The history of the comic book industry has an amazing breadth of legacy. At times the accounts of its history are more exciting than the stories found in the comics. Marvel and DC may rule the comic book sales charts today Marvel and DC did not even exist. Other companies and industry VIPs were in charge. Harry L. Wildenberg, Max Gaines, and Lev Gleason were there at the very start of the industry’s origins.
In American Daredevil, author Brett Dakin recounts an important part of comic book history. Lev Gleason’s influence, as we will soon learn, and his companies characters are still as valid and important today as they were in the past.
EASTERN COLOR and COMIC BOOK BEGINNING AT THE VERY START OF COMIC BOOKS
Crimebuster in Boy Comics, Daredevil and the Little Wise Guys, Crimes Does Not Pay and the rest stood out when they were published. Those comics are still reverent relevant even decades after.
Lev is also from a period of time when the internet did not exist. Without books like American Daredevil covering Lev Gleason and the comics, he released or the crazy political stories that surrounded Lev, this information can be lost to the passage of time. Finally, as someone who feels the same kind of regret of losing someone, it’s good to see someone doing something positive with those emotions.
Most writers feel a sense of victory or completion when they finish a book. How did you feel when you finished American DaredDevil?
I wasn’t a fan of comics growing up, and I never met Uncle Lev—he died five years before I was born. My mother would tell me stories about her flamboyant, free-spending uncle from New York City, and I especially loved hearing about Uncle Lev’s Day: once a year, Lev would drive to my mother’s house near Boston, pile her and her friends into his gleaming aqua Packard, and head for the mall, where everyone was free to buy whatever their hearts desired—courtesy of Uncle Lev. He was my mother’s Emperor of Ice Cream! I knew he had made a fortune in comic books in the 1940s—and lost it all when his business collapsed in the 1950s. That’s about it. So my strongest feeling upon completing the book was that I had finally gotten to know this man I’d never had the chance to meet.
Lev moved from Boston to New York. This was during the depression. He found work at the Eastern Color Printing Company. Eastern has an important part in comic book history. Prior to comics, Eastern was noted as printers of pulp magazines. In fact, they were one of the few publishers of pulps to provide color covers.
This is important. Pulp magazines, like characters, story, and art, no doubt, influenced comic book creations. This extends the influence even further. Why? Due to Eastern Color’s color printing capabilities, and already established position with pulp magazines, they started printing comic sections for scores of newspapers, including the Sunday color sections. So much so, they were the industry go-to printer.
In 1933 Eastern Sales Manager Harry L. Wildenberg along with a team of Eastern employees that included Max Gaines (founder to EC Comics and father to William Gaines, who inherited EC Comics) and your uncle, Lev Gleason. They were part of the sales managers of Easter Color. Together, they created the format of what we know as a comic book in 1933. This was in collaboration with Dell Comics for the publication Famous Funnies.
A lot of golden age talent can say they were part of the golden age of comics, few can say they were at the very start. This is quite the distinction. Tell me more about this historical event.
Today, Lev is best-known for publishing the adventures of Daredevil, alter ego of Bart Hill, who was rendered mute after witnessing the brutal murder of his father and took revenge by waging a crusade against the world’s criminals—all while dressed in a red-and-blue bodysuit and golden belt, carrying a boomerang-shaped to mimic the painful brand his childhood tormentors had carved into his chest. You have to love that backstory! But in fact, Lev was integral to the creation of the entire medium. While working at a printer of Sunday comics in the 1930s, he and his team figured out how to fit them two-to-a-page in 64-page booklets. Once Lev convinced a distributor to sell the books on newsstands, the monthly comic book we know today was born.
Lev was unique among early comics publishers in New York not only because of his background as a New Englander who trained at Harvard and the Sorbonne. He also knew how to hire the right people—Charlie Biro and Bob Wood (together, “Woodro”)—and grant them unprecedented control, as well as a share of the profits and their names on the cover next to his. Also, Lev was not afraid to mix comics and politics, and that’s where the title American Daredevil comes in.
