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!
It’s always a special day when Chasing Amazing’s Mark Ginoccho favors Longbox Graveyard with a guest blog! Take it away, Mark!
Paul has been generous enough to once again allow me to have the run of the Longbox Graveyard so I could conduct a blogging experiment of sorts that connects LBG with my personal site, Chasing Amazing. Today, as part of my month-long acknowledgement/celebration of Daredevil’s 50th anniversary, I’ve written two concurrently published blog entries that put one of the great Marvel villains on a pedestal, Wilson Fisk, aka the “Kingpin” of crime. My Chasing Amazing post will examine Kingpin’s adversarial relationship with Spider-Man, while this one will shine a light on the Fisk/Daredevil dynamic.
Modern readers likely associate Kingpin as a Daredevil villain, and while they would be mostly right, it can not be forgotten that Fisk was first introduced as a villain for Spidey in 1967’s Amazing Spider-Man #50 and was a non-factor in the life of Matt Murdock/Daredevil until Frank Miller/Klaus Janson’s revolutionary run on Daredevil (Kingpin first appeared in ‘Ol Hornhead’s book in issue #170 in 1981).
Spider-Man and Daredevil are two of Marvel’s premiere “street level” heroes, so it makes sense for both to have a major beef with the New York City’s Kingpin of organized crime (not to mention Fisk’s blood feud with Frank Castle, aka the Punisher). But despite Fisk getting a 14-year head start tormenting the friendly neighborhoods of Spider-Man, his time going toe-to-toe with Daredevil is significantly elevated by the fact that Daredevil/Kingpin had far more groundbreaking creators crafting their stories over the past 30-plus years – most notably Miller and Brian Michael Bendis.
When Miller first took over on lead pencils on Daredevil in 1979, he immediately infused Roger McKenzie’s scripts with a film noir style that would become a trademark for the title. As Daredevil continued to struggle with declining sales, Miller was eventually given both scripting and penciling duties (with Klaus Janson providing inks), which is when the aesthetic and tone of the book would change for good.
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Gone was the glossy Silver Age-isms leftover from the 1960s and 70s, and in its place was a griminess and grittiness that probably smacks of “been there done that” to today’s audiences where everything related to comics (books, films, television, et al) is supposed to be DARK. But at the time these tonal changes were quite extraordinary. Miller’s style put the “Hell” in Hell’s Kitchen and while the sociopathic assassin Bullseye was certainly a worthwhile adversary for Daredevil to square off against, what the title really needed to ascend to the next level was a kingpin. Enter, Wilson Fisk.
The inaugural Kingpin/Daredevil arc spins off from a previous Amazing Spider-Man storyline where Fisk gives up the life of crime at the request of his wife, Vanessa. Miller and Janson introduce us to Kingpin in Daredevil #170 as a sumo-sized behemoth, tossing around his lackeys like ragdolls, while simultaneously making it clear to whoever is within earshot that he had officially divorced himself from his former life working as the “K” guy.
But like every mob boss in the history of media, Fisk learns the hard and fast way that one doesn’t just “leave” the criminal underworld. A full-blown gang war breaks out with rival bosses seeking the Kingpin’s “files.” At one point, Fisk is drawn out to make a deal and it turns out to be an ambush. A sonic blast causes a building to fall down, assumedly burying Vanessa underneath and leading Fisk to embark on a warpath of vengeance unlike any the criminal underworld has ever seen.
In the midst of all this, Daredevil has his first encounter with Fisk under the guise of “Shades,” a wannabe mobster trying out for Team Kingpin. Matt, of course, is just trying to gain access to Fisk’s files and learns rather quickly that Kingpin is not a man to be trifled with. After trying to break into his vault, Kingpin and Daredevil engaged in their first of many battles, with Fisk decisively getting the better of the hero and dumping him into a sewer pipe.
