Comic Book Historians

Lev Gleason American Daredevil Interview with Brett Dakin by Alex Grand & Jim Thompson

October 15, 2020 Comic Book Historians Season 1 Episode 75
Comic Book Historians
Lev Gleason American Daredevil Interview with Brett Dakin by Alex Grand & Jim Thompson
Show Notes Transcript

Alex Grand & Jim Thompson interview Lawyer and writer Brett Dakin, about his new book, a biography of his grand-uncle Lev Gleason of Lev Gleason Comic Publications discussing his formation of the first modern comic book with Charles Max Gaines, starting the Golden Age Daredevil and Crime Comics with Charles Biro and Bob Wood, his political battles with the House of Unamerican Activities Committee, the FBI, Frederick Wertham, Estes Kefauver, and the Comics Code of America.  Explore the life of both Lev Gleason and Lev Gleason Publications.  Edited & Produced by Alex Grand. 

CBH Podcast ©Comic Book Historians. Thumbnail Artwork ©Comic Book Historians.  Music ©Lost European

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Alex Grand:
Welcome back to the Comic Book Historians podcast with Alex Grand and Jim Thompson. After today, you may call us the Colgate communist hour. Today we have Brett Dakin writer of the new book, American Daredevil. Brett is the grand nephew of Lev Gleason of Lev Gleason publications, responsible for titles like the golden age Daredevil, and the Little Wise Guys. Brett, how are you doing today?

Brett Dakin:
Great, it's great to be here, thanks for having me on.





Jim Thompson:
I wanted to start with you in law school, or you finished law school, and you've got a New York job, and suddenly this becomes super important to you, to research and understand your grand uncle. Let's talk about that, and then I want to talk about procedurally what you did in terms of your methodology for doing your research on the book.

Brett Dakin:
Sure. I mean, it actually started before I graduated from law school. I was at Harvard Law School, and I was in my last semester at school, and I was really tired of being in school and studying for exams, and I think what prompted this really was reading Kavalier & Clay, the novel, because I was not a big comic book reader growing up. In fact, I still am not. But my way into this story was through my family, and growing up, I heard stories about Uncle Lev, and it really wasn't about the comics, it was about him as a larger than life figure from New York City who would come to town every once in a while to visit my mom who was in the suburbs of Boston, and he would sort of roll into town in his Packard, and drive all the kids in the neighborhoods to the mall and say, "Get whatever you want and it's on me." And that was called Uncle Lev's Day.

Brett Dakin:
So that was kind of my vision of him lodged in my head, but I really started to focus on the comic book and the political angle after reading Kavalier & Clay, and it dawning on me that that novel is set in the same sort of milieu as Uncle Lev's time in New York City, beginning in the thirties, through the forties, and ending in the mid fifties. And I started at the archives of Harvard College, because I was on campus, and that's where Uncle Lev went to school. But he was only there for a year before he dropped out to fight in World War I, so to be honest, I didn't really come up with much in Cambridge. And as you say, I moved to New York, started working at a law firm, and that was really where my research took off.

Jim Thompson:
When did this become not just an interest, but where you thought, "I'm going to turn this into a book"?

Brett Dakin:
After law school when I was working at a law firm, and in my spare time I would do research at places like the New York Public Library and the New York Historical Society, and really just living in New York, moving to New York after law school, much the way Uncle Lev moved to New York. He was a little older when he arrived in New York and Manhattan, but I kind of started following in his footsteps. And I thought, there's a really interesting story here, and as I talked to more people in the world of books and comic book history, like you guys, I realized that there was a dearth of material on his life and his career, and so I set about trying to put together everything I could find, and piece together the truth about some of the more mysterious aspects of his life.

Jim Thompson:
So I want to compliment you on the book, first of all, and in doing so I want to read a short passage that got my attention immediately, which was, "When I imagine the city Lev saw through his wire rimmed glasses, I see it as black and white. Pedestrians are frozen in mid-stride, American flags are limp and still. Of course for Lev it was vivid in bursting with color." I want to say that with your approach on this, I felt the color. I think you got into that, and it didn't seem black and white. You put your perspective on it, but you put yourself in the book, in a way, as a character, as you're doing the research, when you're traveling and talking to old neighbors and things. That's what I loved about the book, and I wanted-

Alex Grand:
Yeah, it was like reading your journey through figuring it out, that was pretty cool.

Jim Thompson:
It felt to me less like a typical comic book history book, which are usually not that good, but they're informative. This one felt like I was reading Doctorow's Ragtime, or something. Because it was about the time, and it was about the politics, and it was about New York City as a place, and it wasn't just about your uncle, and that's what I wanted to say to you to get us started.

Brett Dakin:
Well, I really appreciate that. Thank you so much for saying that, I'm glad you enjoyed it. And that was very much by design, partly because, to be honest with you, first of all I am not an expert on comic books, I am not a comic books historian, I really am an amateur in that field. And second of all, all this stuff happened a long time ago. I mean, Uncle Lev was born in 1898 and he died in the early 1970s, before I was even born. So the fact is that by the time I got to doing my research, there weren't that many people left who could tell me about a personal interaction with this guy. So, just to your point, I felt like I had to put myself in the story, and I really had to make it about more than just this one man, because there wasn't that much available to me in the traditional kind of biographers toolbox.

Brett Dakin:
I mean, one of the most extraordinary things about this project, to me, is that this man, who was a publisher, who loved writing and reading and letters and publications of all kinds, did not leave behind a single piece of paper. I mean, there's not a letter, there's not a diary, there's nothing. And my family, we don't even own a comic book. I mean, it's really kind of insane when you think about it. So in order to piece together all this stuff, I really had to dig pretty deeply into whatever archival resources were available, talking to people, and then accumulating a little bit of this material just by buying it online and stuff. But I really appreciate what you said, and that was part of my goal, was to make it a story that would be fun to read, not just an academic text.

Jim Thompson:
Alex.

Alex Grand:
Yeah, so one of the really fun and fascinating things, that I generally love about this period, is reading about the early formation of the comics industry. And so you start off with him having his New England life, and then moving to New York. He's 34, so he's not young really in that sense, but then he really starts off a really interesting and memorable life. He's kind of doing work in advertising and publishing in some sense, and then he's there working at Eastern Color with Charles Max Gaines, and he's there in the beginning of the comic industry, and he's rarely mentioned in this context.

Alex Grand:
I think your book was the first time I actually knew he was actually there. Everyone always credits Charles Max Gaines for folding the comic and putting it on the newsstand and seeing what would happen, but he was actually there as part of that, and he was also there negotiating with American News Corporation to actually distribute the first comics, which started off the industry. So tell us about figuring that out and the journey of that, and the details of that. That's just such a fascinating thing.

Brett Dakin:
Yeah, I mean, I think the first thing to say is what you pointed out, which is that he was kind of a fish out of water in this context. I mean, he had grown up in the suburbs of Boston, a very [inaudible 00:08:47] life. His father was a doctor, a prominent family doctor. He went to school in Newton, Mass, and then he went to Phillips Andover, a fancy prep school. And then he went off to Harvard, as I say, for a year. Then he dropped out pretty quickly thereafter and fought in France during World War I, and then he stuck around in France, and he studied at the Sorbonne as part of this really amazing program that was available to US service men who were interested in studying in France.

Brett Dakin:
It's amazing to think of that kind of program, and it being available to service men today. I mean, that was, for him, I think very formative. He was there really at the time of the armistice, the Treaty of Versailles was being negotiated, Woodrow Wilson was in town. And I think that he was a very young man, but that was where his start in politics and political beliefs really kicked off. So when he came back to Boston, I think it was a bit of a let down to be honest.

Alex Grand:
Yeah, he wanted something more interesting.

Brett Dakin:
Yeah, it was kind of coming back where he had grown up. And of course he could have had a comfortable life, he tried his hand as a stockbroker for a bit, then he got into magazines and really advertising. And he moved to New York to make it big, and I think it's important to say that he was interested in making money, and comics for him was a vehicle for advertising. Let's just say it. It wasn't about the art, it wasn't about the stories, it wasn't about creating an extraordinary medium that we now appreciate.

Brett Dakin:
At the very beginning, I don't think it really was about that. For him it was about making money, but it also was about politics, and I think that's what sets him apart from a lot of the folks that are more commonly known, and maybe it's because of this, I think, for Uncle Lev, he saw publishing as a way to do well for himself, but also a way to get the message out. And it was during that very period in the thirties when the comic book was born and he was there, that he was also experimenting with socialism, communism, new ideas about the way the world could be structured. And so I think that comic books, initially, that was secondary for him. It was really about these other things.

Alex Grand:
[inaudible 00:11:37] is that Alexander Lev phase, right? Where he was basically kind of a member of the communist party, and part of these publications, but he was kind of not quite formed as Lev Gleason Publications yet.

