Tuesday, February 27, 2007

From off the shelf: two quick reviews

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

I’m probably the last comic book fan to get around to reading and reviewing this book, so I just have a few things to say.

From the many other reviews and high praise this book has received I’m sure you don’t need my say so. Simply put this is the best overview I’ve read of the rich history of the industry from which comic’s fandom has sprung. Amazingly enough it was another fandom that influenced so many of the later lights in the four-color world to begin with. It is also a remarkable look at the lives of several men whose goals (not always benevolent) shaped the four-color empire.

Much of the book centers on the lives and work of Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel, who created a character that, would become the cornerstone for much of the industry. SUPERMAN became not only an incredibly successful marketing phenomena but one of the most highly recognized fictional characters of the twentieth century. These two kids, who came from such different backgrounds luckily found each other and together brought to the American public something which instantly resonated with millions of other kids.

From its first hesitant beginning in the time of the Great Depression to the final days of Siegel & Shuster, Jones (a comic’s writer & creator himself) demonstrates not only his wit but also a historian’s ability of research and examination. If you’re a reader of comics, used to be or just someone interested in the shaping of American public culture in the middle of the last century you really owe it to yourself to read Jones’ book. Highly recommended.

Thunderstruck by Erik Larson

In this day and age of instant communication whether by telephone, television & radio or the World Wide Web, we forget that in the beginning of the last century rapid communication was severely limited. The fastest method of reporting or getting any sort of information from one point on the globe to another was via telegraph lines. While this was remarkable compared to an earlier age, there were still vast distances around the world where the hum of wires couldn’t reach. This was especially so across the vast miles of ocean around the globe. Once a ship was out of sight of land or other ships they were lost in a “great hush” separated from knowledge of the world’s events even as they were part of them.

As in his earlier works, ISAAC’S STORM and THE DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY, Larson thoroughly brings to life an earlier age different in many ways, yet eerily similar in others. Since we were school kids we heard the name of Guglielmo Marconi, but probably didn’t really know much beyond the fact that he was credited with the invention of wireless communication. Larson introduces us to this difficult, yet brilliant man, showing us his shortcomings as well as his remarkable tenacity in the face of personal and financial hardships.

In his previous book on the Chicago World Exposition or World’s Fair, Larson followed the lives of both New York City’s Flatiron Building architect Daniel Hudson Burnham, the Fair’s Director of Works and murderer Henry H. Holmes, one of the most fiendish and brilliant serials killers in American history. While Burnham and Holmes may never have actually met the life of one might have been very different if it had not been for the other. So to in this book where Marconi’s new technology makes possible the capture of another murderer, the hardly frightening Dr. Hawley Crippen. The quiet and unassuming Dr. Crippen would have passed through the pages of history unnoted, had he not decided to end his not-so-happy marriage in a most disagreeable fashion.

As with his previous two books, THUNDERSTRUCK causes the reader to care about these long-dead people, many of whom are of note simply because of their proximity to major events. I don’t know what Larson has coming up next, but I’m sure I’m going to be picking it up.
Highly recommended.
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