And thus marks the beginning of a very long and winding, complex hero/villain relationship. Miller’s characterization of the underworld plays into the wheelhouse of the Daredevil/Kingpin dynamic. There’s muck, dirt and grime everywhere. It’s unsightly. Daredevil, by definition, is a hero who lives in a world of darkness. The accident that caused him to become blind but also enhanced his remaining senses, gives him a unique power-set, but not the standard superhero skillset of super-strength, flying, advanced technology, etc. Kingpin, despite his rotund figure, is incredibly strong, but again, not “super-powered.” Plus, how fitting is it for a superhero who spends his “normal” life outside of his tights working as an attorney, to have an arch-nemesis that bends the law to his will?
Still, there’s more to the Daredevil/Kingpin dynamic that just the poetry of their interaction. At the onset of this inaugural “Gang War” arc, Miller sets out to connect Murdock and Fisk on an extraordinarily personal level. There’s a cat and mouse game going on that extends beyond the punches and kicks that are thrown. At the end of Daredevil #172, Fisk hands over the precious files to Daredevil, telling him to do what he pleases with it – that he will just rebuild into a stronger, meaner organization. And Daredevil realizes there’s nothing he can do to combat the tidal wave that is the Kingpin.
Miller/Janson ratchet up the drama between Daredevil and Kingpin during run of issues dubbed “The Elektra Saga,” which also marks the introduction of one of Marvel’s most famous femme fatales, Elektra Natchios. Elektra, a former love of Matt’s from college, has been hired as the Kingpin’s personal assassin.
During “The Elektra Saga,” readers learn that Fisk has a hand-picked mayoral candidate, the crooked Randolph Cherryh. When Daily Bugle ace reporter Ben Urich starts to reveal the scandalous link between Fisk and Cherryh, Elektra is deployed to send a message with one of her trusty sai. Urich backs off his story, but not before handing some of his research over to Daredevil. Among a pile of photos is one that shows Kingpin’s thought-to-be-dead Vanessa lurking in the sewers as a vagabond. Daredevil is able to use this information to gain total leverage over Fisk, getting him to pull Cherryh from the New York City mayoral race in exchange for Vanessa’s whereabouts.
These are the kinds of storylines that have the Daredevil/Kingpin relationship mimic a game of chess. In the penultimate issue of the inaugural Miller run on Daredevil, he even adds a scene where Kingpin tells Daredevil that the two of them are inextricably linked and are not that different from each other. But the mutual admiration society ends in brutal fashion during what many consider to be one of the greatest storylines in comic book history: 1986’s “Born Again” by Frank Miller with art by David Mazzucchelli.
If you’re a devotee of the “House of Ideas” and have never read “Born Again,” stop everything that you’re doing, run out to the store and pick yourself up a trade paperback copy (or find it on the Marvel Unlimited app) and then get back to me.
Thanks for doing that.
Seriously, “Born Again,” encapsulates everything that is wonderful about this sometimes-satisfying, often-maddening world of superhero comics. For the uninitiated, “Born Again” starts with Matt’s former love, Karen Page, hooked on drugs and in need of a fix. She sells Matt’s biggest secret – his Daredevil identity – in exchange for some drugs, and this information naturally finds its way to Fisk. Fisk uses this information to systematically destroy Murdock piece by piece: his home, his law practice… everything. Matt is so broken, when he goes to confront Fisk, he gets a beating that’s even more brutal than the first time the two squared off. Kingpin assumes victory, and goes on to live a life as a “legitimate” businessman.
Except as Fisk rightly notes, “there is no corpse,” and of course Matt finds a way to rise from the ashes. Daredevil completely rebuilds his life as gradually and systematically as it was destroyed, and even reconciles with Karen along the way. Daredevil dispatches of an evil Captain America-esque super soldier, Nuke, who had been hired by Fisk to go on a killing spree in Hell’s Kitchen. Together, Daredevil and Captain America produce evidence that connects Nuke and Fisk, thereby destroying his public image as a legit titan of the business world.
The storyline demonstrates just how far both Kingpin and Daredevil are willing to go to destroy the other, and while it ends on a note of optimism for Matt, the arc comes across as the end of the road for Fisk, whose grand plans that have been building since Miller first worked him into the Daredevil univrese have finally been ruined. Other writers continued to tackle the Daredevil/Kingpin dynamic, including a fun arc during the Ann Nocenti/John Romita Jr. that introduced another femme fatale in Typhoid Mary, but none were able to match Miller’s portrayal of the relationship.
