Friday, 28 September 2012

A few Daredevil previews

As well as his five Essential volumes so far, there have also been a handful of Daredevil issues from further down the line reprinted in other Essentials, so it’s time to take a quick look at them all.

Daredevil #138 written by Marv Wolfman and drawn by John Byrne, reprinted in Essential Ghost Rider volume 1

This is the middle part of a crossover with Ghost Rider (issues #19 & 20), which sees the first appearance in the series of Karen Page for over fifty issues. In the meantime she’s popped up amongst Ghost Rider’s supporting cast, meeting Johnny Blaze when they both worked on a movie together and is making Roxanne Simpson jealous even though Johnny claims they’re just friends (which is less than Karen would want). Although Tony Isabella was writing Ghost Rider, there’s strong continuity between the two titles and indeed at times the Daredevil issue feels as though it’s picked up a story from the other series, though it reassure with subplots involving Foggy, Debbie Harris and Heather Glenn (who we’ve not yet met in the regular Essential Daredevils). Storywise we get a straightforward tale of Karen being kidnapped by the new Death’s Head and his henchmen, the Smasher and the (apparently mind-controlled) Stuntmaster. The issue is largely a water-treading middle parter in which Daredevil gets placed in a complicated trap from which he escapes whilst Ghost Rider goes searching for Karen but gets sidelined by some drug smugglers, and Karen discovers the new Death’s Head is after her father’s research. Then Daredevil arrives and realises he knows who Death’s Head really is, but finds his life being drained away and Ghost Rider doubts he can save him… As crossovers go this is well written and manages to smoothly blend the elements of both series together, and helps to “ratify” the transfer of Karen between series (even though she hasn’t been seen in Daredevil for years), but as an individual issue of Daredevil it’s nothing fancy.

Daredevil #178 written and drawn by Frank Miller, reprinted in Essential Power Man and Iron Fist volume 2

The bulk of the issue is taken up with the thread of Matt and Foggy defending the Daily Bugle in a libel suit from a politician who denies being financed by the Kingpin. When a boy brings potential evidence, the Kingpin sends thugs to stop him, causing Foggy to worry for Matt’s safety and so he hires Power Man and Iron Fist, the “Heroes for Hire” to protect Matt. This results in a degree of chaos as Matt needs no protection and at times has to employ bizarre methods to escape his minders, leaving them to believe he’s been kidnapped. Eventually everything is resolved in a climax, but the critical evidence that would support the Bugle’s case is lost. This issue is somewhat comedic in turn, although not as much as a follow-up issue of Power Man and Iron Fist in which Foggy and the Heroes for Hire try to help the boy’s sister’s ambitions to be a star ballerina and face the web of jealousy and intrigue surrounding her replacement, culminating in a somewhat slapstick chase during a live performance with Daredevil drawn in to boot. Compared to that, the Daredevil side of the appearances is more serious but only to a point. It’s clear even when read in isolation that the Elektra subplot is far more intriguing, as the lady goes to work for the Kingpin after demonstrating her lethal abilities against four assassins sent to test her. When run alongside the main scenes it’s clear that this issue is a cross between a gratuitous guest appearance for the sake of it (although I’m not sure which series was promoting the other) and a forgettable comedic interlude before looming dramatic events.

Daredevil #182 (part), #183-184 written by Frank Miller (all) & Roger McKenzie (#183), drawn by Miller, reprinted in Essential Punisher volume 1