Brett Dakin:
That's right, yeah. I mean, it really wasn't until World War II that he established Lev Gleason Publications, put his name right on there on every comic book, which I also found very unique. I don't think there's another example of a comics publisher putting the name of the owner right on every single issue.

Alex Grand:
Right, right. Yeah, and I know that in the industry at the time they would call Martin Goodman's comics, Goodman Comics, because he had so many different little things, but none of those little things had his name on it, like Lev did.

Brett Dakin:
Yeah, and so he had a very healthy ego, he likes his name being on the cover, but it's interesting because he was not an artist, he was not a writer of comic books, he was really a writer of political material. And that started off in, as you say, in the 1930s, kind of under a pseudonym. But by the time the early forties rolled around, he was a staunch FDR Democrat. And he used his publications to promote his belief in progressive ideals, and FDR's vision for the new deal and really remaking American government as a society to support people who were hurting.

Brett Dakin:
So I think that that's really what motivated him, and to tie it back to the comic books you see in, for example, Daredevil Battles Hitler at the end of 1941, where those two things come together, which is that I think by then he realized, "Well actually these comic books could be really interesting as a way to not only sell advertising and make money, but also as a way to get my political views out there, but in a slightly different way than writing letters to the New York times."

Alex Grand:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). Jim, go ahead.

Jim Thompson:
So you went to the next subject I was going to ask you about, which was The Daredevil versus Hitler, because that was very interesting to me in the context of where he was about US involvement in the war and helping the allies over there. There was some contradiction early on about that in terms of him. Talk about that, and then about how the process, how Daredevil versus Hitler was assembled and put out, and who was hired to do it, and that kind of thing.

Brett Dakin:
So I think in terms of the war, doing the research was such a good reminder for me that Americans were not into the idea of entering World War II at first. I mean, I think today it's become so much a part of our lure and our identities as Americans that we fought the good war and we erased Nazi-ism from the face of the earth, and that is true, but it took a while for the US to get involved, and FDR was very reluctant himself. So Uncle Lev was initially reluctant, as you say, and he was reluctant because his view was, "Well, if we just get involved in the war on the side of all of these," what he would have called reactionary forces in Europe, meaning not socialists, "then what good is that going to do? Because it's just going to prop up the very things in Europe that I believe need to change."

Brett Dakin:
But I would say by the end of 1941, he and the folks that he was hanging around with in New York City had realized that "Look, the threat of Hitler was way more important than those concerns, and that the only way that he was going to be defeated would be if the US entered the war." And so you see in Daredevil Battles Hitler, the very explicit call for the US to enter into the war. And the story of how it was assembled is certainly not a story that I found myself, it was documented in comic book history that I consulted in writing the book, and it also is echoed in Michael Chabon's Kavalier & Clay, where there are references to the very same thing. But essentially it came together extremely quickly in the context of, we're trying rationing of paper, where essentially there was paper available, and Uncle Lev said, we need to do something with this now, and you've got a weekend to figure it out, and Daredevil Battles Hitler is what his team came up with.

Jim Thompson:
Okay.

Alex Grand:
Yeah, and there was this stance of how the labor unions were kind of against being involved in the war, and you mentioned a couple of things that helped change that, and may have actually helped formulated Lev's stance on it also, as far as really being for it 100%, was two things, Pearl Harbor attack, which is obvious, I think a lot of people know about that, but then also when Germany invaded the Soviet Union, that was another trigger to get more of the labor people wanting to be entering the war. That was an interesting aspect that I think a lot of people don't really just casually know.

Brett Dakin:
Yeah, and I think that that also speaks to this controversy, which really dogged Uncle Lev beginning in the forties, and then again in the fifties, which is, was he a communist? And, what did it mean to be a communist? And that was a really pivotal point for a lot of folks like Uncle Lev because when they saw that Hitler and Stalin, Germany and the Soviet Union, were going to be on opposite sides of this conflict, it became a lot easier for them to encourage the US to enter into the war on the side of the Soviet Union. So it's very clear.

Brett Dakin:
So again, that's what I think is so interesting about Uncle Lev's stories, and I hope he's not presented this way in the book, he's not a superhero himself. He's complicated, he has different motivations, we can talk later about his motivations for defending the comic book in the face of attacks from [crosstalk 00:00:19:10]. But I think on the political issue, very complicated, different motivations as well. If Hitler and Stalin had remained allied, would he have encouraged the West to enter into the war? Maybe not.

Brett Dakin:
So it's really that we'll never know, but it's true that by the time Daredevil Battles Hitler came out, a lot of things had shifted which made that more possible for him to proclaim in the sense that he could say, "Yes, the US should enter into the war." Not only to stamp out antisemitism, the Holocaust, and all the horrors that were going on in Europe, but also because it would mean that the US would be fighting on the same side as the Soviet Union.

Alex Grand:
Yes, and that was the thing that, we'll go more into his whole antifascist stage later, but there was this thing that, this was before a lot of the realities of the Soviet purges were going on in the thirties, where Stalin was killing his opponents, or their kids. And at the same time the workers, people in the US, didn't know that stuff, and they almost romanticized it as being some sort of labor union utopia. And so there's this kind of interesting thing going on where it's a lot of weird and cool things happening that now later we know more, but at the time everyone's in their pockets of thinking, and it was all about being almost pro-Soviet in that sense. But back to our timeline.

Alex Grand:
So the Daredevil vs Hitler, so he hires Bob Wood and Charles Biro to help make that issue, and these guys are really instrumental because then they start off the whole crime comics, crime does not pay. And it was interesting in that he had an interesting approach to the business model, because they were very successful in what they did as a team, but unlike people like Donnenfeld and Liebowitz or Martin Goodman, he actually had them as junior partners because they were so good. He was actually sharing the profits, which is interesting, and that's an aspect I find really admirable is that he was doing that. That he wasn't hoarding his cash, he was actually putting it toward people and causes that he believed in, and he really enjoyed working with these guys.

Alex Grand:
Tell us about the relationship between these three, and also he phased out Morris and Bernard, which were earlier partners, as he took on these guys. Tell us about that business structure a bit.

Brett Dakin:
Yeah, I think that in terms of comic books, clearly his greatest decision ever, and his genius, was hiring Bob Wood and Charlie Biro. I mean, that was an incredible move because, again, Uncle lav himself, he was a publisher, he was not an artist or a writer, so he needed to assemble a team of people, and he needed to create the incentives for them to do their best work. So I think that this business structure that he created was twofold, it was motivated by two goals.

Brett Dakin:
One was to in practice in his own business, kind of walk the talk, because he was pro-labor, he was pro-workers' rights, he was anti-capitalists, antifascists. He published and wrote a lot of material criticizing folks like Henry Ford, a great industrialist and capitalists, but who was also an anti-Semite and was pretty okay with Hitler, to be honest. Same with Charles Lindbergh, same with DeWitt Wallace, the publisher of Reader's Digest. I mean, these are American icons that Uncle Lev was happy to sort of take down, or try his best to take down. So I think his business was a way in which he could say, well, this is a different way of running things.

Brett Dakin:
And the other one, the other motivation is that he wanted people to do good work, and I think the best way to get people to do good work is to give them a stake in the business and to make them feel like they're part of an enterprise, a collective enterprise, and part of a community. And I think one of the most enjoyable parts of the research that I did was I was able to talk to, for example, the son of his office assistant, this incredible woman who basically ran the office on 32nd street in Manhattan.

Brett Dakin:
And I think it was through my conversations with him, who had heard about Uncle Lev growing up, just like I did, as this larger than life figure, but as really a kind of paternalistic figure who took care of her, who took care of folks in the office, and who believed that everyone deserves a fair share. So the are photographs, some of which are in the book, but others are not, that depict, for example, parties in the office, holiday parties, a real sense that this was a place where people could come together, and I think in a political sense as well, Charlie Biro and Bob Wood shared Uncle Lev's politics, and so they were on the same page in that way. So that's the way that I see it. As for how he phased out his first partners and brought in his new partners, I don't have a lot to add. I really was not able to find out any-

Alex Grand:
Find out why that happened.

Brett Dakin:
No [crosstalk 00:25:15].

Alex Grand:
Because that's an interesting transition, to let go of those two and get these two, right?

Brett Dakin:
Yeah, and it was one of those things that just, I couldn't, I wasn't able to find any material about that.

Alex Grand:
Yeah, that's interesting.

Brett Dakin:
Which is one of the many disappointments of his.

Alex Grand:
Mysteries, yeah there's still mysteries on this guy.

Brett Dakin:
Oh yeah there definitely are.

