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The Real Clark Kents

Engaging biography meets strained social history in Gerard Jones's new book about the nebbishes who made Superman.


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

by Gerard Jones (Basic Books) $26

"He was a nerd," recalled his cousin Irv Fine.

"Well," said his other cousin Jerry Fine. "We didn't have that word back then."

The nerd in question is Jerry Siegel, the writing half of the teenage team that in the mid-1930s created Superman, the original comic book hero. The primary subject of Men of Tomorrow, Gerard Jones's new history of the early comic book industry, Siegel is also, for Jones's purposes, pop culture's nerd zero.

Men of Tomorrow weaves the story of the pop culture icon we now call the superhero with the bittersweet tale of Siegel and his partner, artist Joe Shuster--sweet for the undeniable impact of their work, bitter for the swindle that had the pair signing away the rights to their creation to a couple of soft-core porn publishers. But then, what's a nerd history without bullies?

Born in 1914, Jerry Siegel grew up in Cleveland, in the Jewish enclave of Glenville. A myopic daydreamer, he spent his free time watching Douglas Fairbanks movies and drawing pictures and seemed on track to go to college or art school. But in 1925 his father was murdered in a robbery that was never solved. The family fell on hard times, college was out of the question, and Siegel withdrew into the fantastic world of science fiction, or "scientifiction," as he and his fellow fans called it.

"Once in the subculture," writes Jones, "the boys fine-tuned one another's identities around the self-definition 'science fiction fan,' an indifference to clothes and appearance, a manic but unsentimental bonhomie in their meetings, an amused disdain for the drones who didn't understand them." The logical subculture, in short, to spawn the story of the powerless Clark Kent, the out-of-his-league Lois Lane, and the Man of Steel.

While writing for his school newspaper, Siegel met the like-minded Joe Shuster, a stocky bodybuilder who preferred working out to team sports. Shuster wanted to be an artist but was so poor he had to use wallpaper remnants as paper. He would study illustrations in magazines he couldn't afford to buy, and then go home and try to redraw them from memory. When Siegel got the bug to create a comic strip around a pulp adventure hero, he enlisted Shuster to provide the art.

Siegel and Shuster drew up some sample strips and started submitting "The Superman" to the big-time Chicago syndicates, hoping their creation would someday run alongside Dick Tracy or The Phantom in newspapers. But competition was stiff: in the mid-30s Chicago alone boasted cartoonists Chester Gould, Frank King, and Russell Keaton. The national market was dominated by giants like George Herriman, E.C. Segar, Milton Caniff, Hal Foster, and Roy Crane.

For the next three years or so (Siegel's accounts vary), every adult who came into contact with Superman passed on it. But as they did, the comic book market was expanding.

Harry Donenfeld, cofounder of National Comics--now DC Comics--was raised on the Lower East Side among hoods like Frank Costello and Meyer Lansky, men he bragged were his friends. His partner, Jack Liebowitz, grew up the son of labor organizers fighting for reform in the days of the Triangle factory fire and Sacco and Vanzetti trial. Throughout the 1920s they built a publishing and distribution business that put out everything from Margaret Sanger's birth control pamphlets to pulp detective and sci-fi magazines to governor Franklin Roosevelt's political material to soft-core nudie titles like La Paree and Spicy Stories.

The first comic books simply reprinted famous newspaper strips, but the magazine-style collections soon became so popular that publishers needed original material to fill them. Siegel and Shuster's work was excavated from the slush pile by a kid their age, assistant editor Shelly Mayer, in late 1937. Mayer handed it to Donenfeld. He liked it and wanted it for his new title, Action Comics.

Superman wasn't like any other hero around. He had "super powers"--leaping tall buildings, etc--and he was angry. Dick Tracy was doing his job when he shot down Big Boy and Flattop, but Superman just took it on himself to get involved. In the first issue he took out a wife beater, kicked in the governor's bedroom door to stop a state execution, ended a pointless local war, and forced a confession from a corrupt senator. For a generation of kids growing up in the never-ending Depression, watching an overseas war brew that would soon require their services, Superman's two-fisted style made a lot of sense. The first issues of Action Comics sold faster than anything else the publishers had.

Over the next ten years Superman became a national craze, especially for kids discovering comic books, a brand-new medium geared to them. Charles Schulz had been one of those kids, and in his senior years could still recall his excitement at seeing Action Comics for the first time at a friend's house. Grown-ups still didn't care much for it (another plus for kids), and no less than George Orwell, watching fascism and Stalinism on the rise, warned that Superman's popularity was "bully worship," but Superman still inspired radio adaptations, cartoons, movie serials, toys, clothing, and war propaganda.

In payment for the first Superman story, Donenfeld and Liebowitz sent the boys a check for $130, on the back of which was stamped an agreement that once the check was signed all rights to Superman would go to the publishers. Thrilled just to be in print, the creators didn't give it a second thought. Once Superman belonged to the publishers, Siegel and Shuster were hired on as employees in service to their own creation. Joe set up shop in Cleveland and hired assistants to help him execute the work. Jerry moved to New York. The boys made a living--no royalties or merchandising money, just work-for-hire pay. The publishers made millions.

Jones makes it clear he thinks a crime was committed, but also observes that Jerry Siegel didn't exactly help his own cause. He knew he was being robbed and became increasingly angry, but could never sit down eye to eye with Donenfeld and Liebowitz and demand a square deal. He had too much adolescent pride to ask for help, claiming "I don't need a lawyer," and whenever he did bring the subject up, the publishers just assured him that he and Shuster would always be taken care of.

