Saturday, January 22, 2011

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

Gerard Jones's history of the "Golden Age" of comics, Men of Tomorrow, is bookended by the fascinating story of Julius Siegel and Joe Schuster, the creators of Superman. Siegel, the writer, and Joe, the artist, were two Jewish kids from Cleveland who wrote the original Superman for Action comics but were ripped off on the merchandising and subsidiary rights and were finally fired from the strip. I found Siegel and Schuster's story to be the most compelling of the various strands that made up this book. Yes it was interesting to hear about Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Bob Kane; but Siegel and Schuster's fall from grace is the stuff of Greek tragedy (or Krypton tragedy for that matter). Both Siegel and Schuster tried other comic book ideas after they ended work on Superman but nothing came to pass & they finally went broke, Schuster finding odd jobs (mostly manual labour) and Siegel becoming a clerk for the State of California. It was only in the 1970's when fans began hearing of their plight and started a letter writing campaign to DC comics that things began to change. Kurt Vonnegut and Norman Mailer got involved and DC finally agreed to pay Siegel and Schuster an index linked 20 grand a year. Jones tell this story very well and it's the best part of the book. 
I wasn't as engaged by the bizarre antics of Bob Kane etc. and I really could have done with less about the publishers of these comics: no matter how colourful they are the publishers are only the publishers; maybe I'm prejudiced but for me its the artists and writers who are the heroes of this history not the money men and the corporate chieftains.
The really nice cover of Men of Tomorrow was designed by that man of tomorrow himself, Chip Kidd, who also designed my favourite book cover of all time, the one for All The Pretty Horses