Alex Grand:
Yeah. But still, it was a very in depth book, I enjoyed it as well. But there was also some interesting things, just to point out, so Silver Streak, with issue 22, then became crime does not pay by Biro and Wood. The Little Wise Guys was interesting in that, although it's a fun story that start to take over the Daredevil book, it was almost anti-child labor in certain aspects, and they would have little kids buy war bonds. This was very pro FDR, like you said, but what's interesting is even though some of the bad things about FDR, as far as the internment of the Japanese Americans, he was actually himself kind of a futurist. He didn't exactly agree with everything FDR did, because he was very kind to his Japanese American neighbors. He hired Japanese American comic artists, like what Fred Kida and Ben Oda and those guys. So he himself was, I think in that degree, better than what was going on in the country at the time, I would say.

Brett Dakin:
Absolutely. So he hired the Japanese American artists, for sure. And I think he was... it's very interesting, because he was a lifelong supporter of FDR and a lifelong Democrat, that these certain aspects of FDRs legacy, I would say the Japanese interment is one, but also the refusal to enter into World War II, the refusal to allow Jewish immigrants, refugees, into the United States while they were being exterminated in Europe, that are clear blights on FDRs legacy that I think that Uncle Lev was able to overcome. I never found anything that demonstrated that he was grappling with those obvious contradictions, but I think maybe his way of dealing with it was by the way he ran his business and the way engaged with people in his personal life.

Brett Dakin:
So you mentioned the Japanese American artists and writers that he hired, or at least Bob Wood and Charlie Biro hired, because they were the ones who really made the decisions about which illustrators and writers to-

Brett Dakin:
...decisions about which illustrators and writers to hire. But also I think these interesting episodes that come up in his personal life. One is that he was very active in New York City progressive circles and was, for example, featured in The People's Voice. Which was a daily, in Harlem, published by Adam Clayton Powell Jr. And became a Congressman representing, actually the district that I live in in Harlem, he represented.

Brett Dakin:
Then Charlie Rangel represented for a while, and now it's actually represented by a Dominican American, Adriano Espaillat. That's a very interesting trajectory in and of itself. But anyway, he Uncle Lev was really engaged with people like Adam Clayton Powell, Paul Robeson, people who were writing very similar critiques of the United States as those that we read today, talking about slavery as the original sin of the United States. We're talking about things like affirmative action before the phrase affirmative action became commonly used.

Brett Dakin:
That's another aspect. And then finally, there's an episode I write about in the book, which was bizarrely featured in the local paper of the town in which he lived, where there was an article in the paper that talks about these two Japanese and Japanese American folks in Chappaqua, New York, who had been basically picked up and arrested for failing to follow certain rules about fishing in the local river.

Brett Dakin:
And the reason why it became a big story is because the paper featured the story was dead set against everything that Uncle [Lev 00:29:48] believed in. And it turns out that those two people were employees of Uncle Lev as well, one was actually a Japanese citizen. And one was a Japanese American who had grown up in the US and they worked in Uncle Lev's house as staff in Chappaqua. And he essentially had to bail them out and in doing so, he accused the local authorities of racism and of targeting these folks because they were Japanese. As though it's just this one little anecdote that again, it's amazing that that would rise to the level of something that the local paper would write about.

Brett Dakin:
But as I documented the book, they were totally obsessed with Uncle Lev and they documented every move he made because it was a Republican town and Uncle Lev was a representative of the change that was about to come to that part of the suburbs of New York, which is now solidly democratic and quite diverse.

Jim Thompson:
You were talking about the circle of friends and the associates that he had at the time. In reading your Chappaqua chapter, I noticed that one of his neighbors also regularly entertained Hammett. And I wondered if you came across, did they have any personal contact because they're both very central to crime and that hard-boiled notion of what crime was at the time. Do you know if they had a relationship?

Brett Dakin:
Dashiel Hammett and Lillian Hellman were married and they were a couple and they were part of the same circles. They definitely socialized together. They were active in similar political activities, those in Manhattan and out in Westchester. They all attended these meetings, which were designed to create a Democratic Party in a place that basically was a hundred percent Republican.

Brett Dakin:
I guess my answer is that they definitely socialized together and they were on the same page politically, but I never found any evidence of a personal relationship between Dashiel Hammett and Lev Gleason. And I never found evidence of sort of the Crime Does Not Pay and the Maltese Falcon sort of coming together, because as you say, they were of a piece and it was an interesting connection that they were in the same world. I cannot imagine that they did not talk about it.

Jim Thompson:
That was my impression, but it wasn't in the book, so I was curious. In that, "Crime does not pay" chapter it covers a lot of things, his politics, his treatment of artists, so many aspects, but one of them in the same chapter is his courtship with his third wife, Peggy and his World War II service.

Jim Thompson:
It seems like this was a chapter where we started to understand who he was both as a person and as a publisher, it's a real character piece. But also Peggy seems to be the other central character in the book as it develops and a worthy subject in her own right. Can you talk about her just briefly as you're discovering her as a person?

Brett Dakin:
Absolutely. As you say, Penny was Uncle Lev's third wife and they remained married until Uncle Lev passed away. They really became incredible soulmates. And I met Aunt Peggy. She lived until the mid eighties. So I did meet her once as a child. Of course, I didn't know anything about anything that we're talking about back then when I met her, but she came from a very different background. She did not come from comfortable circumstances.

Brett Dakin:
In fact, she was abandoned by her parents and she spent time in an orphanage. She really struggled. She worked as soon as she possibly could because she needed to support herself. And she was married a first time as well. Her first husband had some serious mental health problems and took his own life. And she, I think, shared that sense of loss with Uncle Lev, because Uncle Lev did have a son but his son died as a teenager. And so he was predeceased by his own child. And I think that while I have no evidence of this, I think that must have brought them together.

Brett Dakin:
Now, I think in a practical sense what brought them together was politics because they were on the same page politically. And they met in Manhattan at a time when they were both very active in meetings of the Communist Party and what would be called by the US Government "front organizations," which described a whole range of clubs and publications and groups that if you look at them today, you would think, how could that possibly be a threat to the safety of the United States of America? But that is where, sort of the context in which they met and they moved in together, they got married.

Brett Dakin:
And to your point, I think that Aunt Peggy was a really key figure in Uncle Lev's success, because Uncle Lev was not a particularly practical person. And this is something that I knew growing up. Again, back to those stories that I was told by my mom, he liked to make money, but he liked to spend money. And he spent a lot of it on a lot of other people.

Brett Dakin:
I think Peggy was completely different. She came from a very modest background. And so she encouraged him to reign it in and to save a little bit of money, not much because when he died, they basically didn't have much. But I think that she was kind of a moderating influence in his professional and personal life. And I think that he was very, very lucky to have found her.

Jim Thompson:
I want to move on to the Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee. And what happens with that in terms of how it later impacts your Uncle's life in a way he didn't anticipate in connection with the House Un-American Activities Committee. Tell us about those two entities and what happened there?

Brett Dakin:
Absolutely. So the Joint Anti-Fascists Refugee Committee was set up to support refugees of the Spanish Civil War and the Spanish Civil War was a fight between folks on the one hand who were called Republicans, and they were fighting to preserve the Spanish Republic against a threat from forces led by Franco who were fascists in orientation.

Brett Dakin:
And the folks that the Committee was trying to help were the Republican refugees who were fleeing Spain because they needed to get out of there because of the war, because they weren't welcome by the Franco forces, which ultimately prevailed. Now Uncle Lev was the big fundraiser. This was a really popular cause. I mean, this was the equivalent of a nonprofit that we would see today with celebrities endorsing it and supporting it through fundraising galas in New York. It's the same thing that people like Pablo Picasso, Lucille Ball, Dorothy Parker, Paul Robeson, all these household names of the time were right on board with it.

Brett Dakin:
I think it's important to say that because if that's the case for a lot of groups that within just a few years would be deemed traitorous and threats to the United States Government. But Uncle Lev was very active and he became a member of [Librelle 00:38:21] along with people like Howard Fast, who was a journalist and writer and novelist who wrote about American history fictionalize and with a progressive approach.

Brett Dakin:
Eventually the House Un-American Activities Committee, which was a Committee in the House of Representatives, which was nominally devoted to rooting out un-American activities. Activities in the United States that were deemed domestic threats, but essentially became obsessed with the threat of communism even before the end of World War II, we think of McCarthyism and the red scare, which came along later. But really this was the first iteration of the targeting of people who had any connection with the Communist Movement. And so Uncle Lev and this organization was drawn right into that fight. And-

Alex Grand:
This was in the later forties under President Truman, right?

Brett Dakin:
It was essentially, it was a fight that went on for many years, but yes, and that's another interesting thing back to our conversation about FDR, Truman was another President that Uncle Lev adored and was on board with in terms of his progressive agenda. But on this particular point, they were diametrically opposed because Harry Truman created, through executive orders and his appointees, a lot of the structures that led to the targeting of alleged communists in working for the US Government and outside of the US Government.