Then, in the spring of 1943, Siegel was drafted and while in the army made friends with a lawyer. When the war was over, they and Shuster brought suit against National Comics, demanding $5 million and the return of their rights to Superman. But the judge stood by the $130 endorsed-check contract, Siegel and Shuster were fired from the Superman line, and their names removed from the comic entirely.

Subsequent characters they tried, like "Funnyman," were flops. Shuster, his eyesight never strong, went blind and had to sell his house and move in with his brother. Siegel, after an unsuccessful stint in advertising, eventually allowed his wife to meet with Liebowitz and beg him to give her husband a writing job. Liebowitz agreed, and Siegel freelanced Superman stories until the late 1960s, when he moved to Los Angeles and, at age 60, got a job with the post office.

For decades the legend of this swindle grew among comic book fans, but by the late 70s Siegel was no longer a lone nerd--there were millions of fans. When Superman: The Movie was announced Siegel launched a letter-writing campaign to newspapers that attracted the attention of the press and comics stars like Neal Adams and ultimately resulted in a 60 Minutes story that made Warner Brothers and DC Comics cringe. After decades of poverty, Siegel and Shuster were granted a $35,000 annual pension by the publishers and their names were restored to the title page of the comic. A screen credit, "Based on the comic book by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster," rolled at the top of Superman: The Movie. Now Siegel's estate is in a position to gain half-ownership of Superman again, a case still being negotiated.

Jones, a former comic book writer and author of several pop culture studies like Killing Monsters: Why Children Need Fantasy, Superheroes, and Make-Believe and Honey, I'm Home: Sitcoms Selling the American Dream, captures Siegel and Shuster convincingly and without apologizing for their mistakes. But when he ventures out of the world of fandom he flails a bit. "This was the bed in which the comic book was born," he writes of the early publishing career of Donenfeld and Liebowitz. "Countercultural, lowbrow, idealistic, pretentious, mercenary, forward-looking, and ephemeral, all in the same instant." Well, sort of. It's not as if Margaret Sanger and Jerry Siegel and FDR all bumped into each other around the water cooler. Their pamphlets and comics happened to share the same delivery truck; comics got nothing from the mix creatively.

Describing the world of Harry Donenfeld, Jones frequently adopts a pulp style himself, an attempt at Nick Tosches or James Ellroy patter. "What a glorious boozy dream they must have been, those years of Superman's rise," he writes. When Donenfeld, now a millionaire, moves his mistress into the Waldorf-Astoria, Jones describes their new love nest as "the twin peaks of the hustler made good, the great tits of the bitch goddess of Manhattan herself."

It's not just his style that raises eyebrows. When it comes to politics, economics, ethnicity, or any attempt to connect Donenfeld and Liebowitz to the grittier world outside comics, Jones treads on thin ice. With its subtitle, the book sells itself on the association of gangsters and publishing superheroes, and Jones tries hard to tie Donenfeld's world to Frank Costello's, but doesn't get very far. At most Costello may have used Donenfeld's warehouses for booze during Prohibition. Instead, Jones relies on secondhand memories of Harry the hustler dropping big names or Donenfeld's son Irwin's claim--from an unnamed source--that "Frank Costello was my godfather." The closest Jones comes to placing Donenfeld in the action is a poker game played with Moe Annenberg, the mobbed-up owner of the Racing Wire, in which Moe asks, "Who was that little guy?"

Worse, Jones's attempts to weave the religion and culture of his main characters into the larger social picture make for some unfortunate moments. Describing the buildup to World War II, Jones writes, "Retrospection asks if Roosevelt did enough as the Holocaust began, but no world leader had ever gone to war for the Jews, not even indirectly." The idea that Roosevelt entered into World War II for Jews contradicts history and has been a canard of anti-Semites since the 1930s. At another point he dismisses the calls for censorship of the racier comics as "just another bit of goyishe madness and hypocrisy"--as if rabbis and conservative Jews are OK with smut. Finally, Jones makes an unsubstantiated charge that Jack Liebowitz sued rival Fawcett Comics, publisher of Captain Marvel, because Fawcett was a Protestant, unlike other Jewish publishers who ripped off Superman as well. Jones offers nothing to back this up. It's all rather odd, considering how Jones renders a number of other characters without resorting to stereotypes and with genuine affection, and makes it clear that Liebowitz seemed to have no problem robbing fellow Jews like Siegel and Shuster.

Men of Tomorrow wants to be the biography of Jerry Siegel but stretches itself to be social history. Other artists and writers enter and exit, fascinating characters whom Jones drops tantalizing details about and then abandons--like psychologist William Moulton Marston, the inventor of the lie detector and creator of Wonder Woman. Marston lived in a menage a trois with two women and claimed his scantily clad Amazon warrior had nothing to do with sex. She was simply a positive role model for girls, though she got tied up on a regular basis and the book was overwhelmingly a favorite of young boys. Marston demanded a chunk of royalties and ownership up front and he got it. It's moments like these that make Siegel and Shuster's case so sad. The minute someone actually stood up to Donenfeld and Liebowitz they backed down.

Today the word nerd doesn't mean what it used to. Between The Simpsons, Smallville, Spider-Man, and Jerry Seinfeld doing American Express commercials with Superman, nerd culture dominates. When Bill Gates is the richest man in the world, when Matt Groening curates All Tomorrow's Parties, when Matt Drudge gets a president impeached, it's clear that the Superman fantasy has become overshadowed by the impact of the real Clark Kents.

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