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

Friday, September 25, 2020

A Crowded Life in Comics –

When Frank Was King.

by Rick Marschall. 

Two reasons had my “mind” returning to Gasoline Alley and its creator Frank King this week. From my friend Germund Von Wowern, the Maharajah of Malmö, I received some memorabilia of Tomah, the small Wisconsin town where King was born.

Also, I participated in the Theodore Roosevelt Center Symposium at Dickinson State University in North Dakota. I am Cartoon Archivist for the Center – all digital and internet work, as was this conference. All three days by Zoom. Complicated for the organizers, but actually efficient and accessible, and almost more intimate than the in-person event.

I mention the Roosevelt Symposium because this very week last year, while driving to North Dakota, I passed by a highway exit for Tomah, and was tempted to visit. Some day.

It surely is a place more interesting than most cartoonists’ heimat… home place, wellspring, inspiration. That is because Frank King invented his neighborhoods, whether Chicago houses’ garages, or the suburbs of later years of Walt and Skeezix, Phyllis and Nina. King had a superb sense of place; his environments were not stage-backdrops but, virtually, characters as vivid as the people with names.

So Tomah went with Frank wherever he moved, and whatever setting he chose for his characters.

After he retired from the northern Chicago suburbs, Frank King moved to the Winter Park suburb outside Orlando, Florida. I had written him fan letters when I was young and – well, I was still young – but every year our family vacationed in Florida. The Orlando area was a cartoonists’ colony, and my father encouraged me to write to my hero / pen-pals and see if we could visit.

So for many years, before returning to New Jersey and by gracious pre-arrangement, the last one or two days of “our” vacation would be a detour to Orlando (I use quotation-marks because I bless my father’s memory for this, but my mother and sisters were not thrilled) and see cartoonists. I have mentioned this here before, but almost every year Roy Crane and Frank King would be on the list, and then there were visits to Leslie Turner, Mel Graff, Dick Hodgins Sr., Lank Leonard, Zack Mosely, Jim Ivey, Fred Lasswell (some on the east and west coasts of the state).

By the time I started visiting Frank King, almost all the work on the strip was being done by Dick Moores, later a good friend; and in fact I became his syndicate editor. I have, and will, tell more here about the visits to Frank King – his studio and the interesting originals on the walls (for instance, work by onetime assistants Garrett Price and Sals Bostwick); examples of the “shadow boxes” he constructed – three-dimensional scenes with Gasoline Alley characters and elements painted on glass panes.

Every year the cartoonists gave me “parting gifts” of originals; Roy Crane once dug back for a Wash Tubbs from when it was only a Sunday top-strip. Frank pulled work from the 1940s, 1930s, and once a Rectangle panel, before Gasoline Alley was a titled feature. It is here, maybe the first time Skeezix’s name is mentioned – days after he was left on Walt’s doorstep.

Each year Frank’s age showed more and more; his recollections grew foggier. One year he smiled and said, “Let’s look for some real old-timers. The old drawings are in the tool shed.” It might have been years since had gone there, because the central-Florida humidity had done its work. Piles of originals were matted together, covered in mold. Tears came to his eyes.

Mine too.

The Tomah drawing was for a special publication marking the town’s centennial in 1955. To my eyes, although Frank might have done a thumbnail sketch, this is by Dick Moores at the very beginning of their collaboration. The panorama drawing, on the other hand, seems to be 100 per cent Frank King, and from the details and lines, how he drew at the time.

In the text he identifies the location of the alley! Vast areas of Chicago have homes whose back doors face rows of garages, and middle-class owners of new automobiles tinkered and compared notes in those alleys.

“The row of garages near 63rd Street in Chicago,” he wrote; and ID’d Bill, Avery, Walt, and Doc.

I used to urge Dick Moores to construct a story about Walt’s death. I certainly had nothing against the old boy… but the Gasoline Alley WAS noted for its characters growing in real time. I thought, and think, it would be true to the strip’s essence to “draw” that curtain. Jim Scancarelli, the current and excellent artist, has Walt and Skeezix still around, challenging the actuarial tables at Social Security; it was almost 100 years ago when Walt, an adult, found Skeezix on his doorstep.

But if they do ever “retire,” I know this great small-town American village in rural Wisconsin where they would fit right in...




Saturday, September 19, 2020

A Crowded Life in Comics –

A Major About-Face.

Rick Marschall

Marlene Dietrich

The great caricaturist Henry Major, who was born in Hungary in 1889, but most active in the United States by way of Vienna and London, once said about political cartooning:

At one time, cartoonists were put in jail for what they drew. Today, political cartoonists should be arrested for what they DON’T draw.

It is great as an aphorism, one I often recalled when I was a working political cartoonist. The problem with Major – and he had few problems! – was that he primarily was not a political cartoonist, but a caricaturist.