Brett Dakin:
The US Department of Justice worked hand in hand with these guys in Congress, the House Un-American Activities Committee, and the FBI was sort of a three pronged approach to rooting out communists wherever they thought they might find them. As an aside, they did not pay any attention to the threat of white supremacists, the KU Klux Klan, the very threats to the United States that we are dealing with today. And I find there are interesting echoes of the current administration and the prior administration's approach to threats like that.

Brett Dakin:
But in any event, the Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee was deemed a communist front organization with very little evidence that I could find other than the fact that in the fight against fascism and in Spain, there certainly were communists involved.

Alex Grand:
Yeah.

Brett Dakin:
And in terms of folks who supported the Republicans in Spain, in the United States and elsewhere outside of Spain, there certainly were communists involved. And the US Government always remained neutral. We never intervened in Spain, even though Franco was clearly a fascist dictator who ruled Spain for decades to come.

Brett Dakin:
Uncle Lev was hauled before the House Un-American Activities Committee and along with the rest of his board members, he refused to provide the names of the supporters of the group and the names of the refugees that the group was helping. Because of course the fear was if they did that, then those folks will be targeted. And essentially he was convicted of Contempt of Congress for failing to do that. And he never went to jail-

Jim Thompson:
I want to ask about that in terms of-

Brett Dakin:
... sure.

Jim Thompson:
All right, so the subpoena comes out and they have a strategy and they're very, he sounds like a lawyer. I'm an attorney as well. And he sounds like an attorney when he's doing that. And he's obviously proud of himself in how he's handling it. And he thinks he's got it, but... I won't say pin it on one employee, but they managed to create a wall so they can in good faith say, "We can't give you those documents. We don't have them." And it turns out that's not good enough for the Committee. And they find them all guilty.

Jim Thompson:
The part where it gets interesting for me is after the fact when it comes down to sentencing, because some of them go to jail and when you were researching this, were you surprised when you get to the point where he's one of the ones that doesn't name names, but he purges himself in terms of that and doesn't take the fall the way that some of the others did? How did you process that when you were going through this?

Brett Dakin:
It was a big moment for me and in the process of writing the book, you're spot on because it's so interesting when you write a biography, you can't help but get close to the subject and start [inaudible 00:43:33] for the subject. And obviously when it's your own relative, it's even more the case. As I was researching and I was reading those briefs and those opinions, and kind of tracking the fight through the courts because like you I'm a lawyer and I love that stuff.

Brett Dakin:
I was kind of rooting for the Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee. And so when ultimately he was convicted of Contempt of Congress, but he kind of took the easy way out you might say, by saying, "Well, if I had known better, I would have provided you the names," I think is essentially what you could say purging yourself is in this context, it was a bit of a letdown. I will admit, it was a bit of a letdown.

Jim Thompson:
I sense that in that when I was reading it and you list the people and then you have like, "And Lev..." and you wrote that sentence with such great dramatic effect and then silence. You're waiting for the next sentence and it doesn't come. It goes to the next chapter. And I thought, "I think that bothered him." That's interesting. Okay, Alex.

Alex Grand:
Yeah. And you were very transparent about these organizations in it, which was great, but wasn't there some discussion of money laundering going on in this Anti-Fascist Committee also? I mean, didn't you bring that up in there?

Jim Thompson:
That was later though, right? That was with Dorothy Parker.

Alex Grand:
That was later, but yeah, but it wasn't like it was all perfect. Right. I mean and then it's also an interesting thing. Because you have Democrats versus communists, you have Spanish Republicans versus fascist. It's like the terminology, so interesting. It's just that life isn't that simple. And I just find that's cool that you show all that stuff in there.

Alex Grand:
Frederick Wertham, censorship, there's a lot of stuff going on locally in New York, especially as far as censoring comics, violence versus obscenity, court cases that were coming up and how he would fight against censorship of his comics. One to keep lucrative what he was doing, but also just ideologically he was against it. Tell us about that? And his early encounters with [Kefauver 00:45:55] and Wertham that are actually really even more interesting to me than the more normal stuff that people talk about of the 53. He was actually dealing with all this stuff way before all that other stuff was going on. Tell us about that and Lev Gleason?

Brett Dakin:
Yeah, no, you're right. The book is called American Daredevil, Convicts, Communism, and the Battles of Lev Gleason. And so it's really about his battles on two fronts, the communism, which we've talked about and now the comics. I felt he could never get a break because if he wasn't being attacked for one thing, he was being attacked to the other.

Brett Dakin:
Now he also liked it, which is why I kind of call it the Battles of Lev Gleason, because I think he was always up for a fight and he never shied away from a fight. But the other point you just made is absolutely right, which is that he was involved in these fights in the earlier stages and the later stages, they really, both of them had two early stages. The communism we talked about, again, we always think about the red scare and McCarthy, but before people even knew who McCarthy was, this stuff with the House Un-American Activities Committee that we just talked about was going on.

Brett Dakin:
Similarly before there were those televised hearings under Kefauver in the Senate years before Uncle Lev was under attack and mobilizing the comics industry to try to fend off censorship. The way that he did that was he was part of the group of publishers who formed the American Comic Book Publishers Association. And he became the President.

Brett Dakin:
He didn't just lend his support. He didn't just sort of pay his dues. He was right out there as a spokesperson for the industry. And their approach was to try and ward off government intervention by putting in place a self-censorship mechanism. The first iteration of what we call the Comics Code, which was an attempt to say to regulators, to government actors is, "Okay, we understand that there are concerns, but we have it under control and we're going to review all of our comic books. And we're going to make sure that the material is appropriate and you can just leave us alone."

Brett Dakin:
Well, that didn't work the first time round. It didn't work because not enough publishers participated and the review mechanism was underfunded and very weak. And the government, folks who were interested understood that. But he tried his best. And as you say, he interacted directly with Kefauver and interacted directly with Dr. Wertham on the radio, on television, in panel discussions. He appeared at presentations in libraries and synagogues and churches and Masonic halls. To try to get to present the comic book industry side of the story.

Brett Dakin:
And to your point, he had different motivations for doing that. The primary one was obviously this was his livelihood and not only were comic books his livelihood, the ones that he was publishing were the most controversial of all because before horror comics came along there were crime comics and Crime Does Not Pay, was a Lev Gleason publication. It was hugely successful, the most successful of his titles. And it was pretty gruesome stuff, let's face it [crosstalk 00:49:40].

Alex Grand:
And although it ended with the criminal having some sort of justice, his means before the end was really highlighted. And it was very violent and graphic and intense. Yeah.

Brett Dakin:
Totally, totally. I think Uncle Lev recognized that and he recognized that part of the reason why these comic books were so successful was because of that because of the detailed depiction of criminal actions. But he did have a point when he made arguments that were along the lines of, "Well, a lot of people who read these comics are not kids. The folks who are buying the comics and the folks who were reading the comic books after they've been purchased, our data suggests that a lot of them are adults. Why are you..."

Brett Dakin:
This is Uncle Lev saying to the critics, "Why are you always talking about children when you know this is a medium that actually attracts adult readers." That was one argument. Another totally different argument is, "Yes, comic books are read by children and they are good for children because they get children into reading and they also teach children good morals, and they teach children to respect authority, respect the police."

Alex Grand:
These are arguments that Stanley would say like two decades after Lev Gleason was already saying this stuff.

Brett Dakin:
Yeah. And then the final, and I think the most sort of aligned with his politics argument would be the Freedom of Speech argument. It's like this is the United States. It's simply unconstitutional to regulate speech in this way. And that was true because essentially the Government really never stepped in sensor comic books. The industry did it itself.

Alex Grand:
Right. And it's interesting in that the Comics Code Authority later kind of largely formed by DC and Archie, the ACMP, which Lev Gleason was a part of was Lev Gleason and then Famous Funnies with Harold Moore. And then Irving Manheimer, the distributor was also part of that.

Alex Grand:
And what's interesting is Irving Manheimer actually helped Al Harvey start off Harvey comics. These are like early guys that didn't become this significant later after the mid fifties. But at this time they were the powerhouses kind of, National was pretty big too, but still, it's pretty interesting that these guys that are less known now were the ACMP people, which is great that you highlighted that. Because I don't think I've read on the ACMP before and I've never quite seen it highlighted as well as you did in your book.

Alex Grand:
And then more on Wertham is you actually highlight that he wasn't all bad. There's this narrative that he's like this boogeyman of comics and he's so evil, but you point out that he was a liberal, that he was actually, I think the only child psychiatrist that actually had a desegregated children's psych facility. And that he was concerned with kids welfare, although he altered a lot of data to get some popularity, but that's great that you are able to highlight more complex aspects more so than I think most people do.

Brett Dakin:
I think Dr. Wertham is just another example of how, like you say, people are complicated and they're multifaceted and they're very rarely all bad or all good. And yeah, Dr. Wertham had a practice in Harlem and he was in the same circles as people like Adam Clayton Powell who published that profile of [inaudible 00:53:30] in his newspaper in Harlem.

