Thursday, 27 December 2012

Unreprinted reprints

I've had a few enquiries about various other aspects of the series. So whilst waiting for Essential Marvel Team-Up volume 4 to be released in the New Year, there'll be a few posts detailing some of the stuff that's been asked about. Today it's a brief look at the reprints that ran in the various Spider-Man issues but didn't make it into the Essentials.

Invariably a reprint series rarely stops to reprint material that was already reprinted. This is true of the Essential series as of most other reprints. About the only exception I've seen so far in the Spider-Man volumes is issue #6 of Peter Parker, The Spectacular Spider-Man, as its reprint of Marvel Team-Up #3 was modified to tie in with current events. But this blanket approach can have two effects. Firstly material that originally came from outside the Spider-Man titles is thus excluded (although, as we've seen, some of it has appeared in other Essential volumes). Secondly it can deny modern readers the context of knowing what old material would have been fresh in contemporary readers' minds.

I'm not going to detail the non-Spider-Man series, though it's worth noting that from 1966 onwards Marvel Tales regularly carried Spider-Man reprints, at first with other series but it soon morphed into an all-Spider-Man book. Some issues of Amazing were spread out across various other titles, including some Amazing annuals as we'll see, but it otherwise cycled through to issue #159, then began again from the start, running everything up to issue #50. It then adopted a more scattered approach, reprinting many issues of all the Spider-Man titles, and also filled up some page counts with original material featuring the likes of Spider-Ham and "Petey, The Adventures of Peter Parker Long Before He Became Spider-Man!!" The series finally ended in 1994, by which time the availability of past stories to the market had changed so much.

One issue of Marvel Tales stands out above all others and that is the first issue, which was a special annual in 1964. This contained a reprint of the origins of Spider-Man, Thor, Iron Man, the Incredible Hulk, Ant-Man and Sgt. Fury & His Howling Commandos. Today the first four of these are amongst the most reprinted Marvel stories of all time, and all six are easily available in the relevant Essential volumes. But in 1964 it must have been incredible for fans to be able to get all these in a single issue, especially if they'd arrived to Marvel a bit too late to pick them up the first time round. Some years ago DC reprinted a few of their classic 1960s annuals, even though all the material had been reprints at the time. Could Marvel one day reprint this issue especially? It's always a possibility.

But it's the reprints in the regular Spider-Man titles that have been skipped by the Essentials which this post is interested in. First off are the Amazing Annuals. Although #1 was all new material, #2 carried a regular length new story backed up by reprints and the format was followed for #3. #4 & #5 saw a switch back to all new material, but #6 through #9 went back to all reprint material. #10 saw a return to all new material and this was followed for all remaining annuals bar #12, which was an all-reprint issue. Significantly some of the annuals contained material from outside the Spider-Man titles.
My best guess is that Annual #12 was a rush job designed to tie in with the Spider-Man and Hulk TV series by getting a prominent fight between the two back into print.

Then there was Giant-Size Spider-Man. The first five issues carried all-new extra long adventures but also reprints of some classic issues. The sixth and final issue was an all-reprint special.
(Of minor note is that the reprint of Amazing #16 recoloured Daredevil's costume to the best-known all red rather than the yellow and black he wore in the original.)

Prior to the Essentials and Masterworks some of the stories from the issues on this list were particularly rare - not only the Spectacular Magazine but also the Strange Tales Annual and Tales to Astonish issue. It's interesting to see that fans in the early to mid 1970s had relatively easy access to all of these stories when later generations found them much harder to access until the Essentials started covering the more obscure series and there were finally reprints of the Spectacular Spider-Man magazines.

Tuesday, 25 December 2012

Spider-Man at Christmas

Merry Christmas everyone!

For those wondering, there haven't been many specifically Christmassy issues of the Spider-Man titles that I've so far come across. I've seen just two - Marvel Team-Up #1 in which Spider-Man and the Human Torch fight the Sandman one Christmas Eve, with the villain wishing to visit his mother; and Spectacular Spider-Man #113 in which Spider-Man fights a burglar disguised as Santa Claus, with a little help from the real thing!

There are probably other Christmas issues from the later years which I haven't yet reached, but there have also been some other interesting moments. For several years cartoonist Fred Hembeck drew a series of strips entitled "Petey, The Adventures of Peter Parker Long Before He Became Spider-Man!!" which appeared in a variety of different Marvel publications. Hembeck has put scans of all the strips up on his website and there's one, entitled "Claus Encounter", set at Christmas. Here's a brief extract:

The resolution to the mystery takes on a whole new angle in the light of more recent developments in the Marvel universe...

Monday, 1 October 2012

Fini – for now

So once again I have reached the end of the pile, having looked at all four of the series which I selected. If and when there are any further volumes I promise I'll look at them as well. For now it's time for a respite.

There's one potential spin-off series that I haven't looked at beyond the first volume, Essential Punisher. This is largely because whilst the Punisher first appeared in Amazing Spider-Man, by the time he acquired his own series he had moved on a lot from the Spider-Man "family" of titles and he was never really pitched at a similar area of the market. However, if there's demand for it then I may post my thoughts on his volumes at some stage. But that will be some time away due to other commitments offline.

Until then, so long! It's been a blast.

Friday, 28 September 2012

A few Daredevil previews

As well as his five Essential volumes so far, there have also been a handful of Daredevil issues from further down the line reprinted in other Essentials, so it’s time to take a quick look at them all.

Daredevil #138 written by Marv Wolfman and drawn by John Byrne, reprinted in Essential Ghost Rider volume 1

This is the middle part of a crossover with Ghost Rider (issues #19 & 20), which sees the first appearance in the series of Karen Page for over fifty issues. In the meantime she’s popped up amongst Ghost Rider’s supporting cast, meeting Johnny Blaze when they both worked on a movie together and is making Roxanne Simpson jealous even though Johnny claims they’re just friends (which is less than Karen would want). Although Tony Isabella was writing Ghost Rider, there’s strong continuity between the two titles and indeed at times the Daredevil issue feels as though it’s picked up a story from the other series, though it reassure with subplots involving Foggy, Debbie Harris and Heather Glenn (who we’ve not yet met in the regular Essential Daredevils). Storywise we get a straightforward tale of Karen being kidnapped by the new Death’s Head and his henchmen, the Smasher and the (apparently mind-controlled) Stuntmaster. The issue is largely a water-treading middle parter in which Daredevil gets placed in a complicated trap from which he escapes whilst Ghost Rider goes searching for Karen but gets sidelined by some drug smugglers, and Karen discovers the new Death’s Head is after her father’s research. Then Daredevil arrives and realises he knows who Death’s Head really is, but finds his life being drained away and Ghost Rider doubts he can save him… As crossovers go this is well written and manages to smoothly blend the elements of both series together, and helps to “ratify” the transfer of Karen between series (even though she hasn’t been seen in Daredevil for years), but as an individual issue of Daredevil it’s nothing fancy.

Daredevil #178 written and drawn by Frank Miller, reprinted in Essential Power Man and Iron Fist volume 2

The bulk of the issue is taken up with the thread of Matt and Foggy defending the Daily Bugle in a libel suit from a politician who denies being financed by the Kingpin. When a boy brings potential evidence, the Kingpin sends thugs to stop him, causing Foggy to worry for Matt’s safety and so he hires Power Man and Iron Fist, the “Heroes for Hire” to protect Matt. This results in a degree of chaos as Matt needs no protection and at times has to employ bizarre methods to escape his minders, leaving them to believe he’s been kidnapped. Eventually everything is resolved in a climax, but the critical evidence that would support the Bugle’s case is lost. This issue is somewhat comedic in turn, although not as much as a follow-up issue of Power Man and Iron Fist in which Foggy and the Heroes for Hire try to help the boy’s sister’s ambitions to be a star ballerina and face the web of jealousy and intrigue surrounding her replacement, culminating in a somewhat slapstick chase during a live performance with Daredevil drawn in to boot. Compared to that, the Daredevil side of the appearances is more serious but only to a point. It’s clear even when read in isolation that the Elektra subplot is far more intriguing, as the lady goes to work for the Kingpin after demonstrating her lethal abilities against four assassins sent to test her. When run alongside the main scenes it’s clear that this issue is a cross between a gratuitous guest appearance for the sake of it (although I’m not sure which series was promoting the other) and a forgettable comedic interlude before looming dramatic events.

Daredevil #182 (part), #183-184 written by Frank Miller (all) & Roger McKenzie (#183), drawn by Miller, reprinted in Essential Punisher volume 1

I’ve written about Essential Punisher volume 1 before, and some of my observations are the same, namely that Daredevil is one of the best heroes to contrast the Punisher with due to their very different methods. The pages from issue #182 reprinted here are just the eight pages featuring the Punisher as he escapes from prison. There’s no sign of Daredevil on any of these pages and I’m surprised that a truncation only was run, which is contrary to the normal Essential approach of carrying the full issue. Issue #183’s story was delayed for over a year because of concerns by the Comics Code Authority, which presumably wasn’t as toothless in this era as it’s often claimed to be, and this is possibly why a doctor gives Daredevil an extended talk about drugs, just to ram home the point that they’re bad, in case the depiction of a school girl going high and throwing herself out of a window didn’t give any hints. The story that follows focuses upon her brother’s anger as he steals his father’s gun and goes hunting for vengeance on the drug pushers with both Daredevil and the Punisher bringing their respective methods. It’s a strong contrast between Matt Murdock’s system approach, even when he finds he’s just got a killer off a charge and hadn’t realised it because a pacemaker prevent a jump in the liar’s heartbeat, and the Punisher’s more direct, ruthless approach. The story covers a surprising amount, including the failings of the system and deprivation such that the parents are watching TV and arguing without knowing their daughter is dead or realising their son is going on a vengeance mission. Daredevil’s quest to prove to the boy that the system works and can take out the criminals just adds to the tension as events rush to their climax. And on top of all that, we have ongoing developments with Heather Glenn as she discovers problems within her company, and is proposed to by Matt who seems to have a rather traditional marriage in mind. For a two-part story there’s a heck of a lot in this but never once does it overload the reader. It’s a strong, intense piece that shows why the Miller era is so adored, much more so than issue #178.

