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The Real Lives Behind the Superheroes

In the late 1930s, comic books presented a relatively small sideshow in the circus of pulp publishing. Then suddenly, in the fall and winter of 1938, following into early 1939, they became the main event. Within a year — by 1940 — 15 million comic books were being sold each month (and this in a country of 130 million). If, as it has been suggested, four or five kids consumed each copy and the audience reached far beyond children, the numbers become truly impressive. At the start of World War II, somewhere between a quarter of and half the population of this nation were reading comic books. By the war’s end, everyone — GIs, white-collar workers, even Rosie the Riveter — was devouring them. In the space of five or six years, comic books, like movies and popular music, had assumed a central place in the collective dream life of America. And, like Hollywood and so much of the classic American songbook, comics were created by Jews.

The most important comic, the one that got the whole show going, was Superman. The now-standard version of the Superman story runs something like this: Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, two nice middle-class Jewish boys from Cleveland, came up with Superman sometime in the mid-1930s. They suffered a few years of rejection (nobody knows how many) but then a one-time pornographer in New York named Harry Donenfeld picked up their work. He and his accountant, Jack Liebowitz, paid the boys $130, got them to sign away their rights and started to employ them on a page-by-page basis. Superman first appeared in “Action Comics” in 1938. He was such a hit that within a year, he was selling 900,000 comics a month.

In the standard version, Liebowitz and Donenfeld play the heavies. They were sharp. They were quick to trademark Superman, to license his image to all sorts of products, to get him into the comics pages of daily newspapers and on the radio. Donenfeld and Liebowitz got very, very rich in a very short span of time, and worked tirelessly to expand their publishing empire. They were able to ride out the periodic crises in the market until the 1960s, when they triumphantly took that empire public. During all this, Siegel and Shuster achieved a brief moment of fame but earned just a tiny percentage of the millions that the vast popularity of their creation raked in. They sued twice to regain their rights over the Man of Steel. They lost. Joe Shuster went blind. Jerry Siegel ended up in the typing pool of the California Public Utilities Commission. Until a campaign on their behalf was launched in the 1970s, a campaign that finally yielded them belated recognition and a relatively small annuity, it looked as if the good guys were finishing last. Unlike the storylines that Siegel and Shuster dreamed up, the villains seemed to walk off with all the power and almost all the money.

Gerard Jones’s rip-snorting history of the comics, “Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book” (Basic Books, 2004), concentrates on this quartet of Jews — Donenfeld, Liebowitz, Siegel and (to a much lesser extent) Shuster. By dint of both extensive research and very close attention to the telling detail, Jones revises and reworks the standard version of the Superman story so that it becomes richer, stranger and much more compelling than the generic narrative of genius screwed over by commerce.

Jones has written comic books himself, and the training is evident. His pacing is quick, his sense of outline is clear and the presentation of his insights is admirably economical. Jones convincingly demonstrates that comic books in general and Superman in particular were born of very specific historical conditions. He reconstructs the “undocumented alternative culture” that brought together gangsters, booze, prostitution, nudie magazines, feminism and utopian scientific fantasy. He shows how the distribution network for Donenfeld’s louche magazines could also serve to bring “Margaret Sanger’s condoms, Hugo Gernsback’s science fiction and Frank Costello’s whiskey” to an eager public. This “alternative culture” provided the money to publish the early comic books. It also massed the imaginative capital on which superheroes such as Superman and Batman would draw.

Jones gives Donenfeld and Liebowitz their due. Like the characters in the comics he published, Donenfeld was somewhat larger than life. He was a shyster and dynamo of great personal charm. He liked gangsters, showgirls and Democratic machine politics. He was superb at making friends and at brokering deals. Liebowitz, on the other hand, was Donenfeld’s opposite: a stiff and somewhat grim family man with an iron sense of how to control costs and how to get ahead. The son of a socialist labor organizer, Liebowitz started out as the accountant in charge of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union’s strike fund. By the end of his life, he was the single-largest personal shareholder of Warner Communications (ex-Warner (formerly Warner Brothers) stock.

As Jones presents him, Liebowitz was a singularly brilliant businessman. He understood the importance of turning Superman into a trademark, understood the importance of licensing and moving into new media, and understood how to move into new markets and consolidate old ones. To be sure, Liebowitz did not inspire love, especially in the writers and artists who worked for him. But commerce is rarely about love, and Jones has performed a valuable service by being the first historian of the comics to really explain how the business works and to show how Liebowitz almost singlehandedly created it.

If the Liebowitz and Donenfeld presented in “Men of Tomorrow” are more attractive than they seem in the standard version of the Superman story, Jerry Siegel comes out looking slightly worse. A dreamy middle-class mama’s boy (whose father was murdered in the family store), Siegel went to a predominantly Jewish public high school in Cleveland that boasted a superb football team. Among Siegel’s cohorts were a number of remarkable people who went on to achieve real eminence.

