Daredevils and Cold Warriors

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

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

American Daredevil: Comics, Communism, and the Battles of Lev Gleason‘  is an Eisner nominated book by Brett Dakin. It tells the story of a Golden Age comics pioneer who faced the trials of McCarthyism and the onslaught of the ‘Seduction of the Innocent‘ era war on comics with the introduction of the comics code.

This is a fascinating and educational book. Gleason had been a communist at a time when that was seen as the best way to stand up to the dark wave of fascism that had gripped Europe. A party member, he even worked on a magazine propagandizing the Soviet Union. This was by no means an unusual thing in the years around the Second World War. The Soviet Union was seen as the nation who stood up to the Nazi’s. It would not be until 1956  that the crimes of Stalinism were fully exposed in the famous speech by Khrushchev.

The book shows that while comics like Daredevil and Gleason’s top seller Crime Does Not Pay seemed like simple tales of right and wrong for kids, they were still caught up in an ideological battle about what kind of society we should live in. 

That publishing experience was put to good use producing magazines, newspapers and comics. His comics sold in millions and reflected his progressive view of society whilst treading a tightrope to stay on the right side of the censors. It was no mistake that the first Daredevil comic featured the blue and red boomerang wielding hero smacking Hitler in the face.

The book shows that while comics like Daredevil and Gleason’s top seller Crime Does Not Pay seemed like simple tales of right and wrong for kids, they were still caught up in an ideological battle about what kind of society we should live in. 

The book inspired me to pick up my first Golden Age book. Daredevil 55 was published by Lev Gleason Publications in 1949 and my copy is pretty beaten up as you might expect. Editors are listed as Charles Biro and Bob Wood whilst Lev Gleason is credited as publisher. The cover illustrates some of the features that made his books so successful. The hype is not subtle – “In this issue -THE BEST DAREDEVIL STORY WE EVER PUBLISHED- Lev Gleason“. 

Daredevil issue 55, 1949 from Lev Gleason Publications. Cover art Charles Bi
Daredevil issue 55, 1949 from Lev Gleason Publications. Cover art Charles Biro

Gleason’s showmanship would put Stan Lee to shame and in fact there is evidence he and his creators were a big inspiration to Stan. Dakin’s book tells of the calls that Stan would make to artist and writer Charles Biro looking for the secret of his success (the answer he gave was basically ‘be Charles Biro’.) It was no mistake that Stan snapped up the Daredevil name once it was out of copyright.

The popularity of comics led to unwanted attention from the conservative elements of US society who believed they had a corrupting influence. Frederic Wertham was a psychiatrist who actually had liberal views of society – he believed nurture not nature created our character. But this led him to see comics as a bad influence. His book ‘Seduction of the Innocent’ was a lighting rod for a moral panic which hit comics hard, especially the ‘true crime’ and horror genres. 

Letters page of Daredevil 55
Letters page of Daredevil 55

The battle with the censors can be seen with the early ‘Comics Code’ emblem on this copy of Daredevil and in the letters column with the no doubt 100% genuine  letters from kids happily confirming that his books taught them to stay away from crime!

The cover artist is Charles Biro whose clean depictions of the ‘little wise guys’ helped propel the book to immense popularity with the kids of America. Biro was one of the most accomplished artists of the Golden Age. As a weird aside another character he created for Gleason, Crimebuster from Boy Comics, would go on to star on the cover of the Rage Against the Machine album Evil Empire. I wonder if the band knew the back story of the publisher!

Interior art is by Norman Maurer whilst Biro is the writer. Maurer would go on to form the influential cartooning school with Joe Kubert. The story delivers a very American lesson in how children should use guns safely while hunting. The scenes with a bear cub put me in mind of Hergé’s Destination Moon of a few decades later. 

Daredevil and the Little Wise Guys art by Norman Maurer
Daredevil and the Little Wise Guys art by Norman Maurer

The backup tale shows Daredevil sticking up for a kid facing reform school and very much is of the view that social conditions determine behaviour for both accused and accuser. There is also a text story which tells a tale of glamorous Hollywood crime whilst underlining that crime, of course, does not pay.

As superheroes faded from popularity (it will happen again folks, eventually…) Daredevil was dropped from his own title and the Little Wise Guys became the stars. When Gleason moved out of publishing the rights to Daredevil passed into the public realm. Today the character has been resurrected by the likes of Erik Larsen’s Ant comic and also recently as part of a stable of Gleason characters on the Comic House imprint.

Ant issue 12 by Erik Larsen
Ant issue 12 by Erik Larsen

American Daredevil: Comics, Communism, and the Battles of Lev Gleason‘ provides an insightful look at an era which created comics as we know it today. It was not just a time of white picket fences and little Johnny at the drugstore buying his books from the spinner rack. It was also a time of social and political change and conflict and this book shows that comics were very much a part of that struggle.


American Daredevil: Comics, Communism, and the Battles of Lev Gleason‘ is out now in paperback and kindle.

You can find more about Lev Gleason characters and this book at https://www.levgleason.com/americandaredevil

Bonus: Some pages from the 1982 book The Daredevil Chronicles, which focus on the Marvel character but which have a couple of appearances by the Golden Age Daredevil depicted by Fred Hembeck and Michael T. Gilbert.

Two Daredevils by Michael T. Gilbert
Two Daredevils by Michael T. Gilbert
Fred Hembeck from The Daredevil Chronicles
Fred Hembeck from The Daredevil Chronicles

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