I’ve written about Essential Punisher volume 1 before, and some of my observations are the same, namely that Daredevil is one of the best heroes to contrast the Punisher with due to their very different methods. The pages from issue #182 reprinted here are just the eight pages featuring the Punisher as he escapes from prison. There’s no sign of Daredevil on any of these pages and I’m surprised that a truncation only was run, which is contrary to the normal Essential approach of carrying the full issue. Issue #183’s story was delayed for over a year because of concerns by the Comics Code Authority, which presumably wasn’t as toothless in this era as it’s often claimed to be, and this is possibly why a doctor gives Daredevil an extended talk about drugs, just to ram home the point that they’re bad, in case the depiction of a school girl going high and throwing herself out of a window didn’t give any hints. The story that follows focuses upon her brother’s anger as he steals his father’s gun and goes hunting for vengeance on the drug pushers with both Daredevil and the Punisher bringing their respective methods. It’s a strong contrast between Matt Murdock’s system approach, even when he finds he’s just got a killer off a charge and hadn’t realised it because a pacemaker prevent a jump in the liar’s heartbeat, and the Punisher’s more direct, ruthless approach. The story covers a surprising amount, including the failings of the system and deprivation such that the parents are watching TV and arguing without knowing their daughter is dead or realising their son is going on a vengeance mission. Daredevil’s quest to prove to the boy that the system works and can take out the criminals just adds to the tension as events rush to their climax. And on top of all that, we have ongoing developments with Heather Glenn as she discovers problems within her company, and is proposed to by Matt who seems to have a rather traditional marriage in mind. For a two-part story there’s a heck of a lot in this but never once does it overload the reader. It’s a strong, intense piece that shows why the Miller era is so adored, much more so than issue #178.

Daredevil #257 written by Ann Nocenti and drawn by John Romita Jr, reprinted in Essential Punisher volume 2

This is an odd crossover between Punisher #10 (written by Mike Baron and drawn by Whilce Portacio). Both issues are set around a disgruntled ex-employee of a pharmaceutical company who is taking revenge by poisoning bottles of its products. But rather than a conventional two-parter we instead get the two series broadly following their own heroes’ investigations until they meet on a rooftop and fight over their radically different approaches to justice. The actual confrontation is shown in both issues but from different perspectives – Punisher shows us it straight, whilst Daredevil shows it from the perspective of the killer as he listens to the two fighting it out over him and he thinks they’re more alike than either realises. Otherwise the Daredevil issue carries part of the ongoing Typhoid Mary plotline as the Kingpin continues his scheme to destroy Matt using Mary’s multiple personas. In general I found the issue unsatisfying because it doesn’t become clear at first that it’s taking place parallel to events in Punisher and there are moments where small details vary between the two. However it’s interesting to see the conflict of values between the two through a third party’s eyes, and it was a masterstroke to do it through the eyes of the criminal they’re fighting over. Overall, we have a fairly dark tale and a sign of how Daredevil’s niche was permanently set down in the 1980s.

It’s inevitable that most of these issues feel rather unsatisfactory given that they’re all in the Essentials already only because of their guest stars. But the problems go in very different directions – the Ghost Rider tie-in is part of a storyline with a clear justification for crossing over, whereas the Power Man and Iron Fist appearances serve no real wider purpose. The Punisher appearances are the most easily justified because of the obvious contrast between his and Daredevil’s methods, and there are clearly multiple ways to present the conflict of values without it always having to be two figures shouting lengthy expositions of their philosophies at each other whilst a criminal lies on the ground. But the second appearance is let down by the awkward way in which the storyline is presented, a problem that also curses the Ghost Rider tie-in, leaving only the issues with the Punisher’s first appearance as a strong example of Daredevil issues yet to come. Even then the truncation of issue #182 (which may have originated with a stand-alone reprint of some of the Daredevil/Punisher clashes from a decade ago) is annoying as it denies us a glimpse of the wider issue. I can’t wait for the Essentials to reach the Miller era.

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.

Friday, 14 September 2012

Essential Ms. Marvel volume 1

Marvel seems to have spent quite a bit of time searching for "the next Spider-Man" in the 1970s. They probably didn't spot Wolverine for a while. One such series launched at the start of 1977 with the cover proclaiming "A bold new super-heroine in the senses-stunning tradition of Spider-Man!" The character's debut was heavily entrenched in Spidey's world, working for J. Jonah Jameson, and the debut cover was replete with characters from the Spider-Man comics. But over time Ms. Marvel would go her own way, moving out of what was not yet called "the Spider-Man family" of titles.

