My Year with Daredevil – January

As a man with no obvious problems or flaws, it’s difficult to make New Year’s resolutions. It’s my burden and, in fact, my only one. This year, I gave myself a task – I’m going to read all of Daredvil, one issue a day, until I hit the end. Clearly a noble goal.

Why Daredevil? Well, I like Daredevil. He’s cool. Dude’s a good guy. Beyond that, there are some things that make him interesting for this project. He goes all the way back to 1964, which means I should wrap this up in his sixtieth anniversary year. And he’s fairly unique in Silver Age Marvel. His first appearance is Daredevil #1, debuting a series that has been published consistently since then. Yes, it’s been relaunched with a new first issue many, many times. But barring late shipping or a pause month between series, Daredevil has been coming out without a break.

There are very few Marvel superheroes of that era who debuted in their own solo titles. The Fantastic Four and X-Men did, but they’re team books. The only other solo character who launched in their own first issue was Hulk, who was canceled after six issues and then moved to a co-feature in Tales to Astonish. That was Marvel’s practice in the early days. Captain America and Iron Man shared Tales of Suspense; Hulk, Ant-Man, and Namor in Tales to Astonish; Thor and rotating backups in Journey into Mystery; and Dr. Strange, Nick Fury, and Human Torch shared Strange Tales. Strong sales meant you’d graduate into a solo book. Even Spider-Man debuted in the last issue of Amazing Fantasy and while the immediate plan was to launch him into his own title immediately, he didn’t make his first appearance in his own book.

And almost every Marvel title had at least some disruption or lasting cancellation over sixty years. X-Men was canceled and went all-reprints before a revival. Doctor Strange has not had a monthly title more often than he’s had one. Fantastic Four was canceled for years over movie rights. Even Spider-Man took four months off while his ongoing books were replaced with Scarlet Spider (don’t ask). So it’s unusual that Daredevil first appeared in his own book and it’s unusual that he’s been published without interruption since then. And if you put that in a Venn Diagram, he’s the only one in the space where those circles meet.

On a more subjective level, I don’t know much about early Daredevil. I’ve read almost every issue since 1998 or so, but I almost never got Daredevil as a kid. For most of my early life, it was my mom picking out comics at the grocery store, and that’s what I read. I feel like Daredevil maybe looked too violent – you’d see real guns on the cover instead of energy blasts. I’ve read the Frank Miller runs and some issues here and there, but there are huge blind spots. And I’m pretty well versed on Silver Age Marvel. I’ve read all the early Spider-Man and FF. Most of the Kirby Thor, all of the Ditko Doctor Strange features. The earliest Daredevil I’ve ever read is #158 from 1979. There was a beat-up copy at my grandparents’ house and had I not read it to pieces decades ago, it would go for a nice amount right now, what with being the first Frank Miller art and all. Looking forward to getting to that one in early June.

So I’m looking forward to finally seeing the early years of one of my favorite Marvel characters. (Without factoring in the movie or TV versions, top three Marvels for me are The Thing, Spider-Man, and Daredevil.) If you follow me on Instagram (ej_feddes) you can see The Daily Daredevil, where I write a two-sentence review of each issue and then I’ll check in here at the end of each month or when there’s a major event to discuss.

I think the most important thing to say about the first 31 issues of Daredevil, which take us to early 1967, is that they aren’t very good. There are moments of brilliance, but they’re mostly pretty bad. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why, though artistic inconsistency is an immediate issue. Back then, Marvel books had pretty stable creative teams. Sometimes a book would launch with Jack Kirby art and then Kirby would hand it off after a few months, but Amazing Spider-Man had Steve Ditko art through issue 38 and John Romita for twenty issues after that. Fifty-eight issues, two pencillers.  Fantastic Four had Kirby on the first one hundred and one issues. And then there’s Daredevil. Issue one, Bill Everett art. It’s loose and caricature-y. Basically, unlike Kirby, he was drawing the exact same way he had been in the forties. And then with the second issue, Joe Orlando (mostly known for DC work and non-superhero work) takes over. They replaced the artist after one issue. As of #5, the legendary Wally Wood comes in for four issues and then Bob Powell takes over. A few issues later, John Romita comes in only to be replaced by Gene Colan in issue 20. Six pencillers in twenty issues. It’s wild, and it means it takes longer for Daredevil to have any kind of identity as a series. Colan’s run is legendary and I assume he’ll be around for a while – I’m not looking up anything upcoming. I’m stuck with knowledge that I already have, of course, but I’m not going to look and see who the next artist is or when Stan Lee stops writing the series. I’m taking each issue as it comes and so I don’t know how long we’ll have Colan.