Daredevil #257 written by Ann Nocenti and drawn by John Romita Jr, reprinted in Essential Punisher volume 2

This is an odd crossover between Punisher #10 (written by Mike Baron and drawn by Whilce Portacio). Both issues are set around a disgruntled ex-employee of a pharmaceutical company who is taking revenge by poisoning bottles of its products. But rather than a conventional two-parter we instead get the two series broadly following their own heroes’ investigations until they meet on a rooftop and fight over their radically different approaches to justice. The actual confrontation is shown in both issues but from different perspectives – Punisher shows us it straight, whilst Daredevil shows it from the perspective of the killer as he listens to the two fighting it out over him and he thinks they’re more alike than either realises. Otherwise the Daredevil issue carries part of the ongoing Typhoid Mary plotline as the Kingpin continues his scheme to destroy Matt using Mary’s multiple personas. In general I found the issue unsatisfying because it doesn’t become clear at first that it’s taking place parallel to events in Punisher and there are moments where small details vary between the two. However it’s interesting to see the conflict of values between the two through a third party’s eyes, and it was a masterstroke to do it through the eyes of the criminal they’re fighting over. Overall, we have a fairly dark tale and a sign of how Daredevil’s niche was permanently set down in the 1980s.

It’s inevitable that most of these issues feel rather unsatisfactory given that they’re all in the Essentials already only because of their guest stars. But the problems go in very different directions – the Ghost Rider tie-in is part of a storyline with a clear justification for crossing over, whereas the Power Man and Iron Fist appearances serve no real wider purpose. The Punisher appearances are the most easily justified because of the obvious contrast between his and Daredevil’s methods, and there are clearly multiple ways to present the conflict of values without it always having to be two figures shouting lengthy expositions of their philosophies at each other whilst a criminal lies on the ground. But the second appearance is let down by the awkward way in which the storyline is presented, a problem that also curses the Ghost Rider tie-in, leaving only the issues with the Punisher’s first appearance as a strong example of Daredevil issues yet to come. Even then the truncation of issue #182 (which may have originated with a stand-alone reprint of some of the Daredevil/Punisher clashes from a decade ago) is annoying as it denies us a glimpse of the wider issue. I can’t wait for the Essentials to reach the Miller era.

Friday, 21 September 2012

Essential Daredevil volume 5

Essential Daredevil volume 5 contains issues #102-125 and Marvel Two-in-One #3, which crossed over with the series. It also carries Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe entries for Daredevil, his apartment and billy club, and the Black Widow, plus unused covers for issues #104 (which is the version actually used on the volume’s cover though the only significant difference from the published version that I can spot is that Kraven’s hand blocks part of the Black Widow’s breasts), #107 & #115. Most of the issues (including Marvel Two-in-One) are written by Steve Gerber, with a brief run at the end by Tony Isabella and then the very brief beginning of one by Marv Wolfman. There are also individual issues either fully written or scripted by Chris Claremont and Gerry Conway, plus half an issue written by then editor-in-chief Len Wein, presumably whilst searching for a new writer. The issues are drawn by a mix of Syd Shores, Don Heck, Bob Brown, Sal Buscema and Gene Colan, with Jim Starlin drawing part of issue #105.

This era of Daredevil is often forgotten. It’s true that writers have regularly returned to the theme of Ol’ Hornhead and the Black Widow, but otherwise this is a period of ideas that doesn’t get remembered so much. Partially this is because the issues in this volume see the end of the San Francisco days of the title, and as a result in later years they would be referenced less than the New York days. Perhaps also it’s because of the tradition that moving characters to the West Coast generally doesn’t last very long. Or perhaps it’s because the book goes through a highly experimental stage, containing a mixture of traditional urban crime adventures, some travelling adventuring, struggles with spies, science-fiction battles and more. It may make for quite a diverse set of tales but it also implies a book that doesn’t really know what it’s doing and where it’s going. For the moment it can get by on the mixture but only so long as the threats are on a credible level. This is shown best with the villains that Daredevil faces.

The series introduces a number of new villains but, as ever, they’re not much to write home about. The debutants include the likes of Ramrod, Terrex, Black Spectre, Kerwin J. Broderick (another law partner turned crooked), Deathstalker (at least it seems so at this point), Blackwing, El Jaguar, Jackhammer and Copperhead. Additionally the series sees its first encounter with a good number of villains from other series, including Kraven the Hunter (from a series featuring some wallcrawler or other), Nekra and Mandrill (both originally from Shanna, The She-Devil), the Circus of Crime (originally from The Incredible Hulk, though subsequently retconned into being the successor to a similar named group from the Second World War era Captain America Comics, but since used in many other titles), Hydra (another organisation that pops up in many places but they first appeared in Nick Fury’s strip in Strange Tales) including individual agents such as Dreadnought (ditto), Silvermane (again from the Amazing Spider-Man), Man-Killer (from Marvel Team-Up) and Mentallo (another from the Fury strip in Strange Tales). We also get a new, albeit briefly lived, incarnation of the Crusher (previously seen in Iron Man).

In a surprising move we get a rare reprint of two letters page, which in this era was entitled “Let’s Level With Daredevil”, coming from issues #120 and #121. Rather than containing actual letters we instead get “The Hydra File”, a two-part essay by Tony Isabella that pulls together the history and structure of Hydra from its many previous appearances. In an era before such projects as the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe and the Marvel Saga it was rare for writers to get the chance to bring together and tidy up some of the more convoluted histories of the Marvel Universe, with the result that the canon could often get even more confusing with yet more appearances. This essay is a good attempt to tackle the problems and in particular explains how the original Hydra branches got separated and not all have reunited, thus explaining some of the apparent contradictions from previous appearances. I wonder how many other letters pages in the 1960s and 1970s were put to a similar use, but which have not been reprinted in the relevant Essential volume.

Issue #105 introduces the series to “Madame MacEvil”, better known as Moondragon. Her arrival is the clearest sign of the distinctive science fiction turn the series is taken, but she never really fits in comfortably. At one point she is able to use her abilities and technology to restore Daredevil’s sight, albeit at the cost of neutralising his radar and enhanced senses, but this is soon reversed (although not before he’s had a chance to see what Natasha actually looks like) when he finds his fighting ability is severely constrained. I’ve never really liked the idea of Daredevil regaining his sight, even if it is only temporary, because it goes against the fundamental premise of the character. And here the restoration itself feels all too easy, as though vision can be switched on and off at will. As for Moondragon herself, she rapidly becomes a potential rival to the Black Widow, leading to some very catty responses from the latter, but also brings the possibility that the series will soon be moving to the stars. Fortunately this doesn’t turn out to be the case, but there is still something awkward about scenes where Daredevil crosses the continent aboard Moondragon’s spaceship. The two characters just aren’t remotely on the same level, a point that Moondragon makes when she leaves. Fortunately the science fiction is scaled back at the same time though not before a gratuitous guest appearance by Captain Marvel.

They’re far from the only guest stars to appear during the volume. We also see the likes of Spider-Man, Shanna the She-Devil (twice), the Man-Thing, Nick Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D. In addition the Marvel Two-in-One issue brings Daredevil into contact with the Thing. Daredevil is kept quite busy with all these comings and goings, though he never fades into the background of his own series. Indeed it’s his strong presence at the forefront throughout which is the cause of some problems between him and Natasha.

Although the book’s title reverts from “Daredevil and the Black Widow” to just “Daredevil” from issue #108 onwards, Natasha isn’t got rid of that easily. Instead, she remains a solid presence in the title throughout the volume’s run, even though on several occasions it seems as though she and Daredevil have broken up and/or been divided by the continent yet they are soon reunited. Some of this may be down to changing writers, but one consequence is that each time they separate rings less true and one expects them to soon be reunited. There are a number of issues in their relationship that are difficult to solve, with Natasha finding herself increasingly weakened both in image and her own self-esteem, feeling little more than Daredevil’s sidekick. At times, she is portrayed especially weak and clingy, which stands at odds with her background as an efficient Soviet spy. In addition, there are her financial difficulties once her inheritance runs out and she feels it is important to be with Daredevil only on an equal level. After a bit of back and forthing, together with multiple hops between the two coasts for the series, finally in issue #124 the Black Widow departs from the title, heading off with the intention of spending some time rediscovering herself as a solo independent woman rather than as a sidekick. (However, she didn’t quite get there. Just two months later she popped up in a new team title, The Champions. This was the first Marvel superhero team based on the US West Coast, but only lasted seventeen issues. The Black Widow served as the team’s leader, which may have prepared her for later serving that role with the Avengers, and thus found herself in at least one way. It would be nice to eventually see an Essential Champions.)

