Is There a Lev Gleason Expert in the House?

Posted by on June 19th, 2010 at 2:43 PM

Lev Gleason, the publisher of Crime Does Not Pay, Boy ComicsSilver Streak Comics and other classic Golden Age titles, entered the business on the ground floor. He was the advertising manager at Eastern Color Printing when the company published Funnies on Parade (1933) and Famous Funnies (1934). Max Gaines was one of his coworkers. He was hired by United Features Syndicate in 1936 to edit Tip Top Comics, their opening foray into comic books. He launched his own company in 1939, selling literally millions of comics by the late forties and early fifties.

In The Art of the Comic Book, R.C. Harvey says “the Gleason line of books was one of the smallest on the newsstand, but in many respects it was the most distinctive.” A juicy target for anti-comics campaigners, the company’s sales plunged during the first Eisenhower administration. Lev Gleason Publications closed up shop in 1956.

Mike Benton, in Crime Comics: The Illustrated History, reports that an unnamed “contemporary” described Gleason as “a liberal, almost left-wing, politically committed kind of guy who lived by his philosophy.” According to Gerard Jones, Gleason was “a bona fide Communist who also published the liberal Friday news magazine. While Harry Donenfeld gambled with Moe Annenberg and Jack Liebowitz shook hands at country club luncheons, Gleason went drinking with his artists and writers.”

While Gleason may have never joined the Party, he was certainly part of the Popular Front. Friday was only one of a number of political magazines he published and/or printed. Another was the short-lived Reader’s Scope, which served as a kind of left-leaning alternative to the Reader’s Digest.

In 1946, Gleason was investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee along with the other fifteen board members of the Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee, a group whose members included novelist Howard Fast and the theatrical producer Herman Shumlin. David Hajdu (The Ten-Cent Plague) says that “Gleason, along with other members of the Refugee Committee board, was fined $500 for refusing to furnish records to HUAC; he paid the fine and asked to be purged of a contempt charge, escaping the jail sentence given to the Refugee Committee chairman, Edward K. Barsky.”

While Gleason’s name turns up in most of the standard works on early American comics, there is surprisingly little biographical information on him. Most of what’s been written focuses on his best-known, and most controversial title, Crime Does Not Pay (1942-1955). There’s also an occasional reference to his company’s pre-Marvel Daredevil (see the glorious image above). That’s as it should be, perhaps, but certain pieces of vital info are missing.

I hate to be finicky, but…when was Leverett Gleason born? Where was he born? Where did he grow up? A couple of sources reveal he was Irish-American, but that’s about it. What did he do after leaving the comics biz? When did he retire? And when did he pass away (assuming, of course, that he has)?

Does anyone know the answers to these questions? Have I overlooked key sources? Quite possibly.

Did I come up with this question on my own? No. Alan Wald, the author of the splendid The New York Intellectuals: The Rise and Decline of the Anti-Stalinist Left from the 1930s to the 1980s, as well as other titles on literature and politics, is in the middle of a multi-volume project on what he calls the “Communist Party literary left.” He emailed me to find out whether I could supply him with basic information about Lev Gleason. The answer, sadly, was nyet. But I was hoping that you, dear reader, might know.

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6 Responses to “Is There a Lev Gleason Expert in the House?”

  1. I’m 99% certain Gerard Jones got his Gleason info from Micheal Feldman, who has a pretty unique take on comic history, often looking behind the scenes, and then behind those scenes as well. He might know more info on him.

    I know during my e-mails with him many years ago he told me some of what appeared in Jones’s book, particularly in regards to Gleason’s communist leanings. But yes, one of us really ought to track down whatever info we can on him.

    In some respects I think the comic industry probably got off a bit lucky in the 50s in that Gaines was the public bad guy. Had the media/Wertham dug into Gleason’s past the attack on comics could have been much worse.

  2. Kent Worcester says:

    Good points all.

    It strikes me that our understanding of the history of comic books has been profoundly shaped by such basic factors as who lived longer, who got interviewed, who wrote down their memoirs and who attended comic book conventions. My assumption is that Lev Gleason didn’t live long enough, or talk to the right people, to leave much of an impression on our subcultural collective consciousness. Like you, I’d like to know more.

  3. ethanyoung says:

    See Feldman’s article “Lev Gleason and Co.” in Comic Book Marketplace 102, May 2003.

    Gleason’s editor/writer star was Charles Biro, a CPer – and a pulp character brought to life. In 1971 [at 19] I interviewed Stan Lee for a Chicago weekly, and goaded him to reveal his early influences. He sneered at Eisner and EC, but pointed to Biro as the real deal. In fact, Biro’s direct, clubby approach to readers was pretty obviously the inspiration for Lee’s in the 60s.

    Lev Gleason may be seen as a bridge between Eisner and the heyday of Quality, and EC, as loci of sensational low-rent talent.

    Wertham should not be lumped together with McCarthy, at least not politically. Wertham was not interested in witchhunting or scapegoating – he was concerned about psychological scars on children resulting from the increasingly brutal images in mass culture. His theoreticaal foundations were in the Frankfurt School, Marxists who sought to discern the roots of fascist ideology in culture. If McCarthy ever fingered him, he’d have been in big trouble.

  4. ethanyoung says:

    oh yeah, Biro was a great artist too – as the above cover shows, he was the Devil’s Norman Rockwell.

  5. jeffcannell says:

    I have been trying to find all I can about this guy. Would love to see a Crime Does not Pay Archives printed like Blake Bell’s Ditko Archives.

    Here is some stuff I have found about Lev Gleason

    Mentioned in this senate report:

    He had an alias!
    Box 24 Alleged “Reds”
    Alexander Lev alias Leverett S. Gleason, ca. 1935-1945.

    Published this “communist” publication: Readers’ Scope was published monthly by Picture Scope, Inc., New York, NY. The officers were Arthur Bernhard, Morris S. Latzen, Leverett S. Gleason, A. E. Piller, George Kaplow, and Marion Hart.

    I’m trying to contact a a potential family member of his to see if they can fill in any details. I’ll keep you posted.

  6. Kent Worcester says:

    Thanks Jeff and Ethan. In the next week or so I plan on writing a second post on Gleason that will summarize what I’ve learned so far, including from your helpful comments and links. I’m in touch with a family member as well as a couple of comics historians. A Crime Does Not Pay archive volume or two is overdue.