Sunday, May 24, 2015

Men Of Tomorrow!

It's taken me a long time to get around to reading Men of Tomorrow by Gerard Jones. I've had a copy for several years and started it once a while back, but got stopped in the first chapter and never returned for some reason. Now at long last I've finished this outstanding chronicle of the earliest development of the comic book and most especially the hero Superman and the company which publishes him still, DC Comics.

Jerry Seigel and Joe Shuster
Jones begins his story with an older Jerry Seigel writing a scathing press release about how DC Comics has persistantly over the decades denied Seigel and Shuster their just due for the creation of so mighty a character. In fact, not unlike Homer's Iliad the anger of Seigel initiates the story and also becomes one of its steady themes. If that story led to tragedy is what we have to learn. I was surprised by much of what I read and frankly my esteem for Seigel is much diminished by learning more about a man who was at once a victim certainly, but also a victimizer for sure. 

Hugo Gernsback's famous issue of Amazing Stories which featured a flying man (E.E. Smith's  Skylark of Space) is referenced several times in the saga and is presented as a singular point of departure for many of the creators who would make comic books into what we know today. This singular image seems to be the ember which ignited the fire which still burns slowly in print and on screen in the modern world.

Certainly Seigel and his longtime partner Joe Shuster (a much more sympathetic and passive character) are the centerpieces of this story along with Harry Donnenfeld and Jack Liebowitz, the owners of what would eventually be DC. We follow all of these men, and other significant figures, from before their births, tracking their parents who came to the United States to seek new lives. In fact that story is the root of this tome, the struggle of many immigrants, most all of them Jewish to redefine themselves inside the matrix of America.

It is to Jones' credit that he does not limit his presentation to the sometimes tawdry battle between the Superman people but spreads his narrative to encompass the broader rise of comics which surrounded that singular epic struggle. We meet many of the distinctive and often wildly colorful men and sometimes women who created the  Golden Age of comics.

Left to Right: Robert Maxwell, Paul Sampliner, Harry Donenfeld, Jack Liebowitz, M.C. Gaines and Whitney Ellsworth
The story also follows the development of comics in general and Superman in particular through the decades as the industry changed and eventually Hollywood came knocking. This is a story with a wonderful heft and wit and delightful details which allow the reader to come to a deeper understanding of the complicated men who crafted the heroes we still adore to this day.

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