Wednesday, September 30, 2020

American Daredevil

 Comics, Communism, and the Battles of Lev Gleason

By John Adcock

“The (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) Constitution also guarantees by law freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, freedom of street processions and demonstrations, as well, of course, as freedom of religious worship.” – Lev Gleason, FBI File, July 21, 1943

“We shall never now be able to arrive at any judgment of the full scale of what took place, of the number who perished, or of the standard they might have attained. No one will ever tell us about the notebooks hurriedly burned before departures on prisoner transports, or of the completed fragments and big schemes carried in heads and cast together with those heads into frozen mass graves. Verses can be read, lips close to ear; they can be remembered, and they or the memory of them can be communicated. But prose cannot be passed on before its time. It is harder for it to survive. It is too bulky, too rigid, too bound up with paper, to pass through the vicissitudes of the Archipelago.” ― Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago, 1918-1956: An Experiment in Literary Investigation, Books III-IV

American Daredevil is a book that left me more confused than enlightened. I can never take serious as history any biography that makes ample use of “creative license” to fill six pages with an imagined visit to Lev Gleason’s office by an FBI agent “in a plain gray suit and matching fedora… something of a caricature, he knew, but this was what he had always worn, and it felt comfortable.” Or putting imaginary words in Lev Gleason’s mouth as he barges unwittingly into his reception room, head buried in a newspaper: “Can you believe this news about McCarthy? He’s getting married in Washington next week, for God’s sake! That no good Roy Cohn is going to be an usher…” I’m also suspicious when I see that one of the author’s main sources is Marxist Howard Zinn’s thoroughly discredited anti-American screed A People’s History of the United States.

The author cannot quite face up to the fact that his “heroic” relative was a Communist at a time when all American communists were Stalinists, despite all the red flags that pop up in his sloppy narrative. In his view Gleason is a “New-Dealer,” a “progressive,” and an “anti-fascist.” Gleason claims outright at one point “I am not a communist.” Later he admits to the wily imaginary FBI agent that he was a communist from about 1936 to 1939, when he dropped out over the Stalin/Hitler pact. Yet in 1943 he was praising Soviet “freedoms” in his newspaper, a view that most Americans at the time knew was a lie (see opening quote above).

Anti-fascist is a neat obfuscation after all who wasn’t an anti-fascist in the west during World War II? I quit counting the author’s tiresome abuse of the term after 50 mentions. Gleason and the party would have defined an anti-fascist as someone who had fought in Spain against Franco under communist leadership. Where the term originated. To the American, British, and Canadian governments it was a war between two totalitarian governments which was why they stayed out of it. CPUSA on the other hand counted American Democrats and Republicans alike as fascists. That list of fascists included Franklin Delano Roosevelt, at least until his inexplicable formal recognition of the Soviet dictatorship on Nov 16, 1933.

On August 23, 1939, Germany and the Soviet Union sign a non-aggression pact followed by a joint invasion of  Poland (starting WWII) and Stalin’s invasion of Finland and occupation of the Baltic states - Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania and parts of Romania. The American anti-fascists of the CPUSA and The Daily Worker either quit the party or did an embarrassing about face, supporting Hitler until the Stalin/Hitler pact was dust. They betrayed their comrades who shed their blood on Spanish soil which revealed their progressive anti-fascism as a lie. In 1945 Gleason, faced with jail-time for contempt, betrayed his own comrades on the Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee. He tossed them all under the bus for his own well-being.

The author covers this period, which is critical to understanding Gleason’s political worldview, in two short, confused sections between pages 8 to 40. The rest of the book is a scattershot affair, some worthwhile, most already told in detail in several better books.

The Epilogue is an awkward segue into the future which has no bearing on the life of Leverett Gleason and occasionally reads like Charles Biro’s forties comic book dialogue. indeed, much of the book wanders from concise writing into a breathless melodramatic comic book style, all that is missing is all-caps and the exclamation points. By 2018 “the forces Lev Gleason fought against… had reawakened with a vengeance… Once again it was becoming Un-American to be anti-fascist.” Really? I anticipated at this point super publisher Lev Gleason would rise from his grave, don red tights and a flowing cape and fly to Washington to clean out the White House.

Unfortunately, the comic book publisher was not – as the back-cover blurb proclaims) - A REAL LIFE COMICS SUPERHERO! The FBI would confirm that he was not even a significant figure in the Communist movement and remove his name from their security risk files in 1954. He kept a low profile for the rest of his life.

Brett Dakin has assembled some great material and with stronger editorial control I think he could have produced a quality biography, but the resulting book bounces recklessly from real history, to personal memory, to speculative fiction. The finished work lacks focus, the chronology is confusing, and historical objectivity is nowhere to be found. American Daredevil is a flawed work, made up of unrelated and cobbled together sections, but it is still stimulating and informative enough, in several parts, to be worth reading.

Leverett Gleason played an important part in comic book history and he deserves to be remembered not for his insignificant political life but for his accomplishments in that field... Daredevil, Crime Does Not Pay, Crime & Punishment, Captain Battle, and the wonderful kid gang feature Little Wise Guys.

American Daredevil is available on Amazon

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