There’s another potential romantic interest for Matt introduced in the volume in the form of Candace Nelson, Foggy’s previously never mentioned sibling. (And Foggy was surprised when Matt produced one?!) Candace is a younger graduate student in journalism who’s stumbled across some dubious research and various elements both within the US government and the criminal fraternity want the details. She also goes on a date with Matt but it gets interrupted. Now maybe it’s the way she’s drawn, or an effect of being printed in black and white, but I found a particular scene between Candace and Matt in issue #115 a little disturbing. Foggy leaves Matt to look after Candace in a hotel room (so that the DA feels easier about not reporting a wanted person) a situation Candace clearly enjoys rather more than Matt telling him “I don’t bite” and then stretching out on the bed suggestively. Perhaps it’s because she’s drawn looking very young, despite being a graduate student, or that she’s wearing a short tartan skirt, but there’s something about the whole situation that screams “Alone with schoolgirl and she knows what she wants!” and it’s clear that Matt’s reluctance to be in this situation isn’t just because he needs to go out as Daredevil. It’s a pity because at other times Candace is portrayed a bit more maturely, albeit with an idealist’s naiveté. There’s a general “will they, won’t they?” approach to her and Matt but it doesn’t really get anywhere, although Candace manages to speak in the background when Natasha calls Matt. (Oh and it transpires there’s a real Candace Nelson who was born at exactly the same time that the fictional one was appearing in the series, but I don’t know if that inspired her naming or even if Nelson is her maiden name.) Sadly, Candace becomes yet another interesting supporting cast member who doesn’t really survive a change of writers. This is a pity as with Matt now settling back in New York permanently, Candace could have filled the role of a non-legal regular who raises questions about the way lawyers and the legal system sometimes operate without having to strain the story to include her. A moment close to this comes with one of the few references to events in the real world comes in issue #117 when Foggy is lecturing Candace about breaking the law and states “No one is above the law: not you, not me, not even the President. No one!” The issue came out in about September 1974, just a month after Richard Nixon had been forced to resign over Watergate and the scene allows for a brief declaration about the law even when the individual has honourable motives. However there were no further such uses.

There are a few politicised moments, such as an odd panel in issue #121 where a comment about the cold in January leads to a mini-rant about the failure of some landlords to provide adequate heating and the resulting consequences. There may be a point to this but it sits completely at odds with the actual narrative of the story and just feels like a writer venting his spleen at any spurious opportunity. If writers wish to make such points, they should construct stories that actually involve them and not just tack them on to unconnected events. (Unless of course it was going to lead up to a revelation that all of New York’s unscrupulous landlords are agents of Hydra, until the editor wisely killed the idea? Somehow, I just can’t see that one being proposed in the first place.) We also get some signs of the second wave of feminism that was sweeping at the time, but it’s clear that Matt is not always at ease with it. Nor has he become an enlightened, progressive San Francisco liberal. At times he can be very domineering towards Natasha, including one moment when he tells her to “slip into something barely legal” and when she replies “You male chauvinist…” he silences here with a slap on the bottom. Curiously this issue (#120) is written by Tony Isabella, who is normally rather more liberal. But then not all movements took everyone with them equally. The series also briefly touches upon both environmentalist themes and dubious governmental practices with the discovery in the Candace storyline that the government had commissioned research into mutating humans so they could breath pollution. The project was abandoned but the papers are the MacGuffin pursued by many.

On another level the story of Copperhead rings a lot of bells about the issue of creators’ rights in the comics industry and whether or not particular creators in the 1930s made a good deal or not. Copperhead is the son of the artist’s model for the pulp fiction character of the same name; a model who believed he was essential to the success of the pulps and who felt others were making money off of him. But the father did nothing until many years later when the pulps were reprinted, and then when he died his son took over the pursuit of vindication and money, with the added twist of adopting the character’s identity and believing his father had actually been the original Copperhead. Leaving out some of the wilder features it’s not hard to see this story as a subtle parody of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s on-off attempts to regain the rights to Superman (the-then most recent court case had ended a couple of years earlier with a ruling against Siegel & Shuster). In particular it seems to reflect the view that far from being the mistreated creators conned out of their most famous creations and confined to poverty that they’re often presented as, they were in fact very successful financially but mishandled their affairs and only then tried to reclaim Superman. The tale of the most famous creators’ rights battles is usually turned into one of the gallant little creator swindled by the evil corporation, though occasionally there’s one co-creator pushing another out of the credit (another point touched upon here with the Copperhead extracting revenge upon his writer), but often it can be rather more complicated with changing financial circumstances on both sides being a key factor. The issue was written by Marv Wolfman when he was the “Editor-in-Chief” (although that precise title doesn’t appear to have been used publicly until early in Jim Shooter’s tenure in about mid 1978) of Marvel’s line of black & white magazines, and only a few months before he became the overall Editor-in-Chief, so I wonder if this story was in any way a corporate mandate? It’s a little ironic given that Wolfman himself would later bring suit against Marvel over the ownership of characters but he’s far from the only ex-Marvel Editor-in-Chief to have expressed dislike of intellectual property practices in the industry.

Wolfman is the last of the regular writers in this volume. Of the others, Steve Gerber is by far the most experimental, but also has the longest run in which to do that. It’s interesting to read his early work from before his most famous runs on Defenders and Howard the Duck. There’s far less of the weirdness and humour associated with those series, but there are strong signs of his diversity. Tony Isabella’s run is far briefer and mainly taken up with a single storyline involving S.H.I.E.L.D. and Hydra, in which he seems to be throwing everything, even restoring the Spider-Man villain Silvermane to activity. And then a combination of Len Wein and Marv Wolfman handle the final two issues here and one theme quickly emerges. By the end of the volume the series is almost “back to basics”, with Matt back in New York working with Foggy, and the Black Widow having departed. None of the other San Francisco supporting cast have made a permanent transfer to the East Coast and even newer New York based characters like Candace have disappeared. Foggy is still District Attorney but facing re-election and the signs are far from encouraging and he may well be soon returning to private practice. There’s even a step back to the more down to earth urban threats rather than the spies and science fiction of beforehand. Only Karen Page is absent, instead working as an actress and appearing as part of the supporting cast over in Ghost Rider. Now as we only get one and a half issues of Marv Wolfman’s run on the series it’s entirely possible that all we’re seeing is a preliminary clearing of the deck before bolder changes in later issues that have yet to be Essentialised. But as it stands the volume ends with things very much back to the original.

Overall I enjoyed this volume a lot. It’s true that the series is fishing around for a distinctive genre, but it’s also worth noting that Daredevil’s association as a hard edged urban crime series was only set down by the arrival of Frank Miller and that didn’t happen until issue #165 (which will probably reached at the end of Essential Daredevil volume 7 when that eventually comes) and then fully cemented by subsequent writers building on Miller’s work, most obviously Ann Nocenti (whose first issue wasn’t until #236). Before that Daredevil was a series that went in many places both figuratively and literally, and such diversity can work for a time, as it does here. When originally printed the series was suffering from low sales and occasionally signs can be seen of emergency measures, such as the book briefly going bimonthly. But one should never look to contemporary sales to determine if a run is any good all these years later. This volume shows some forgotten gems and is well worth a look.

Friday, 14 September 2012

Essential Ms. Marvel volume 1

Marvel seems to have spent quite a bit of time searching for "the next Spider-Man" in the 1970s. They probably didn't spot Wolverine for a while. One such series launched at the start of 1977 with the cover proclaiming "A bold new super-heroine in the senses-stunning tradition of Spider-Man!" The character's debut was heavily entrenched in Spidey's world, working for J. Jonah Jameson, and the debut cover was replete with characters from the Spider-Man comics. But over time Ms. Marvel would go her own way, moving out of what was not yet called "the Spider-Man family" of titles.

Essential Ms. Marvel volume 1 contains Ms. Marvel #1-23, stories from Marvel Super-Heroes #10-11 and Avengers Annual #10. Marvel Super-Heroes was an early 1990s quarterly title that generally ran left-over stories from inventory, and here carried material that would have appeared in issues #24 & #25 of Ms. Marvel, albeit with some changes and updates to reflect subsequent events. Issue #24 was largely complete when the plug was pulled; however I'm uncertain as to how much of what is printed here would have actually gone out as issue #25 back in 1979. Following the cancellation of her own series, Ms. Marvel went on to become a member of the Avengers but was written out in a rather controversial way. Annual #10 was an attempt to undo the damage. In addition there are Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe entries for Deathbird, Captain Marvel, the Kree and Rogue.

The first couple of issues are written by Gerry Conway, who also plotted the third which was scripted by Chris Claremont who writes all the remaining issues in the volume, though Marvel Super-Heroes #11 has a co-credit for latter day additions by Simon Furman. The art is by variously John Buscema, Jim Mooney, Keith Pollard, Sal Buscema, Carmine Infantino, Dave Cockrum and Mike Vosburg, with Mike Gustovich working on the additions in Marvel Super-Heroes #11 and Michael Golden handling the Avengers annual. The writing credits are generally encouraging, though most of the giants of comics have had their off days and the original writer leaving after just a couple of issues can be a sign of early turbulence. However, the art credits are more unstable. With a lot of creators, a separate post has been created to carry the labels for them.

I have to admit that growing up in the 1980s, the whole "Ms" thing passed me by until rather later. None of my female teachers, of whom there were many, used it (at least at school). It wasn't taught to me at the same time I was learning about other honorifics. Nor did I ever encounter it in relation to the mothers of any of my contemporaries, or by any woman I can recall in the media (but then some of the more strident "Ms"es may not had made an impact, plus a growing informality was bypassing the title debate altogether). And that's even before we get to the backlash against radical feminism that means there are women who really dislike "Ms" and take offence to being called it. The only female I can recall from that era for whom it was used in my hearing was "Ms. Lion", the dog in Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends, but I, like many others, heard the name as "Miss Lion" and never realised it was anything else. So by the time I did learn about "Ms" I was sufficiently set in my ways that it felt unusual, made more so by hardly ever actually hearing it in practice since then (although again usage of "Mrs" and "Miss" has noticeably declined and this issue is not exactly a standard point of conversation) and then there's the whole issue of how to pronounce it (a few characters have their rendition written as "Miz" – is this meant to indicate a non-standard pronunciation or conversely an attempt to help readers learn how to pronounce it?). So does that mean the name "Ms. Marvel" instinctively puts me off her? I can't say for sure as by the time I first encountered her she was now "Binary" and my first regular reading of her was as "Warbird". So the "Ms. Marvel" name has dated for me, even if she has since used it again.

