Daredevil 181 – Still Good 42 Years Later

For 181 days, I’ve been reading all of Daredevil, one issue a day. And despite me liking Daredevil a whole lot for the last 20 years or so, most of these 181 days have been pretty rough going. The early years are not good. There’s a reason that I had a pretty good grip on Silver Age Marvel but had never seen an issue of Daredevil from that era. They’re kind of bad. And there’s a lot to say about that but this is not the time. It’s just a book that Stan Lee did not seem to have any particular passion for and those formative first years are a revolving door of artists. It’s not until issue 20 when Gene Colan comes in and stays through 100 when there’s any degree of consistency. And even then, there’s a whole series of writers for whom Daredevil was not top priority.

Stan Lee’s run on the book is utterly undistinguished. It gives the impression of being the last thing he wrote on Friday right before leaving. Despite writing a series about a superhero lawyer, he seems to not know what a lawyer does and there are vague references to paperwork and insurance but not, you know, court scenes. There’s none of that early Marvel magic. I don’t want to spend too much time on this, but it’s fascinating to me that Daredevil was one of the very few early Silver Age Marvel books that launched as an entirely new title, as opposed to debuting the character in a shared book, and also one of the few that’s never been cancelled. And, in fact, the only solo character about whom both of those facts are true. It’s a lonely Venn Diagram, and it’s weird that Marvel seemingly had that kind of faith in a new character and then put absolutely no effort into it.

When Stan left (though he remained on as editor, and unsurprisingly, kept top billing in the credits), Roy Thomas took over. I can barely remember a single detail of those issues. Thomas is a guy who really wants to dig into continuity and work out when this issue happens in relation to the current issue of Avengers and will sometimes devote an entire issue to explaining why a character had a different costume in one story from 1945. And that stuff was like crack to me when I was eight years old and reading All-Star Squadron and it turns out I don’t still like everything I did when I was eight.

Gerry Conway followed, and while Conway would go on to have a great run on Amazing Spider-Man and a bunch of DC books, creating the Punisher, Firestorm, and Killer Croc along the way. His time on Daredevil was mostly full of references to other books he was writing and presumably cared more about. His major contribution was adding Black Widow as a regular cast member (including changing the title to Daredevil and Black Widow) and then having her change clothes on panel in every issue. Gene Colan, bless his heart, did his best to keep it classy.

Then the eventual creator of Howard the Duck, Steve Gerber, came along. I say this with all the respect in the world because I love Steve Gerber, but he was barely writing Daredevil. They could have re-titled the book Steve Gerber Shit and been more honest. He’s touching on all these weird, bigger ideas and then sticking Daredevil in there to sort of be near it.

Marv Wolfman was the next writer to stick around for any length of time. Another guy with a distinguished career (He created Blade! And the New Teen Titans! But also Pariah!), his run is the first time where it feels like somebody is trying to do something beyond just ticking up the issue number. He has a take on Daredevil and it’s sometimes successful. The main thing to note here is that he created Bullseye, the world’s greatest assassin. He can kill you with anything and in his first appearance, he kills a guy with a paper airplane. He stands out in a villain landscape populated by folks like the Owl, Stilt-Man, Stunt-Master, and Leap Frog.

With issue 151, Roger McKenzie takes over the book. And he puts in the work. The constant Spider-Man style patter is gone and Daredevil takes on a darker character. He has a lot of dangling plotlines to resolve, so his tone doesn’t really click in at first, but it’s good. Am I biased because he used to come in to the comic store where I worked? Maybe. Do I feel sorry for him because he ended up getting memory holed like the guy who was on Ed Sullivan right before The Beatles? Definitely. (Bad example because that was Frank Gorshin and all right-thinking people know the best Riddler. But you get it.) Because with issue 158, a young artist name Frank Miller came onto the series. Coincidentally, that was the first issue of Daredevil I ever read as a kid.