Essential Ms. Marvel volume 1 contains Ms. Marvel #1-23, stories from Marvel Super-Heroes #10-11 and Avengers Annual #10. Marvel Super-Heroes was an early 1990s quarterly title that generally ran left-over stories from inventory, and here carried material that would have appeared in issues #24 & #25 of Ms. Marvel, albeit with some changes and updates to reflect subsequent events. Issue #24 was largely complete when the plug was pulled; however I'm uncertain as to how much of what is printed here would have actually gone out as issue #25 back in 1979. Following the cancellation of her own series, Ms. Marvel went on to become a member of the Avengers but was written out in a rather controversial way. Annual #10 was an attempt to undo the damage. In addition there are Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe entries for Deathbird, Captain Marvel, the Kree and Rogue.

The first couple of issues are written by Gerry Conway, who also plotted the third which was scripted by Chris Claremont who writes all the remaining issues in the volume, though Marvel Super-Heroes #11 has a co-credit for latter day additions by Simon Furman. The art is by variously John Buscema, Jim Mooney, Keith Pollard, Sal Buscema, Carmine Infantino, Dave Cockrum and Mike Vosburg, with Mike Gustovich working on the additions in Marvel Super-Heroes #11 and Michael Golden handling the Avengers annual. The writing credits are generally encouraging, though most of the giants of comics have had their off days and the original writer leaving after just a couple of issues can be a sign of early turbulence. However, the art credits are more unstable. With a lot of creators, a separate post has been created to carry the labels for them.

I have to admit that growing up in the 1980s, the whole "Ms" thing passed me by until rather later. None of my female teachers, of whom there were many, used it (at least at school). It wasn't taught to me at the same time I was learning about other honorifics. Nor did I ever encounter it in relation to the mothers of any of my contemporaries, or by any woman I can recall in the media (but then some of the more strident "Ms"es may not had made an impact, plus a growing informality was bypassing the title debate altogether). And that's even before we get to the backlash against radical feminism that means there are women who really dislike "Ms" and take offence to being called it. The only female I can recall from that era for whom it was used in my hearing was "Ms. Lion", the dog in Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends, but I, like many others, heard the name as "Miss Lion" and never realised it was anything else. So by the time I did learn about "Ms" I was sufficiently set in my ways that it felt unusual, made more so by hardly ever actually hearing it in practice since then (although again usage of "Mrs" and "Miss" has noticeably declined and this issue is not exactly a standard point of conversation) and then there's the whole issue of how to pronounce it (a few characters have their rendition written as "Miz" – is this meant to indicate a non-standard pronunciation or conversely an attempt to help readers learn how to pronounce it?). So does that mean the name "Ms. Marvel" instinctively puts me off her? I can't say for sure as by the time I first encountered her she was now "Binary" and my first regular reading of her was as "Warbird". So the "Ms. Marvel" name has dated for me, even if she has since used it again.

The first issue is a curious mixture of introductions and mysteries. We are introduced to both Carol Danvers, the newly hired editor of "Woman" magazine (based, not entirely coincidentally, on the real world magazine "Ms." though without the more strident political side), and the mysterious hero who is soon dubbed "Ms. Marvel" but she herself suffers from amnesia and has no clear knowledge about who she is or how she acquired her powers. Carol suffers from periodic migraines and disappears at times when she passes out, making the connection all too clear, but neither ego is aware of the other. It could be a sign of a bold step to allow the reader to discover things such as the origin at the same time as the character, or equally it could be a sign of a character rushed onto the stands before she was fully thought through, due to a need to protect the company's intellectual property. Spider-Woman debuted the following month with much the same problem, but had the different solution of rushing out a rather poorly thought through origin and then once her own series was launched the origin was routinely revised and built on, to the point where it became almost impossible to follow. It's questionable as to which approach is better in such a messy situation. However, the practical result is that issue #1 finishes without giving the reader a decent understanding of the character of Ms. Marvel and why she does what she does, nor for that matter what the full extent of her powers is. This is not an encouraging sign. And the derivative nature of the character is all too clear. A blonde female with the surname "Danvers" who is a spin-off of a powerful alien hero, and both of them have enhanced strength, invulnerability and can fly? Now where have we heard that one before? Oh hello Supergirl. But from what I've seen of Supergirl's adventures from the time, Ms. Marvel's are cut from a very different cloth. Comparisons with the "Marvel Family" of Fawcett/DC are pretty much non-existent bar an in-joke when the Beast asks if Ms. Marvel is Captain Marvel's sister. (That's the wrong Captain Marvel, Hank!)