Speaking of, Gene Colan’s art is beautiful and his long run means that, for the first time, Foggy Nelson is recognizably the same man from issue to issue. But, and I feel bad saying this, it can look really lazy. Colan loves doing a big single-panel splash page of something wholly unexceptional. If you’re doing a splash page, it should be Galactus appearing in New York, not, say, Daredevil opening a window. One issue opens with two consecutive splashes of Daredevil standing over the villain he beat last issue, just from slightly different angles. And so many fight scenes take place in a background-free void. There’s some amazing figure work but they’re standing in yellow. It’s hard to fault Colan – back in those days you had artists cranking out three books a month just to feed their families and it feels like Daredevil was not anybody’s priority. Do what you have to do, Gene.

(Speaking to the low priority nature of Daredevil, one issue opens with a caption explaining that Stan Lee left for vacation seven pages into the script so it’s being finished by Denny O’Neil (eventually a legendary Batman writer) and it’s impossible to imagine Stan not only bailing mid-issue of Spider-Man or Thor but that he wouldn’t try to spin it as a positive. He’s just saying “I didn’t have time to finish writing this.”)

We can point to the villains as a problem. Thirty-one issues in, Spider-Man had enough villains to sustain him for decades. You could make a dozen movies using only the villains who appeared up to that point. Daredevil occasionally borrows Spider-Man villains – including Electro in the second issue, following the compelling first issue villain who… fixes boxing matches and dies of a heart attack when Daredevil chases him. There’s The Boss and The Broker and The Owl, described as “an evil financial genius”. Stilt-Man (who is tall) and Matador (who waves a cape) and Masked Marauder (who appears so often and his big move is to use light to blind people) are not exactly compelling. The Purple Man made for a great season of Jessica Jones but nobody’s itching for Tri-Man, the robot with the strength of one man, the fighting skill of one man, and the intelligence of one man. In the first twenty-five issues, Daredevil fights two unrelated guys who wear frog costumes. It’s a shame that this didn’t remain a theme. Imagine if the Netflix series was exactly the same except Vincent D’Onofrio was dressed as a frog.

And then you have the supporting cast, which consists of two people. Foggy Nelson, Matt’s law partner, and Karen Page, their secretary. I like Foggy (in the present) but his only personality trait here is being in love with Karen, to the extent that he pretends to be Daredevil to impress her. Outside of the TV show, I don’t know Karen all that well. In Frank Miller’s run she trades Daredevil’s secret identity for a hit of heroic (because the eighties and also because Frank Miller) and then years later Kevin Smith kills her off (because the nineties and also because Kevin Smith). So I haven’t seen much of her and so far, there isn’t much to see. Aside from May Parker, Stan is not great at writing women. Every woman in the Marvel stable has the same personality, which is to say “girl”.

In most early Marvel books, the soap opera elements were kind of a hook and here they’re an active detriment. Both Matt and Foggy are in love with Karen, who is their employee. She maybe loves Matt but can never admit it and Matt could never “ask her to marry a sightless man”, but also she’s in love with Daredevil. Other than Foggy’s two issues of pretending to be Daredevil and the eventual introduction of Matt’s imaginary twin brother, that’s the whole thing. It doesn’t move forward or change at all. Stan Lee used to talk about “the illusion of change” but I feel like every other Silver Age Marvel does this more successfully, and I think it comes down to the cast. Peter Parker has a home life, school, and his job, all with different supporting characters. All three of those settings have conflicts and they ultimately reset to a status quo after a few issues but the ability to shift focus makes it less obvious. This time Aunt May is really sick! And yes, within a few months she’ll revert to being as sick as she was before, but the book could cut to Peter’s problems with J. Jonah Jameson or Flash Thompson to disguise that loop. Multiple relationships in different states of flux cover up that there’s still a reset state that they always go back to. Matt Murdock knows two people and they’re always in scenes together so there’s just one drum to beat.

