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.

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