The first issue is a curious mixture of introductions and mysteries. We are introduced to both Carol Danvers, the newly hired editor of "Woman" magazine (based, not entirely coincidentally, on the real world magazine "Ms." though without the more strident political side), and the mysterious hero who is soon dubbed "Ms. Marvel" but she herself suffers from amnesia and has no clear knowledge about who she is or how she acquired her powers. Carol suffers from periodic migraines and disappears at times when she passes out, making the connection all too clear, but neither ego is aware of the other. It could be a sign of a bold step to allow the reader to discover things such as the origin at the same time as the character, or equally it could be a sign of a character rushed onto the stands before she was fully thought through, due to a need to protect the company's intellectual property. Spider-Woman debuted the following month with much the same problem, but had the different solution of rushing out a rather poorly thought through origin and then once her own series was launched the origin was routinely revised and built on, to the point where it became almost impossible to follow. It's questionable as to which approach is better in such a messy situation. However, the practical result is that issue #1 finishes without giving the reader a decent understanding of the character of Ms. Marvel and why she does what she does, nor for that matter what the full extent of her powers is. This is not an encouraging sign. And the derivative nature of the character is all too clear. A blonde female with the surname "Danvers" who is a spin-off of a powerful alien hero, and both of them have enhanced strength, invulnerability and can fly? Now where have we heard that one before? Oh hello Supergirl. But from what I've seen of Supergirl's adventures from the time, Ms. Marvel's are cut from a very different cloth. Comparisons with the "Marvel Family" of Fawcett/DC are pretty much non-existent bar an in-joke when the Beast asks if Ms. Marvel is Captain Marvel's sister. (That's the wrong Captain Marvel, Hank!)

Gerry Conway is credited on the first issue as not just the writer/editor (a joint post common at Marvel at the time but later phased out) but also as having conceived the series, with help from his then wife Carla. I wonder if this help had much influence on the series but as Gerry Conway left the series and Marvel altogether with issue #3 it's hard to tell. By the time he leaves we have at least learnt the origin of Ms. Marvel, though Carol herself has not, as we discover she absorbed radiation when caught up in a fight between Captain Marvel and an enemy. Carol herself discovers her alter ego in the next few issues but the exact psychological relationship between the two is left unaddressed for some time – are they the result of a split personality or is Ms. Marvel a pre-existing Kree who is now sharing Carol's body, similar to Captain Marvel and Rick Jones? In general, Chris Claremont's changes to the character are gradual and work as an ongoing narrative, such as altering the source of her powers from her costume to her body as the result of a second exposure to radiation. This works much better than the "everything you knew is false" approach some writers take of introducing retcons and deceptions that simply wipe out a previous writer's additions to the mythology. Issue #13 finally answers the question about the two identities and establishes that Ms. Marvel is a split in Carol's personality due to her mind being unable to cope when her body was transformed into a Kree warrior. This is not entirely consistent with Ms. Marvel occasionally spouting Kree words such as "Hala" and "Great Pama" or having memories that suggest she was born Kree (though it wasn't clear if those memories were somehow transplanted from Captain Marvel) but the result is that we finally get an integrated whole character. But it's not until issue #19 that we get it fully established that the initial exposure to radiation and Captain Marvel's Nega-Bands resulted in Carol being genetically reconstituted as part-human, part-Kree as part of an overall scheme by the Kree Supreme Intelligence. It says a lot that it takes nearly twenty issues to fully flesh out the character's origin. Issue #19 also sees the first appearance of Captain Marvel, outside of flashbacks, and he and Carol end the issue agreeing to be friends but she also talks about how she's ended up as a female copy of him but wants to fully establish herself properly.

If readers picked the book up expecting a diatribe of second wave feminism then they would have been severely disappointed. However, that expectation may well have been critical in putting other potential readers off. But apart from a few individual scenes, inevitably in confrontations with overbearing male figures such as her father, Jonah or Iron Man, there aren't really that many moments of explicit feminist confrontation. Instead, we have a strong, self-confident independent woman who gets on with her life and gives her best in the situations she encounters. That's a much better approach than presenting a preaching, man-hating, castrating, bra-burning stereotypical crusader who would have dated rapidly. Speaking of clothing there's a minor change to the costume from issue #9 onwards which sees Ms. Marvel's midriff is filled in. Later on issue #20 shows signs of the warning sirens screaming on the title, with the telltale signs of the frequency dropping to bi-monthly, a new logo, "New" being prominently used on the cover and a new costume. It makes sense that Ms. Marvel would wish to move beyond being a derivative of Captain Marvel and ditching the Kree uniform is a natural way to go, but this isn't explicitly stated in the strip itself.

Despite the attempts to establish its own identity, one curious sign is that villains from other series are far more prominent than new villains. That's not to say there aren't any new villains, with the series also introducing the likes of Kerwin Korman the Destructor, Deathbird, Hecate, Sapper, Mystique and finally the Lizard People (who, contrary to expectations, are not engaged in umpteen conspiracy theories) but this seems to be their only appearance. But yes, the Deathbird and Mystique on that list are the famous X-Men ones and they are the main contenders to be Ms. Marvel's arch nemesis. But in general it's villains from other series who predominate. The first issue kicks off with the Scorpion, adding to the title's links to the Spider-Man "family", then the following issues then sees the appearance of AIM (Advanced Idea Mechanics – they're the high tech guys in silly radiation suits) and their one-time leader MODOK ("Mobile Organism Designed Only for Killing" – which isn't an accurate description) from multiple Marvel series such as Iron Man and Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.. Then we get the Doomsday Man (from the original Silver Surfer series), Grotesk (from X-Men), the Elementals Hellfire, Hydron and Magnum (from Supernatural Thrillers), Steeplejack (from Power Man), Tiger Shark (from Namor the Sub-Mariner), Ronan the Accuser and the Kree Supreme Intelligence (both originally from Fantastic Four but they have each appeared in many other titles), the Faceless One (from Astonishing Tales) and, in the inventoried issue #24, Sabretooth (from the X-Men). Both the "reconstructed" issue #25 and Avengers Annual #10 feature the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, made up here of Mystique, Destiny, Pyro, Avalanche, the Blob and Rogue. If the story printed in Marvel Super-Heroes #11 is pretty accurate to what would have gone out in 1979 then that issue would have been the first appearance of all bar Mystique and the Blob. However I am a bit sceptical this would actually have been the case and so Destiny, Pyro and Avalanche made their first appearances in X-Men in the "Days of Future Past" story (and the Blob had also debuted in X-Men, albeit many years earlier) whilst the Avengers annual is the first appearance of Rogue.

The initial supporting cast is primarily drawn from the Spider-Man titles, most notable J. Jonah Jameson and Mary Jane Watson, but there are also occasional appearances by other Daily Bugle staffers such as Peter Parker and Robbie Robertson. Mary Jane Watson is quite prominent in the first few issues as she befriends Carol who she is in awe of, but she is rapidly ditched once Claremont takes over from Conway, and not mentioned thereafter. Jonah lasts for longer and there are occasional clashes between him and Carol over the direction of "Woman" which eventually result in him firing her – and in typical Jonah style he does it by letter! The series's original cast is mixed between characters who make a couple of appearances and a few more regular ones. Of the latter we get Mike Barnett, Carol's psychiatrist who discovers her secret even before she does, and who falls for her and hopes to marry her, but before this can advance he is killed off in what would have been issue #24. Another potential beau is Frank Gianelli, a photojournalist who make a mark in the Bugle building when he got so angry with Jonah he punched him. Sadly this incident occurred before his first appearance and is only talked about. At one point he and Carol share a kiss but that's as far as it goes. The other most frequent supporting cast member is Tracy Burke, a veteran top photojournalist who Carol recruits as her associate editor and who later succeeds her. There's also Arabella Jones, Carol's landlord in her later issues whom she befriends, though she isn't developed significantly in the time remaining. Otherwise the supporting cast tend to appear very briefly for individual stories or make only a couple of brief appearances across issues. Carol's parents, Joe and Marie, appear in both a storyline in the middle of the run and later in a flashback, and we see how Carol grew up in a family with highly traditionalist expectations summed up in her father's comment "Besides, you don't need college to find a good husband," which led her to sign up with the Air Force as a route to afford her way through college and then make her own way in life.

In general the stories flow quite fast, putting Ms. Marvel through a quite varied set of situations ranging from fighting a civil war within AIM, risking her life in a deep-sea mission to rescue Namorita or rescuing people from the Lizard People and finding a way for the race to exist in safety. All in all these twenty-three issues offer a pretty solid run and once again it's a pity that such a good book didn't catch on for whatever reason of sales. However there are a few problems. There's a long-running subplot involving the mysterious Mystique (now I wonder how her name was come up with) and her plans against both Carol and Ms. Marvel. But unfortunately the series ended before it could be fully developed. Considering how early it was begun this is not an accident of cancellation but an early example of how Claremont could let sub-plots run on and on without a clear sign of resolution. Marvel Super-Heroes #10 printed the story that had already been prepared for issue #24 and does take the sub-plot a little way forward with the murder of Mike Barnett (an event that could be held up as a sign of "Men in Refrigerators" or just that it's the curse of being a supporting cast member regardless of gender that results in unpleasant things happening to them, particularly when writing them out). But then it gets fuzzy. As noted above, Marvel Super-Heroes #11 contains more of a sort of "reconstruction" of what was planned for Ms. Marvel #25 but with two writers involved it's clear that a number of elements were added not only to bring Carol's story up to date but also to reconcile continuity. Whilst Mystique had been trying to kill Carol and Ms. Marvel for quite a number of issues, I am sceptical that Destiny, Pyro and Avalanche were going to have made their debuts in issue #25, though it seems that Rogue would indeed have done so. What we get is a mixture of Carol trying to trace her boyfriend's murder and getting side-tracked into taking down an arms smuggling ring, combined with an attack on her by the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants. It's all a bit confusing and some points aren't properly resolved within this volume, such as whether the murder is ever fully solved. The issue ends with prolonged scenes that show Ms. Marvel's battle with Rogue that took place off-panel before the start of the Avengers annual…

