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.

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