Gerry Conway is credited on the first issue as not just the writer/editor (a joint post common at Marvel at the time but later phased out) but also as having conceived the series, with help from his then wife Carla. I wonder if this help had much influence on the series but as Gerry Conway left the series and Marvel altogether with issue #3 it's hard to tell. By the time he leaves we have at least learnt the origin of Ms. Marvel, though Carol herself has not, as we discover she absorbed radiation when caught up in a fight between Captain Marvel and an enemy. Carol herself discovers her alter ego in the next few issues but the exact psychological relationship between the two is left unaddressed for some time – are they the result of a split personality or is Ms. Marvel a pre-existing Kree who is now sharing Carol's body, similar to Captain Marvel and Rick Jones? In general, Chris Claremont's changes to the character are gradual and work as an ongoing narrative, such as altering the source of her powers from her costume to her body as the result of a second exposure to radiation. This works much better than the "everything you knew is false" approach some writers take of introducing retcons and deceptions that simply wipe out a previous writer's additions to the mythology. Issue #13 finally answers the question about the two identities and establishes that Ms. Marvel is a split in Carol's personality due to her mind being unable to cope when her body was transformed into a Kree warrior. This is not entirely consistent with Ms. Marvel occasionally spouting Kree words such as "Hala" and "Great Pama" or having memories that suggest she was born Kree (though it wasn't clear if those memories were somehow transplanted from Captain Marvel) but the result is that we finally get an integrated whole character. But it's not until issue #19 that we get it fully established that the initial exposure to radiation and Captain Marvel's Nega-Bands resulted in Carol being genetically reconstituted as part-human, part-Kree as part of an overall scheme by the Kree Supreme Intelligence. It says a lot that it takes nearly twenty issues to fully flesh out the character's origin. Issue #19 also sees the first appearance of Captain Marvel, outside of flashbacks, and he and Carol end the issue agreeing to be friends but she also talks about how she's ended up as a female copy of him but wants to fully establish herself properly.

If readers picked the book up expecting a diatribe of second wave feminism then they would have been severely disappointed. However, that expectation may well have been critical in putting other potential readers off. But apart from a few individual scenes, inevitably in confrontations with overbearing male figures such as her father, Jonah or Iron Man, there aren't really that many moments of explicit feminist confrontation. Instead, we have a strong, self-confident independent woman who gets on with her life and gives her best in the situations she encounters. That's a much better approach than presenting a preaching, man-hating, castrating, bra-burning stereotypical crusader who would have dated rapidly. Speaking of clothing there's a minor change to the costume from issue #9 onwards which sees Ms. Marvel's midriff is filled in. Later on issue #20 shows signs of the warning sirens screaming on the title, with the telltale signs of the frequency dropping to bi-monthly, a new logo, "New" being prominently used on the cover and a new costume. It makes sense that Ms. Marvel would wish to move beyond being a derivative of Captain Marvel and ditching the Kree uniform is a natural way to go, but this isn't explicitly stated in the strip itself.