The volume is 512 pages long, one of the shorter of the Essentials, so what additional material could have been included in this volume had it needed to be longer? Appearances in team-up books are common and Ms. Marvel appeared in Marvel Team-Up #62 (which came out between issues #10 & #11 of her own series) and was one of several characters to appear in Marvel Two-in-One #51, the month after her own series ended. The Team-Up issue is, however, the conclusion of a two-part story and doesn't feature Ms. Marvel that significantly. It also doesn't touch at all upon the overlaps in Peter Parker and Carol Danvers's civilian lives. With the Two-in-One issue having Ms. Marvel as part of a crowd of Avengers it's probably for best that neither of these issues was included. But the biggest absentee of note is Avengers #200. Ms. Marvel started regularly appearing with the Avengers from issue #171 onwards, though didn't formally join until issue #183 (which came out a month after her own series suddenly ended). Issue #200 saw her written out very controversially, to put it mildly. The title of Carol Strickland's essay "The Rape of Ms. Marvel" says it all. Perhaps it's fortunate that it isn't included here. Avengers Annual #10 sought to make amends for some of the mess, allowing Carol (and Chris Claremont) to confront the Avengers (and their writers) about their complete failure to realise what had actually happened to her and that it wasn't consensual at all. The story otherwise introduces a new villain in the form of Rogue, a mutant with the ability to absorb other people's memories and powers through physical contact. However her contact with Ms. Marvel sees something go wrong and she permanently absorbs both. Carol is left depowered and with her memories only slowly recovering thanks to help from Professor Xavier. It's possible that Chris Claremont had planned the encounter with Rogue all along as a way to end the series, but the axe fell sooner than expected and Ms. Marvel's storyline wasn't carried forward in the pages of the Avengers. But whether the intention or not it's still a poor way to write out a character, having such fundamentals of her life stolen by another, leaving her broken and having to rebuild her life slowly. Because the volume is, unusually, not laid out in exact order of publication the two Marvel Super-Heroes issues come before the Avengers annual. As a result the volume ends on a downbeat note, rather than with 1992 additions that summarised Carol's story up until she became Binary. Curiously there's no Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe entry for Carol included here that could have served that purpose.

In spite of the problems with the ending, overall this volume is quite good and reveals another hidden gem from the Bronze Age of comics. Ms. Marvel may have been a spin-off of one pre-existing character, she may have been initially embedded in the world of another and she may have been created to ride a trend in the wider world, but she steadily proves her own worth in both her identities and gradually sheds the baggage from both other characters though not in such a way that it feels forced (and certainly not in the jarring manner that her contemporary, Spider-Woman, was subjected to with almost every new writer). Sure there are some narrative problems with lengthy underdeveloped sub-plots, an origin that takes many issues to fully flesh out and an early problem of the identity of Ms. Marvel and Carol, but by and large the series manages to propel itself forward in such a way that the problems don't show, and bit by bit almost every one is eventually resolved. Even better the series didn't descend into crude stereotyping but instead offered a strong character who got on with things. Overall this series is much underrated.

Essential Ms. Marvel volume 1 - creator labels

We have a volume with a lot of creators, so here's a separate post to carry the labels for them.

Saturday, 8 September 2012

Essential Daredevil volume 4

Essential Daredevil volume 4 contains issues #75-101 and Avengers #111, which crossed over with the series, plus unused covers for issues #90 & #91. Most of the issues are by Gerry Conway, with one script by Gary Friedrich, and the last few see Steve Gerber take over (scripting Conway’s plots at first then full writing). The Avengers issue is by Steve Englehart. The art on the regular issues is nearly all by Gene Colan bar individual issues by Barry Windsor-Smith, Sam Kweskin and Rich Buckler, whilst the Avengers issue is drawn by Don Heck.

This is a volume of two halves, the first set largely in New York and seeing the final resolution (for now) of Matt Murdock’s relationship with Karen Page, then the second half sees the book take a major step away from its roots by transferring Daredevil to San Francisco, making him one of the earliest Marvel heroes to be relocated to the West Coast, and teaming him up with the Black Widow, aka Natasha Romanoff (or Romanova depending on who’s writing her), with the book’s title changed from issue #92 onwards to Daredevil and the Black Widow. As I discussed when looking at the previous volume, this was an era when the “buddy book” teaming up two superheroes was becoming popular. The Human Torch and the Thing team-up in Strange Tales may have been long over but Captain America and the Falcon had become that book’s title a couple of years earlier whilst it was only some months since the launch of Marvel Team-Up, originally intended as a regular team-up between Spider-Man and the Human Torch. Reinforcing the house style of the mini-genre, all these books for a time used a similar logo layout with small pictures of the two heroes on either side of the logo. There were plans in this period to instead merge Daredevil with Iron Man (this was some years before the merger of Power Man and Iron Fist) but fortunately they came to nothing and instead the team-up with the Black Widow feels far more natural as the two have similar power levels.

But before that change happens the series runs through a mixture of bitty adventures, mostly in New York but some elsewhere, and provides the conclusion for a good while to the Karen Page saga. The first couple of issues takes us to the fictional country of Delvadia. And unlike most Latin American people portrayed in comics in this era (as well as in many other mediums) its inhabitants don’t all speak Spanglish with an outrageous accent. The first Delvadian seen at first appears to be an exception but it soon transpires he’s just putting it on to mock the way Americans expect him to speak. However whilst the language portrayal may be more advanced than usual, the portrayal of the country is more stereotypical. Being a Latin American country in fiction it is inevitably full of military dictatorships and revolutionaries. Daredevil gets caught up in a plot by revolutionaries but soon defeats it without a wider exploration of the state of Delvadia. Some comics at this time (1971) may have been exploring complex social and political issues but others were still just using them as a backdrop to action adventures.

I’ve written before about issue #77 with a guest appearance by Spider-Man and Namor the Sub-Mariner, but reading it in the full context of this volume it really sticks out as an intruder in the title. Parts of the issue feel more like an issue of Amazing Spider-Man than Daredevil, in particular a scene between Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson at the former’s flat that assumes a stronger degree of familiarity than the average guest appearance. The whole thing is setting up an adventure in Sub-Mariner #40 but Daredevil doesn’t appear which leaves one wondering why his title was used to set up the team-up rather than Spider-Man’s. The other crossover in this volume is with Avengers and is only partially more relevant to the series. After an encounter with a jealous Hawkeye, Daredevil and the Black Widow are recruited by a rump of the Avengers to help free both the other Avengers and the X-Men from Magneto. The rationale for recruiting two West Coast based heroes is rather weak – that all other potential help is non-contactable – and it results in Daredevil and the Black Widow being caught up in a conflict against a villain somewhat out of their normal range (and unlike Doctor Doom, Magneto had not yet been elevated to a Marvel Universe wide supervillain who could be used in almost any title without surprise). Furthermore the Avengers issue is the final instalment in a multi-part storyline and presented on its own it is somewhat confusing to read, as though Daredevil’s readers, like Ol’ Hornhead and Natasha themselves, have walked in during the second act. But the story ends with a big development when for the first time Daredevil and the Black Widow are both offered membership in the Avengers. Daredevil declines, feeling that the nature of his powers makes it difficult to operate in a team environment, but the Black Widow accepts, leading to her departure from the series although her name remains in the book’s title for the remaining couple of issues in this volume and she returns by the end of the final issue.

Issue #77 also sees the return to the series of Karen Page, with her acting career having brought her back to New York. For a few issues it seems that she and Matt are firmly a thing of the past, both due to her developing relationship with her agent and her assumptions that Matt has found someone else, though that hasn’t quite happened yet. Issue #85 ends with a sudden renewal as Matt and Karen meet once more at an airport (Gerry Conway clearly had a thing for big kisses at airports with Peter Parker and Mary Jane’s first great kiss also taking place at one – I wonder if this reflects anything in the writer’s own life?) and rediscover their feelings for one another. The following issue see the relationship soar as they announce their engagement, but it rapidly crashes and burns when their party is attacked by the Ox and Matt gets hurt as Daredevil. Karen’s doubts resurface and she comes to the conclusion she was foolishly trying to recreate her past and she and Matt part on good terms. The Karen who leaves the series (for now) is a much more mature and developed character than the cipher we first saw working in Matt and Foggy’s office; a sign of how much development there has been over the series. But all that development cannot overcome the basic problem for any superhero’s relationship with a civilian and her knowledge of his secret only makes it worse. Ultimately it’s best that the relationship has been allowed to run a natural course and Karen given the chance to step aside so her character is not run into the ground. It also allows for the dramatic shift in the location and focus of the series. Other loose ends have been tied up by this stage, such as the subplot of Foggy being blackmailed, alongside battles with old foes such as the Owl and new ones such as the Man-Bull.

The issues in this volume see quite a few new villains introduced and they include El Condor, Man-Bull, Mr. Kline, Blue Talon, Damon Dran the Indestructible Man, the Dark Messiah and the Disciples of Doom (Josiah, Macabee and Uriah) and Angar the Screamer. By now I’ve acknowledged the need to google some of the names in these sections so many times that from now on please take it as read. Angar the Screamer is probably the best known of these villains, though upon checking I was surprised to discover he’s been used rather less than I thought. Bizarrely he’s easily the most dated of all the foes, dressing as a hippie, although his backstory builds upon the real life failure of the hippie movement leading to his anger at both the hippies who “sold out” (ironically he’s done the same) and the forces that reacted against the hippies. But even more surprisingly his headband has on it the symbol of the swastika. Yes it’s an ancient spiritual symbol, and it’s pretty clear that that’s the reason why Angar wears it, but in the West its usage by the Nazis has given it very different connotations and it is very daring (and open to misunderstanding) for anyone here to try to reclaim the symbol for its original purpose. When the character first appeared, less than three decades after the end of the Second World War, that would have been even more the case. But the hippies were nothing if not daring so was this a reflection of a real life attempt to do just that, or is it a sign of inaccuracies in the portrayal of the character? My knowledge of both the hippie movement and the history of the swastika is insufficient to answer that one.