… and one of the best. In a sense, all caricaturists are political cartoonists, or satirists. Caricature, as a branch of the arts, is cartooning’s closest affinity to Expressionism in “fine” art. The caricature is a statement, an observation – meant not to evoke a response, nor to entertain. Observers, even the “victims,” must meet it more than halfway; whereas traditional strips and humorous cartoons reach out to readers.

I will write more about the art of caricature in the relaunch of NEMO Magazine, if you can stand it, and with a focus each issue on a master of the form.

Bing Crosby

“Are cartoonists commentators?” I once asked Al Capp, sensing the answer but seeking something quotable, which I got. “It’s inevitable,” he said. “When you draw a cat, you are commenting on cats.”

To my way of “thinking,” there are at least two schools of caricature, and a middle-ground melding that saves innumerable sub-categories. And there is no “correct” approach: they are merely different.

There are those artists who exaggerate. Big noses grow bigger; hydrocephalus infects every sitter; warts and freckles explode; large heads on little bodies populate their world.

Charles Laughton

The other school, stylistically, usually is less mannered. Sketchier. Faces, usually; not full figures. This type of drawing is called caricature by default. The mission is to capture a personality, not a likeness… but, done well, succeeds at both. In a real sense, though there be subtexts of humor or sarcasm, these caricatures are more like quick portraits. The informality, sense of irony, unconventional attitudes of the subjects all combine to make “caricature” an appropriate appelation.

David Levine is an avatar of the first school; Honore Daumier exemplified the second; Al Hirschfeld’s work clearly fell in the middle. All of them great caricaturists, surely.

Back to Henry Major. I have always loved his work, but did not know him. He became famous, especially as a roving assignment artist for Hearst enterprises, for lightning-quick sketches, celebrity caricatures, and personality drawings. He invariably drew with grease crayon, and people I have meet who knew him said that he drew, indeed, lightning-fast.

Fred Astaire 

When I earned my living (some might say under false pretenses) as a political cartoonist and caricaturist, my favored tool was the same lithograph crayon. I tend to like an artist’s studies and sketches more than finished canvases; and as an artist I have often been happy with preliminary sketches and disliked my “finishes,” because I tend to tighten up and lose the spontaneity I seek.

The grease crayon allows an artist to look informal even when exactitude is needed. The heavy or light lines, and shading, can cover a multitude of “sins,” and pleasingly. With pens, artists like Heinrich Kley and John Groth achieved the same magic; but they were magicians. The crayon allows the artist to create depth by suggesting shadows; can (yes) cover the mistakes of the quick-sketch with manic shading – see Fred Astaire’s hat here.

And there is a “permanence” to penlines that, despite exaggerations, suggest that some caricatures aspire to be a distorted but formal portrait. The crayon-sketch, on the other hand, is like a snapshot, free of pretense and self-consciousness.

I promised you to get back to Henry Major. I never met him, but I have collected his work, and knew people who knew him. I recall in this “Crowded Life” essay Mary Joe Connolly, of whom I shall write more some week. Mary Joe, the daughter of Joe Connolly, knew every star of King Features Syndicate and the Hearst empire, because her father was president of King Features, International News Service, Good Housekeeping, American Weekly, Pictorial Review, and the many other domains of that empire. After Arthur Brisbane – and maybe including him – Connolly was the best right-hand man Hearst ever had… by Hearst’s many testimonials.

Lewis Milestone

Mary Joe worked at King, too, after her father’s early death in 1945. She was an award-winning photographer, and her editorial work included ghosting the Hints from Heloise column; a Jill of all trades.

Many celebrities came and went from the Connolly home in Westchester County (and I am thinking of another remarkable friend who had a remarkable father – Russelle Patterson, daughter of the great illustrator Russell Patterson – about whom I shall write here too) and Henry Major was a frequent guest. An amiable friend, he was also available to sketch the “cabbages and kings,” anyone you could name from the 1920s to the 1940s.

I acquired some of Mary Joe’s collection, including personal and corporate archives of her father. Historical treasures galore, including many back-stories and “inside baseball” details of the time, including promotional material, contracts, and such.

But. The Major point this week is Henry, the caricaturist. The Connolly family scrapbook is filled with sketches he did of Joe and Marguerite, Mary Joe and Buddy. Many, through the years. Hearst cartoonists; celebrities in the news (like Lindbergh and Floyd Gibbons); sports stars like Babe Ruth and Jack Dempsey; movie stars like… well, of course, Marion Davies.

Many homes of the time, especially “power” couples, had guestbooks. The Connollys had a running register of Henry Major’s caricatures.

I share some of his work here. One afternoon the cartoonists George McManus and Jimmy Murphy visited the Connollys; Henry sketched them all, including himself. The other celebrity drawings will illustrate my point about the forgiving nature of the grease crayon – its creative malleability. And its almost magical properties. A mistaken stroke “works out,” creating a shadow or upturned eyebrow or hinted smile.

Henry Major (right) with George McManus (Bringing Up Father; left), Jimmy Murphy (Toots and Casper), and King Features President Joseph V Connolly, standing.