Frank Miller, in the present, is an enormously complicated creator. Probably best known for The Dark Knight Returns and Sin City, his work from the last twenty or so years has been… confusing. Occasionally offensively bad, occasionally tone-deaf, sometimes just inscrutable. His politics are also, you know, the politics of an old man. He used to be kind of a leftist firebrand and now he’s one of those “LOL! Triggered much?” guys. And the less said about Holy Terror, his post 9/11 story about a dude who just spends 96 pages murdering Middle Eastern people, the better. (Except to say he originally submitted it to DC as a Batman story and they wisely passed so he just made the lead character Not Batman and thus lost the joke of the title.) But we’re talking about the Frank Miller of the early eighties, and that Frank Miller is a a genius.

His pencils are incredible and his first few issues feel like he’s tributing Gene Colan but they quickly become their own thing. Dynamic, sometimes minimalist and sometimes carefully rendered as fits the mood, sometimes spinning into caricature, his fight scenes look like nothing else in comics at the time. It’s unbelievable. After a few issues, he starts getting co-writer credit and with 168, McKenzie is gone without a word and Miller (with longtime Daredevil inker Klaus Janson) is running the show. And he comes out of the gate introducing Elektra.

Elektra is an assassin and the character who singlehandedly popularized sai as a weapon.  There’s no Raphael without Elektra. More important, she’s Matt Murdock’s college girlfriend. (Matt Murdock is Daredevil. I probably shouldn’t assume that knowledge. He’s also blind. I did a bad job setting this up.) Back then, he intervened in a hostage situation to save her life and her father died as a result. It should be noted that the cops shot her father so it’s arguably more an early case of ACAB, but since that day she’s hated Murdock. Running afoul of Daredevil and then realizing he’s her old lover, Elektra is so well-developed and so impactful right away.

Over the next year or so, Elektra remains on the fringes of the book. Miller makes Bullseye a genuine threat and there’s a moment where Daredevil saves his life because that’s what heroes do. It even sets up the idea that this might mean Matt is responsible the next time Bullseye kills somebody. It’s a thing that’s implied in many superhero stories, but it’s specifically considered here. Put a pin in that.

Another thing Miller brings to the book is Wilson Fisk, the Kingpin. The “legitimate businessman” had up to this point been exclusive to the Spider-Man books and at this point in history, had retired and moved to Japan. So much Kingpin stuff happens, but as we get up to issue 181, he’s hired Elektra as his personal assassin. The previous issue ends with him tasking her to kill Foggy Nelson, Matt Murdock’s best friend and law partner.

Daredevil 181 is one of those issues everybody knows. It’s what Across the Spider-Verse calls a canon event. It’s up there with Uncanny X-Men 137. But that issue does not hold up like you remember (The X-Men fight a knockoff Legion of Super-Heroes and then the all-powerful Dark Phoenix gets shot and dies.).  Daredevil 181 remains, forty-one years later, a banger. The cover tells you it’s Bullseye vs. Elektra. “One Wins, One Dies”. And then the whole issue is from Bullseye’s point of view. It’s Bullseye in prison, thinking about how much he hates Daredevil. Hanging out in the prison yard, he runs into the Punisher (that feels like too many incredibly deadly killers getting their fresh air at the same time) who taunts Bullseye by telling him he’s washed up and Elektra is the best in the game now. So Bullseye breaks out of prison by agreeing to an interview with Tom Snyder and then killing everybody and stealing a helicopter. It’s rad.

He finds out about Elektra’s assignment and follows her. When Elektra realizes who Foggy is, she lets him go. Bullseye does some research and learns her connection to Murdock and that’s enough for him to figure out Matt Murdock is Daredevil. When he presents this finding to Kingpin, he’s not convinced and tells Bullseye to beat it. He’s got a better assassin on the payroll. So Bullseye decides to eliminate the competition and the fact that it will hurt Daredevil is a bonus.

Now, there’s a thing they call “fridging” in comics, but it pops up in all forms of media. Short version is that a female character is harmed or killed to motivate a male character. She dies to give him a traumatic backstory. The term comes from this issue of Green Lantern where Kyle Rayner opens up a refrigerator to find his dismembered girlfriend. It’s gross. And this is kind of that, but also that’s the villain’s explicitly stated intention. That makes it feel less like a writer being thoughtless and more like, yeah, that’s how a psychopath thinks. And this is following on the heels of an attempt to assassinate Foggy for the purpose of hurting Daredevil, so this is very much just in the playbook. This is all subjective and if this seems to you like an egregious example of a woman suffering just to motivate a man, I’m not going to fight you on that. It’s delicate territory and it’s entirely possible that my perception is colored by just how masterful this issue is.