As well as the new introductions, there are also some villains from other series making their first appearances here including the Scorpion (from the Amazing Spider-Man in case anyone didn’t know by now), Baal (from Iron Man, was this perhaps one of the few traces of the aborted plan to merge the titles that made it into the series?) and, in the Avengers crossover, Magneto (from the X-Men – which at this point was a reprint only title due to low sales). On top of all that we also get some new incarnations of existing villains such as the third Mr. Fear who turns out to be Larry Cranston, a former classmate of Matt’s and now his law partner. But as with the earlier Starr Saxon incarnation, this new Mr. Fear is killed off almost immediately. There’s also a sort-of new Ox – the original’s mind was swapped with Dr Karl Stragg’s back in issue #15 and both found themselves exhibiting traits from each other’s personality, with Stragg going on to die in the Ox’s body. Now the Ox in Stragg’s body finds he is dying and also that the body is turning into the Ox’s original form. But instead of using the opportunity to correct the earlier mistake of removing the Ox as a villain, issue #86 compounds the error by killing off the rest of the Ox. In both cases there were opportunities available to either resurrect or replace the villains for the long run and thus correct the past blunders, but instead the error is repeated and the villain’s identity is invariably diminished for the long run as it would be harder to introduce yet another incarnation.

There are also some additions to the supporting cast. In the early issues, the most prominent addition is Phil Hichok, Karen’s casting agent who has a brief entanglement with her. Then once the series relocates to San Francisco we get quite a few additions, and wisely they are spread out. The most prominent is Ivan Petrovitch, the Black Widow’s friend and chauffeur who raised her after her mother died in the siege of Stalingrad. (I’m not sure how that has been retconned as the years pass and the Black Widow’s origin has been subject to quite a few retcons.) Ivan learns of Matt’s identity (between issues, never a good move) and comes to aid Daredevil several times, almost serving as an Alfred Pennyworth figure both inside the mansion and beyond it, giving Daredevil the permanent back-up support he’s hitherto lacked. Elsewhere in San Francisco we meet Paul Carson, a police lieutenant who becomes Daredevil’s strongest ally on the San Francisco police force and provides a strong contrast with his superior, Commissioner O’Hara, who is rather less than thrilled about having superheroes running around on his patch. There’s also Jason Sloan, the most prominent of Matt’s new law partners. In addition there are various smaller characters with potential for reuse such as Lucretia Jones, a local TV reporter. Of the major characters Sloan is less developed than the others, but overall we get a good mixed supporting cast that crucially isn’t anchored to just one aspect of Matt/Daredevil’s life, which was a problem in the earlier issues when he supporting cast was limited to just his law partner and their secretary.

But it’s Daredevil’s new co-star who really shakes up the title. The Black Widow was first introduced in Iron Man back in 1964, but had subsequently undergone a significant makeover in the pages of the Amazing Spider-Man and then enjoyed a solo feature in Amazing Adventures which ended immediately before she was added to Daredevil. Sadly we have yet to see an Essential Black Widow carrying both her earlier and later solo appearances. Originally one of the many Communist foes that existed in the early Silver Age Marvel stories, she defected to the United States within a couple of years and after a brief retirement she became the costumed crimefighter she’s best known as. As a pre-existing character she comes with an established past and this is not forgotten, with appearances by both her former partner Hawkeye and Danny French, an associate from her spying days. The relationship between Natasha and Matt is carefully built upon, with the two quickly falling for each other but taking some time to realise this and it’s only slowly that they realise their feelings for one another. Being a costumed crimefighter herself Natasha demonstrates none of the perpetual worry that so many superheroes’ girlfriends go through; nor is there a clash of priorities between her and the male hero. Instead we have a couple who work well together, although there are still some issues between them that need to be ironed out. Interestingly Natasha and Matt are one of the first unmarried couples in comics who are as blatantly sleeping together as an early 1970s Comic Code Approved Marvel comic can show. It’s also credible that they would move together to the West Coast and start a new life out there.

Less credible, though, is the fact that Matt Murdock and Daredevil both turn up in San Francisco at the same time, and they are both prominently associated with the same woman, and once again this leads to suspicion about Daredevil’s identity. Matt initially solves this through a combination of help from the Black Panther, who briefly impersonates Daredevil to appear in the same place as Matt, and a resorting to the old “Mike Murdock” lie with a claim that the “second Daredevil” is following Matt to protect him out of loyalty to his “predecessor”. When Daredevil gives an interview to the Rolling Stone magazine in issue #100 he finds himself once again caught up in the mess of this lie and now has to claim that originally there were two Daredevils taking the role in turns until one was killed. That particular mess from way back in issue #25 seems to pop up when one least expects it, with one explanation built upon another in order to cover Matt’s tracks.

Otherwise the move to San Francisco opens up a number of new opportunities. By this stage it seems clear that Daredevil is unlikely to have the strongest Rogues’ Gallery going and so he and the Black Widow becomes two of the few heroes who can get away with the problem that it’s difficult to find supervillains on the West Coast. Instead we get a good mix of stories that give us a mixture of foes and situation, putting both heroes to the test. The introduction of the Black Widow and the relocation have both worked for the best, giving the series a more distinctive purpose and allowing for stronger character development. As a result it’s strange that Daredevil’s San Francisco days are now one of his forgotten eras. It’s true that he has many forgotten eras, but his relationship with Black Widow has been frequently referenced over the years. Gerry Conway and Gene Colan both end their runs on the book at a high point and Steve Gerber’s first few issues are encouraging for the future. This volume contains a strong run of issues and shows the title in a healthy state. It is easily the best Essential Daredevil volume so far.

Friday, 31 August 2012

Essential Nova volume 1

Essential Nova (the title given in the copyright information, and also on the spine) volume 1 contains The Man called Nova #1-25 plus Amazing Spider-Man #171, which contained half of a crossover with the series, and Marvel Two-in-One Annual #3, which saw Nova guesting in the Thing’s team-up book. In addition it also contains Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe entries for Nova and the Sphinx.

All the Nova issues plus the Marvel Two-in-One Annual are written by Marv Wolfman, whilst the Amazing Spider-Man issue is by Len Wein. The regular series art is by John Buscema, Sal Buscema (who also does the Marvel Two-in-One Annual), Carmine Infantino and Bob McLeod, with the Amazing Spider-Man issue by Ross Andru. Writing wise that’s one of the most consistent credits I’ve seen for a title launched in this era.

The series is often described as an intentional homage to Spider-Man and an unintentional homage to (the Silver Age) Green Lantern but just how true are either of these? The Spider-Man homage seems clear and openly acknowledged, with the first issue’s cover carrying the banner “In the Marvelous tradition of Spider-Man!” We get the story of a high school student with an alliterative name who lives on Long Island who is bullied at school but unexpectedly gains special powers. There are some differences – Richard Rider lives in the city of Hempstead rather than the New York suburb of Queen’s, he lives with his parents, he has a younger brother, he’s a poor performer at school with both his brother and the school bully significantly outperforming him, but he has some well-established friendships. There’s no significant tragedy in Richard’s life that drives his superhero career and although his family experiences financial problems he never resorts to getting a job that would bring an additional aspect to the series. But there are sufficient elements from the Spider-Man stories to recognise the influence even though many a story of a high school pupil would have them. The absence of an equivalent to the great moral lesson Spider-Man learnt does stand out – the nearest we get are a couple of panels in the first issue where Nova reflects on how he could use his powers to get his own back, but then reflects that he was given them for a reason and must use them responsibly to help others. And throughout the series Richard/Nova faces some of the everyday personal problems Peter Parker/Spider-Man did in his early days, but with the exception of his poor grades and the prospect of repeating a year they don’t seem to be as significant.

The Green Lantern influence is more mixed than it initially seems. It’s true that we get the story of a dying alien member of some alien force choosing a human to be its successor. However the Nova Corps isn’t really presented as an intergalactic police force at this stage and it’s only in the last couple of issues that Xandar becomes relevant, though the series was cancelled before the storyline could get there. The impression given is that the previous Nova Prime was the last survivor of Xandar’s forces. Once the threat of Zorr has been defeated, Nova is pretty much a solo agent for the series’ run, with no alien higher authority or a legion of similarly powered warriors who occasionally help him or drag him off on missions. Nova doesn’t adhere to any grand code beyond the standard superhero ethic, and there’s no conflict of authority and morality. And looking at the basics, getting powers from an alien who dies soon after (thus leaving a superpowered human without a guiding force) is a formula that has been used elsewhere, such as Power Pack. It’s possible later stories added layers to the mythology that provided some more direct comparisons between Nova and Green Lantern, but on the evidence of the issues contained in this volume the influence is less than sometimes claimed.

Reading through this volume it’s surprising to see just how fast paced the stories are. Marvel comics from this era are generally only seventeen pages long which can be a limitation but Wolfman’s writing keeps things going at a fast pace. Nova is put through a variety of situations ranging from the comic, particularly the visit to Marvel Comics in issue #5, complete with appearance by Wolfman, Sal Buscema, Stan Lee and several other Marvel staffers of the era, to the tragic such as the murder of his uncle in issue #12. The latter incident might seem like another homage to Spider-Man, especially as the wallcrawler has a crossover here, but it’s entirely a murder mystery rather than a deep character building moment.