Early on there’s a big move where Matt quits the law practice, partly for inner turmoil and partly because they can’t afford their office (because Stan Lee can’t be bothered to learn what lawyers do and so they never have clients) and Foggy could then move into a smaller space. And then two issues later he comes back, with none of the issues that caused him to leave having been resolved or even addressed. In the third issue, Daredevil decides he should have a backpack to keep his clothes in so people don’t find Matt Murdock’s clothes just laying around. Several pages are devoted to designing the backpack, making the backpack, and explaining how the backpack works. And then in the very next issue, the backpack gets torn in a fight and he gets rid of it. Why did we take this particular bus to nowhere? Stan just thought backpacks were cool one month and then changed his mind.

There’s one major thing I want to address before some quick points about the first 31 issues of Daredevil, and it’s tied up with Mike Murdock, Matt’s fake brother. There are already weird identity things in the book, like Foggy pretending to be Daredevil to impress Karen and then accidentally hiring a real villain to fake fight him. Or Matt putting on his costume in front of Karen and explaining that he’s going to dress as Daredevil to create a diversion until the real Daredevil can get there. One villain puts his own costume on Daredevil so apparently people will think that Daredevil started wearing a bigger costume over his regular costume before going on a rampage with super strength that he doesn’t have. And in fact, the genesis for the extremely weird imaginary brother comes from the Masked Marauder hiring thugs to dress as Daredevil and take shots at Spider-Man to create conflict between the heroes.

Sure enough, this leads to a hero fight and Daredevil somehow wins. So Spider-Man tracks him back to the law office of Nelson and Murdock and decides one of the three people in that office has to be Daredevil. Probably not the lady, definitely not the blind guy, so it’s clearly the overweight guy who doesn’t look at all like Daredevil. It gets silly. But apparently Spider-Man is stewing on this, because later on he sends a letter to Matt Murdock exposing his identity. This happens off-panel, and it’s hard to imagine Peter Parker, in his own book, taking some time from crises to type out a letter to Daredevil for the sole purpose of being a dick. Karen reads the letter despite it being addressed to Matt but doesn’t question how Matt would have been able to read it anyway. And of course, you have to unquestioningly believe a letter that was purportedly written by Spider-Man so she and Foggy confront Matt.

His explanation? Well, a non-superhero would probably say “Obviously a crazy guy wrote a letter. Why would Spider-Man do this?” But a superhero has to go galaxy brain and so Matt explains that he has a twin brother he’s never mentioned, Mike Murdock, and that guy is actually Daredevil. It just slipped his mind and so it never came up. This is the dumbest thing. Until it gets dumber and Matt sometimes goes to the office as Mike Murdock (who is not blind) to string his friends along. It is the funniest and stupidest thing and as I wrap up this month, it’s still going on.

There’s a brilliant moment where Matt decides he’s going to propose to Karen. They have never gone on a date or even talked about their feelings, but she’s a lady in a Marvel comic published in the 1960s. She’s there to be supportive and get proposed to. And Matt can’t decide whether to propose as Mike or Matt! He’s willing to actually live as his imaginary brother! It’s bonkers. And it’s still not the weirdest moment. That comes in issue thirty.

Cobra and Mr. Hyde, villains who usually fought Thor, are on the loose. Daredevil decides to go after them, which is admirably proactive. And he figures they’ll come out of hiding to attack Thor. I would think that anybody who keeps getting beat by Thor would maybe not come back for more of that hammer, but I’m not Daredevil. So he gets a Thor costume to wear over his Daredevil costume (Thor has bare arms and a bare face – it’s not a good plan). This is ridiculous. But then he decides he should check in with Foggy and Karen, so he puts his Mike Murdock sunglasses on under his two masks and goes to the office as Matt Murdock impersonating Mike Murdock who is Daredevil dressed as Thor. It’s amazing.

