Friday, 17 August 2012

Essential Daredevil volume 2

Essential Daredevil volume 2 contains issues #26-48, Special #1 (basically the Annual by another name) and Fantastic Four #73, which crossed over to complete a storyline. In stark contrast to the first volume, the writing and art is remarkably stable here, with every single Daredevil issue by Stan Lee and Gene Colan, whilst the Fantastic Four issue is by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.

After the turbulence of the art in the first volume, it’s a revelation to have a volume in which everything but a crossover issue is drawn by the same artist. It’s even more surprising as it includes the “Special” which has 55 pages of all-new material coming out alongside the regular book. It’s a far cry from the eras where fill-in artists pop up constantly and annuals are often by different artists. Colan’s style has a strong charm to it, and he’s able to handle the quite diverse situations the series often takes the hero into. Unfortunately I find the writing more inconsistent with a number of issues that just don’t feel like natural Daredevil adventures but instead take him into situations and pit him against foes that are well outside the norm for the series. The civilian side of his life is also poorly developed for much of the run.

One of the silliest subplots involves Matt’s attempts to keep his identity secure following an accusation in a letter from Spider-Man at the end of the last volume. (Curiously despite Spider-Man popping up twice during this volume, no mention is made of his letter at all. Could it have conceivably have been sent by someone else? It’s a loose plot thread that could have had something made of it in the right hands.) Matt’s solution to the problem was to claim Daredevil was actually a twin brother of his, and then to reinforce his lie he had to invent his hip and happening brother “Mike”. His “Mike” persona is at best irritating, at worst fairly ludicrous. Even with the conventions about disguises that operate in superhero comics, it’s almost impossible to accept that Karen and Foggy are taken in, especially as the two brothers are never seen together. (At one point “Mike” rings up Matt and speaks to a tape recorder, with Foggy and Karen listening, but it’s hard to see this trick being enough.) To add to the complications Karen is attracted to “Mike”, adding yet further angles to the office triangle, whilst Matt finds himself enjoying the “Mike” persona so much that he almost has an identity crisis. The ludicrous situation is eventually resolved in issue #41 when in battle with the Exterminator Daredevil uses an explosion to fake his death and claims that Mike is gone and there is now a new Daredevil in town. I have lost track of the number of heroes who have pulled off this stunt over the years but this may have been one of the first times it happened. In theory it means Daredevil now has to pose as someone else in the costume but in practice in subsequent issues he generally acts much the same (apart from when driven temporarily mad by radium), though his only old foe in subsequent issues in this volume is Stilt Man. It’s worth watching in subsequent volumes to see how much lip service is paid to this one.

Unfortunately the “Mike” subplot takes up so many issues that there are few other developments amongst the supporting cast and so the whole thing feels stagnant. This does change a bit towards the end of the volume as we get some changes and developments amongst the supporting cast. Deborah Harris from the earlier Organization/Reform Party story returns as a reformed character and is soon engaged to Foggy, thus removing one of the obstacles to Matt and Karen finally getting together. However Matt is still reluctant and Karen assumes it’s because of his blindness so she leaves for a while. When she returns we finally get a kiss between them, after “just” forty-eight issues, but soon Matt puts his foot in it once more when in trying to protect Foggy by keeping him out of the office when an attack is due, he comes across as callous and uncaring, seemingly refusing to help his partner’s election bid for District Attorney. The volume ends with Foggy elected but he and Matt seem to have broken their partnership for good. As a result, the slate is potentially wiped clean for a new direction and new supporting cast members in future issues.

With such limited or dead-ended developments in Matt’s civilian life, much of the excitement comes from the action and situations he finds himself in. Many of the issues see him in particularly complicated situations where his sense powers can’t help him. Such situations range from one storyline were he temporarily loses his extra senses and has to find an antidote whilst Mr. Hyde and the Cobra are preparing to execute him, to the Jester framing him for murder (actually a fake-out, the “victim” was the Jester’s alter ego) resulting in the police swarming all over the city and around both Matt’s home and office, making it difficult for Daredevil to move about the city and find a way to clear his name with only his costume to hand. There’s a level of excitement to many of the dilemmas Daredevil faces in spite of the quality of the villains used.

This volume sees some expansion of Daredevil’s Rogues’ Galley, with the new villains introduced in including a bunch of aliens (they’re not named here but were later called the Queega in The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe), the Boss, the Exterminator, the Jester and Biggie Benson. It’s not the most impressive set of additions with only the Jester making a long-term impact. From other series we get for the first time the Cobra and Mr. Hyde (from Thor), the Beetle (from the Human Torch in Strange Tales), the Trapster (ditto), Doctor Doom (by now from just about everywhere) and Richard Raleigh (from Spectacular Spider-Man magazine – indeed his brief tie-in appearance here actually creates more continuity problems than the actual magazine itself!). Although some of these foes would plague Daredevil repeatedly, overall this isn’t a particularly great set of additions, with some being quite a way away from the series’ norms.