Then Brian Michael Bendis came along.
Similar to Miller, Bendis is known for saving Daredevil from near-certain cancellation (though to be fair, BMB’s predecessor, filmmaker Kevin Smith, is who truly resuscitated Daredevil from a commercial standpoint). And like Miller, Bendis had a brilliant grasp of what made Daredevil/Kingpin such an effective hero/villain pairing. During the Bendis run, it wasn’t just about hackneyed world domination, but rather a slow moving game that was constantly being played out seven moves in advance.
Bendis (and artist Alex Maleev) had a fantastic grasp on the tone and rhythm of the underworld. A lot of Bendis’s most successful stories don’t even read like comic books as much as television/film scripts starring characters like Tony Soprano and Don Corleone. The first Bendis Kingpin story, “Underboss,” shows a weakening Kingpin who tries to maintain what little leverage he has left on Daredevil by hanging the threat of outing his secret identity over his head. When an arrogant wannabe mob boss demands that Kingpin reveal this information, it leads to Fisk’s (temporary) removal from his position of power when his entire crew betrays him and attempts to murder him.
Fisk returns to the throne eventually, as featured in the Bendis/Maleev arc “Hardcore.” But in a unique twist that demonstrates how the Kingpin/Daredevil dynamic continually finds way to evolve, Matt decides that he’s tired of the same old “cycle” with Fisk. He confronts Fisk and beats him within inches of his life, claiming that Hell’s Kitchen now belongs to Daredevil. It’s a shockingly brutal role reversal, and one of the few times the usually more passive Matt comes out on top when it comes to his physical altercations with Fisk.
Similar to how Miller leaves things at the end of “Born Again,” Bendis would go on to script a Kingpin on the ropes. With nothing left to lose, Fisk turns himself over to authorities. But in exchange for immunity, he promises to produce evidence that Matt is Daredevil and has obstructed justice many times over the years under the guise of this dual life. Fisk successfully sets Daredevil up to out his secret to the authorities, and the Bendis-era ends oddly, yet appropriately enough, with both Murdock and Fisk in jail.
Again, other creative teams would get a turn on Daredevil, and would go on to develop successful and interesting stories about Daredevil and Kingpin, but none would go on to be as riveting and significant as Miller and Bendis. These two indisputably defined the two characters and their relationship with each other in a way where Kingpin is now unblinkingly synonymous with Daredevil.
Perhaps if the Spider-verse ever had creators who had the long-game vision for Kingpin that Miller and Bendis did, the villain would still be better associated with the series in which he made his debut. Fortunately, Spider-Man would go on to have very successful inter-personal relationships with his own unique villains, while Daredevil’s existence in the Marvel Universe was likely saved by the addition of Fisk and the grittiness of his criminal underworld.
Thanks, Mark, for another outstanding contribution to Longbox Graveyard! Make sure you check out Mark’s post on Chasing Amazing that looks at the rise of the Kingpin within the Marvel Universe as a member of the cast of the Amazing Spider-Man series.
IN TWO WEEKS: #130 Punishment Is Black & White
Just when you’d forgotten about Frank Miller’s 2011 misstep …
For the fourth Longbox Graveyard Podcast, I settled in with my son, Miles, to discuss Frank Miller’s Holy Terror. Trying to get Miles to read comic books has been one of the subplots of Longbox Graveyard, and for the most part, my efforts here have been a failure. He will sometimes consent to read a Walking Dead, or Kick-Ass, but that’s about it … save for Frank Miller’s Sin City. I haven’t been able to walk Miles onto Miller’s Daredevil or Dark Knight Returns, but I did get him Holy Terror, as a means of continuing my relentless comic book advocacy.
Our discussion proved not to be a review of Holy Terror so much as it was an exploration of what it’s been like for Miles to grow up in the shadow of 9/11, and how Miller’s work did (or did not) address Miles’ anxieties about what can sometimes be a very scary world.
This is a long podcast, but it is among my favorites … Miles is a cool kid, and it was great to share this time with him.