Brett Dakin:
Uncle Lev and Dr. Wertham were on the same side of a lot of issues like desegregation. And later they became really strong enemies and they definitely were not friends ultimately, but I bet in the beginning during those initial encounters, when they were on panels together in their early days, they were probably quite friendly.

Alex Grand:
Yeah. And it's interesting in that you also highlight which I have read before, but it's great that you put it with the rest of what you wrote is that Wertham's research of desegregated child psychiatry facilities and the effect of segregation on a child's self-esteem was used in the Brown vs Board of Education to bring more equality for African-Americans. And yet he's so demonized by comic fans of being this horrible person, but he wasn't horrible in that sense. And I'm glad that you put that in there, and I'm glad that more people are going to be aware of these things. Jim, I think you're going to go over New Castle News. Right?

Jim Thompson:
I had a couple of questions first.

Alex Grand:
Sure, go for it.

Jim Thompson:
You were naming all of the different arguments that he made. The other one that I think is in your book that you didn't mention was the anti-elitism one and which I thought was good because a lot of people didn't use that and he brought that one into play.

Alex Grand:
That's important.

Jim Thompson:
And so explain that basically it's not everybody has to love Shakespeare and some people like Western serials, right?

Brett Dakin:
Absolutely. Yeah. I mean, he said exactly that. He said, "Look, if someone doesn't want to read Macbeth, who are you to tell them that they should?" And also, I think, intertwined with that anti-elitist argument is a sort of children's rights argument [inaudible 00:55:36] way which is don't children have a right to read the content that they're interested in reading?

Brett Dakin:
Is it our job as the Government, as parents, as schools to regulate everything that children read? And I didn't really draw this out too much in the book I don't think, but it's kind of an early iteration of this notion of kids and teenagers as autonomous...

Brett Dakin:
Kids and teenagers as autonomous beings, who have the right to make decisions on their behalf and access content which is directed at them. And that became really scary to people in really the height of the comics controversy. But I think that Uncle Lev was onto something, because he recognized that children and teens were powerful engines of economic activity in the United States. They still very much are. And so why should we be controlling what they consume?

Jim Thompson:
He was giving them some agency of their own. And that was very advanced thinking, to some degree, at that time. In terms of the ACMP, I wondered if you thought there was anything where they made an error, where they could have done something differently, such that they would have mattered more, where they would have survived as something of value?

Brett Dakin:
I don't... Nothing comes to mind. I think the problem for Uncle Lev, that simply could not be escaped, is what I mentioned earlier, which is that his comics were, he published a variety of publications, but it's true that the engine behind his publishing business were the crime comics. And there was no way that the industry was going to come up with a self-censorship mechanism and a code that would satisfy the critics, but also allow the crime comics to continue to be produced in a way that would satisfy the desires of the market. So that's my take, but I don't know, it was like take one, and it didn't work. And then take two, ultimately, it did work, because I think folks like Uncle Lev lost out. The Comics Code, when it finally came to fruition, basically made publishing, Crime Does Not Pay, impossible. You couldn't even have the word, "Crime," in big letters on the cover.

Jim Thompson:
So we talked a few minutes ago about the purging incident, where he basically said, "Yeah, I was wrong," and avoided any kind of sentencing, and your disappointment. I got the opposite. I got a sense of family pride when you were writing about, Newcastle News, and talking about him taking it to DeWitt Wallace, in that there was a real joy in that chapter because of his own words, and where you were getting to just show just how smart he could be, but also how brave he was, and just taking it to that guy, and his value. So let's talk about that for a minute, because that was one of my favorite, nothing to do with comics, but it was one of my favorite chapters in the whole book.

Brett Dakin:
I'm so glad to hear that. Yeah. It was so much fun to write. And I actually recently did a Zoom talk with the Chappaqua Library, and the folks there were amazed to learn about all of this history, because today Chappaqua is a solidly democratic, liberal, progressive stronghold. And let's face it, it's where Bill and Hillary Clinton live. But when Uncle Lev moved there, in the forties, it was solidly conservative, there really wasn't a democratic party to speak of. And what I loved about the research that I was able to do is, I was able to see Uncle Lev's voice more clearly than perhaps in any other realm, because again, comic books, he was publishing them. He wasn't writing them. He wasn't illustrating them. He was providing a framework, and I do think that his belief system courses through a lot of the titles.

Brett Dakin:
But in the newspaper he founded in Chappaqua, or The Newcastle News, it was very clear that, every single day, every single issue there was an editorial, and it was in Uncle Lev's voice. And it gave him a platform to talk about not, just local issues, like, "The school should be expanded. The library should be rebuilt. We should actually invest in our local community," which the Republican establishment felt was not worth it, but also on large issues, like the founding of the United Nations, which was happening at the same time. And the fact that the US should join and support this incredible multilateral institution. Well, he used the pages of this little, small town newspaper to write about things like that. So yes, it did. It gave me great joy, because in a sense, I feel like it brought me closer to his true voice than a lot of the other aspects of his work that's covered in the book.

Jim Thompson:
If the News was Batman, the Tribune was the Joker. There was a very deep adversarial relationship between those two papers, correct?

Brett Dakin:
Absolutely. And, The Newcastle Tribune was that was the conservative establishment paper. It had been around for a while. Uncle Lev came along and he founded a competitor. The Newcastle News, and it was explicitly designed to be a foil to the Newcastle Tribune. And remember, Uncle Lev did this in a number of other ways as well. For example, he published Reader's Scope, which was a magazine that was clearly meant to be a liberal, progressive alternative to the Reader's Digest. He published, Friday Magazine, which looked an awful lot like, Life Magazine, big photographs, same quality paper. Really, he positioned these titles as very obvious alternatives to the conservative mainstream.

Brett Dakin:
And as it turns out, the publisher of Reader's Digest, DeWitt Wallace was in Chappaqua. To this day, you can see the original building that housed the Reader's Digest, beautiful building in Chappaqua. So he was a local hero, in a way. And Uncle Lev set about just complicating his legacy by talking about, for example, his support for Hitler during the war, and his very anti-labor views.

Brett Dakin:
And the fact that Reader's Digest, which I grew up reading, because I remember my grandfather bought me a subscription, and I remember reading it and really enjoying it. Now, looking back, I realize that reader's digest had actually had a very clear traditionalist, conservative perspective that it basically used the pages of Reader's Digest to promulgate. Well, Uncle Lev did the same thing in these other publications.

Jim Thompson:
And his decision to go after Wallace ultimately was sort of his downfall too, because Wallace fought back. And he's the one that really exposed him in terms of calling him on him denying that he was a communist.

Brett Dakin:
Yeah, exactly. And I think this is where Uncle Lev's desire for a fight got the better of him, sometimes, because again, DeWitt Wallace was a beloved figure, remains a beloved figure. The Wallace family has done great things in terms of philanthropy. And he decided to go after DeWitt Wallace, and the reason was because DeWitt Wallace had declined to advertise in the Newcastle News.

Alex Grand:
And Wallace defended that position, saying, "We can choose how we want to advertise." And I think Lev turned it into, "You're the bully, bullying us around."

Brett Dakin:
That's right. Yeah. Of course DeWitt Wallace was perfectly, has every right to advertise or not advertise in any publication he sees fit. But Uncle Lev pounced on that, because the reason why Wallace withdrew his advertising is because Uncle Lev had quoted a particular anti-fascist writer in the pages of the newspaper, that DeWitt Wallace really did not like. Partly because that guy had pointed out the Nazi sympathizing past that Wallace was not eager to talk about. Yeah.

Alex Grand:
Right. And then there was that interesting thing of Lev Gleason, asking if he was or ever been a communist. And he said, no, but then that resulted in a signature that he wrote some years back in the thirties, where he was a member of the Communist Party, and that created some embarrassment. Tell us about that.

Brett Dakin:
Yeah. Well, first of all, I think one of the challenges of this whole area of inquiry is, what does it mean to be a communist? What does it mean to be a Communist Party member? There's this notion of a card-carrying communist? Well, a lot of the people we're talking about, and I put Uncle Lev in this category, were, as we talked about at the outset, young, progressive, politically active folks in places like Manhattan. And for them, the Soviet Union represented an alternative way of doing things. And so, yes, Uncle Lev was very excited about the Soviet Union. He wanted to visit the Soviet union and there were a variety of groups that today, if we'd looked at them, we would say they were just run-of-the-mill activist, political groups, supporting desegregation, supporting workers' rights, supporting civil rights, but they were all branded as communist front organizations.