It seems it was almost obligatory for every early Silver Age Marvel hero to encounter at least one race of aliens. Daredevil’s encounter is actually quite late by the standards of his contemporaries but the story does at least try to fit into his world, with Matt Murdock invited to give a law lecture on the potential rights of aliens, and the aliens who show up using a weapon that blinds people. They’re also not trying to actually conquer the planet, just steal its resources. In itself, it’s a harmless tale but it’s another case of taking Daredevil beyond his comfort zone. Another such venture sees Doctor Doom swapping bodies with Daredevil in the hope that the latter’s friendship with the Fantastic Four will allow him to penetrate their defences. Quite how Doom fails to realise that Daredevil’s body is blind is unclear – he assumes the eyes are covered to help other powers work but it’s strange he doesn’t investigate further. His plans also fails because Daredevil is able to use Doom’s body to first order the Latverian embassy staff to release him and then to order declarations of war against all of Latveria’s neighbours, forcing Doom to abandon his plans and switch bodies again. However Doom adapts his plan by convincing the Fantastic Four that Daredevil is really Doom in disguise (helped by Daredevil having earlier sent the same warning), leading to a fight in which Spider-Man and Thor also play a part. Whilst told well, it feels a bit too far out of the standard for Daredevil. The same is true of the Exterminator’s appearance with his T-Guns that temporally displace people. Daredevil’s solution for getting himself back in temporal sync by getting dragged by a speeding car is enough to make one wonder which series the basic plots were developed for.

There are a number of appearances by established foes as well, with the first couple of issues developing the Masked Marauder further. He is finally given an identity – Frank Farnum, the manager of the building containing the law practice. Farnum had made only very minor appearances beforehand such that he never really qualified as a member of the supporting cast but the caption on his revelation does comment that he was about the only suspect offered. But Farnum is a surprisingly downbeat and pedestrian alter-ego for a master criminal being built up as Daredevil’s archenemy, and I suspect this identity was rapidly seen as a mistake, for in the very next issue the Masked Marauder’s latest plan results in his own death, when he falls from a helicopter into his own destructive forcefield. Thus, one of the best of the early villains is all too rapidly lost from the series and his role as a recurring master schemer who uses other villains for more mundane tasks isn’t really filled during this run. This leads to a surprising villain stepping into a role traditionally reserved for an archenemy.

The first “Special” (I don’t know why it’s called that and not an Annual; subsequent annuals follow its numbering) features another regular feature of Silver Age Marvel – a teaming up of previously solo villains. After the Masters of Evil, the Sinister Six and the Frightful Four we now get the Emissaries of Evil. It is led by Electro and consists of the Gladiator, Stilt Man, the Matador and Leap Frog. It really reinforces the view that Daredevil’s Rogues’ Gallery is nothing to write home about. Such teams are traditionally led by an archenemy but Electro is a temporary import from Spider-Man’s book. It just reinforces how the Masked Marauder was mishandled. As for the rest of the team, the Gladiator is credible but the other three are so easy to mock. It just emphasises the need for some more durable serious foes. The “Special” follows the pattern of Spider-Man’s encounter with the Sinister Six somewhat with solo fights but also shows a willingness amongst the villains to pool their resources, not that it does them much good. It has a few other features such as an attempt to explain the Mike Murdock situation to new readers, a series of one page profiles of Daredevil, his supporting cast and key villains, and finally a three page feature showing how Stan Lee and Gene Colan create the series. This last piece is surprisingly open about how the “Marvel Method” works, and also shows Lee in a surprisingly poor light. Maybe he was willing to mock himself even then. It’s a hilarious piece and one of the best of these sort of behind the scenes views that I’ve read from the era.

Issues #44-47 see a brief attempt to change the series logo. However the new version is appalling, splitting Daredevil’s name across two lines and hyphenating it (I wonder if this is the origin of the capitalisation “DareDevil” which I recall seeing in a few places), and a modification made for issue #47 does nothing to improve it. Fortunately the original logo is restored with issue #48. (The two-line version was used but once again on the third “Special”, an all-reprint issue further down the line.)

This volume is one of those where the individual parts are greater than the whole. There are no real stinkers amongst the stories, just some that seem to stretch too far from the basic concept of the urban crime-fighting hero, but overall the run is still constrained by a very narrow supporting cast and rather limited development. This limited cast probably also contributes to the poor choice of alter ego for the Masked Marauder, which in turn leads to the character being written off. The last few issues do start to address the problems of development but they also seemingly remove most of the supporting cast before clear replacements can be brought in. Without strong ongoing development and with a Rogues’ Gallery composed for the most part of weak and/or silly villains, the main thing sustaining the series is the rapid succession of strong exciting adventures with unusual situations. But that’s not the firmest of bases to sustain a series on. Volume 2 is good in itself but doesn’t bode well for the future.

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