Here Comes Daredevil!
Usual topicality this month for The Dollar Box (my occasional series where I look at comics with an original price of a dollar or less) — Daredevil #1 might be a half-century old, but it feels more up-to-date than ever thanks to the Netflix Daredevil television series that debuts this month!
But before Daredevil looked like this …
… he burst upon the world looking like this!
And how did Daredevil fare in his debut issue, in that long-lost year of 1964? Read on!
Writing a decade after-the-fact in Son of Origins, Stan Lee suggests that Daredevil was his favorite Marvel creation, and says that the character’s origin stemmed from trying to conceive of a character who had a disability — rather than a super-power — at his core. Crediting the 1930’s Duncan Maclain mystery novels by Baynard Kendrick, which featured a blind detective, as an inspiration, Lee arrowed in on creating a blind superhero, leveraging the “… common knowledge that when a person loses his sight, his other senses usually become somewhat keener as he grows more dependent upon them.” While the character would of course have a colorful name and costume, Lee deliberately excluded super-strength from the character’s powers, writing that “the uniqueness of our new character would lie in the fact that his senses of hearing, smell, touch, and taste would be many, many times keener than those of a sighted person.”
Daredevil #1 hit the streets in mid-1964, with Bill Everett credited as “illustrator” but later acknowledged as co-creator of the character. Comics historian Mark Evanier determined that Jack Kirby also made significant contributions to Daredevil’s character design, coming up with Daredevil’s billy club, and effectively drawing the first page of the issue (which was repurposed for the cover), but the mood and atmosphere of the first issue are undeniably Everett. Working full time outside of comics, Everett drew Daredevil #1 in the margins of his time — the book was late (and incomplete, with backgrounds and secondary figures filled out by an uncredited Steve Ditko and Sol Brodsky), but the concept may have had personal resonance with Everett, given that his daughter, Wendy, was legally blind.
Unfortunately, Daredevil #1 would be Everett’s first and only outing on the series … but what an outing it was! Daredevil #1 is an excellent single-issue story, and one of the finest origin stories ever published.
The tale begins Fogwell’s Gym — a moody and murky storefront plastered with peeling boxing match handbills, and patrolled by a slinking alley cat. Upstairs, in a dingy room above the gym, a brace of mob tough guys kill time around a poker game, before they are interrupted by the literally glowing figure of young Daredevil.
When Daredevil brazenly announces that he is here to battle the mobster’s boss — “The Fixer” — fisticuffs naturally follow, and the next two pages of the story are a wonderfully swirling, kinetic, and exciting storm of panels that expertly show the nimble and acrobatic Daredevil getting the best of his beefy foes. Daredevil dodges attacks, knocks a gun from his opponent’s hand with his thrown billy club, swings from rings on the ceiling, and taunts his enemies with sarcastic quips that would be central to the character’s swashbuckling persona (at least until Frank Miller arrived on the scene, twenty years later).
Having put paid to the bad guys, the story flashes back to the origin of Daredevil, showing how young Matt Murdock agreed not to follow in the athletic footsteps of his father, prizefighter “Battling Murdock,” but would instead stick to the books to become a lawyer or a doctor. The hard-studying Matt was derisively nicknamed “Daredevil” by his peers for his refusal to join in neighborhood games, but as a natural athlete, Matt had little trouble working out on his own, while remaining a star student.
With his son dutifully following an academic path, Battling Murdoch found himself in a jam — on the downside of his boxing career, Murdoch signed up with “The Fixer,” a brutish gangster who looked like nothing so much as a gorilla with a hat and a cigar.
Murdoch’s joy in securing paying fights was juxtaposed against Matt’s unlikely origin, where he was struck in the eyes by a radioactive cylinder while saving an old man about to be run down by a truck. (Hey, it happens … and at least it also gave us the origin of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles!).
