Tag Archives: Communism

Review: ‘American Daredevil: Comics, Communism and the Battles of Lev Gleason’ by Brett Dakin

American Daredevil: Comics, Communism and the Battles of Lev Gleason

Guest Review by Paul Buhle

American Daredevil: Comics, Communism and the Battles of Lev Gleason. By Brett Dakin. Toronto: Chapterhouse, 2020. 242pp, $24.99.

Lev Gleason is a storied figure, a part of the history of comics production and comic art that had yet, until this fascinating volume, to be told in any detail. A personal saga, a business history, and a detective story by a great-nephew pursuing a disappearing world: we have here a tasty package. For those interested in the popular culture angles of the American left, this makes an especially intriguing addition. A minor baron of the pulp world, Gleason supported left causes of all kinds by determined fundraising, meanwhile publishing a left-of-center imitation of the Readers Digest and even consulting the Daily Worker on how to win more readers.

During Gleason’s prime years of comics, the end of the 1930s through the middle 1950s, comics themselves were outselling any other periodical except the newspaper, and doing so with a market mostly (if by no means entirely) under 20 years of age. Gleason helped create this market through keen salesmanship and an eye to design. His very own comics, for reasons other than politics,  would lead in part to the….suppression of comics, a genre denounced and hated by the elite. His best-selling Crime Does Not Pay series (1942-55) could not be described as the most garish or violent of comics, but the outright sadism of the criminals, the “headlights” looks of the dames, this and more was unmistakably—popular! If never as popular as war and its perpetual American glorification in and out of comics.

But let’s start at the beginning. The author, a contributor to distinguished journals like Foreign Affairs and The Guardian, had to learn about his great-uncle second hand. Lev died before Dakin was born. He learned  only by his own research that Lev was the grandson of a prominent supporter of abolitionism in the border states of Kentucky and Ohio—not a small or even very safe thing to be. In family lore, Lev himself was the left-leaning financial dynamo who made a fortune and lost it. Also not a small thing.

A Bostonian mustered out of the Army in 1919, Lev wanted to make money (he had at least one ex-wife to support) and went into the magazine business as an advertising manager for a kids’ publication. He took his experience to New York in 1932, and became an advertising manager at Eastern Color Printing, an auspicious spot. Eastern actually did the printing of most of the Funny Pages of the big East Coast papers. Gleason has at least a solid claim, if not the only existing claim,  to have invented the comic book format: 64 page booklets full of comics.

Far from over-the-counter, these were first sold to corporations as give-aways. But Lev and his friends convinced Eastern to let them try selling the pamphlets at newspaper outlets, starting in 1934. The dime comic was born or rather pre-born, because only a year later did a comic appear with all original material rather than reprints from the newspaper comic pages.

As the earliest editor of Tip Top Comics, Gleason made his first and most spectacular blunder: passing on the strip by a couple of young Jewish guys from Cleveland, called Super-Man. You could say this error cost him millions. In charge of Superman, he might have avoided the dreadful cheating of the artist and scriptwriter by the comics corporations.

Gleason pressed onward and Silver Streak Comics appeared just in time for the comics’ Golden Age, helping to make it possible. The soon-to-be-famous artist Jack Cole came up with a dreaded character, The Claw, and action scenes hinted at one of Gleason’s favorite motifs in the years to come: the scantily clad maiden, obviously in trouble but also somehow tempting (psychoanalytic critics would describe comic books  as faintly masturbatory).

Daredevil, Comic House, August 1941

Daredevil, of this book’s title, was for years Gleason’s meal ticket. A handsome agent of derring do, he could punch Hitler in the face (even if no one was doing so in real life) without raising a sweat. But to make the comic work big, Gleason had to buy a “few million pages of pulp” on a promise of turning the comic around in a couple weeks in 1941. With several more of the artists and letterers destined to become famous in the business, especially Charles Biro, they did it. Daredevil was a smash hit.