Brett Dakin:
And because some, at least, of the people involved, like Uncle Lev, had participated in meetings that were, I guess, Communist Party meetings. But then again, what does that even mean? I'm a Democrat, am I a member of the Democratic Party? I'm a registered Democrat, so in that sense, I've affiliated myself with the Democratic Party. And I think the controversy that you allude to is that the Newcastle Tribune found what they alleged to be signature in a, when you vote, you sign your name, and next to his name, it said, "Communist." So he was identifying himself as a communist in an election. Now, does that mean that he was a member of the Communist Party? I guess it could, but it's not like he was an employee of a Communist Party, and it's not like he was paid by a party infrastructure that had its roots back to the Soviet Union.

Alex Grand:
Right, right. He wasn't a paid Soviet spy, is the bottom line there. Right?

Brett Dakin:
At least I found no-

Alex Grand:
At least as far as we know, anyway. Who knows?

Brett Dakin:
And neither did the FBI. As I'm sure we'll get to, I found his FBI file, which was almost 200 pages long, filled with information about him that the FBI would, they ultimately concluded, "Yeah, this guy was into this staff early on, but he ultimately did not present a threat to the government of the United States."

Jim Thompson:
Yeah. We're definitely going to get to the FBI part.

Brett Dakin:
Okay. So yeah. So Chappaqua, I think you're absolutely right. It was this interesting period when he was at the height of his financial success. So, the comics business was going great. And he used that money to buy a house in Chappaqua, with a staff and a driver, he would commute every day into Manhattan. He threw parties. He participated in parties out in the suburbs. And in New York, he was very active in donating money to various causes, and attending dinners in support of politicians and organizations. So it was a very, very active, and he was living the high life during that period.

Alex Grand:
And now, talking about the subject of Kefauver  people like Wertham, were looking at him as, you're corrupting children for cheap money and to get rich, right? And then maybe some would say that he used that money to then fund these communist things. And that would be a negative way of looking at some of these actions, but going into Wertham, and Kefauver, and juvenile delinquency.

Alex Grand:
You mentioned that there was first an investigation, Kefauver investigating the link of comics to crime, which was 1950 or so, then he had a failed presidential democratic nomination for president in '52. And then in '53, he then started looking at, maybe to drum up some popularity, to look at the link between comics and juvenile delinquency, which was a separate question. And then on that issue, then him and Wertham really went pretty hard on comics. And William Gaines testified on TV, like Jim mentioned earlier. Lev had debated Wertham and with Kefauver already, he was very familiar with these people. Tell us about his wanting to testify there, and ultimately the failure of the ACMP, how that folded. And then, how the Comics Code, tell us about that sequence with Lev?

Brett Dakin:
I think the only part of that, that I really feel like I can add to, beyond what has already been documented, is the fact that, I think people figured that by the time the televised hearings came along, Uncle Lev was just out of it, and not interested anymore and had taken a back seat. But it turns out that he actually was very active behind the scenes. And he advocated an even harsher approach with respect to Dr. Wertham than was ultimately taken, which is interesting, given what we talked about before. He felt like there could be a benefit in trying to really assassinate Dr. Wertham's character and present him as a crazy old kook. And he tried to feed that information to the committee.

Brett Dakin:
I was able to find a letter that he wrote to, I think it's to Kefauver, saying, "I really would like to appear, and I'd like you to ask these questions of Dr. Wertham, like, why is he so obsessed with sex? What is it about him that leads him to be so interested in children? It's all a little fishy, isn't it?" And so I thought that was, I never found any example of that argument being made publicly, but it was interesting to find, behind the scenes that he, what it told me was that Uncle Lev was very closely following every step of the way, and wished that he had been able to be more involved.

Brett Dakin:
But I think to your question about how it happened, I think he was sidelined by other publishers who, again, recognized that, "Well, this guy, he's publishing, Crime Does Not Pay. He's the guy who basically came up with these comics that are causing us so much trouble. So, how's it really going to help us to have him leading the charge?" That's my sense of what happened. And I also think back to Aunt Peggy, his wife, I think that she was counseling him to take a back seat, and try to step away.

Alex Grand:
I see. Is it because of his previous encounters that, did he feel a little defeated on some level, just politically and publicly, with his dealings earlier with Wallace and being outed and some embarrass... When the FBI was talking to him, was he just like, "All right, I'm just going to back off for now?"

Jim Thompson:
Yeah. That's what I'm wondering too. The communist aspect and the revelation that, and the attacks in that direction. Was he fighting two fronts, and were other people nervous about making him a spokesperson when he had that communist angle going at the same time?

Brett Dakin:
Yeah, I don't know, that I suspect that must have been part of it. So he probably knew that he was being followed by the FBI, but he definitely knew it when the FBI came to talk to him, and to interview him directly, which happened around the time that his business was starting to collapse, because of the attacks on comics. And also changes in readership patterns, and comics in general were taking a turn for the worse at that time. But I think that what you say, it's probably true that the folks in the industry probably regarded him as not worth touching, because of the political stuff. And then also, I think he was just tired.

Alex Grand:
Yeah. Probably burnt out at that point, right?

Brett Dakin:
Yeah, I think so. But what's interesting is, that connection between the comics and the communism was never directly drawn by his critics. Which I was really amazed by. I thought that would have been front and center in terms of the attacks on his comics, would be-

Alex Grand:
Right, because his name is on the company name.

Brett Dakin:
His name is right on there. And his communist background was front page news, and not the local paper, but in, Newsweek Magazine, in The New York Times, that the whole joint anti-fascist refugee committee fight was major national news for a long time. So, I was surprised by that, but so it wasn't explicitly part of what led to the demise of his business. That may be behind the scenes. It was part of the reason why he was sidelined from [crosstalk 01:16:11] the efforts to defend the industry.

Alex Grand:
There's also little bit of another aspect of just, Bill Gaines gets more notoriety, just because the horror comics, horror is basically crime taken to the next gruesome level. And because he had pictures of women's heads decapitated on the cover, and he just got so outlandish with it, just to sell comics and feed the science fiction line, and keep that subsidized with this gory stuff. Maybe that just was also just more of what was on people's minds at the time, anyway.

Alex Grand:
Because I think I was looking at Lev's crime comics from the early forties to later, in the later forties and early fifties, and they're not as intense in the later ones.

Brett Dakin:
That's right.

Alex Grand:
They're a little more, it's a lot more tame by that point. And so maybe just Bill Gaines was just an easier target anyway, for everyone to focus on. Just visually speaking, Crime Does Not Pay, wasn't as intense as it was when it first started.

Alex Grand:
Then there's, what's also interesting was you point out the different publishers because, and I always thought that Archie, and DC Comics or National, they were doing a lot of the kids' stuff, I guess Harvey was too, but they really went pretty hard into the Comics Code, and making it impossible for people like Lev Gleason or Bill Gaines to even make a living anymore, by agreeing with the distributors that, "If you're going to have this on your newsstand, we're going to give you this seal. And part of that is you can't have the word, "Crime," or you can't have the word, "Terror," you can't have..." It's almost like it streamlined it where only DC, Archie, and Harvey, and maybe Atlas, if it can adapt, can survive.

Alex Grand:
And then you have the old guard falling apart at that point. Lev Gleason can't compete for TV, rock and roll, for the kids' attention. Tell us about just the overall decline of that aspect of the comics industry, and Lev going out of business?

Brett Dakin:
I think you've summed it up really well. I think it was a confluence of those factors. One was that the self-censorship mechanism that was put in place to ward off government censorship made it basically impossible for Uncle Lev to sell his most successful titles. And you can see that, the crime comics over time, in order to try to comply with the code, did become less gruesome, but also, in a way, less interesting. And I think that that contributed to declines in sales.

Brett Dakin:
Then you just had the fact that the industry as a whole was taking a financial hit, as tastes are changing, the rise of television, the rise of different forms of popular entertainment. And then I think finally, what we said before, which is that I think that Uncle Lev, he probably could have fought back and changed the business, retooled. He had other titles that were not crime comics. There were titles that were geared towards girls, that were traditional romance titles, and other titles that were not, obviously, were milquetoast, you could say, and were perfectly fine under the new code.

Brett Dakin:
But I think in order to make a go of being a true competitor for these other companies, he would have had to have launched a full on effort, that, I think he just didn't have the energy for it anymore, given the fights that he had engaged in for really decades at that point. This has been going on for a long time for him by this point. And I think he, and Peggy, thought, "Okay, why don't we just try and enjoy life for a bit?"

Alex Grand:
Right.

Jim Thompson:
I have a related question, which is, yeah. So the other lines were targeting him as a major competitor, but he also, one of his arguments was targeting other companies, in that he talked about the good comics, and then the bad publishers, the bad comics, and basically his argument there was, "They're good comics because I published them. I'm the good publisher." Talk about that for a minute? Because I was struck by that in relation to, and in contrast to what Alex is talking about, he was also doing that, as a, "These are the bad guys, go after them."