The father took the news hard, but Matt faced up to the accident — which as rendered him blind — with characteristic optimism, saying that he’d continue his studies in Braille. In short order, Matt had graduated high school and gone on to college, where he met his roommate (and future law partner) Foggy Nelson, and also discovered that his senses had become startlingly acute …
… so sharp was Matt’s perception that he could navigate through the world with a kind of “radar-sense.”
Meanwhile, for Battling Murdoch, it was time to take the fall — his string of victories, engineered by The Fixer, were only to set up a big score in the championship fight. But with his son Matt in the audience — and in a move that couldn’t surprise anyone who had ever seen a boxing movie — Battling Murdoch ignored his boss’ orders and pummeled his opponent into submission, earning the victory … and a bullet in the back, courtesy of the Fixer.
Though Matt passed the bar and set up a law practice with Foggy, the death of his father would haunt him, and so, in one of those natural-only-for-comics epiphanies, Matt decided to clad himself in yellow-and-red long johns and avenge his dad as the superhero, Daredevil!
(Daredevil’s all-red uniform would debut a half-dozen issues later, when Wally Wood was doing the book).
And so we are back where we began, with the colorfully-costumed Daredevil facing down the Fixer and his goons. After a bit more of Everett’s splendid action, the Fixer is on the run, but Daredevil neatly tracks him by the scent of his cigar, leading to a confrontation in a subway station, where the Fixer drops dead of a heart attack, and his triggerman confesses to the murder of Battling Murdoch.
It’s an economical conclusion to a fast-paced and tight bit of comics storytelling, which also quickly introduces Matt’s supporting cast of characters, even setting up the love triangle between Matt, Foggy, and their secretary Karen Page, which would be the centerpiece of some (frankly) tiresome tropes as the series wore on. Not a panel is wasted in this 23-page masterpiece where we quickly understand the relationship between Matt and his father; get on board with the studious Matt as he develops his mind and his body; and accept his unlikely accidental origin as no more or less ridiculous than most other Silver Age stories. Daredevil’s powers and limitations are clearly delineated, but but even more distinctive is Everett’s smokey world of boxers and gangsters. While still a part of the emerging “Marvel Universe,” Daredevil’s world seems as separate as it could be from the sun-lit urban canyons where Spider-Man was spinning his webs and battling outrageous, costumed, science-fictional villains.
I would dearly love to see how Bill Everett would have developed Daredevil’s world, but this was his sole outing with the character. Though the book would benefit from a parade of great pencillers — including Wally Wood, John Romita, and Gene Colan — the series would not achieve A-list status until Frank Miller’s signature run in the 1980s, which adopted many of the grim and gritty visuals established in Everett’s Daredevil #1. But Miller’s Daredevil would have little in common with the swashbuckling, optimistic character as written by Stan Lee — Miller’s Daredevil was a dark, tortured spirit of vengeance, trained by ninjas and (in a hard-to-swallow bit of retconning) beaten and abused by his father.
Frank Miller’s Daredevil is a long way from the Silver Age version …
I love Frank Miller’s Daredevil, and will concede that it is the superior interpretation of the character … but Daredevil’s early adventures have a charm of their own, and never more so than when Bill Everett’s shining Daredevil plunged into the blue-grey murk of the boxing underworld to avenge his father while never losing track of the qualities of forbearance, education, and intelligence that made Matt Murdoch a hero before he ever pulled on his yellow-and-reds.
While Daredevil #1 had an original cover price of twelve cents (!), you won’t find a copy for many times that figure now. Catapulted to comics greatness by Frank Miller’s signature run, and then surviving a wobbly theatrical run under Ben Affleck, Daredevil is poised for pop culture stardom thanks to a Netflix original TV series that ties into Marvel’s riotously successful cinematic universe — and all of these things ensure you won’t be finding Daredevil #1 in any Dollar Box ever again. But this is still a terrific comic book, and I encourage you to hunt down a reprint or a digital copy — there is something here for every Daredevil fan, whatever their age or whoever “their” Daredevil may be.
IN THREE WEEKS: The Bride of Ultron!