Friday, 10 August 2012

Essential Daredevil volume 1

Essential Daredevil volume 1 contains the first twenty-five issues from the series. Almost all issues are written by Stan Lee, bar one where Denny O’Neil scripts a Lee plot and another by Wallace Wood. The art was very unstable. The first issue is by Bill Everett, but due to time constraints he had assistance from Steve Ditko and the cover, recycled as a splash page, is by Jack Kirby. Then we get a succession of Joe Orlando, Wallace Wood, Bob Powell, Jack Kirby and John Romita, before issue #20 sees the arrival of Gene Colan who is initially announced as filling in for Romita but actually wound up holding the pencil for all but about five of the next eighty-one issues.

(The creation of Daredevil is also a little unclear though it hasn’t received the same level of attention as Spider-Man. Again there's scope for disagreement over what constitutes “creating” – the initial idea by Stan Lee or the fleshed out concept worked up in collaboration with Bill Everett - plus Jack Kirby contributed to the development but it’s unclear just how far, although Everett recalled Kirby came up with the billy club. I can’t recall if Daredevil was on the list of characters Kirby’s heirs unsuccessfully tried to claim the copyright on in recent years but even if he was the case didn’t get far enough to determine “creation”. Fortunately, to the best of my knowledge, there isn’t a claim of an alternative source for the idea.)

The début issue is somewhat mixed, probably because of the limited link between the two strands of Matt Murdock gaining his enhanced senses and his father’s murder for failing to take a dive in a fixed wrestling match. This isn’t so much a tale of a lesson in responsibility or vengeance driving an ordinary person to do extraordinary things. Rather it’s a tale of a man’s murder that coincides with the son happening to have gained special abilities independently that he puts to use in seeking justice for his father. However, unlike Spider-Man’s origin, there isn’t a direct reason given at this point for why Daredevil continues to fight crime even after he’s dealt with the killers. (Although much later on in issue #25 Matt Murdock does comment to himself “I never realized Daredevil was so much a part of me! It’s like DD is my real identity – and I’m just play-acting as Matt Murdock!” It’s one of the earliest comics I can think of that even touches on the question of which identity is the “real” person and which is just a front.) Also unaddressed in the first issue and indeed through the volume is the seeming contradiction of a lawyer dedicated to the system of law and justice having a dual identity as a vigilante working outside the law – and on this occasion trying obtain a confession under duress. Some elements of the origin do still hold up quite well and have barely dated – match fixing remains an issue in wrestling to this day, whilst many children are under pressure to study hard from parents who want them to succeed. And even the chemical accident holds up quite well – the transportation of hazardous chemicals is often less than ideal and spillages can and do occur, permanently disabling people. Okay the idea of a radioactive chemical giving a person enhanced senses is a piece of comic book science, but it’s one simple leap of absurdity that we accept. In fact about the only point where the basic origin story now seems dated is the lack of any ambulance chasing injury lawyers.

Once past the first issue the series goes through a bit of a turbulent period before it really gets a clear idea of where its going. The situation is not helped by the early art being a bit of a mess and it’s not until John Romita arrives, doing finishes over Kirby’s layouts on issues #12 & #13 before doing full pencils from #14 onwards, that things start to settle. However no sooner had Romita settled in than he was whisked away over to the Amazing Spider-Man. Both he and Colan thought they were just doing fill-in assignments but each wound up staying on their respective books for quite some time. Perhaps most symbolic of all the changing artists are the alterations to Daredevil’s costume. There are a few minor changes made throughout the first six issues, most notably the chest initially sporting a “D” then a “DD”, or the brief use of a hood to carry his civilian clothes or the changing number of straps attaching the billy club holder to his leg. Then from issue #7 onwards Daredevil sports the all red outfit he’s best known for. It’s rare for a new costume to last but Daredevil pulls it off (to the point that there was a period when Marvel reprints of early Daredevil appearances were colour-“corrected” to change his yellow & black costume to the all-red version). It’s also astonishing that the new costume is introduced in a single panel that takes up about one twelfth of a page with a brief thought bubble to tell us Daredevil has worked on making it more comfortable and distinctive. In later years, entire issues would have been given over to such a change, but here the narrative flows relentlessly on.

Another area of inconsistency are Daredevil’s abilities and gadgets. The origin establishes that other than his senses he doesn’t actually have any super powers and has to rely entirely on his training and skills. Yet there’s nothing to indicate he has anything other than self-training but despite this his fighting skills are phenomenal. His billy club also gets all manner of gadgets installed in it, ranging from a very practical cable launcher to a mini-cassette recorder to a bizarre super powerful microphone with which he can use his enhanced hearing to listen to the entire city. It’s a strange addition that is only rarely used. Daredevil’s actual sense powers are also somewhat variable, serving the needs of the story at hand, with his power of hearing at times seeming almost overwhelming whereas at other times it seems little more than a normal blind person who has standard hearing but pays more attention to it than a sighted person. There are also times when it seems the radar sense might as well be sight as Daredevil is seemingly able to do just about everything a sighted person can without restraint. It reaches its silliest moment when he’s able to pilot a fighter plane by the vibrations on the read-outs and his radar sense.