Brett Dakin:
Oh yeah, absolutely. That was very explicit in the earlier efforts we were talking about, the ACMP. At these hearings, they would talk about how, "Well, we're the good guys, we're joining forces, we're trying our best, but those other publishers, they're the ones you really need to worry about, because they're just publishing trash." That's essentially what they were saying. And then in the later iteration, you were talking about the horror comics and EC. I think Uncle Lev really did think that that stuff was trash. For him, I think there was a big difference between true crime and horror, between the real life escapades of mobsters and, Tales from the Crypt, made up stuff. And so I actually think he was genuine, when he was criticizing those comic books as having less value to the reader. But I think mainly it was just a way to position himself as one of the good guys, who should survive, as opposed to one of the bad guys, who shouldn't.

Alex Grand:
And that testimony by Gaines actually made him mad, didn't it? That was one of the reasons he wanted to testify, was after listening to Gaines testify, and didn't like what he had to say. Is that right?

Brett Dakin:
Absolutely. And not only did he not like what he had to say, he felt like that testimony undermined so much of what he had been fighting for, for so long. Which is to say, what about all the arguments that he had been making that actually there was value in these comics, and they weren't just salacious? What Gaines had done was basically just admit that these comics were there for titillation. And I think that really upset Uncle Lev.

Brett Dakin:
And I think Lev thought that he could do a better job. I think that he, again, he had a very healthy ego and he thought, if only he were up there answering those questions, because look at how well he had done in the past. And back to that joint anti-fascist refugee committee hearing, he felt pretty proud of himself back then for using all the right language and parrying with the legislators. And I think he was itching to do the same thing again, and felt annoyed that he wasn't given the chance.

Brett Dakin:
But I think to Alex's point, he probably wasn't given a chance mainly because the horror comics were the perfect target, and that-

Alex Grand:
The horror comics were the perfect target. And that moment that is so famous, when Gaines holds up that bloody head, was just tailor-made for television and for Kefauver and for Wertham. That is exactly what they wanted. And I think Uncle Lev felt like he wouldn't have given it to him.

Brett Dakin:
Yeah. And there was that whole question of good taste and them holding up that Johnny Craig cover and saying, "Do you feel this is in good taste?" And he was like, "Ugh." He kind of checkmated himself a little bit, Bill Gaines did, but also, Lev could have taken his comics to the next level, like turn Al Capone into a syphilis zombie, tainted meat. He could have gone that direction, but oh well. Oh well.

Alex Grand:
He could have.

Brett Dakin:
What could have been.

Alex Grand:
Yeah, that's right. That's right.

Jim Thompson:
Alex, anything else before I do the FBI?

Alex Grand:
No, go for it. FBI Jim. Hashtag. Go for it.

Jim Thompson:
Okay. All right. So we get to the Freedom of Information Act and you getting access to the FBI files. And I want to know what the biggest surprises you had in reading the file, because you had, by this point, done all your leg work, and you had an understanding; and then you get these files and you're actually... This is the moment where you probably hear your uncle's voice for the first time in [inaudible 01:25:21] way, which is that transcript of him actually cooperating with the FBI in terms of talking about another individual, which was Walter Bernstein. And so when you're reading that and you're hearing your uncle, I want to hear about that, and set it up for us, as well.

Brett Dakin:
Absolutely. So I applied to the FBI through Freedom of Information Act, not even knowing whether or not there was a file available. At that point it seemed to me like it was a strong possibility, but I had really no idea. So I just sort of lobbed it in. And it took a while, but it came back to me, and there was a big stack of papers and it was... The one thing that I'll say right off the bat is that these files are riddled with redactions. So when you're reading them, there are blank spots all over the place. It's kind of like the Nixon tapes. So when you're reading along, you're trying to piece together, "Well, who are they talking about here?" Because you eliminate... For example, any informant's name is out because that would be that would be a violation of the terms of the informant's arrangement with the FBI.

Brett Dakin:
They have a category which is anyone who's living; anyone that is... Basically any invasion of privacy. And then, of course, they have national security reasons and things like that. But essentially you're reading this, and sometimes there's more white on the page than black. So that was an interesting experience for me. But what I'll say the biggest surprise, ultimately, is that by the time I got the FBI file, there really wasn't much in it that I didn't already know. And I think that I was really surprised by the extent to which the FBI relied on other sources for its information. I had always thought that for example, journalists, there were some very strident anti-communist journalists, commentators, opinion-makers, who were very active in the '40s and '50s. And I had always thought that they got their information from the FBI. And which is... They did, but the reverse was also true, so that the FBI file was filled with clippings of newspaper articles written by journalists with tidbits of information about Uncle Lev.

Brett Dakin:
So it was an interesting look at the way that world worked, the kind of conservative journalistic media industrial complex, the FBI, the Department of Justice and the House Un-American Activities Committee. It was kind of a circular mechanism, when information flowed from one to the next, and I think his FBI file was, in a sense, kind of like a scrapbook of clippings that the FBI made. And so that would be number one.

Brett Dakin:
And then number two would be that I was amazed by the degree to which resources were dedicated to Uncle Lev. As we said before, this man, unless I really missed something big in doing the research, he was not a threat to the United States government. There's no suggestion that he ever was interested in taking down the U.S. government or dismantling the system of government we have. It's just not true. And he was basically a very progressive Democrat who supported progressive policies that I, as a Democrat today, support in 2020.

Brett Dakin:
So to your question about surprise, I just was amazed that our government would use taxpayer dollars to... They were rifling through his trash. They were following him in Chappaqua. There were these strange moments when whichever agent was responsible, of course the name was redacted, would be parked outside of a meeting hall in Chappaqua where Uncle Lev and maybe Dashiell Hammett and the Rosenthals, who were close friends of the Gleasons in Chappaqua, were having a meeting about setting up a democratic party structure in Chappaqua. And the notes in the file would be the makes of the cars, the license plate numbers, the complexion of the people emerging from the meeting, and if they were sort of Eastern European or Jewish looking, then it's like, "Well, okay, maybe that's a little suspect." It just all seems so ridiculous to me, to be honest, in retrospect, that that is what the FBI was doing.

Brett Dakin:
And then when you think that they were also ultimately investigating Martin Luther King, then you really begin to wonder like, "Okay, what exactly are they there for?" So, I think that would be my response to your question about what surprised me the most.

Jim Thompson:
So, so one of the things I was struck by at the end was how close the FBI agent seemed to have actually got it, understood who your uncle was, in that he said, "Yeah, he's really more about the money and about being... He's a salesman. He's a promoter and a salesperson; I don't think he's that... He's dangerous. He just wants to make a living." And they could have done that a lot earlier, but that was the gist of it, wasn't it?

Brett Dakin:
I think so. And it's funny, it echoed the conclusions of the report that the U.S. Army had commissioned on Uncle Lev. So another federal body investigating this guy, rightfully because, as you mentioned, he re-enlisted during World War II, that there were informants who were reporting on Uncle Lev during his service. And the gist of that was, "Yeah, this guy's just kind of a blowhard. He won't stop talking. He really thinks highly of himself." But in terms of the politics, he was characterized as a rabid FDR Democrat. And someone who wanted to be... Wanted to make money. And that was the prime motivator.

Brett Dakin:
So I think you're right. I think the FBI agent who ultimately met with him, ostensibly about Walter Bernstein and another subject of an FBI investigation, but really also as a way to glean information directly from Uncle Lev, I think his conclusion was, like a lot of people, this guy, when he was younger in New York, attended some meetings, maybe registered as a communist, gave money to lots of progressive groups, ate at restaurants with communists, shared drinks with communists, wanted to go to the Soviet Union because Moscow seemed like a cool city. But was he a threat to the U.S.? Probably not.

Jim Thompson:
Do you think if your uncle could come back and read the book and offer you advice on it, my first thought was he might say, "Can you call me something besides an informant in that chapter?"

Brett Dakin:
I think he would. I think he would not regard himself as an informant. The way that I imagined that whole interaction and the chapter I write about it and is framed that way, is that he was at the office. He was happy to have a very friendly conversation with this FBI agent and share whatever information he had. He didn't regard himself as an informant, but I think from the FBI's perspective, that's exactly what he was, because from that agent's perspective, he's just there to glean information. And Lev must've realized that, but I think that he wasn't uncomfortable in that interaction, as far as we can tell. So I don't think he felt like he had a lot to hide at that point.

Jim Thompson:
Yeah. Alex, legacy.

Alex Grand:
So what I really enjoyed was actually finding out what happens to these guys after the dust has settled. The Comics Code is instituted and all sorts of publishers go out of business, and only the more kid-friendly ones can survive. And so then he just retires. Well, it was actually kind of interesting to see what happened to the people over at Lev Gleason. So Charles Biro went to Hollywood, worked for television, which I didn't know. I thought that was pretty cool because there's other comic writers that went and worked for TV: Howard Chaykin and Jerry Conway, more modern people. But back then, Don Rico left comics to go to TV. But it was cool to see that Charles Biro did. And I think you mentioned even the Wood brothers did the same: not Bob Wood, but Dave Wood and the other brother, they went to TV. And then... But Bob Wood obviously he had a weird outcome, didn't he?

