Comic Geniuses


Geeks, Gangsters, and the

Birth of the Comic Book

By Gerard Jones

Basic Books -- 384pp -- $26

Those who have followed the march of electronic-media culture will find striking parallels between the current Internet Age and the pre-World War II era described by Gerard Jones in Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book. Both periods saw explosive growth in the information and entertainment industries. And both depended hugely upon technology -- low-cost computing today vs. low-cost printing then.

Jones, who is on the advisory board of the Media Studies Program at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a former comic book writer himself, brings an insider's point of view to this nonfiction account of the same period evoked in Michael Chabon's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. Jones provides a lively portrait of the talent, energy, and chutzpah that gave birth to the comic book industry. And the story bears a curious resemblance to accounts of tech startups or college kids cutting class to become dot-commers. The accents are different, but the spectacle is the same -- and uniquely American.

Men of Tomorrow adopts the structure of alternating chapters to tell two interconnected stories. It describes the careers of Harry Donenfeld and Jack Liebowitz, the fast-talking salesman and the closemouthed number-cruncher who built the company that would become DC Comics. Interspersed are the stories of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the geekish creators of Superman who sold the rights to Donenfeld and spent all their lives trying to get them back. How did Donenfeld -- who cared little about kids, or even about publishing or entertainment -- become a founder and publisher at a company that, Jones argues, would become the template for modern media organizations?

The short answer is nerve, but there's much more to the story. Swept along with the wave of Jewish immigrants around 1900, the Donenfelds landed on Manhattan's Lower East Side, a neighborhood with "half a million people in a square mile." Surveying the new world, the immigrants' children realized that "they were not living for today but for tomorrow" and that to enter that world of tomorrow, "they would have to become entirely new beings."

The 1920s were a time of explosive growth in magazine publishing. There were more than 2,000 magazines on the newsstands, and new titles were constantly springing up. It was a business for someone with street smarts, a business made for Harry Donenfeld. His Donny Press started out as a printer of cheesy magazines. But seeing that an investor could make "a fortune on the smallest investment," Donenfeld turned to publishing his own pulpy knockoffs, such as Juicy Tales and Hot Tales.

Later, an old client asked Donenfeld for a job for his son, Jack Liebowitz. A former socialist and union organizer, Liebowitz signed on with Donny Press as the business manager, and his financial savvy and brilliance kept the business afloat while many others went under. After his distributor failed, Donenfeld bought it, vertically integrating the business of content, production, and distribution under the name of Independent News.

Meanwhile, juggling the story of Siegel and Shuster, Jones gives us a flavor of early geek culture. Siegel was crazy about adventure movies, especially "Zorro and all those secret heroes who masqueraded as mild-mannered citizens." He and his school chum, Shuster, began composing illustrated stories and trying to sell them. Then, when he saw one of the first comic book titles, Siegel had his "Eureka!" moment: "We can do this!" He even had an idea for a character: Superman.

Siegel and Shuster submitted some material to comic book publisher Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson, a bizarre figure given to wearing a French officer's cloak and a beaver cap. They also sent the first 13 pages of what would become Superman. Their material ended up in the slush pile.

After Wheeler-Nicholson went bankrupt, Donenfeld and Liebowitz snapped up his properties. Deciding they needed another comic, an editor slapped together Action Comics. That included Superman, which was fished out of the heap. This Superman was cruder than the one we're used to: Instead of flying, he jumped. But the basic elements were there: the destroyed planet, the survivor, the powers, the secret identity, and Lois Lane. Siegel and Shuster got a $130 check; rubber-stamped on the back was a note saying that, in cashing it, they were signing over all rights. It was the summer of 1938, and Superman was a nobody. By mid-1939, he had spawned an industry.

Men of Tomorrow is rich in tales and details -- too rich at times. Jones tries to fit in every comic book writer, artist, inker, letterer, and publisher who ever lived. My beef with Jones, though, is not what he put in, but the story he wanted to tell but couldn't -- the tale of the very private Jack Liebowitz, who was the real man of tomorrow. He turned a seat-of-the-pants outfit into a powerhouse, extending distribution, building a licensing arm, taking the company public, and selling it finally to ex-Time Warner chief Steve Ross -- all this from a man who began as a socialist. In a world filled with would-be Supermen, he was the one man who would be Clark Kent.

By Robert J. Rosenberg

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