Despite the attempts to establish its own identity, one curious sign is that villains from other series are far more prominent than new villains. That's not to say there aren't any new villains, with the series also introducing the likes of Kerwin Korman the Destructor, Deathbird, Hecate, Sapper, Mystique and finally the Lizard People (who, contrary to expectations, are not engaged in umpteen conspiracy theories) but this seems to be their only appearance. But yes, the Deathbird and Mystique on that list are the famous X-Men ones and they are the main contenders to be Ms. Marvel's arch nemesis. But in general it's villains from other series who predominate. The first issue kicks off with the Scorpion, adding to the title's links to the Spider-Man "family", then the following issues then sees the appearance of AIM (Advanced Idea Mechanics – they're the high tech guys in silly radiation suits) and their one-time leader MODOK ("Mobile Organism Designed Only for Killing" – which isn't an accurate description) from multiple Marvel series such as Iron Man and Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.. Then we get the Doomsday Man (from the original Silver Surfer series), Grotesk (from X-Men), the Elementals Hellfire, Hydron and Magnum (from Supernatural Thrillers), Steeplejack (from Power Man), Tiger Shark (from Namor the Sub-Mariner), Ronan the Accuser and the Kree Supreme Intelligence (both originally from Fantastic Four but they have each appeared in many other titles), the Faceless One (from Astonishing Tales) and, in the inventoried issue #24, Sabretooth (from the X-Men). Both the "reconstructed" issue #25 and Avengers Annual #10 feature the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, made up here of Mystique, Destiny, Pyro, Avalanche, the Blob and Rogue. If the story printed in Marvel Super-Heroes #11 is pretty accurate to what would have gone out in 1979 then that issue would have been the first appearance of all bar Mystique and the Blob. However I am a bit sceptical this would actually have been the case and so Destiny, Pyro and Avalanche made their first appearances in X-Men in the "Days of Future Past" story (and the Blob had also debuted in X-Men, albeit many years earlier) whilst the Avengers annual is the first appearance of Rogue.

The initial supporting cast is primarily drawn from the Spider-Man titles, most notable J. Jonah Jameson and Mary Jane Watson, but there are also occasional appearances by other Daily Bugle staffers such as Peter Parker and Robbie Robertson. Mary Jane Watson is quite prominent in the first few issues as she befriends Carol who she is in awe of, but she is rapidly ditched once Claremont takes over from Conway, and not mentioned thereafter. Jonah lasts for longer and there are occasional clashes between him and Carol over the direction of "Woman" which eventually result in him firing her – and in typical Jonah style he does it by letter! The series's original cast is mixed between characters who make a couple of appearances and a few more regular ones. Of the latter we get Mike Barnett, Carol's psychiatrist who discovers her secret even before she does, and who falls for her and hopes to marry her, but before this can advance he is killed off in what would have been issue #24. Another potential beau is Frank Gianelli, a photojournalist who make a mark in the Bugle building when he got so angry with Jonah he punched him. Sadly this incident occurred before his first appearance and is only talked about. At one point he and Carol share a kiss but that's as far as it goes. The other most frequent supporting cast member is Tracy Burke, a veteran top photojournalist who Carol recruits as her associate editor and who later succeeds her. There's also Arabella Jones, Carol's landlord in her later issues whom she befriends, though she isn't developed significantly in the time remaining. Otherwise the supporting cast tend to appear very briefly for individual stories or make only a couple of brief appearances across issues. Carol's parents, Joe and Marie, appear in both a storyline in the middle of the run and later in a flashback, and we see how Carol grew up in a family with highly traditionalist expectations summed up in her father's comment "Besides, you don't need college to find a good husband," which led her to sign up with the Air Force as a route to afford her way through college and then make her own way in life.

In general the stories flow quite fast, putting Ms. Marvel through a quite varied set of situations ranging from fighting a civil war within AIM, risking her life in a deep-sea mission to rescue Namorita or rescuing people from the Lizard People and finding a way for the race to exist in safety. All in all these twenty-three issues offer a pretty solid run and once again it's a pity that such a good book didn't catch on for whatever reason of sales. However there are a few problems. There's a long-running subplot involving the mysterious Mystique (now I wonder how her name was come up with) and her plans against both Carol and Ms. Marvel. But unfortunately the series ended before it could be fully developed. Considering how early it was begun this is not an accident of cancellation but an early example of how Claremont could let sub-plots run on and on without a clear sign of resolution. Marvel Super-Heroes #10 printed the story that had already been prepared for issue #24 and does take the sub-plot a little way forward with the murder of Mike Barnett (an event that could be held up as a sign of "Men in Refrigerators" or just that it's the curse of being a supporting cast member regardless of gender that results in unpleasant things happening to them, particularly when writing them out). But then it gets fuzzy. As noted above, Marvel Super-Heroes #11 contains more of a sort of "reconstruction" of what was planned for Ms. Marvel #25 but with two writers involved it's clear that a number of elements were added not only to bring Carol's story up to date but also to reconcile continuity. Whilst Mystique had been trying to kill Carol and Ms. Marvel for quite a number of issues, I am sceptical that Destiny, Pyro and Avalanche were going to have made their debuts in issue #25, though it seems that Rogue would indeed have done so. What we get is a mixture of Carol trying to trace her boyfriend's murder and getting side-tracked into taking down an arms smuggling ring, combined with an attack on her by the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants. It's all a bit confusing and some points aren't properly resolved within this volume, such as whether the murder is ever fully solved. The issue ends with prolonged scenes that show Ms. Marvel's battle with Rogue that took place off-panel before the start of the Avengers annual…