Brett Dakin:
He did. Sort of something ripped from the pages of Crime Does Not Pay, in a way. He really had a difficult... Ended up in an altercation with a woman and ended up killing her, and confessed his crime pretty much that night. And he ended up spending time in prison. And then he ultimately died without much and under not-so-great circumstances. So I think by that point, I don't think Uncle Lev had any contact with him at all.

Brett Dakin:
And he didn't have contact with Charlie Biro either, which when I spoke to Charlie Biro's daughter, who's still alive today, she talked about how her family was really resentful of Lev Gleason, in a way, because they felt like he disappeared and abandoned them at a very difficult time. And they didn't even know where he went. They thought that he moved to... Some people thought he went to Cuba, maybe the communist connection; some people thought he moved to Alaska. The fact is he just moved upstate a little bit, a short drive away. But according to her, her father, Charlie Biro, didn't even know where he was.

Brett Dakin:
So I think to a point you made earlier, Uncle Lev made a decision to really step away. And I think from afar, reading about how the industry was struggling and folks like Bob Wood really were struggling and other artists who took their own lives, who had worked with Uncle Lev... I think it... I don't know, but I suspect for Aunt Peggy and Uncle Lev, it kind of made them feel like, "Yeah, that chapter of our lives is pretty much over, and we're not going back."

Alex Grand:
Yeah. And something... I don't know why I never thought of it before, but you had pointed it out, is that once they couldn't make any money with the Comics Code and it just went belly-up business-wise, Biro, Wood, Gleason, they were all living off that money, that high amount of money, for a long time, living large, kind of similar to the way Siegel and Shuster were living large for those 10 years while they were working over at DC to '48 or so, because their tenure contract went up and suddenly there no money around. They're just like...

Alex Grand:
And that's what happened with these guys. There was just suddenly no money around, and they were living... They had a hard period there and Biro looks like he made it in TV like the Wood Brothers did, but Bob Wood in the midst of just being just poor and destitute and not having any money, his alcoholism and his gangster relationships just ate him up. And I just thought that that was interesting. Just the lack of money; a lack of living in those good times and then going down monetarily and the different roads that are taken. What a, what a fascinating connection that I don't think I even thought about before. Tell us, then, where did Lev go? How did he retire? How did he ride it out?

Brett Dakin:
So I agree with you that that period is so interesting. And luckily, that period is obviously chronologically more recent, so I was able to speak to, for example, Charlie Biro's daughter, or as I mentioned earlier, the son of Charlotte, "Lottie", who was Uncle Lev's office assistant, and glean from their perspective, because they were kids during this time. But they remember it very, very well. Charlie Biro's daughter, she remembers when they had to leave their nice apartment on Park Avenue and move to someplace much more modest. Well, that's because there was no work, there was no money. The company was gone. And then, in terms of Charlotte, her son talks about how she really idolized Uncle Lev, and he remembers stories of things being so bad that she had to bring Uncle Lev meals to help him through. And he even remembers hearing that Uncle Lev ended up in jail.

Brett Dakin:
Now, there was no evidence of either of those things, and the way that memory works is a funny thing, so who knows why? But when I talked to Larry, he was pretty convinced that this is what his mom said. And I think it speaks to just what you mentioned, which is, this was a really sudden and drastic change in these people's lives. And they had to scramble. And so you talked about what Charlie Biro did; what Uncle Lev did was he decided to become a real estate agent. He was good at selling things, comfortable being a salesperson, and so they left Chappaqua. They sold their house and they moved further upstate to a much, much more modest community and more modest house. They left all of that behind.

Brett Dakin:
And another interesting part, again, through the eyes of a child, is I was able to meet the daughter of their closest friends in Chappaqua, who were the Rosenthals, one of the few Jewish families in Chappaqua at the time. And she talks about how they were so close that they would spend Christmas together: "Even though it was a Jewish family, we would celebrate Christmas with the Gleasons." And I looked at their photo album and there's a certain point, at around this time, Lev and Peggy simply disappear from the photo album. It's amazing. It's like one page they're there; you turn the page, they're gone. And so even though they only moved what would be a short drive away or today a few stops on the Metro North, they really left [inaudible 01:41:34] totally behind. And Peggy stopped working. She had worked at the Newcastle News, running the newspaper; and Uncle Lev started selling houses and he joined a small real estate company in [Sawyers 00:01:41:47] , New York.

Alex Grand:
And then he retired at Cape Cod, right? And that was more toward the end. He's elderly, it's like the late '60s. He started to see... You had mentioned the '60s radicals and a lot of the protests going on. And that was probably the... And then, obviously, Nixon became President in '68. And it was about to be another election year, and then he passed away, what, in 1971 or so, right? Tell us about... And he was selling American eagles? What was that?

Brett Dakin:
Yeah, I think it was just a way to make ends meet at that point. Neither of them were working. They were living off their savings. They bought a small house in Cape Cod, not like a seaside mansion, but just a small, modest cottage in a kind of retirement area. And they started mailover business for... You still see them today, especially when I drive around the Berkshires or upstate New York, you'll see old homes, right above the front door, there'd be this American eagle made of some kind of metal, maybe bronze. And it's affixed, almost like the mantle piece, above the front door. So it was considered a patriotic ornamentation of a home. And to me, that was just, again, a way to highlight how far they had fallen financially and socially. At this point, they were not... They did not have an active social life. They just led a very quiet life until he passed away peacefully in his sleep.

Brett Dakin:
I think what is interesting to me about the very end of his life is, as you say, the politics, which is that a lot of people become more conservative as they grow older, and we see the Reagan Democrat, this incredible trend that we've experienced in the U.S. since the '80s, which is the people who were real fans of the New Deal and FDR were captured by the Republican Party under Reagan. And I think we're maybe seeing the tail end of that, but Uncle Lev did not change one bit. He remained a solid Democrat his whole life, and very progressive.

Brett Dakin:
In the anniversary book of the Class of 1920 of Harvard, this would have been the 50th anniversary alumni book where people report on their lives and what they were proud of and what they believe, most people were pretty conservative and were proud of how much money they'd made, or how comfortable their lives were. But he talked very specifically and explicitly about civil rights and the movement against the war in Vietnam, which was happening at that moment, and how he felt so strongly in support of the folks who were protesting and how they gave him hope for the future.

Brett Dakin:
And that really is interesting, especially... I was just reading... There's a new book about Stan Lee that's going to be coming out next year, a biography, and there's a piece in the Washington Post today, which is sort of like "five myths about Stan Lee". And one of the myths that the author talks about is that Stanley was so progressive, but in fact, that his politics were relatively conservative, in his view, of the protesters in '68, and that they were radical, disruptive, and not to be taken seriously. So Uncle Lev was a much older, different generation, but he was right there with those guys. And if he had been more younger and more healthy, he would have been marching, too.

Jim Thompson:
Yeah. Lee was very anticommunist in his writings and in his philosophy during all of that.

Alex Grand:
Did you... Do you feel at peace with coming to know your grand-uncle Lev Gleason? And do you feel a connection to him?

Brett Dakin:
This was my way of getting to know him. It's one of the most painful things about doing a project like this, that you will never have the chance to meet someone who seems not only interesting, but someone who I would really have liked and gotten along with. And there are echoes of his life and mine, I feel. But I feel like I did the best I could, and through this book, I do feel like I got to know him. And just shy of being able to give him a hug and really know him in the flesh, so to speak, as a family member, I feel like I did get to know who he was. And I gained a lot of respect for him as a complex figure, multifaceted, that's someone who I really wish I had known better.

Jim Thompson:
I just wanted to say that I was telling my wife, in describing the book, that it was sort of like reading about a Zelig, a Woody Allen Zelig, only one with agency. And that he's everywhere. In terms of both the history of comics, he's there from Eastern Color, through Siegel and Shuster, sending Superman, like every step of the way through, until the Comics Code. He's at every juncture and is the unknown, should-be known character that different other people step into... Onto the front of it. And he's actually more significant than people have any idea about. And your book allows for that, but it's also... The same thing would apply to political culture and events during that same period: that he's simultaneously being investigated and the FBI and the Un-American Activities House... All of those things that are the most significant things happening in the nation during that period, he's got his thumb on that, too. So what a fascinating subject, and we just want for everybody.

Alex Grand:
Well, this has been another episode of the Comic Book Historians Podcast with Alex Grand and Jim Thompson. Thanks so much, Brett, for introducing us and the world to the legacy and the history of Lev Gleason Comics and Lev Gleason, the person.

Brett Dakin:
Thank you so much. I really appreciate your reading the book and having this conversation with me. It's been a great joy.

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