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‘American Daredevil—Comics, Communism, and the Battles of Lev Gleason’ (review)

Written by Brett Dakin
Published by Chapterhouse Publishing

 

The new book American Daredevil—Comics, Communism, and the Battles of Lev Gleason by Brett Dakin is both a long overdue look at one of the most important men in the history of comics and an often-riveting legal thriller, complete with suspected traitors, a murder, and the inevitable moral, “Crime Does Not Pay.”

Author Brett Dakin is Lev Gleason’s great-nephew, and his book was triggered—as often happens—by a desire to learn more about his colorful relative who died before he was born. On the one hand it’s a meticulously researched biography of a seminal figure in the history of comics but it’s also a personal journey by the author to uncover the roots of where he himself comes from.  Luckily, Mr. Dakin interweaves both of these stories to make each equally as interesting to the reader.

As opposed to some comic book publishers, Lev Gleason published only a relatively small handful of titles, but several were quite influential. Daredevil, Boy Comics, and Crime Does Not Pay were the company’s Big Three.

Just as importantly though, behind the scenes, Gleason himself was sort of the template for the later version of Stan Lee.

As this book shows, Gleason was the first comics publisher to make his presence a regular feature of the comics themselves. His comics pioneered art credits and even letters columns (for a while offering $2.00 per each published letter!). He was a founder of the first attempt at an industry-wide code and headed up the early ACMP—the Association of Comic Magazine Publishers—as its president.

The creative end of publisher Lev Gleason’s comic books were handled mainly by writer/artists Charles Biro and Bob Wood, also covered here. Their work was often characterized by its extreme wordiness. Perhaps that wordiness is why the Gleason titles tended toward more fully-developed characters than many other comic book companies of the day.

On record with his leftist leanings, and tracked since World War II by the FBI, he was no stranger to controversy, and willingly testified several times in defense of himself, his business, his comics, and of the comic book industry in general. A large portion of this book is taken up with the details of Gleason’s testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee and his various interactions with the FBI.

But along with J. Edgar Hoover, Dr. Wertham is here, too, as he always is in books of this sort. His campaign to end “crime comics” took a toll on Gleason, whose biggest selling book was Crime Does Not Pay. We think of the 1950s as being the death knell for horror comics but Wertham had set his sights all along for crime comics.

I first heard of Lev Gleason in Steranko’s History of Comics fifty years ago and have been curious about him for decades. Until now, there just wasn’t that much out there about him. Brett Dakin’s American Daredevil shows that there was a lot more to his life and legacy than just comic books.

Booksteve recommends.

 

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