Secret identities are always weird. The standard explanation is if the people they care about knew their secret, they’d be in danger. That reasoning would require your enemies to know who knows your identity. But then you have guys like Superman who is friends with the Daily Planet staff in both identities, thus both lying to them and endangering them. And Daredevil is doing the exact same thing – Foggy and Karen can never know that Matt is Daredevil, but it’s cool if they think Matt’s brother is Daredevil. It’s a totally useless ruse that cancels out the useful ruse. I’m eager to see how this plays out or how it’s rolled back and never spoken of again.

(By the way, my future knowledge comes into play here because in a recent Daredevil arc, Mike Murdock is an actual person who exists and in fact, dies at the hands of the Kingpin. I don’t know how we get from here to there and I bet the explanation will irritate me.)

Let me just wrap up with some quick observations on the first thirty-one issues of Daredevil.

-The first issue has Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four on both the cover and the first page, just to remind you of good characters. It’s literally like “You like these guys, right? Well, here’s another guy!”

-Daredevil borrows a lot of villains from other heroes. Most notably the Ox, who usually fights Spider-Man as a member of the Enforcers, makes multiple appearances. Last time we see him in this run, a body swap has left his powerful body dead and his brain in a weak body.I know I’ve seen Ox over the course of my lifetime, so I’m curious to see if there’s follow-up here or if it’s resolved in another series, or if it’s just ignored.

-Ka-Zar shows up in this series a lot. Four times in these first thirty-one issues. Once, he punches Daredevil so hard that he loses his powers.

-The Purple Man is a cool and interesting villain from his first appearance and he’s the one guy they don’t keep revisiting. Oh, please do more Masked Marauder stories. His power that’s explicitly ineffective against Daredevil makes for great reading!

-The Owl, an evil finance guy who can glide, somehow becomes a bigger threat over the decades. Even still, every modern Owl story is ultimately about how this time he’s not a joke anymore and he’s challenging another villain for their territory and then he gets his ass kicked by Doctor Octopus or Kingpin or whoever. In one issue here he has a robot owl that is described as “the most dangerous thing on the planet”. It flies kind of fast, I’ll give it that.

-The issue that Denny O’Neil writes has Daredevil thinking about how his dialogue is bad and decides not to talk when he’s fighting anymore. Unfortunately, Stan ignored that.

-There are so few instances of actual lawyer work here. Mostly, they’re called upon to defend villains but we never hear any more about it. There’s a potentially fun ethical conflict there, but it’s ignored. In pre-Google days, Stan had no interest in researching what lawyers do so they speak vaguely of clients or sometimes there is a trial scene which is just a pretext for a villain to rampage. Once in a while, somebody will mention habeas corpus, but they say it the way Doctor Strange would invoke a spell.

-Issue Seven, where Namor decides to sue the human race and then beats Daredevil so badly that he admires the guy for continuing to get up and so stops attacking humanity, is a genuine classic. I thought this was where the series would get good and then the next issue is Stilt-Man.

-In contrast to, oh, every other comic, we never hear about Daredevil’s origin after the first issue. In other series you’d get recaps or Spider-Man would think about Uncle Ben or Bruce Banner would mention that gamma bomb. Maybe it’s because Daredevil’s origin is “I don’t know, I guess he got some radioactive shit in his eyes” and so it’s not worth revisiting, but so far there have been no further references to the source of his powers or his murdered father.

-Two of the main elements of Daredevil stories of at least the last thirty years are ninjas and Catholicism, and there’s nary a whiff of either one yet.

That’s where we are after a month of Daredevil. Check out my Instagram for daily updates and I’ll be back next month with issues thirty-two through fifty-nine. My hope is that Stan Lee leaves the book soon – Stan was enormously complicated as a person and as a creator, but there’s a huge difference between the books he cares about and the ones that were assets on a balance sheet and it seems like Daredevil was in the latter camp. At some point, a writer is actually going to engage with this book and this is all going to be worth it. It has to get good at some point, right?

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