A “daredevil” is a risk-taker, and the risks Lev took in the business paid off handsomely. As for his progressive politics, and the fights he picked with the likes of Henry Ford, William Randolph Hearst, and DeWitt Wallace, it didn’t always go so well. In fact, it resulted in his being branded “un-American.” Of all the labels affixed to Lev, who served in World Wars I and II, this one hurts the most. Uncle Lev was proudly, quintessentially American, and he was quite the daredevil. I also made sure to include the word “battle” in the subtitle: Captain Battle is another beloved Lev Gleason hero, and Lev was always ready for a fight.
Even though Eastern Color published comics of their own, they used it as a marketing tool to sell to other companies. Comics at this point were mainly reprints of newspaper comics and were sponsored by corporations such as Gulf Oil, Procter and Gamble, Wheatena, and Canada Dry.
In 1935, Eastern Color printed the first comic featuring original content with New Fun Comics (also known as More Fun Comics) for National Allied Publication. Not only was New Fun the first comics with all original content, but it also turned away from sponsorship and generated revenue through advertising.
Do you think Lev was, in his own way, during this period, similar to the characters on the TV show Mad Men?
Well, it was an earlier time, but yes—Lev was an Ad Man at heart. Whether it was union laborers or ladies of the night, dashing superheroes or low-life criminals, he loved to sell. Lev mastered the art of convincing folks to hand their hard-earned money—quite a feat during the Depression when Lev had come of age in the business. I will never forget a full-page ad for his magazine Reader’s Scope I had come across in a January 1948 issue of PM. Lev’s headshot is right at the top—he is speaking directly to the reader. “I don’t care what they say,” he begins. “I say I can trust you … people tell me I’m crazy.”
Let’s see. I publish a wonderful magazine … I honestly believe once you try a copy you’ll read the magazine every month for sheer enjoyment and happiness … for help and comfort … for pleasure and profit. I think READER’S SCOPE Magazine is the best package of happy and helpful reading in America today. It’s a tonic in these times. I think you’ll love it! I think you need it … I think you’ll try it and never do it without it. It’s on sale on your newsstand now. It costs a quarter. DON’T TELL ME YOU HAVE A CLOSED MIND. If you do I won’t believe it.
Lev even offers a money-back guarantee. Not satisfied with the magazine? Send a short note to Lev explaining why, and he will send you a dollar back! “If people like you didn’t like it I’d go broke making such an outlandish offer. But they love it…. What say … fair enough?”
Gaines left Eastern in 1935 to work for Dell Comics. Lev would also leave the following year. 1936 would find Lev at the newspaper syndicate, United Feature as an editor.
Both following obvious networking made through their work at Eastern Color, what reason did Lev leave Eastern and why United Feature?
Buoyed by the success of Crime Does Not Pay, Lev decided to form a new business that would bring together all of the titles he was publishing. It was time to put his imprimatur on each title in the most explicit way possible. So given the new company his own name: Lev Gleason Publications. According to the April 1946 certificate of incorporation, the purpose would be to “print, publish, distribute and sell books, newspapers, journals, magazines, periodicals, and publications of all kinds.” The logo was a simple seal, at the center of which was an open book and the word “Integrity,” in all caps. With the company’s seal on every title he published, the public would quickly be able to identify him as the responsible party. If they liked what they read, he would get the praise. If they didn’t, he would get the blame. Before long, Lev was putting his own photograph in ads for his comics. It was a unique approach, and risky; among the leading publishers of the time—DC, Quality, Fawcett, Dell, Timely, and Lev Gleason—only Lev used his own name.
How important was serving the army to Lev? The war permeates Gleason comic books in many ways. From the early stories of Silver Streak, Daredevil, and the Ghost fighting the Claw to even fighting Hitler himself (shortly before America entered the wary) to Chuck Chandler’s parents being killed by Nazi’s. This, of course, makes way for Chuck to become Crimebuster. The war impacted Lev’s comic books as the rest of the industry. Did Lev have anything to do with Gleason while in the army?
How did serving in the military change Lev?
The July 1941 cover of Daredevil Battles Hitler is among the most arresting of all of Lev’s, and the title remains a Golden Age classic and coveted collector’s item. It’s a typical enough scene: our dashing hero battling the forces of evil. But this time, the enemy is real. A photograph of Hitler’s face, pasted onto a crudely illustrated torso, looms on the horizon. Daredevil hurls his boomerang directly at Hitler’s chin, while U.S. military tanks aim straight for the dictator’s neck. Hitler recoils in fear, his eyes filled with terror. The message was clear: this man can be defeated. Lev and his team chose a new tag line for the series: “The Comic Magazine that dared to be different!” And it was. With Daredevil, Lev moved the medium past the merely fantastical and into the realm of current affairs.
