Friday, 13 December 2013

Essential Daredevil volume 6

Essential Daredevil volume 6 contains Daredevil #126-146 and Annual #4 plus the crossover issues Iron Man #88-89 and Ghost Rider #20 and also an excerpt from Ghost Rider #19. Most of the volume is written by Marv Wolfman, including the full Ghost Rider issue, who also plots the annual. The other issues are plotted and/or scripted by Bill Mantlo, Jim Shooter and Gerry Conway, with the annual scripted by Chris Claremont, the Iron Man issues written by Archie Goodwin and the Ghost Rider excerpt scripted by Tony Isabella, co-plotting with Jim Shooter. Half the issues are drawn by Bob Brown; others are by John Buscema, John Byrne, Sal Buscema, Gil Kane, Lee Elias and George Tuska, with Tuska handling the annual and Iron Man issues whilst the Ghost Rider excerpt is drawn by Frank Robbins and the full issue by John Byrne. Because that's a long list, the creator labels have been placed in a separate post.

(To try to clear up confusion and concern, the annual included here is the first of two separate Daredevil Annuals to carry the number "4". There were no further annuals between 1976 and 1989, when that year's offering, a part of the "Atlantis Attacks" crossover, would use the same number, but then the 1990 annual, from the "Lifeform" crossover, would correct the numbering to #6. This may be the first time a Marvel series did such a thing, over a decade before some of the highest numbers were restored - albeit only temporarily it sadly now seems - after being thrown away for the sake of brief sales boosts. A number of guides have renumbered the 1989 annual to #5, and we await a much later Essential volume to see if Marvel will follow suit, but that number never appeared on an issue.)

It's an unfortunate problem for the series that it took an incredibly long time to find a clear niche and stick to it. Part of the problem is that up to and including these issues no writer had stayed on the series for more than a few years since Stan Lee. As a result Daredevil has wandered back and forth across the continent and the world, with supporting cast members drifting in and out as different writers keep altering the basics in a search for a clear identity. Here it seems Marv Wolfman is trying for a Marvel version of the not-too-gritty Batman, producing a somewhat generic wisecracking hero who swings through a variety of scenarios. The comparison is reinforced by one of the most prolonged, serious and devious plots yet carried out by the Jester.

Normally the Jester can be dismissed as one of the sillier members of Daredevil's rogues' gallery, and there are quite a few foes who fall at that end, but here we get a concerted effort to toughen him up. There's a new costume and a new focus - he's operating a scheme of disinformation, using an advanced (for the time) computer to generate artificial footage for bogus news reports and political campaigns, then tapping into television transmissions in order to spread the lies to a gullible public who rapidly swallow them. With a lot of falsehoods spread such as the Kennedy brothers were never assassinated or the Vietnam War was all staged, the result is a public that comes to distrust what it's told even more than ever (this story came at a time not long after Watergate and when distrust of the Warren Commission was at such heights that a Congressional enquiry was soon ordered). Eventually Daredevil defeats the Jester but not before the latter has succeeded in one very personal goal - after failing to derail Foggy Nelson's original campaign to be elected District Attorney, he's now managed to bring down Nelson at the re-election stage thanks to a series of attack adverts that make the DA look a complete fool.

Foggy takes his defeat surprisingly well, declining to bring any legal challenge over the Jester's interference, and instead returns to private practice, accepting a partnership with Matt once more in running "the Storefront" which brings legal advice and services to those who need them, not those who can afford them. It's a move that in one way restores something of the original series dynamic yet at the same time it doesn't simply recreate the Lee era office. Foggy's replacement as District Attorney is Blake Tower, who would go on to appear in a number of different Marvel titles over the next few years. Here he proves surprisingly likeable and rapidly becomes a strong ally in authority for Daredevl. This contrasts strongly with police Lieutenant Bert Rose who repeatedly blasts and clashes with Daredevil, having no liking for the scarlet swashbuckler. However Daredevil does gain another key ally in the form of hard edged Daily Bugle reporter Jacob Conover.

But by far the most significant character introduced is Heather Glenn, the previous occupant of Matt's new home. At first Heather seems rather shallow - a soft, needy, clingy woman who almost throws herself upon Matt. Okay Matt isn't always the most enlightened of 1970s men but he proves surprisingly receptive to Heather's advances and the two soon become an item. However with her comes a mystery as investigations into a slum landlord leads back to her father's company, with strong hints that he is personally involved in money laundering and other activities surrounding it. But this plotline drags on throughout many issues, outlasting Wolfman as writer, and isn't resolved in this volume. Nor is the mystery of the kidnapping of Foggy's fiancée Debbie Harris, who amazingly doesn't appear at all until several issues after her kidnapping is first mentioned. There are attempts on Foggy's life and hints that the trail also leads back to Maxwell Glenn but it remains unsettled at the end of this volume.

