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Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters, and the Birth of the Comic Book by Gerard Jones

Jewish Geeks, Italian Gangsters, Porn, Businessmen, Comics, Superheroes, Artists, Ghost-Artists, Wives and Girlfriends… and Superman. That, in a nutshell, is what this book deals with.

But then, in a nutshell, humans are water, some meat, a little electricity, and dreams. That isn’t the story, and what the story of this book is, is the story of geek culture — its genesis, its struggle to survive, and its eventual triumph.

Even if, like me, you’re more familiar with comic book characters through their cinematic adaptations, this book is worth a look. While I’m not a Superman fan, I was not bothered that the main thread of the narrative of this (nonfiction) book follows the lives of the creators of that character, as well as Superman himself; along the way, there are many amazing sights.

I particularly recommend this book to any SF fans who want a better sense of the publishing environment in which the pulps existed: the magazines, the coy (and then not-so-coy) porn, the brutality and viciousness of some of the pre-code comics, and the social environment. Jones spends a few pages on the roots of SF fandom, and on fanzines, situated in the particular culture of America, of New York, of Jewish immigrant teenagers.

As Hank Luttrell points out in his review of the book, Jones does minimize the humor comics, the funny animal comics, and everything else except the superhero comics… but then, he also notes that Jones has good reason for doing so. Superheroes aren’t just the main survivors from the comics era: they’re also in current vogue, and are a fascinating type of fantastical construction, one I think is particularly American in nature. And then there’s the fact that superheroes and the comics fandom subculture have, well… arrived is an understatement.

So is the observation that the same criticisms people were offering about comics way back, people are still saying about comics-inspired films today. Kick-Ass, anyone? My series of responses to the criticisms could easily be leveled at the similar criticisms that led to the establishment of the comics code, I’d say. I think Luttrell’s comments are a little more pertinent, for example the focus on men, but then, it seems to me that the comic book world, in its early years, was dominated by men. I’m curious about the role of women creators and artists, but I get the sense — not just from Jones — that it was a small, marginal group. That’s what makes it interesting, but I can’t blame Jones for focusing on the high-profile men who dominated the industry at the start of things, just as I can’t fault him for focusing on superheroes, given the above.

In any case, the book now has me once again eager to dive back into Michael Chabon’s The Adventures of Kavalier and Klay, though I have a few (er, bunch?) other books I’m supposed to read first.

But I have a book review to write, first, for a newspaper…

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