Nova does get some character development but it’s a constant throughout these issues that he’s still learning things, a point made by Nick Fury when Nova assumes that the Yellow Claw has perished when his ship was destroyed by Fury knows better. Like many a hero, Nova/Richard experiences problems balancing the demands of heroing and his civilian life, with the inevitable consequences for the latter as he appears uncommitted and is frequently absent without convincing explanations. However unlike many he does take some steps towards reconciling the two. Throughout the first twenty issues a repeated theme is about whether or not he should tell his family, with the subplot of his younger brother Robert starting to investigate Richard’s disappearances, soon aided by his own creation “Sherly”, a robot designed to mimic Sherlock Holmes. However Richard opts to take the-then unusual step of revealing his identity to his family in issue #21 and this does a lot to resolve tensions as they find pride in him, though it opens up the question of whether or not his family will accept his continuing in the role. Unfortunately the series ends before this question is really resolved. Richard’s family are a mixture of the good and the bad. His father is a principal (not of Richard’s school though) who is eventually suspended in disagreements about discipline policy – it’s not explicitly spelled out but it seems to be the clash between teachers determined to maintain order through necessary methods against parents who oppose those methods and refuse to accept there are problems in the classroom. (Charles is also quite critical of Richard’s conduct at school both academic and pastoral.) The suspension pushes Charles to the edge as he faces financial problems that eventually put him under the influence of loan sharks called the Inner Circle, headed by the Corruptor, but Charles turns on them and gives evidence, even at risk to himself. Gloria is less well sketched out but is shown as a part-time working mother operating as a police dispatcher (which sometimes distracts Nova when his helmet picks up her radio messages) who is more openly sympathetic than her husband and keeps the family together. Unfortunately younger brother Robert fits an archetype that science fiction fans know all too well and cower from – the boy genius. An extremely intelligent fifteen year old, and a show-off to boot, Robert serves to enhance his brother’s inferiority complex and seemingly offer scientific solutions to problems, but after the early issues this latter aspect fades away in place of his curiosity as to what his elder brother is up to. It’s revealed later on that “Sherly” was in fact given artificial intelligence by Doctor Sun and it’s curious that Robert never stops to realise that as clever as he is, he’s not the next Reed Richards. Doctor Sun is also one of a number of characters to discover Nova’s identity, though most do so either through their powers or access to information. Nick Fury of SHIELD discovers it by tracking down the reports of the boy who exhibited strange energy powers around the same time in the same place that Nova first appeared, but takes steps to cover up the coincidence. It’s another step towards realism as in the real world it’s doubtful anyone could maintain a superhero secret identity, and certainly not a high school pupil.

It’s at high school that some of the clearest Spider-Man influences stand out, most obviously in the character of Mike Burley, “Big Man On Campus”, a school sports star and the regular bully of Richard. The Flash Thompson parallel simply leaps out and is reinforced by the presence of Donna-Lee Dover, Mike’s girlfriend who is more friendly towards Richard in a manner a bit reminiscent of Liz Allan. However Mike is not a pure Flash Thompson knock-off. In a major role reversal it’s Mike who regularly gets the top grades and Richard who just scrapes through academically, and this position adds to Mike’s arrogance. He’s inadvertently responsible for Richard gaining his powers by pushing him into the position where he was hit by the Nova Force. As the series progresses layers are added to Mike, suggesting that he has become the way he is due to massive family pressure to succeed, implying that he’s what Richard might have become had things gone differently. Mike is also shown as loyal to his family, to the point of being blackmailed into crime to save his brother’s life but because of this no charges are pressed. In another deviation from the early Spider-Man days, Richard has several established friendships at the school, including Bernie Dillon and Roger “Caps” Cooper, the latter of whom has to face the wrath of his uncle who has become Megaman and blames his nephew for it. There’s also Ginger Jaye, and as in many such real life cases the line between close female friend and girlfriend are blurred. She provides support to Richard at times, but even she gets badly treated by him at one stage, though later he apologises and is forgiven. In general the cast is devised well but with the limited page count they don’t get quite as much attention as they might otherwise have done.

Being a Marvel series it was inevitable that there’d be guest appearances by other heroes along the way. As well as the aforementioned Spider-Man, Nick Fury and SHIELD plus the to Marvel Two-in-One team-up with the Thing, there’s also an early appearance by Thor. Issue #15 appears to contain appearances by the Hulk, Iron Man, Captain America and a returning Spider-Man, but they turn out to be Life Model Decoys aka robots operated by SHIELD to test Nova. There are also two original heroes introduced – the Crimebuster, a crimefighter with no powers but skills and gadgets, and the Comet, a superhero retroactively placed in the 1950s who is restored from a drunken limbo. The Comet’s story of how his family were killed (by one of his foes seeking revenge) is a reminder of the dangers all superheroes place those around them under, but there is a happy ending to the story with the revelation that his son survived and is the Crimebuster. Both become allies of Nova at the end of the series.

The series demonstrates a high level of originality when it comes to villains. In the course of these twenty-five issues we get the first appearances of Zorr, Condor, Powerhouse, Diamondhead, the Corruptor, the Sphinx, Megaman, Firefly, Photon, Blackout and Doctor Sun. Additionally the Marvel Two-in-One annual introduces the Monitors. But once again I suspect there’s a dash to the search engines to find out just who some of these characters are. Blackout seems to have been used the most in the wider Marvel universe, but is very much a third or fourth tier villain. Otherwise I think the Sphinx has had the most impact but at times his very obscurity has been played on. The villains are a mixture of one-offs who serve a single story, most obviously Zorr and Photon, and those with recurring potential such as Condor, Diamondhead and the Sphinx. With the series being cut so short it’s hard to say which others would have survived for the long run and it’s perhaps inevitable that many have not been used much since which in a way helps the reprint volume as it keeps them fresh. There are also a handful of appearances by pre-existing Marvel villains but not too many. The Sandman is probably the most prominent, and the only one with a strong Spider-Man connection, whilst Tyrannus is from the Hulk’s series. But even more surprising is the choice of mastermind supervillain for the series’s longest storyline, the Yellow Claw. A Fu Manchu knock-off from a brief-lived mid-1950s Marvel/Atlas series, the Claw has been used a few times since, but there’s no shortage of Evil Oriental Masterminds in the Marvel universe, most notably the Mandarin and also, in this era, Fu Manchu (though Marvel no longer hold the rights for him). The Claw on this occasion is accompanied by his second-in-command, Karl von Horstbadden, an ex-Nazi who in keeping with the 1950s stereotypes worked for whoever was now the enemy of the United States, regardless of whether this was ideological consistencies. (In the same decade the Red Skull joined the Communists! Only later was it established that this was a different Red Skull.) Overall the villains provide a series of credible threats to Nova and help to build up his credentials as a fighter. The Sphinx is gradually established as Nova’s primary threat but his motivation is inconsistent. At first he wants to rule the world, but later he seeks to free himself of the curse of immortality and believes the relevant knowledge is held by either Nova himself or the Xandarians. It’s a revision that makes the character more credible but the change itself is somewhat abrupt, even if we accept the claim that he has spent a year trapped on a moon between appearances.

Unfortunately, the original series ends somewhat abruptly at issue #25 with Nova, the Sphinx, Comet, Crimebuster, Diamondback, Doctor Sun and Powerhouse all aboard the Xandarian spaceship heading for Xandar as part of the Sphinx’s plans. The series stopped at that point but the storyline continued for an extended run in the Fantastic Four. Sadly even six years after Essential Nova was first published, Essential Fantastic Four has yet to reach that storyline. Worse still the final fate of Nova for the 1980s appeared in ROM, a title character Marvel no longer holds the rights for (and by some accounts the current rights holder is unclear and/or unaware of it). Given the length of the Fantastic Four storyline and the fact Nova himself only appears in a few issues, it’s perhaps understandable that it wasn’t included here, but it does mean the storyline ends somewhat anti-climactically with the two Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe serving as a summary of what happens next. It’s unfortunate but understandable. Hopefully one day in the not-too-distant future Essential Fantastic Four will have carried the Xandarian storyline and later editions of Essential Nova can direct readers there. As for ROM it’s less likely but never say never...

Despite the abrupt ending, this is a good volume in general. However I am surprised that at the time Marvel genuinely believed they had another Spider-Man on their hands and promoted Nova as such. The series doesn’t quite reach those levels but it is of good quality and deserved to last longer as a monthly, instead of being dropped to bimonthly and then cancelled when a major storyline was beginning. This may not have been entirely down to contemporary perceptions of quality as the comics industry was facing wider problems in the late 1970s with Nova’s switch to bimonthly and then cancellation happening approximately equidistance from the “DC Implosion” when DC cancelled a large chunk of their line in one day due to weak sales figures, not helped by atrocious blizzards that almost literally dampened sales. Nova deserved a better chance than it got. It holds up quite well to this day.

Friday, 24 August 2012

Essential Daredevil volume 3

Essential Daredevil volume 3 contains issues #49-74 and Iron Man #35-36, which crossed over with the series. The first few issues are written by Stan Lee who gives way to Roy Thomas for most of the volume before the last few issues and the Iron Man crossover are by Gerry Conway, with Allyn Brodsky contributing the crossover’s plot, with Gary Friedrich contributing a couple of fill-in issue en route. Most of the art is by Gene Colan, with “Barry Smith” (better known as Barry Windsor-Smith – was he reluctant to use the full double-barrelled name at the start of his career?) popping up for a few issues here and there whilst the Iron Man issues are drawn by Don Heck.

