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Men of Tomorrow
Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book
Basic Books ($26)
by Paul Buhle
Men of Tomorrow is one of those surprise critical hits that uplift the lowest rungs of popular culture without seeking, as would surely have been done in earlier generations, to uplift and rationalize them as gentility in deep disguise. Postmodernism and a few vindications of talent in comic art—Crumb, Pekar, Spiegelman, and Katchor could almost exhaust the list beyond the aficionado's gaze—have allowed the New York Times, the New Yorker and so on to arrive at a much-postponed conclusion: Even this most pedestrian of popular arts, beloved by generations of ordinary folk via the comic strip and comic book, deserves a little dignity.
Author Gerard Jones is an erstwhile scripter for Batman and Spider-Man, as well as an unacademic scholar-of-sorts on soap operas and media violence. Perhaps for that reason, he has learned to go the other way, reveling in the subculture of the pulps that produced the market and the marketers for comic books. His research is certainly tantalizing, his writing lively. He has a lot to say in particular about the industry-shaping characters in their Jewish lower middle class setting of the 1910s-'40s, the crossovers they made between commercial printing, the pulp sex trade and the emerging industry mostly aimed at children. As morals witch-hunter Frederick Wertham was to repeat on every occasion during the 1950s, these guys (with honorable exceptions) were sleazy.
They were, however, an interesting sleazy because they wanted to be upwardly mobile so badly that they experimented with one formula after another until they found ways to exploit the market niche opening up to them. The muscular, semi-clothed body was definitely what caught their interest, the vision of a near-superhuman perfectly able to do all the sorts of things that male children nearly all want to do, if only they could sprout the necessary muscles and dexterity, and also fly. Is this a reading, for the middle 1930s, of futurist fascism, communism, or a miraculously rejuvenated Franklin D. Roosevelt? (Actually, one of the two creators of Superman was a young socialist, and it's reasonable to assume that he had "Mr. Socialism" Norman Thomas in mind). No political theorist, Jones does not probe this kind of issue because his interest is personality and process—above all the process of making money—much like the businessmen themselves.
Men of Tomorrow thus focuses on comic art and artists at the point where comic book sales are racing skyward. Emerging giants of the field like Will Eisner, Bob Kane, and Jerry Iger (an early partner of Eisner's who went on to produce some of the most innovative comics of the era, usually with the imprint of larger companies on them) were at the center of an industry that had grown wildly by the middle 1940s, selling tens of millions of copies each month to kids, Gis, and plenty of others too embarrassed to admit their devotion. We learn amazing details, for instance, about Lev Gleason, the near-Communist non-Jew who revolutionized a sector of the industry with noir-style documentary "true crime" comics, including one series startlingly called Crime and Punishment. And more about the origins of the EC line of goods, guided by later Mad maven Williams Gaines, whose left-liberal politics and commitment to quality afforded opportunities for the best, most serious artists that the industry has ever produced.
The story pretty much climaxes with the 1950s congressional hearings and the campaign of suppression conducted under the guise of the "Comics Code." Jones devotes a few chapters to the revival of Marvel and assorted developments leading to Underground comics and the rejuvenated (it almost never ceased) exploitation of the superhero archetype. By the end of the book, however, this "real-life Kavalier and Clay" (as it is blurb-marketed on the jacket) has many of the same limitations as Michael Chabon's best-selling novel. The day-to-day situation of the comic artist, working in the equivalent of sweatshops during the 1940s, barely registers: their never-realized desire for union representation, their mixture of admiration and resentment toward the hard-nosed bosses—all this is lost. So is the subtlety of Jewish-American life in transition, rapidly changing after World War II, but with many familiar features and attitudes lingering decades longer. Jones is so stuck with the heroic and antiheroic businessmen that the worlds of Crumb, Kim Deitch, Bill Griffith and Art Spiegelman seem part of another universe--when in fact, industry insider Harvey Kurtzman of EC and Mad offered a sun around which a different future orbited.
The story is further handicapped by an indifference to all the comic lines that did not feature superheroes. True, the zealous response to Superman outdistanced everything else in its time, as the Man of Steel inspired countless other characters and became meanwhile a star of beautifully colorful animation. But Funny Animal art was evolving steadily as well, offering the comedy of the little creature against the big creature in a thousand forms, further mirrored in other comic lines that offered the same social commentary via human bodies. It is hard to imagine a book on "the birth of the comic book" without Carl Barks, genius of Donald Duck and his gang, and equally hard to imagine such a book without Little Lulu—yet here it is. Westerns, SciFi, and Horror also hardly see the light. Even some of the superheroes that slip by in Men of Tomorrow, like Plastic Man, offered sustained satire on the genre, a sort of immanent critique that preceded Mad's shredding of pseudo-patriotic, authoritarian nonsense.
Never mind. What Gerard Jones does, he does well, and those readers who will tear their hair a bit over what he's left out can come to their own conclusions.
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2004 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2004/2005