Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Men of Tomorrow


It's rare that I read a book and feel compelled to reread it immediately. But that's what happened when I finished Gerard Jones' Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters, and the Birth of the Comic Book (Basic Books, 2004). It offers a fascinating look into a nascent industry full of fast-talking hustlers, shrewd accountants, and nerdy young men all struggling to make their mark on U.S. culture in the 20th century.

Jones is an outstanding writer. I say this having read a fair amount of work by other comic book authors who've decided to switch genres, turning either to novels or to nonfiction. Usually the work isn't a disaster, but then again, neither is it all that memorable. It's a different story for Jones. He penned Batman, Spider-Man, and Superman early on in his writing career, where he developed a knack for exposition and an ear for engaging dialogue.

He uses both skills to his advantage in Men of Tomorrow. The book moves nimbly between large-scale social/cultural history and more intimate, narrative reconstructions of the lives of the early comic industry's key figures. What results is a precarious yet perfectly executed balancing act. Jones' account is rich with historical detail, yet he never manages to lose the plot.

The book opens with an aged Jerry Siegel, co-creator (with Joe Shuster) of Superman, learning that a blockbuster movie featuring the Man of Steel would soon be making its way onto the silver screen. It was the mid-1970s. Siegel was working as a mail clerk in Southern California, barely making ends meet and seething inside about having signed away rights to the lucrative character decades before. Men of Tomorrow then takes a sharp turn back in time and space: to New York City's Lower East Side, circa the early 1900s, where we're introduced to the sons of Jewish immigrants who'd go on to become the authors, illustrators, editors, printers, and distributors of a peripheral print genre that would, with time, become a part of the American cultural mainstream. Eventually the book returns to Siegel's desperate, last-ditch effort to secure rights to Superman--a success, it turns out, owing the rallying of fans and others to the cause.

Jones isn't only an outsanding writer, he's a talented historian and analyst. He's read practically all of the secondary literature, scholarly and otherwise, on comic books. He interviewed most of the early industry's key players at one time or another, in addition to their family members. He meticulously reconstructs contested information and never tries to pass it off as anything but. Beyond these more insular, disciplinary concerns, his research displays a remarkable sensitivity to comics' critical reception by midcentury academics and politicians who, owing to experiences far removed from those in the comic book industry, fundamentally misunderstood the genre's psychosocial and cultural impact. Jones is a historian with a deft touch.

Men of Tomorrow ends with a provocative claim, namely, that U.S. culture today is significantly the product of geeks. And in this respect it shares something of a kinship with another book I admire: Fred Turner's From Counterculture to Cyberculture, which I've mentioned in passing on this blog. In their best moments, both texts capture something rare. They manage to put into words what Raymond Williams called a "structure of feeling"--what it felt like to live (for some, at least) in 20th century America.

This is the mark of history at its best. Excelsior!

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