Siegel did not really distinguish himself in any way. He did not graduate from high school until he was almost 20, he could not talk to girls and he was, in Jones’s own words, a complete geek. He was a science fiction geek, no less, who spent his adolescence corresponding with similar geeks across the country. But for all his failings, Jerry Siegel came up with Superman.

Actually Siegel was able to create Superman precisely because of those failings. Superman is a geek’s dream in splashy primary colors. Siegel’s anger and his insecurities lent him a special insight, an insight that illuminated Superman and made him so inescapable. As Jones puts it,“You could want the invulnerability and power, but you had to laugh to keep people from knowing how badly you wanted it.” The overwhelming desire to get back at a world that ignored you or, worse still, made fun of you, and the need to hide that desire, was just one of the chief tensions that kept Superman interesting.

What is more, Siegel’s avid consumption of popular culture enabled him to play genres and sources off each other. Superman was part Douglas Fairbanks, part Harold Lloyd, part Charles Atlas’s 98-pound weakling and part science-fiction hero from the pages of that justly forgotten writer, Philip Wylie. All in all, Siegel’s ability to mix his resentment with his fantasies of revenge, his capacity to blend his delight in physical perfection with both a voracious love of adventure and a protective sense of humor, made for Superman’s overwhelming success.

Superman was more than just a geek’s dream. He was a Jewish fantasy. Superman has to hide his true identity from a censorious, homogeneous culture. He is forced to pretend and to be mild mannered, all the while protecting his real self, the treasure he has brought from afar. The sadomasochistic play between Clark Kent and Lois Lane, typified by Lois’s constant denigration of Clark’s meekness, echoes centuries of insults levied against “unmanly” Jewish men. Here Jewish anxieties dovetail quite nicely with adolescent fears, and Superman’s appeal, born in part of ethnic insecurity, extends way beyond its origin to seem almost universal.

Superman was not the only one. It is still surprising how many of the early comic writers and artists were Jews, how many superheroes could be cast as Jewish wish fulfillments passed through the fine mesh of popular culture. Jones has some intelligent theories about the relation between Jews and the comics, but in the end it all might just boil down to opportunity. During the Depression, when young folks with artistic talent needed work and when Jews were unable to enter advertising, this new racket — one that was basically owned by Jewish publishers and distributors — served as a magnet for ambitious Jewish kids.

In an odd way, for all the reach of the comics, the industry relied on local New York talent. A large number of comic artists and writers came from the Bronx. The most famous of these was Bob Kane, the creator of Batman, whose career was based in no small part on his capacity to take credit for other people’s work. Kane, like fellow DeWitt Clinton High School alum Will Eisner, was a creative businessman and succeeded in doing what Jerry Siegel, with all his insecurities and his sense of doom, could not do — make comics work for him.

Siegel never was able to create another character or another strip as good as Superman. When he ran irredeemably afoul of Liebowitz by trying to sue him a second time, Siegel ended up, as noted, in the typing pool of the utilities commission. The story could have ended there, if not for the dogged work of others. In the mid-1970s, Jerry Robinson (who had, while still in his teens in the late 1930s, joined Kane’s shop and created Batman’s nemesis, the Joker) led the successful fight on behalf of Siegel and Shuster’s claim to Superman. Jones, quite rightly, sees Robinson as something of a hero.

Robinson, now in his early 80s, can look back at six successful decades of drawing comic books and political cartoons. Most recently, he has curated ZAP! POW! BAM! The Superhero: The Golden Age of Comic Books at the William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum, located in Atlanta. This show, with its fine display of comic books, collectibles, mock-ups and throwaways, serves as an important complement to “Men of Tomorrow.” It reminds us — through its re-creations of cramped artists’ studios and real newsstands (as well as through taped interviews) — that Jones is writing about real people living in real spaces. It also reminds us that Jones is describing the creation and distribution of commodities in their purest form. On top of the rare comics that Robinson has brought to the Breman, he has collected an array of the licensed action figures, costumes, pajamas and the like that made Superman and his ilk such important trademarks. Most importantly, though, these dolls and clothes bring home the extent to which the comics promoted identification, if not always exactly interaction. In the “golden age” between 1938 and 1950, superhero comic books were about explosive and expansive fantasies of power and movement. In their four-color pages and in their gimcrack tie-ins, comic books sold the joys of pure action.

“Men of Tomorrow” and ZAP! POW! BAM! go a long way toward recapturing those joys and recounting that action. And in so doing, they make it clear that perhaps the most influential contribution Jews have made to our ambient, visual culture during the last 100 years has been the racy, bracing rush of the comic book.


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