Daredevil I

Daredevil I

(pop culture)

Lev Gleason Comics, which developed undei the guidance of Leverett “Lev” Gleason and Arthur Bernhardt, was one of the most remarkable companies of comics’ Golden Age (19381954), both in terms of its success and its approach to its titles. Both Bernhardt and Gleason were avowedly left-wing publishers with strong socialist roots and a pronounced concern for civic values. They also oversaw one of the real powerhouse publishing houses of the 1940s, with sales of its big three titles—Daredevil, Boy Comics, and Crime Does Not Pay—in the millions. Unusually, for much of the 1940s the company resisted the temptation to expand its line, concentrating instead on producing high-quality comics, though by the early 1950s it had diversified into the Western, romance, and humor genres. Just as Lev Gleason was one of the decade’s most successful comic book companies, it was also among the most controversial, reviled by critics for the brutality and sadism of its comics, and accused of being a communist sympathizer.

In its early days, the company went through several names (Your Guide, Rhoda, and Comic House) and several editors (including future Plastic Man artist Jack Cole). Its flagship title in 1939 was Silver Streak Comics, an unremarkable effort enlivened only by a strip drawn by Cole, about a monstrous villain called the Claw. Things picked up in issue #6 (September 1940) with the introduction of Daredevil, by the Jack Binder studio and Don Rico. Daredevil’s origin seemed to owe more than a little to the recently released Batman strip: Rendered mute by the shock of seeing his parents killed, Bart Hill builds himself up into a strong, fearless fighter to avenge the wrong done to him. Inspired by a boomerang-shaped scar on his chest (which has been branded by his parents’ killers), the young lad practices with a boomerang for years until he becomes a deadly master with the weapon (shades of the Batarang). In a somewhat implausible twist, when Hill dons his Daredevil costume he miraculously regains the power of speech.

With little to differentiate it from its many rivals, the Daredevil strip might have faded into obscurity except that editor Cole had other ideas. With issue #7, he took over the feature and reintroduced a memorable villain. Sensing that his terrifying Claw (a giant, yellow-skinned creature of the night with monstrous talons and teeth) needed a worthy opponent, Cole pitted him against Daredevil in a five-issue epic that thrilled his readers. In issue #7, Cole also redesigned Daredevil’s costume into a split red-and-blue bodysuit with a spiked belt and a face-covering cowl, and he ditched the mute ploy. Daredevil would go on to star in Silver Streak until issue #17, his later tales being illustrated by Don Rico, but before that his publishers had other plans for the hero.

Enraged and affronted by the rise of Adolf Hitler and the terrifying war in Europe, Gleason and Bernhardt were determined to battle fascism the only way they could, and so pitted their top hero against Hitler himself. Daredevil Battles Hitler came out in July 1941, five months before the United States entered the war, and launched the boomerang-toting superhero into a fifteen-year solo career. Initial strips were fast-moving affairs, filled to bursting with such villains as the Ghoul, Professor Venom, the Wizard, Fu Tong and, inevitably, the Claw again. Token girlfriend Tonia Saunders was the de rigueur damsel in distress. By this point, the feature was being produced by Charles Biro and Bob Wood, who were elevated to joint editorship by the comic’s eleventh issue and immediately overhauled its content and direction, deleting most of the title’s backup features.

Charles Biro was a limited, if energetic, artist but a sensational writer, and under his direction Daredevil, Boy, and Crime Does Not Pay (as Silver Streak was renamed) were transformed. In Daredevil #13, Biro introduced a gang of teenage runaways, the Little Wise Guys—Scarecrow, Pee Wee, Jock, and Meatball—and the strip began to revolve around their adventures. The new strips were incredibly wordy, dense morality tales, frequently dealing with the problems of youth and small-town life, and they proved absolutely engrossing. Reflecting the social concerns of Gleason and Bernhardt, Biro dealt with such issues as crime, juvenile delinquency, alcoholism, child abuse, and doomed romance with gripping energy and surprising candor. Never afraid to break with convention, Biro killed off one of the Little Wise Guys (Meatball) in issue #13, and replaced him with Curly.

Daredevil was soon given a new name, Bill Hart, and (in issue #18) a new origin, in which he was orphaned by an evil uncle and brought up by aborigines in Australia; it was they who taught him his prowess with the boomerang. During the World War II years Daredevil and his gang fought the occasional Japanese invasion force but mostly concentrated on homegrown black-marketeers and hoods, in strips very similar to Crime Does Not Pay, the company’s biggest seller. However, as the Little Wise Guys grew in popularity, Daredevil became increasingly a spectator in his own comic and, by issue #69, he was gone for good—with the exception of a couple of bizarre appearances in issues #79 and #80 where he and the Wise Guys flew to Mars! Biro handled much of the writing himself, with some help from Robert Bernstein, while the artists were Norman Maurer, William Overgard, Al Borth, Tony Dipreta, and others. Biro wanted his strips to look a particular way—as little use of black as possible, to leave the artwork open for the maximum amount of color—and so there is no mistaking one of his strips. His stories were very distinctive as well, full of well-developed, complex characters, convincing dialogue, and satisfying plots, and it is no surprise that his comics were so popular.

Lev Gleason comics were among the most criticized of the 1950s, and commentators frequently complained that they glamorized crime, citing numerous examples of violence, sadism, and cruelty. The comics were certainly uncompromising, but Gleason’s motives were more honorable than his detractors gave him credit for. Nevertheless, he gave up publishing for good in 1956, with the final issue of Daredevil (#134) nestling on the newsstands next to DC Comics’ Showcase #4, which heralded a new era of superheroics, the Silver Age of comics (1956–1969). Had Daredevil returned to his own title, he might well have enjoyed a great comeback along with the rest of Showcase’s heroes, but by that point he was long gone. In recent years, Ace and AC Comics have published a few vintage Daredevil reprints (with AC even reviving him for occasional outings under the copyright-secure name of “Red-devil”), but for most fans the character’s original name belongs to a more well-known superhero published by Marvel Comics.

Since the Golden Age, Daredevil is now in the public domain and anyone can use him (although the name “Daredevil” has been trademarked by Marvel). Writer Roy Thomas renamed the character “Doubledare” when he used him in his 1986 Alter Ego comics series. In their Project Superpowers comics miniseries, published by Dynamite Entertainment in 2008, collaborators Jim Krueger and artist Alex Ross used numerous public domain superheroes, including the Black Terror, the Fighting Yank, and the Green Lama. They also included the Death-Defying ‘Devil, who was based on the Golden Age Daredevil, and who starred in his own miniseries that year. —DAR & PS

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