But this was only one side of Gleason’s inclinations. The Popular Front oriented Theater Arts Committee (TAC) had made a name during the 1930s, bringing elements of progressive theater to ordinary audiences, but it re-blossomed along with other such entities in the antifascist war years. Gleason raised thousands of dollars for the TAC as he did for the Joint Anti-Fascist Rescue Committee, and a large handful of others, most of them destined to be placed upon the Attorney General’s list of “subversives,” despite most having actually ceased operation or even existence during the years shortly after the War.

Gleason had also published Friday, a popular magazine that set out in 1940 to gain part of the booming magazine audience, but did not have the advertisers to survive a single year. More important, he published Reader’s Scope (1945-49), a  lively, pocket-sized, leftish version and would-be rival to the ubiquitous Readers’ Digest, with condensed versions of articles from the liberal press. Salute (1946-48) aimed at the returning GI, was no success. There were still other unsuccessful magazines, proving that he had ideas, probably not quite the right time for them or the financial backing, but he pushed the antifascist, reform and anti-racist message forward.

Amidst all this, Gleason lived rather palatially in suburban Chappaqua,  New York, until the middle 1950s. Publishing a liberal daily  (New Castle News) to combat the local conservatives, entertaining guests of all kinds, he traveled regularly to the city with or without his family for what one could properly call anti-fascist popular culture. He was a personality of his place and time, as anyone could see. And then it fell apart.

Pursued by the FBI, Gleason also bravely fought the threatened repression of comics that was coming in the wake of the Red Scare. Indeed, the charges made against the Reds and comics were surprisingly similar, out of the mouths of rightwingers:  Jews were corrupting Christian youths. You could say that William Gaines, publisher of EC Comics, faced the same enemies, but of course, Bill Gaines was an honest (Jewish) liberal without the dangerous political connections. Gaines turned the generalized collapse of the comic industry into the vast triumph of Mad Magazine. Gleason had no such backstop, at least not in publishing.

A real estate salesman in Upstate New York, living with his family in a small house, he was cut off from a sparkling social life. These had been shut down by McCarthyism anyway. Gleason survived for a while. He died in 1971. A year earlier, in a message to fellow Harvard graduates, he embraced the civil rights and antiwar movements that respectables shunned, evidently celebrating the renewal of the American Left.

Author Brett Dakin purses this part of his great-uncle’s life by driving around, talking to old people, and by checking FBI documents. It’s a change of pace for the book, but welcome in its highly personal tone. Dakin is a family member looking for roots, like so many others. He found the most interesting great uncle that almost anyone could find. I wish I had someone like that in the family tree.

Paul Buhle is the rare leftwing scholar of comics. He is coeditor of the Paul Robeson comic, to be published in October, and drawn by Sharon Rudahl.

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Filed under Comics, Guest Column, Paul Buhle

Story: Dale Carnegie Lives! Chapter 2

Eminem and Dale Carnegie

Honestly, I don’t see why I shouldn’t spring another chapter on you ahead of schedule if you’re ready. If you like it, you like it. If you don’t, well, I just can’t see why that should be. I am dying to know what you think. And I’m even thinking of knocking the price down on the Kindle edition if I’m talked into it. Anyway, enough of that for now.

Remember, all you really need to know is that our hero, Fernando, is a rogue immigrant from Cuba. He means well and, in fact, he has a pretty darn important purpose in life!

Chapter 2

Manuel and Paloma did have a son. However, their good fortune would not last. In 1959, Castro took control. Artists, intellectuals, and activists were all in danger. And, as the years passed, Castro and his regime would pluck out dissenters. One day, in 1967, Manuel was plucked and never seen again. And, when Fernando came of age, in the prime of his life, in 1977, he too was thrown into a prison cell. It was now 2017 and Manuel Rivera’s son, so full of promise and supposedly with a special purpose, had been languishing in a Cuban prison for the better part of his life. This is where our story of Fernando begins.