A little bump in the paper made a white spot in Charles Laughton’s right eye and lent reality. The crayon, applied with otherwise illogical heaviness, allowed Major to accentuate the contours of Dietrich’s cheekbone and jawline, ultimately as distinctive as her famous eyes.

Close up of Major’s caricature of the four friends

I have always maintained that the best caricature is that, when you might not know the subject (from the past, or a stranger)… you look at it, and you do know the subject! Of the group of sketches I share here, the film director Lewis Milestone might be the least familiar today. And his profile the most “cartooney,” in that first category of “exaggeration.”

But is it? You have the feeling it is closest to reality, an unusual face perhaps, but captured faithfully. It’s almost like we know him.

And that was a common, but Major, accomplishment.


Tuesday, September 8, 2020

A Crowded Life in Comics –

A Black and White Orphan’s World…

and Gray Too. 

by Rick Marschall.

When I was in my mid-teens I wrote a fan letter to Harold Gray. Already a long-time comics fan, I loved Peanuts and Pogo and other strips in the daily papers. And I was enough of a collector to savor Happy Hooligan and Krazy Kat and obscurities like Slim Jim. I devoured Prince Valiant, and appreciated learning words like “Synopsis” from its weekly episodes.

But it was something else with Little Orphan Annie. It was accessible, mirroring the news, yet somehow seemed remote. Harold Gray created a world like no one else did – it was commonplace, or meant to be, but still inhabited by characters who were real and symbolic at the same time.

I didn’t realize it yet, but Gray was in the rare creative company of John Bunyan (The Pilgrim’s Progress) and Petrarch and Dante, creating characters for the personification of literary and allegorical qualities. Yes, in a comic strip. It was one thing that set Harold Gray apart.

Doorways always opened to darkness; ceilings and skies were enclosures, not open avenues, as Donald Phelps has noted. Gray was the only strip artist of whom I am aware who made every day’s strip a different day of action – no conversations nor fights that would last over days of strips. Roy Crane extended some fist fights over a week of installments, which were wonderful, but Gray’s self-imposed strait jacket was a greater challenge.

I can go on and on – and have, in an entire issue of the old NEMO Magazine; and a chapter in my book America’s Great Comic Strip Artists – but prior to my ability to analyze, I was awestruck by Harold Gray’s mastery of the form in Little Orphan Annie.

So I wrote him a fan letter, and he confirmed what many now know from dozens of “fingerprints” – Gray was a great businessman too, a consummate promoter. That he and his wife traversed the continent every year is a testament, not to wanderlust or restlessness, but to his twin muses related to map-locations across small-town America. He was a restless genius, hungry for story inspiration; and he revered the spirit, the values, of the America he met on every mile of those automobile trips.

As a promoter, if I use the proper term, he immediately put this young fan on his Christmas card list. Every year until he died I received a Little Orphan Annie Christmas card – not commercial cards you could buy in stores – color, card stock, personal greetings from one of Harold and Winifred’s homes in Westport CT or La Jolla CA. Taking care of business.

More interesting than any notes to me is a letter I reproduce for you here. There is much that is revealing about Gray and Annie! And even more “between the lines.” This is a letter to his editor at the New York News- Chicago Tribune Syndicate, Mollie Slott.

The letter is a masterpiece of diplomacy, and provides great insights into Harold Gray. For instance there are politically incorrect comments on union members and strikes. At this time, the New York City papers were suffering through a prolonged and crippling work action; and not for the first or last time, universal predictions of newspapers having to go out of business were fulfilled. Shorter hours and longer vacations became moot on unemployment lines.

Gray is withering in assessment of the strikers. His love of “common people,” referenced above, is nuanced. Common agitators were a different species, to him.

But after establishing common ground with Slott in the note – and more of the same, recalling “good old days” and the shifting tastes of local editors – Gray shared details of syndicates’ histories, sales practices, and comparisons with Hearst’s King Features. Of vital pertinence to comics scholars.

Through it all are plaintive comments to his syndicate chief about his treatment, something bittersweet to behold. Minimal contact; missed opportunities; a recognition that a star of the syndicate has become, to an extent, a wheel that must squeak in an attempt to be oiled. For the benefit of all, like “in the good old days.”

Not much changed, not by this letter, anyway. When I joined that syndicate as Comic Editor a dozen years later, Harold Gray and Mollie Slott were both gone. But no less a star than Chester Gould was pleading for promotion and... attention. He felt that Dick Tracy was being ignored by the sales force. Bob Reed and Jack Minch were in charge then – but not in charge of being civil to their stars. Chet was so desperate that he designed his own promotional ads and brochures, about new villains and new stories. I have his campaign suggestions somewhere, but Reed and Minch not only declined to create basic promotional pieces… they ignored Chester Gould outright. If Chet had not called me directly when I joined the syndicate about this state of non-affairs, I never would have known. Disgraceful and sad.

A genius should not have to resort to the words by which Harold Gray closed a letter to Al Capp we recently shared here:

“Sometimes I get disgusted with the whole dam business. But it’s a living, eh?”