It was a surprise for me to learn just how reluctant Americans were to enter the war in Europe. Today, our decisive role in World War II is central to American mythmaking, but back in the early 1940s, the U.S. government was not eager to join the fight. A resolution expressing “surprise and pain” at the treatment of German Jews never even reached the Senate floor. To Lev, by sitting out the war, the U.S. was simply appeasing Hitler.
We hear a lot about “Antifa” and “anti-fascists” these days, but to Lev the term was literal: he was fighting against fascism in Europe, as well as the United States. Before making it big in comics, he had published Friday, a progressive alternative to Life magazine, which focused on the war in Europe and the threat of fascism and anti-Semitism on the home front; pro-Hitler celebrity Charles Lindbergh was a frequent target. By the time Daredevil was published, Germany had invaded the Soviet Union, and Lev was furious with America’s inaction. Then, in December, the unthinkable happened: America was attacked, and the U.S. declared war on Japan and then Germany. The real-life battle against Hitler was on. Soon enough, Lev would re-enlist.
CRIME DOES NOT PAY
Lev’s comics were more geared toward adults. Thanks in part due to Biro helmed Crime Does Not Pay, Lev felt it was time to distance the company from the war and superheroes and lean towards crime comics.
This included subtle changes to Daredevil, with the addition of the Little Wise Guys, which transitioned towards a social justice crime comic. Many of the stories would have done well in the pages of Crime Does Not Pay if you took Bart out of his Daredevil costume. Gone were the Claw, Ghost, and other characters that the company started out with.
Was this partially due to the success of Crime Does Not Pay? Or was there something else going on behind the scenes?
For some time, Lev had been after Woodro to create something new. By the early 1940s, there were dozens of comic book publishers. It was easy to enter the industry—some small-time operators even printed their books on credit—but increasingly difficult to stay in business. Lev could see that the popularity of the traditional comic book superhero, beloved characters like Superman and his own Daredevil, would not last forever, and only the publishing houses that could stay ahead of the curve would survive. When the U.S. entered the war, the industry received a big boost from sales to military bases around the world. But Lev was already wondering: what would these men, and their children, want to read when the war came to an end when America’s enemies overseas had been vanquished? He placed his bets on crime.
The concept also had an intellectual appeal to Lev and his chief editor. In truth, like Lev, Biro was not interested in superheroes. Far more interesting to him were the stories of men and women whose lives, somewhere along the way, had taken a turn for the worse. He was fascinated by poor choices—and bad luck. It was Biro who had created the Little Wise Guys, a gang of ordinary kids who helped Daredevil to foil the devilish plans of The Claw and other villains each month. Gradually, the Guys’ own lives as poor city kids and the ethical dilemmas they faced became the focus of the series. Biro and Lev felt that each American deserved a fair chance at success, no matter his or her background, and through Crime Does Not Pay they were interested in exploring the circumstances that helped produce criminality.
Crime Does Not Pay outsold Captain Marvel and Superman! Many imitations came out to try and take Lev’s readers. None lasted as long as Lev’s crime comic! It is interesting to note a few things here. When Lev was at United Features, he was an editor for Tip Top Comics. Here he made what you mentioned his biggest editorial mistake. I’m going to let you explain that.
It was while running Tip Top that Lev made one of the least wise editorial decisions of his career: his 1937 rejection of a proposed new cartoon hero named Superman. His competitor, Action Comics, took a chance on the “Man of Tomorrow,” and it paid off, catapulting Action to the top of the comic book heap. Superman’s takeoff showed the real potential for success in comic book publishing, and Lev decided that it was finally time to go out on his own.
FREDRICK WERTHAM AND THE SEDUCTION OF THE INNOCENT
Seduction of the Innocent, written by Fredric Wertham cited argued that all comic books were responsible or partially so for all bad behavior in juveniles. The publication of Wertham’s book and his efforts to stop comics on a federal level ultimately changed comics forever.
