Dark Horse continues its wonderfully-produced reprint series here, a series that is intermittently replete with historical significance for the field, innovative art for the time, and perfectly dreadful hackery in plot and artistic execution. The Original Daredevil (1941) falls squarely amidst all this, but would be worthy on any grounds for at least three reasons.
First, the array of artists (most of them youngsters at the time) includes Bob Wood, Charles Biro, Jerry Robinson, “Dick” Briefer, and Jack Cole, among others. They do not need to be at their best to be fascinating.
Second, the political themes are compelling. The group of mostly Jewish boys went after Hitler when most of the US was still in an isolationist mood, months before the Japanese invasion of Pearl Harbor turned public opinion around. Not all the stories are political or current, some feature the same old cops-and-robbers with caped superheroes standing in for the often incompetent cops.
Third, Michael T. Gilbert, himself a professional cartoonist of many years standing, has written a very fine, thoughtful introduction—unlike the occasionally mediocre of the introductions to the reprints written on the fly, or without much historical knowledge beyond the names of the artists.
Gilbert does a fine job of leading us through the saga, especially highlighting the weirdos who made the pages sparkle. Take Charles Biro, who would shortly emerge as a major artist for Crime Does Not Pay, the noir classic or exploitation-fest, however one wishes to see the violence of the most popular comic in the postwar 1940s. Gilbert shrewdly notes that when it came to drawing, Biro would never be a master of the field. But when it came to weaving a story, he could hardly be matched. His criminal characters almost invariably proved the most exciting, in the way that the Devil got the best parts in Milton.
Biro owed his rise to the genius editor of Crime Does Not Pay: Lev Gleason. An Irishman firmly rooted in the antifascist (or Communist-leaning) Popular Front, publisher of a failed popular weekly in 1939 and a knock-off version of the notoriously conservative Readers Digest, a few years later, Gleason has the distinction of being the first comics publisher called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, in 1946. Rumor has it that he bought off a congressman, a technique that anyone in the pulp trade would have considered superior to defense committees and publicity.
Bob Wood was another story. A teenage animator at the Fleischer studios, he fell into comics in 1940, a mature 22. One of the most grotesque artists of Crime Does Not Pay, he ended in almost poetic justice: bludgeoning a girl friend to death, the dying shortly after his release from prison on manslaughter charges.
Jack Cole reached the heights of non-crime comics admiration, migrating from Daredevil to his apex, the famed Plastic Man who bent like a pretzel, solving crimes and satirizing the superheroes of the day in the process. He was, as Art Spiegelman wrote in an introduction to a collection of his works, a melancholiac and at last a suicide. And why not? Even when the work paid decently, comics were an embarrassment, all the more so for men who imagined themselves being painters. Most would have been happy getting into advertising—and most, being Jews, could not until a later era. Jerry Robinson, the hardy exception, remade himself into an illustrator while continuing intermittently with comics, served as an official of a couple artist associations, and died in 2011 a widely recognized and much beloved figure.
There are so many charms in Daredevil that we had best tackle the problematic stuff without apologies. “The Claw” is an Asian devil, many times human size but definitely a racial, make that racist, type. Other Asians are bright yellow, including a Tiger Lady named Ah Ling, with huge lashes on her slanted eyes. She slaps men around and gets away from our superheroes! And is sexually drawn to them, but that detail goes by fast. Down in Africa, our heroes are defending the British Empire against Nazi incursions.
But “Real American,” a bronze-skinned Native American hero, is drawn by Dick Briefer, who worked on the Daily Worker and was a militant anti-racist. Real American wears a full feather headdress, and Native American maidens swoon over him. Politically (or is it artistically?) incorrect for our own day; for the 1940s, when assimilation was still being forced upon tribes and most stereotypes reflected Hollywood’s images of wild savages, not bad.
At the root of the virtues lies the anti-fascism itself. Strip after strip ends with Hitler humiliated, at least once German concentration camps are noted (in 1941!), and even the Resistance fighters are seen, working and waiting for the day to win back their country. Nazis are vicious brutes, of course, their claims to racial superiority ridiculed. The real life World War II heroine, Rosie the Riveter, is seen as “Pat Patriot, America’s Joan of Arc.” She belts rowdies who make a pass at her (“What kind of breakfast food does that gal eat?” asks a hapless officer nearby), she stops saboteurs, and at the end of the strip, men chant, “Pat Patriot! H-Ray, H-Ray!”
So what if the stories and art are mostly stilted? And so what if other comic artists, after a few years of fighting Nazis, turned to fighting ugly-looking Reds, a preoccupation they retained all the way through the Vietnam War, depicting racist stereotypes and the heroic killing in a class apart from the EC war comics of the early 1950s, which were firmly realistic and in that way, implicitly critical of the brutal pointlessness of further wars. This is a comic to be enjoyed. Hats off to Pat Patriot, the Real American, and all their compatriots. ##
Paul Buhle, a retired historian, edits nonfiction comic art. His latest, not altogether fictional, is called Radical Jesus.