Countering Critics through Social Reform and Education
by Peter W. Y. Lee
The 1954 Comics Code was intended to protect children by curtailing comic book content that contributed to juvenile delinquency. However, historians have pointed to how overzealous red-baiters wielded the Code to attack the industry as a figurative whipping boy for Cold War anxiety (J. Gilbert, Nyberg, Wright, Hajdu). EC Comics stands out, noted for its “New Trend” of social criticism, horror and crime in severed jugular veins that provoked readers (Whitted). Scholars have pointed to EC’s publisher and editor William Gaines’s testimony before the Senate Subcommittee’s hearing on juvenile delinquency as a show trial of sorts, in which Gaines had hoped to counter the criticism levied against his company, but caved in shortly afterwards instead. But Gaines was not the first to defend the industry, nor was EC representative of many publishers flooding the market. By looking at different titles, scholars can gain a greater appreciation of how other creators negotiated the post-war public role of comic books.
This is the first part of a two-part article that looks at publisher Leverett Gleason’s comic books. Gleason’s publishing house, alternatively known as Comic House or Lev Gleason Publications, used various means to elevate comic books in the public eye. This part examines how Gleason and his gung-ho editor, Charles Biro, predated EC’s touting the educational merits of crime suspense stories and the medium’s potential as an art form. Gleason tried to pass off his crime-centred titles as progressive and artistic literature, belying the genre’s contemporary and enduring reputation as perpetrators of violence. The second article details Gleason’s tactics to expand the scope of comic books as serious literature by appealing to grown-ups.
As civic guardians pressured publishers to “sanitize” stories, Gleason hoped, but failed, to counter the stigma linking comic books to juvenile delinquency. Crime did not pay in the comics, but comics about crime struck gold. Historian Mike Benton notes that by the late 1940s, crime comics “were read by more people each month than any other magazine” (5). The first and most successful was Gleason’s Crime Does Not Pay, a wartime series begun in 1942 that depicted dead cops and blood-thirsty robbers. In 1949, Henry E. Schultz, the executive director of the Association of Comic Magazine Publishers, noted that, during World War II, “comic crime books sold 10 to 1 over all the magazines and publications in the army. Most successful crime comic [today] is Crime Does Not Pay, which runs eleventh or twelfth in all magazines and newspapers” (Reynolds B4). The logo paid lip service to law and order, but Gleason and his editors, Charles Biro and Bob Wood, were more critical. Gleason was an unapologetic communist and pushed for social reform (Springhall 131; Dakin). Biro had critics; scholar David Hajdu characterises Biro as a self-glorified hack and former co-worker Tony DiPreta recalls that Biro took writing credits from Bob Bernstein (Hajdu 67, DiPreta 57).
Whatever his shortcomings, Biro believed in the medium as a moral force. His daughter, Denise, recalls that her father championed comics for its potential for social uplift, regardless of the blood splattering detail: he “felt that the work he was doing was very important. From day one, all of his stories were created to teach lessons or help people” and Biro “was always going after the bad guy and helping the good guy” (M. Gilbert 55). To this end, Biro cherished his role as a mentor for youth. Comics scholar Gerard Jones notes that Biro was frustrated over the “savagery of working-class childhood in a capitalist society” (Jones 193).
This motif seeped into the company’s kid characters. Boy Comics #3 introduced Crimebuster, a teenager with whom Biro shared the initials “C.B.,” pet monkeys and high school hockey careers (Biro proudly poses against a wall-size illustration of Crimebuster on his Wikipedia page). C. B. had no superpowers, but was an “average boy with the stuff it takes to get along in life!” (Biro “The Crimebuster”). Wood explained how his co-editor connected with “average boys”:
He would rather join a dozen kids on a sand-lot and yaketty-yak about this and that than just about anything you can mention. Crimebuster was conceived following one of these tongue-fests where he discovered that what seemed to get the biggest rise and interest from the boys was a discussion about just that, BOYS (Wood).
But Biro did not just rehash social norms. Just as wartime popular culture had idealized Americanism as inclusive (belying a reality of race riots and Jim Crow laws), Biro’s boys had a progressive outlook. In Boy Comics #6, Crime Buster disenchants a Hitler Youth of Nazi Aryanism with newsreels of boxer Joe Louis walloping Max Schmeling, while in Boy Comics #7, an Asian orphan beats up the villain while the strapping American hero stands idly by (Biro “Crimebuster”; Maurer). The “Boy of the Month” feature also depicted non-white, young Allies (Infantino). The company’s most popular creation, the Little Wise Guys, a gang who took over Daredevil, learned real lessons. In Daredevil #15, one died, and the children dealt with guilt and classism in subsequent issues (Biro “Daredevil”; Mougin 179-235). The popular gang had a large readership. When Biro attended a society dinner, for instance, the New York Times casually name-dropped how the Little Wise Guys put their adventures on hold (“News” 16). Presumably, the readers got the reference.
Biro’s name in the news indicated he was a man about town and he eagerly championed comics as an art. DiPreta recalls Biro proudly handing out Christmas plaques to the staff for elevating “the excellence of comic art” (DiPreta 57). This loftiness extended to his renaming Boy Comics to Boy Illustories to reflect his higher literary aspirations. Biro further demurred transferring his hero to radio: “Crimebuster owes his popularity to his distinct style of presentation. [That is, comic art.] He might lose it in a different medium” (Biro and Wood 1948). As a National Cartoonists Society official, Biro entertained soldiers for the USO and sold savings bonds (“Just Word” B3). Biro later joined noted artists Alex Raymond, Milton Caniff and others to judge a competition where 10-14 year-olds illustrated their futures before President Harry Truman (“Winning” 20). Public service put Biro in the spotlight and boosted his industry.