So many years locked away. Oh, the horror. Fernando, if he ever dared to dream, had lost much of his youthful spark, almost forgetting how to dream. If he had ever known his true calling, it had been buried deep inside him, beyond reach. Perhaps his father had only hinted at what lay ahead in Fernando’s future. But, for now, he was not much better off than a dog. And what could he possibly do now at this point in his life? Was he already too old? Were his best days behind him? Had he ever had better days? Still, like a dog, he had a strong survival instinct fully intact—and he had not completely given up. In fact, he remained a crafty little devil.

Fernando had been plotting his escape for years. Unlike many prisoners, Fernando valiantly did all he could to hold on to his soul. He had seen what had happened to many of his fellow Cubans. Many of them blamed themselves for getting locked away in prison. Somehow, there was a peculiar mindset that believed in Castro and that, no matter what he did, Castro had a very good reason for it! This was the control that an authoritarian had over his people. It exists to this very day and not only in Cuba but around the world, even in the United States of America. Hard to believe—but true. Fernando had enough to worry about just being in prison but he knew that Castro was wrong and that others like him were also just as wrong.

Fernando’s father, before he disappeared forever, had told his son that he was the reincarnation of Dale Carnegie, the world-renown motivational speaker. But what did that really mean? So many years later, was that supposed to be accepted at face value or was it just a metaphor, a symbol of hope? Fernando stirred at night trying to understand what it meant and what was to happen to him. Did he have any hope left? What helped him out a lot was the fact he had become a fixture in the prison system. He had been around for so long that he could pretty much come and go as he pleased—at least that is what he thought.

Sometimes, Fernando was locked into his cell with great ceremony. Other times, it seemed that, if he wanted to, he could walk right out of the prison. It was a big game with the guards, he was sure. It went unspoken with little rhyme or reason. No one seemed to care much what Fernando did. The guards were an odd mix of utter incompetence and light thinkers with glimmers of philosophical insight. “Let him walk right out of here,” Fernando overheard one of them say, “and he will run right back to what he knows best, his dull but familiar prison routine!”

Finally, the day would come when Fernando would have the last laugh. Before it really became too late, he would escape and never return.

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Filed under Cuba, Dale Carnegie, Fiction, Humor, Satire, Story, Storytelling

Review: DIVINITY II #3 (of 4)

Divinity II #3 variant cover by Carmen Carnero

Divinity II #3 variant cover by Carmen Carnero

DIVINITY II is a satisfying time travel thriller. I love a good time travel tale and this series from Valiant takes us to some very interesting places. You can well imagine that if Vladimir Putin was ruling over the only superpower on the planet that he’d be quite alright with that. A chilling thought but just the right frame of mind to enjoy this comic. Great script by Matt Kindt and a very kinetic style to the artwork by Trevor Hairsine.

A whisper in Gorby's ear.

A whisper in Gorby’s ear.

We have one rogue character, cosmonaut Myshka, with the potential to shift the balance of power in favor of the Soviet Union that she so dearly misses. Hey, you learn quick that changing history is not exactly a piece of cake. You can’t just whisper into a world leader’s ear, suggest a change of course, and then expect to de-wrinkle a moment in time. Just not gonna happen. Of course, you need a very persistent sort to keep trying and that’s our Myshka. She’s set to give pep talks to everyone from Stalin to Gorbachev. Stay resolute, dudes, Communism is here to stay!

Fun stuff! We’ve seen way too many time travel tales about killing Hitler and saving JFK. That said, I wouldn’t mind a whole series, at least a one-shot issue, dedicated to Jeb Bush going back in time to kill baby Hitler. You remember Jeb Bush, right? Oh, how time flies!

Awesome variant cover by Carmen Carnero.

DIVINITY II #3 is available as of June 22nd. For more details, visit Valiant Entertainment right here.

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Filed under Comics, Comics Reviews, Communism, History, Matt Kindt, Russia, Time Travel, Valiant Entertainment