The volume is 512 pages long, one of the shorter of the Essentials, so what additional material could have been included in this volume had it needed to be longer? Appearances in team-up books are common and Ms. Marvel appeared in Marvel Team-Up #62 (which came out between issues #10 & #11 of her own series) and was one of several characters to appear in Marvel Two-in-One #51, the month after her own series ended. The Team-Up issue is, however, the conclusion of a two-part story and doesn't feature Ms. Marvel that significantly. It also doesn't touch at all upon the overlaps in Peter Parker and Carol Danvers's civilian lives. With the Two-in-One issue having Ms. Marvel as part of a crowd of Avengers it's probably for best that neither of these issues was included. But the biggest absentee of note is Avengers #200. Ms. Marvel started regularly appearing with the Avengers from issue #171 onwards, though didn't formally join until issue #183 (which came out a month after her own series suddenly ended). Issue #200 saw her written out very controversially, to put it mildly. The title of Carol Strickland's essay "The Rape of Ms. Marvel" says it all. Perhaps it's fortunate that it isn't included here. Avengers Annual #10 sought to make amends for some of the mess, allowing Carol (and Chris Claremont) to confront the Avengers (and their writers) about their complete failure to realise what had actually happened to her and that it wasn't consensual at all. The story otherwise introduces a new villain in the form of Rogue, a mutant with the ability to absorb other people's memories and powers through physical contact. However her contact with Ms. Marvel sees something go wrong and she permanently absorbs both. Carol is left depowered and with her memories only slowly recovering thanks to help from Professor Xavier. It's possible that Chris Claremont had planned the encounter with Rogue all along as a way to end the series, but the axe fell sooner than expected and Ms. Marvel's storyline wasn't carried forward in the pages of the Avengers. But whether the intention or not it's still a poor way to write out a character, having such fundamentals of her life stolen by another, leaving her broken and having to rebuild her life slowly. Because the volume is, unusually, not laid out in exact order of publication the two Marvel Super-Heroes issues come before the Avengers annual. As a result the volume ends on a downbeat note, rather than with 1992 additions that summarised Carol's story up until she became Binary. Curiously there's no Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe entry for Carol included here that could have served that purpose.

In spite of the problems with the ending, overall this volume is quite good and reveals another hidden gem from the Bronze Age of comics. Ms. Marvel may have been a spin-off of one pre-existing character, she may have been initially embedded in the world of another and she may have been created to ride a trend in the wider world, but she steadily proves her own worth in both her identities and gradually sheds the baggage from both other characters though not in such a way that it feels forced (and certainly not in the jarring manner that her contemporary, Spider-Woman, was subjected to with almost every new writer). Sure there are some narrative problems with lengthy underdeveloped sub-plots, an origin that takes many issues to fully flesh out and an early problem of the identity of Ms. Marvel and Carol, but by and large the series manages to propel itself forward in such a way that the problems don't show, and bit by bit almost every one is eventually resolved. Even better the series didn't descend into crude stereotyping but instead offered a strong character who got on with things. Overall this series is much underrated.

Essential Ms. Marvel volume 1 - creator labels

We have a volume with a lot of creators, so here's a separate post to carry the labels for them.

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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