We have no idea what would have happened if Seduction of the Innocent was never published. As mentioned above, the industry was a different place than what we know now. Crime Does Not Pay outsold Superman. Something that seems unimaginable in today’s market or that of the last few decades!
Wertham’s book brought an end to many publishers. Not only that, at a point when the superhero genre was on a decline, the major publishers of non-superhero content were negatively affected by the publication of Seduction of the Innocent. As a result, the superhero genre came back and has dominated the industry since.
This is a unique position among comic books in the world at large. Because the American industry went one way and the rest of the world in what (really) sells in other countries went other directions than America went another. As an optimist I say, perhaps, it is what makes the American comic book market so unique. At the same time, it is saddening to know it was at such a great cost as EC Comics, Lev’s comics, and many others that were not able to survive due to that book.
Lev was very much a part of that fight. The industry’s fight against the Wertham’s efforts and the government’s choices. What happened there?
Lev was at the forefront of the fight to defend the comics industry against government censorship, in legislatures, before judges, and in the court of public opinion. The two most prominent anti-comics figures in the 1950s were Dr. Wertham and Estes Kefauver of Tennessee, who led a high-profile investigation of comics in the U.S. Senate. Lev debated both of these men on live radio and television. Reminding audiences that at least half of his readers were actually adults, his favorite argument in defense of comics was to point to their popularity: “I am certain comics are good because we sell so many of them.” Who were these elitist critics to tell people what to read? Of course, Lev was looking to sell as many comics as possible—and some of his tiles were indeed pretty gruesome, especially for the time.
But Lev really did believe that comics could be beneficial: they helped kids learn to read, and taught important lessons about the dangers of crime. And Lev was categorically opposed to government censorship, which he called “un-American.” His position ultimately prevailed in the courts, and we now know that Dr. Wertham’s arguments—including his outlandish claim that comics promoted homosexuality—were based on flimsy research and doctored data. But the hysteria led the industry to self-censor, effectively banning Lev’s popular crime comics. The Comics Code did a more effective job than the government ever could have.
LEV’S CREATIONS TODAY
Lev’s comics are now all in the public domain. While creators have to be careful with Daredevil due to the trademark by Marvel on their Daredevil, we are seeing new adventures by various publishers of Daredevil (Dynamite, AC Comics, Image, and many others), Crimebuster (AC Comics, Image, Scott Harris King) in addition to the work at Chapterhouse. This is a short list of creators influenced by Lev.
What do you think Lev would have thought of people, even today, being inspired by his creations?
He would have been absolutely thrilled!
Chapterhouse published your book. They also publish comics. More so, they are the Canadian publisher who releases the always cool Captain Canuck as well as North Guard. Both are Canadian heroes who were with previous publishers. In addition to a mix of other characters, they utilize many of the great Lev Gleason characters. I would love to know everything you can tell me about this!
Yes, it’s very exciting. My publisher, Chapterhouse, is actually launching a new series of comic books featuring the characters that Uncle Lev made famous back in the 1940s! Chapterhouse’s approach is to create a home for the concepts, characters, and ideas Lev brought to the industry so that they wouldn’t be lost to time within a generation. Rather than trying to tell another Captain Battle or Silver Streak story set within the golden age, their aim is to go through the entire catalog and rebuild Lev’s cast of characters for a modern era (much as DC handled the change in characterization and continuity post Crisis). Daredevil, Captain Battle, and Crimebuster will all reappear in new stories set in the present day. I am providing context for these new works, making sure they are informed by the history and values of Lev Gleason Publications. What fun!
Fun indeed. Thank you, Brett. This interview just scratches the surface of what you will uncover about the history of comics, Gleason comics and characters, and Lev’s amazing life in Brett’s book American Daredevil. As amazing as the heroes and villains and the stories of our comic industry are, the stories behind how the industry came together and the creators that make what we all love deserves attention as well. Props to Chapterhouse for releasing American Daredevil and to Brett for doing the research and writing American Daredevil.
American Daredevil is out now!
Brett’s Website with links to where you can buy American Daredevil.
Chapterhouse is worth checking out! Bring you the legacies of Lev Gleason, Captain Canuck, Northgaurd, and others.