of that mainstream than those in the middle of it."

It is a narrative filled with captivating characters, both attractive and repellent, from Marvel's in-house nice guy Stan Lee to the (decidedly non-Jewish) psychologist William Moulton Marston, who helped invent the lie detector and, as "Charles Moulton", created quite the perviest mainstream comic strip ever in the form of Wonder Woman, embodying, in Marston's words, "the subconscious, elaborately disguised desire of males to be mastered by a woman who loves them - an exciting, beautiful girl stronger than they are." Plus everybody gets tied up a lot.

It is a tribute to the vividness and empathy with which Jones tells his tale that Siegel and Shuster ultimately become more interesting than Superman; Bob Kane than Batman; William Marston than Wonder Woman; Stan Lee than Spider-Man. Men Of Tomorrow is a fascinating snapshot of a unique cultural moment during the American 20th century, and an absorbing account of the seamless process by which cultures shape people, people shape myths and myths shape societies.

Charles Shaar Murray's 'Crosstown Traffic: Jimi Hendrix and postwar pop' has been reissued by Faber