The supporting cast is limited to just Matt’s law partner Foggy Nelson and their secretary Karen Page. There are strong bonds between all three, enhanced by a love triangle with Matt unable to realise Karen’s feelings for him and scared to make a move because of his blindness. In several ways the Karen-Matt situation is a mirror of the Donald Blake-Jane Foster situation over in Thor, albeit with an explicit rival thrown in to reinforce the tensions. Beyond romantic entanglements this set up does somewhat limit Matt’s world, with no supporting characters from outside his office let alone from beyond the legal profession. This limits the potential for situations and also for a proper exploration of questions relating to how lawyers operate. Consequently when the Owl seeks a lawyer in issue #3, this raises the question of whether lawyers should represent those they know to be guilty. It was a few years before comics would start exploring such ethical dilemmas so instead we get a “this is how it works” explanation from Daredevil as he rushes across town after taking the case despite Foggy’s initial rejection. Unfortunately with no non-legal workers in the cast, the task of raising this question is given over to Foggy and the way Daredevil summarises the issue doesn’t help to enhance his partner’s gravitas. Instead, Foggy is all too often treated as a figure of fun, especially when he tries to build himself up with Karen by pretending Spider-Man’s hunch is right and he really is “secretly” Daredevil, to the point of obtaining a costume and agreeing to what he thinks will be a staged fight with the Gladiator.

Karen is treated with more dignity and respect, but at this stage she is unable to escape the limitations of so many early Silver Age romantic interests. The Marvel ones seem to nearly all fall into one of two categories – either Daddy’s Girls largely defined by their fathers (e.g. Janet van Dyne, Betty Banner or Doris Evans) or young working women in jobs subordinate to men and infatuated with one of the men around their office (e.g. Pepper Potts, Betty Brant or Jane Foster). Karen fits the pattern of the second so neatly she might have been designed by computer. Just to add to the dismissive approach to women, she is frequently defined by her looks in ways that would be unthinkable barely a few years later. Was there a reluctance to be bolder with the character? Was it inconceivable to instead make her a partner in the firm and thus more of an equal to Matt? Alternatively, once the series got going, perhaps to have her training on the side to become a lawyer herself? But instead throughout this run she remains a disappointing cipher whose main developments revolve around being courted by Foggy but having feelings for the reluctant Matt.

Being the last of Marvel’s early Silver Age series to be launched, it was inevitable that there’d be guest appearances early on. The Thing shows up in the second issue but only to get Matt to check a lease. Ka-Zar pops up twice but on both occasions the series is stepping heavily beyond its basis in New York crime and instead briefly making Matt/Daredevil a travelling adventurer, a role that at this stage he just doesn’t seem suited for. But the most significant guest appearance is by Spider-Man. I’ve looked at his appearance in issue #16 & #17 once already, so won’t repeat myself too much other than to note that the plot follows what was fast becoming an overused formula of one hero being falsely accused, leading to the other fighting him until realising the truth and the two then team up against the real foe. But Spider-Man has a wider impact on the series, first by turning up at the office after using his Spider-Sense to track down Daredevil, and assuming he’s Foggy (leading to the latter playing along with this for a brief while in order to impress Karen before it all goes wrong), but also later on in issue #24. Spider-Man himself doesn’t appear in the issue, but he sends Matt Murdock a letter saying he knows the lawyer is Daredevil but won’t reveal the secret; however because Matt is missing Karen opens it. For Spider-Man it’s an utterly bizarre move to commit another hero’s identity to paper, and there’s also no indication as to how he’s reached this conclusion nor why he feels the need to do this. (The issue came out the same month as Amazing Spider-Man #45 but there’s nothing in that title from around that period that even mentions this, let alone explains it. Daredevil’s most recent appearance there had been Annual #3, where he gave a reference for Spidey to the Avengers, but didn’t actually meet the wallcrawler himself.) And without Spider-Man actually appearing, could the letter in fact have been sent by someone else? It’s a possibility that isn’t explored here. However the accusation forces Matt into a convoluted situation whereby he tells Karen and Foggy that Daredevil is in fact his previously never mentioned twin brother Mike Murdock and then once in the hole digs deeper by having to pose as said brother. Given the comic conventions of the era meant that even the flimsiest of disguises could fool one’s best friends and co-workers, it’s perhaps a little harsh to dismiss Foggy and Karen for not immediately seeing through this – indeed Foggy does at first doubt Matt’s claim. But it means the volume ends with a rather convoluted situation in which Matt has to juggle three separate identities and somehow undo the mess.