There are a number of new villains introduced in these issues, including Starr Saxon and his Plastoid, Death’s Head, the Stunt-Master, Crime-Wave, the Torpedo, Brother Brimstone, Kragg, the Thunderbolts (a gang; nothing to do with the later team of villains turned heroes), Tribune, Quothar and Smasher. There’s a few villains from other series including Nighthawk (before he reformed) and, in the Iron Man crossover, the Spymaster and the Zodiac cartel. Once again I wouldn’t be surprised if these names have some of you are rushing to the search engines. Very few of these villains have made any significant long-term impact and in several cases they are killed off (and usually it appears to be an intentional killing rather than an ambiguous fate that would allow them to return). Saxon was rapidly built up as a new contender for the still vacant post of Daredevil’s archenemy, even having discovered Daredevil’s secret identity. But perhaps it was too risky to allow a foe to have such information and so he’s rapidly disposed of. Worse still, he takes Mr. Fear down with him, with the revelation that the original Mr. Fear has been killed (off-panel!) and Saxon has taken on his costumed identity. The other foes similarly make a limited impact, with Crime-Wave being another take on the masked criminal who plans to become the crimelord of New York but who is unmasked as an unexpected familiar person – in this case Hollis, an assistant District Attorney. Perhaps as a sign of how tired the archetype is, the character doesn’t appear to have been seen since. One villain who does get some development is the Stunt-Master who reforms and later works with Daredevil as well as becoming part of the general Hollywood scene around Karen in her new career.

There are finally some major developments involving Karen that improve her as a character but also have the effect of removing her from the series. At one stage she returns to her family home where she discovers what has happened to her father who has become the villainous Death’s Head. In the resulting battle with Daredevil, Death’s Head gives his life to save his daughter. Then after the funeral we get what must have been a shock in its day as the hero reveals his identity to his girlfriend. Whilst Matt had often contemplated doing this before, there had always been one thing or another that came in the way, making it the wrong moment. But now it finally happens. I am not sure how many superheroes had revealed their identities up to this point but I can’t think of any major ones (the DC Earth 2 characters, who were usually married to their main romance interests, don’t really count as they were intended to be a generation older). This makes this development the more daring, though it overlooks that Karen had virtually worked out the identity already. Unfortunately now that she knows her boyfriend is, her reaction is all too human. At first she knows how she feels about Matt but is unsure about making a life with a man who risks his life every night and may not come home. It’s true that there are many police officers’ spouses who face this very night, but usually they knew what they were getting into. Karen fell for someone she thought was a vulnerable lawyer, not a dynamic superhero. At first Matt tries to reassure her that he is retiring as Daredevil but then in a fight between ol’ Hornhead and the Stun-Master, Daredevil and Karen both realise how much superheroing means to him. As a result she leaves and moves to Los Angeles, taking up a new profession. Acting is a job that allows her a greater degree of independence from Matt than secretarial work, allowing her to finally be defined by something other than the men around her. However Hollywood is a long way away from New York and doesn’t really offer much scope for developing their relationship. We get a few stories set out west as Matt goes searching for Karen and eventually tracks her down, but eventually she decides she enjoys her new career as she goes from strength to strength, and when Matt asks her to make a choice between the two, he takes her response as meaning she’s chosen the job over him and then returns to New York.

We get a few other developments with the supporting cast. At the end of the previous volume it seemed as though Matt and Foggy had professionally split for good, but they soon realise that there was more anger than cause and Matt is soon working as an assistant to the District Attorney. There’s also a brief addition to the supporting cast in the form of Willie Lincoln, who although introduced in issue #47 in volume 2, has now been upgraded from a one-off character to an occasional supporting cast member. A veteran blinded in Vietnam, he found his sense of purpose again thanks to Matt Murdock and now reappears a few times, giving help and bringing tips on new crimes. It’s a pity greater use isn’t made of him. Otherwise there are no other real developments with the supporting cast. Hollis, the alter ego of Crime-Wave, is little more than a named background figure.

One character who could have become a regular feature is Iron Man. At one stage in late 1971, just after the end of the issues in this volume, there were plans to merge the poor selling Daredevil with the equally poor selling Iron Man to form one of the “buddy books” that were an especial feature of the Bronze Age of comics. Iron Man and Daredevil may seem an odd combination but then the same could be said of Green Lantern and Green Arrow, or the Atom and Hawkman, or Power Man and Iron Fist before each of those combinations was unleashed upon the newstands. But if the crossover included here is anything to go by it’s a relief that this plan never came to pass (instead both books switched to bimonthly for a while). I’m not sufficiently familiar with the Iron Man of this era to know if the story is a good fit for that series, but for Daredevil it sticks out like a sore thumb and issue #73 could easily be ignored in reprint runs without anyone noticing, though such an approach is entirely contrary to the Essential philosophy. We get a tale of a struggle between Iron Man and SHIELD with some members of the Zodiac cartel, fighting over an alien artefact with a brief trip to the alien world. Throughout all of this Daredevil wanders through and whilst he doesn’t openly acknowledge it, he really is completely out of his depth. The story was the second issue of Gerry Conway’s run on Daredevil and the start of a brief run on Iron Man so at least it benefits from a single writer being in control and thus the separate parts flow smoothly, but it really is one of the most forgettable stories in the volume.

Otherwise the volume contains a predominantly so-so run. A strong theme throughout this volume is identity, with a larger number of mystery villains than usual, though the mysteries only last for a single storyline. The quality of the mysteries is a little better than before, with the Brother Brimstone tale providing several suspects upfront and making efforts to provide a red herring. Read from today’s perspective it may still seem a little obvious who the murderer is, but compared to earlier mysteries in Daredevil that were all too obvious, it’s a definite improvement. But there’s a even bigger mystery explored in these issues as Matt/Daredevil grapples with the question of his own identity – which is the true personality and which is the mask? It’s one of a number of areas where for better or for worse the series was one of the earliest to do something that would become commonplace later on, another being the girlfriend discovering the hero’s identity discussed above. This is one of the advantages of being a title regarded as a second stringer as it allowed writers and artists to experiment with variations from the standard norm for superhero titles without risking “ruining” the biggest name properties where such moves could have taken the series into a dead end. The identity question is partially triggered by Starr Saxon’s discovery of Daredevil’s alter ego, but it’s clear that the issue has been bubbling under the surface for much longer. This leads to a series of moves by Daredevil that see to serve both the short and the long term purposes, such as when he decides to fake Matt Murdock’s death in a plane crash to remove the threat of Saxon’s blackmail but also to remove a weakness. He plans to start a new life with Karen under a different identity but abandons the latter part of the plan and instead arranges for his bluff to be publicised as part of a plan to trap Mr. Fear. But even after this Daredevil displays more savvy about his identity than the average superhero, particularly when he follows Karen to Los Angeles. Predicting that he might need to go into action on the West Coast and instead of ignoring the problem of the hero and the alter ego being in the same place out of town at the same time, he instead tackles it head on. Matt pretends to have instead gone for a restful vacation in Florida, whilst he uses false names in Los Angeles and thus minimises the likelihood of anyone making the connection. Compared to the way that other heroes like Spider-Man routinely show up in the same cities that Peter Parker is visiting without anyone noticing it’s a major step forward to a more realistic approach.

(Speaking of Spider-Man he has a brief cameo in issue #54 and does think to himself that he once believed Daredevil was Matt Murdock, but dismisses the theory now that Murdock is dead. This is the nearest to an explicit acknowledgement that Spider-Man wrote the infamous letter way back in issue #24, but otherwise that plot strand is now totally forgotten.)

The Starr Saxon story is the highlight of the volume, putting Daredevil through a real gauntlet as he faces a succession of menaces sent by his foe, whilst also trying to work out how to restore his secret identity. Unfortunately the resolution sees Saxon die rather than something more imaginative, but giving such a villain amnesia had already been done to death over in Spider-Man. The storyline also sees a retelling of the very first issue. This could have been the opportunity to tweak and tidy up the origin, add in a few details to explain stuff overlooked in the original story and make the whole thing flow better. However instead we get almost a direct translation of the original story, right down to the awkward narrative flow with the flashbacks. I can’t spot anything that’s been particularly added or changed apart from new dialogue that at least cuts down the sexism when Karen is introduced. It’s curious that this approach was taken – was it perhaps a fill-in issue to cover a late script? One aspect that may surprise from a modern perspective is that at this point there’s no attempt whatsoever to condense the timeline. Instead Daredevil is presented as having been active for five years, the same amount of time since the series began, and the years for earlier events in his life are the same as in his first issue. It would be a few years yet before writers started the move towards “Marvel time” whereby events are squashed into a set number of years and references to the real world are reduced.

In general the issues in this volume don’t really set the world on fire but instead keep things ticking over. There’s some good individual moments, particularly in when a bomb explodes near the Vice President who was being protested by young idealists. Foggy and Matt find themselves having to prosecute the young protestors despite believing and knowing respectively that the protestors are innocent (and whilst the story acknowledges the dilemma the lawyers find themselves in, it doesn’t address at all just how a masked vigilante can give testimony in court that will hold up). More generally there are some political themes such as the Tribune, an extreme patriot angry at the changes that were sweeping American society and the perceived failure of the existing establishment to stand up to them, or a look at tensions amongst the black community that see some drawn into crime and others who go off to fight in Vietnam attacked as “Uncle Tom”s by their own. When exploring such themes the book usually takes a left-leaning approach, doubtlessly reflecting the leanings of its authors, but I have no problem with doing this providing a good actual story is told and it doesn’t descend into oversimplistic right and wrong. These stories came out contemporary to the early stages of the famous Green Lantern/Green Arrow run by Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams and show the series willing to take yet more steps where other Marvel comics had not yet gone. But fortunately the series did not completely decamp into this area as it would likely have become very much a pale imitation of the O’Neil/Adams work.

Overall the volume is mixed but does have its ups such as the developments in Matt and Karen’s relationship plus the exploration of Daredevil/Matt’s identity crisis and his attempts to resolve it. But beyond that the stories and situations are largely treading water and not yet finding a spark to really set the series on fire. It’s an okay volume but the best Daredevil is yet to come.
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