In the meantime Daredevil may have launched a recurrent character like Blake Tower onto the wider Marvel universe but there aren't too many imports from other series in these issues. Within the regular Daredevil issues the only villains visiting from another series are the Chameleon and the Beetle. The guest stars are limited to the Black Panther and Namor the Sub-Mariner in the annual and the crossover with Ghost Rider. Meanwhile the Iron Man issues included in this volume feel suspiciously like they were included purely to make up the page count. Apart from a mention in Daredevil #139 as Ol' Hornhead recounts his recent team-ups, they make no impact at all on the regular series and could easily have been left out without being noticed. Daredevil doesn't even appear until the second issue where he gets dragged into fighting the alien Blood Brothers in New York despite being in a rush to head to Los Angeles in response to Karen's kidnapping.

The Ghost Rider crossover is more convincing, as it provides a final conclusion (for now) to the story of Matt Murdock and Karen Page, and completes the process of transferring her to the pages of Ghost Rider with all outstanding ties settled. However the presentation isn't the best as the excerpt from Ghost Rider #19 - a mere two page prologue for the crossover that's almost a mini-story in its own and thus detachable from the rest of the issue - shows Karen being kidnapped but it is here placed after Matt has learnt this at the end of Daredevil #137 and also after the Iron Man issues in which he's preparing to head west to rescue her. But this aside the story flows well, undoubtedly helped by both halves having the same writer and guest artist, allowing for tight continuity and the issues to be swapped around if schedules forced it at the last moment.

Meanwhile the regular series makes use of a number of old villains, particularly the Jester and the Owl, whilst also adding a tiny handful of few ones. We get a new version of the Torpedo who stumbles into the role by accident, plus Brother Zed, a practitioner of Voodoo dressed as a skeleton who rides the wave of interest in Voodoo that was raging at the time. The annual sees a fight with an extortionist who gets caught in an explosion and transformed into the Mind Master, who is rapidly overcome. But by far the biggest first appearance is that of Bullseye, who debuts in a two-part tale whose opening part (#131) lends its cover to the volume as a whole. Apart from the oversized target on his costume's forehead that would subsequently be scaled down, he's exactly as he would be for years to come - a highly skilled marksman who can use any object to hit any target with deadly accuracy. Only Daredevil's radar sense seems able to predict that target. However he does have the odd silly moment when in his return appearance he straps Daredevil to a giant crossbow bolt and fires it at cliffs. Such an idea, and the cliffhanger it creates at the end of issue #141, feels more at home in an episode of the 1960s Batman TV series. But maybe I've just been too influenced by subsequent uses of Bullseye that have kept him firmly on the gritty, serious side of Daredevil's rogues' gallery. Still he clearly made his mark at the time with three separate appearances in the space of just sixteen issues.

As well as the villains there are also a couple of other notable characters added but neither really fits the series or lasts. One of the oddest people to appear in the series is the Sky-Walker - who uses that name a year and a half before the release of Star Wars. He has the strange power to generate blocks of light energy and walk on them. He appears to have originated on Earth centuries ago but grown up on a different planet to which he's now attempting to return. This description along should indicate how he's an example of how science fiction elements often just don't work in Daredevil, even if the series hasn't yet found a long-lasting distinctive niche. Another oddity comes in an appearance by Uri Geller, who is presented as though his telepathic and telekinetic powers are real, allowing him to locate foes and bend metal with his mind. Although his appearance was probably a co-ordinated publicity drive for whatever reason, once again he just doesn't feel like the sort of character who naturally fits into the series as it is in this period.

Marv Wolfman's run finishes near the end of this volume and so once again a writer has moulded the series into a new direction only to head off before it can really set things down for the long run. Although the last three issues seem to continue on the lines he set down, that's possibly only because of the split plotting and scripting between Gerry Conway and Jim Shooter, showing the title treading a little water before the next permanent writer comes along. Such chopping and changing on a series just isn't healthy in the long run and so it's unsurprising that we have yet another forgotten era as the character and series continue the quest for a permanent distinctive niche.

That's not to say that this volume is at fault in itself. There are clear attempts to get a strong identity set down with a mixture of old and new characters, some character development and ongoing storylines that offer mysteries. And the new villains may be thin on the ground but the ones who are introduced include Daredevil's greatest physical nemesis, a sign of quality over quantity. However some of the mysteries wind up lasting rather longer than they really need to, especially when some issues barely advance them at all, and two are still unsolved when the volume comes to an end. Given that we've only had two new volumes of Essential Daredevil in the last six years, then, even leaving aside the current uncertainty about the future of the Essential programme overall, it seems likely that we won't be seeing these plotlines resolved anytime soon. But aside from that this is quite a good volume with sustained strong writing and good artwork, showing Daredevil as he developed in the last years before he really hit the big time.

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