The other major development set down in the issues in this volume is the introduction of the core of Daredevil’s Rogues Gallery (although there are some big names on it who don’t show up until much later). A sizeable number of new villains are introduced in this run and they include: the Fixer, the Owl, the Purple Man, the Matador, Mr Fear, Stilt Man, Klaus Kruger, the Organizer and his Organization (no that really is what it’s called) including Cat Man, Ape Man, Bird Man and Frog Man (no relation to others who’ve gone by those names), the Plunderer (Parnival Plunder), Dr Karl Stragg, the Masked Marauder, the Gladiator, the Tri-Android (made up of the Brain, the Dancer and the Mangler) and finally the Leap Frog. There are also some villains from other series including Electro, the Ox, the Eel, Namor the Sub-Mariner and the Maggia. Whilst the first couple of issues are an inauspicious start, with his first foe, the Fixer, dying in their single encounter and the second issue seeing a clash with a Spider-Man foe breaking into the Fantastic Four’s headquarters, the series soon starts getting some on the bigger names set down. Daredevil is often accused of having a poor set of villains, especially when compared to Spider-Man, but there’s strong potential in many of them here, especially the Owl and the Masked Marauder who both bring strong levels of cunning and gravitas that make them credible as crime lords, or Mr Fear, the Purple Man or the Gladiator who in their very different ways each make credible solo threats. But it’s also true that some of them are very much products of their era and have not aged well, such as the Matador. There are also those who were probably good ideas but don’t quite work in practice – Stilt Man for instance is not the most manoeuvrable of villains when his stilts are extended. To the series’ credit Leap Frog is presented as being slightly silly from the outset. But there are some others who come out bizarre, particularly the Ox and Dr Karl Stragg who in one issue swap bodies only for each to find the other’s nature is slowly taking them over. The Ox hadn’t been a particularly well developed character up to this point and so any brutish mind in that body would have worked, but it’s still an awkward development that ultimately doesn’t offer much. It’s also one of the earliest cases of a foe established in one hero’s series (in this case Spider-Man’s) having major developments in another’s. When a character is permanently adopted by a new series (such as Hawkeye, Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch joining the Avengers around this time) then it’s reasonable, but when they make a one-off appearance then such bold changes feel more illegitimate.

There are no real long term mystery villains in these twenty-five issues. The Masked Marauder may live up to his name, but there’s no teasing about his identity. The one mystery is in a two-part story that sees what I think is the earliest Marvel example of another often used plotline – politicians staging attacks on them to boost their crime fighting credentials. A two-part story sees Foggy recruited as a candidate for the Reform Party (nothing to do with the real life one created three decades later) which comes under attack from the mysterious “Organizer” who arranges a string of attacks to help poll ratings. There’s supposed to be a mystery over which of the candidates is the Organizer but it’s really quite obvious – so obvious in fact that when first reading it I assumed it was a double bluff but they didn’t do that sort of thing back then.

A core feature of Daredevil is his blindness, but even in the 1960s there were some successful cures. In the early issues of the series Karen repeatedly tries to persuade Matt to undergo surgery but he’s reluctant to, as he’s scared it will deprive him of his enhanced other senses. Issue #9 finally addresses the issue with the bizarre development that Klaus Kruger , a university contemporary of Matt and Foggy, is now the ruler of the small state of “Lichtenbad” who offers to arrange for Matt’s treatment by the leading eye specialist who now resides there, but it’s all a trick. In fact Kruger is a harsh ruler who has lured experts in many fields to build a robot army to conquer the world. Exactly why eye surgeons and lawyers are necessary for this is never explained, but the story serves its purpose in cutting off the prospect of Matt’s sight being restored and thus preserving the basis of the series. It was quite a bold move to have a superhero with a disability, even if the series in practice sometimes acts as though his radar sense is just as good as sight, and undoing that would have been a major mistake.

Overall this first volume of Daredevil is a mixed bag, with a number of good stories and developments, but also some weak stories, particularly all of the ones that take him away from New York. The art in the first half is also poor due to the rapid turnover of artists and some rush jobs, though the second half more than makes up for it. But it’s not the most ground breaking of series – by the time it came out many of the bold developments that the Marvel Silver Age brought had already come, and Daredevil was largely a consolidation of such practices. When compared to the equivalent issues of Amazing Spider-Man these ones seem significantly weaker, with the writing much more inconsistent and a reluctance to do too much bold stuff beyond the basic idea of the character. Daredevil has often suffered from being branded a second-tier character, both in his own stories and in the real world, and unfortunately his early issues do little to dispel that notion.

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