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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