Look, the original premise was I was reviewing every issue in a two-sentence Instagram post and as things got more complicated, the reviews got longer but I still try to keep them brief and there isn’t really a way to blow though this one. Bullseye goes after Elektra and again, this is all from his point of view. There’s no narration or thought balloons to tell us what she’s feeling. It’s just a brutal ballet for several pages that ends with Bullseye barely getting the upper hand and stabbing her with her own sai. She crawls to Matt’s brownstone and dies in his arms while Bullseye watches.

It’s incredible. Making Bullseye the point of view means that we don’t know what’s going through her head in those last moments. The last time we got into Elektra’s head, she still hated Matt Murdock. I mean, she spared his life when she didn’t have to but she also, say, kicked him out a window without much regard to whether he was going to survive. The fact that she found him at the end means something, but we’re left to work it out ourselves. Most Marvel writers at the time (and everybody who’d touched Daredevil up to this point) would have spelled it out in a series of dense caption boxes, followed by another batch to tell us how Matt Murdock feels.

The other thing that amazed me (and I should note that I did read these issues close to thirty years ago but I have very little memory of them. That was when I started working at a comic shop and I was just reading everything I could get my hands on and very little of it stuck. So I remember broad strokes but very few details), is that Matt and Elektra never reconcile. There are no sweet moments between them before this happens. She comes back into his life, she hates him, she dies in his arms. That was shocking. Also notable is how little time we actually spent with Elektra. Before this issue, I would bet she appeared in less than eighty pages comics total. She dominates every scene in which she appears but it’s a page or two at a time if you’re lucky. Comics beat you over the head with the characters you’re supposed to like and Elektra just pops in, becomes the coolest character you’ve ever seen, and dips out.

Also, before we finish the issue, this is comics. Elektra comes back. It takes a while, but she comes back a couple of times before sticking around. And some of it is good while some of it is real bad. She’s going to end up becoming Daredevil and marrying Matt Murdock. It’s not the end of her story. But at the moment this comic comes out, and in the mind of her creator, this is where Elektra dies. The emotional impact of this issue is still there even though there are multiple video games where I can play as a LEGO version of Elektra.

After a trap with a fakeout that convinces Bullseye that Matt Murdock can’t possibly be Daredevil, we get another beautifully rendered, intense fight scene. Daredevil ultimately wins and Bullseye still taunts him. Daredevil, who is mostly silent for the entire issue, just tells Bullseye he’ll never hurt anybody ever again and drops him off a building.

Now, as somebody who has read 181 issues of Daredevil in six months, there are things I’ve noticed. One of them is that so many villains die while fighting Daredevil. He doesn’t kill anybody, but something happens where they die. We’re around thirty by this point (including two unrelated characters named “Torpedo”), and the vast majority of them die by falling from a great height, usually a building. So for Daredevil to finally actively drop somebody, it’s kind of a hilarious payoff for me. But I doubt Frank was tracking that particular stat as actively as I am.

But more important, since this is all Bullseye’s perspective, we don’t know what Daredevil was thinking. Because what happens is that Bullseye breaks his neck in the fall and the last few pages have him in a prison hospital, paralyzed for life and vowing to kill Daredevil anyway. Was that the plan? Did Daredevil not only plan to break his neck but also know how to drop him perfectly? Or did he assume that Bullseye wouldn’t survive? We’re outside his head, which is not a choice I can imagine any other Marvel writer of the time making. I don’t know if we’ll get more insight into this in later issues or if we’re just going to have to wonder. A comic from forty-two years ago is absolutely haunting me.

I’m going to start posting my previous Daredevil reviews here so they’re available to people who don’t follow me on social media. (And really, why would you?) I’ll do two a day until I catch up to my social streams and eventually, it’ll be every issue of Daredevil since 1964. It’ll be wild to see those half-assed Silver Age issues, and era when Daredevil had two different villains who wore frog costumes, and how we eventually get to this point.

Man, comics are good.

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