Wish I Could Fly Like Superman

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

The fact that I could have found a song lyric about  Superman written in almost any decade from 1940 to the present tells you everything you need to know about the power and persistence of this cartoon/cultural icon. Yet despite its pretensions to helping explain how that came about, this book falls short.

Though that sounds a bit harsh, I don’t think it’s just me. In a lot of ways, the book is a series of near misses and I’m not sure whether the blame properly lies with the author or his editors.

Still, I can’t help feeling that buried inside lies the possibility of at least a couple of interesting books.

Nominally, this is the tale of the rise of the comic book. There’s a lot going on in and around those saddle-stitched, 4-color pages with their Ben-Day dots bleeding  through the cheap, porous paper publishers chose to save money. And there was a time, hard to believe in the age of Comic-Con, when such a thing did not exist.

I don’t think comics would have nearly the same drawing power absent Ben-Day dots.

It’s a sad truth that we take for granted anything that was here when we were born. So a lot of things that are actually quite modern seem quaint. As a form, magazines date back to the 18th century, but nationally distributed mass market titles with circulations in the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, arose in the 1920s. Comic books, in a way, can be seen as part of the same push to utilize new forms.

That’s one story that could have been told and Jones might say he’s even done that. But what he’s told isn’t the triumphalist story of a Paley. Instead, he tells the story of a bunch of first generation immigrant street kids who made their way–often in a rough and tumble manner–by their wits.

That might have been an interesting story. Except that the only motivating factor for his industry-forming heroes seems to have been cash. I’ve no doubt money motivated Bill Paley, too, but that tale is never quite so grubby in the telling. Lest anyone think that’s backhanded swipe at Jones’ cast of characters–mostly Jewish kids from the Lower East Side–the builder of the Tiffany Network was a Chicago-born Jew.

Harry Donenfeld 1893-1965
The man who published Superman.

Most of the folks Jones focuses on, even in their success, were somewhat marginal. One of the more interesting things about the book is how far better known personalities wander into the margins and then out again  just as quickly. Eddie Cantor. Theodor Adorno. Hugh Hefner. Gloria Steinem.

Instead we get a lot of Harry Donenfeld. Harry’s a kid from down Ludlow Street or thereabouts who’s forever on the make. Harry is a type, a cartoon himself. When I was first in the workaday world, I found myself sitting in a panicked meeting full of executives with an excess inventory problem. The worry rose until someone said, “What about Harvey?”

And so I found the keys to the company car tossed at me, along with an Upper East Side address and instructions to not lose a minute returning with him. Harvey, the late middle-aged gent with an Outer Borough‘s accent sitting next to me smoking a Davidoff cigar, told me he was “a merchant.” I hadn’t thought of Harvey in decades, until I recognized him as a commercial sibling of Harry Donenfeld.

Harry is the father of what eventually becomes DC Comics. But before he became a macher he was just a guy selling whatever wasn’t nailed down. He wound up at the intersection of printing, distribution and girlie magazines. At first, comics are just a way to remain in business when the heat rises on the quasi-porn.

Superman, the beginning
The Man of Steel lies in the future

Then he crosses paths with Jerry and Joe. That’s Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster,  two marginal and maladapted kids from Cleveland in love with early comics. They have a property–a character–that they think could be big. The Man of Tomorrow–Superman. The year is 1937.

Then things take off and the threads, instead of weaving a tapestry, start to resemble the spools in a sewing basket the cat’s just knocked over. Comics are labor intensive; publishing margins are brutal.

So the work is bought piecemeal from freelancers and ownership taken from the creators by the publishers. Not news unless you harbor the mistaken belief that publishing is a noble enterprise. Recorded music–especially the publishing rights–works similarly. It’s no surprise that Jerry and Joe get cheated and the book is nominally hung on the spine of the decades-long quest to right that wrong.

Meanwhile the popularity of comics ebbs and flows. Although Jones strives to explain why, he ultimately fails to do so. Despite the occasional bits of Sociology 101 he dollops out, he doesn’t have the social science chops to address the subculture that’s arisen around comic books. The best he can muster is an impassioned defense and embrace of geekdom.

I’ll confess that much about geekdom eludes me starting with the word itself. For me, a geek is the guy who bites the heads off live chickens in the circus. In that world, it’s not a badge of honor, it’s a signal of how low you’ve sunk. Ozzy Osbourne is a latter day geek in this telling and I’m willing to defend that idea.

Big business and belonging
Cos-players at New York Comic Con 2016

Plenty of disaffected folks, though, have appropriated negative terms and turned them into defiant labels. If I went by The Big Bang Theory I’d have to allow geek as a synonym for nerd and I can’t do that.

It’s not because, at least on that show, there isn’t overlap. It’s that nerds do the hard math and science that even geeks shun. I know more than a few self-described, science and technology-loving Comic-Con adoring geeks.  I’m not in awe of their math skills.

I actually think that what Jones missed is that geek culture is about belonging. I look at Comic Con and the cos-players and the comic book collectors sharing their trivia and anticipation of the next release from Marvel Studios and I see folks looking for connections.

In a way, it’s not unlike sports, which seem to serve the same purpose. What I think is amusing is the ongoing attempts to have these serve as markers of ‘cool’ even while protesting that isn’t so.

Cool is about alienation and not caring about belonging.

Geeks just want to be loved.

 

 

 

 

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