Such acts of good will coincided with changes in public taste. Schultz observed: “There used to be more than 100 books featuring ‘crime’ in their titles, while today this is down to a relative handful” (Loeb 22). While the crime genre supposedly declined, Schultz pointed to a rise in romance comics and, more enthusiastically, educational comics. High Points, the official bulletin of the New York City Board of Education, admitted that comics “possess certain visual appeals not found in other instruction” (Loeb 22).
Gleason and Biro likewise explored new possibilities to elevate the comic books’ reputation as a source for public service, artistically and educationally. In 1949, Gleason wrote to the New York Times, pointing to the “enormous untapped potentialities for the development of the cartoon narrative technique as a medium of expression” (Gleason 14). While Gleason conceded that comics as “literature” was confined to “simple narration,” Biro knew that drawings resonated with younger readers. As the presiding officer of the National Cartoonist Society’s child welfare committee, Biro printed an eight-page history of the Warwick Training School in New York in 1954 to guide young troublemakers in probation. The school superintendent and the presiding justice of the Domestic Relations Court endorsed the project (Illson 8). Biro’s moralising extended to comic books’ burgeoning subculture in candid editorials; in one letter page, Biro and Wood blamed “the economic conditions in the home” that prevented parents from sparing time “for his child’s moral guidance. So it is up to the child. It is his will-power [sic] and moral stuff that is challenged. If he is good and clean inside, so he will be outside” (Biro and Wood 1947). Biro further presented a unified front for youngsters with a Policeman’s Hall of Fame and testimonials from police officers. He also enticed readers with cash prizes to send letters praising law enforcement. Three years later, in 1950, Gleason referred to this brand image in a written testimony to the Senate, noting how he “employed consultants from the field of police officers,” specifically, Mary Sullivan, “formerly chief of the Women’s bureau of the New York Police Force” (United States Congress 137). That same year, seventy child experts, including Katherine F. Lenroot, the chief of the Federal Security Agency’s children’s bureau, confirmed that juvenile delinquency stemmed from a “lack of love” in the home and economic insecurity, not comics (“Comics Not” 20). Biro’s active role in the public sphere, bolstered by expert testimony about economic conditions in the home, lent legitimacy to his company’s social agenda.
Gleason and Biro blurred the line between kid-centred fare and social relevance in their comics. Ironically, by trying to placate critics with “educational” crime comics, publishers fuelled the flames, as naysayers deemed the violent and sexual imagery as inherently harmful. Notably, psychologist Fredric Wertham published clinical studies of how comics corrupted children. When National Comics Publication declared its crime comics as “a major moral force” reflecting a “corresponding obligation to publish nothing harmful to the sensibilities and moral values of young readers,” Wertham rebutted by listing the murders, torture, half-nude women and gun advertisements contained within (“CRIME” 18). The subsequent Comics Code denied comics agency to claim social or artistic relevance.
The industry’s implosion in 1955 effectively erased most publishers from historical memory. While scholars have retroactively latched on to EC’s New Trend as a catch-all for Red Scare Americana, no company was passive. Lev Gleason Publications had strong agency with their boy-centred comics, asserting progressivism and education as apt themes for comics. In doing so, Biro challenged the status quo and a wary public pushed comic books back into the realm of disposable entertainment, presumably safe from subversive forces. The company also hoped to expand its readership by targeting adults. However, like Gleason’s education strategy, Gleason violated the role that the public assigned to comic books and the socially conservative backlash rendered comics unsuitable for serious adult readers.
Peter. W. Y. Lee is an independent scholar focusing on youth culture and American popular culture. He completed his doctorate in American history and culture from Drew University. He has edited anthologies on Star Wars (2016), Star Trek: The Next Generation (2018) and Peanuts (2019) and has published many articles and essays on comic books and film history. He is the author of From Dead Ends to Cold Warriors: Constructing American Boyhood in Postwar Hollywood Films, forthcoming from Rutgers University Press.
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—-. “Daredevil.” Daredevil #15, Feb. 1943, pp. 2-17.
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—-. “What’s On Your Mind?” Crime Does Not Pay #57, Nov. 1947, p. 13.
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 Although a small company, EC’s “New Trend” created a strong brand image based on sophisticated plots and artwork, and thrust the small company into the public spotlight. Critics singled out its horror and crime comics for their detailed gruesomeness. Gaines had hoped that his defense would deflate this criticism, but Gaines’s grandstanding became a media circus as Senators nitpicked and mocked his defense. Nor did the comic book industry assist Gaines, as many publishers were content to let the Senate scapegoat Gaines so that his upstart company would take the fall.
 Sullivan’s official capacity for Gleason was editorial consultant for a companion series, Crime and Punishment. She provided a cover blurb for Crime Does Not Pay #78: “I approve this magazine as a good moral influence on our youth! I recommend it to parents as a powerful lesson for good behavior!”
 Wertham’s published work for general readers, notably the popular and sensational Seduction of the Innocent (1954), heavily contributed to the formation of the Comics Code.