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!
Welcome back to The Dollar Box, a where I look at comics with an original cover price of a dollar or less. This month I break format to review not one but three comics … and these aren’t exactly classic comics. But these are still fun comics — if for all the wrong reasons — with superior art, an A-list villain, and the first appearance of a mid-major Marvel character … who might not be so “mid” anymore, following news that Sam Wilson — the Falcon — is the new Captain America!
So without further apology, I present Captain America #117-119 — “The Coming of … The Falcon!”
There’s a whole goofy backstory to this particular tale, but have no fear, True Believer — it’s all summed up on the splash page to Captain America #117, which is nakedly expository even by Stan Lee standards.
OK, so the Red Skull has used the power of the Cosmic Cube to swap bodies with Captain America, and has teleported our hero to the “Isle of the Exiles,” which is inhabited by foes of the Red Skull, who will take a dim view of “Cap Skull” appearing in their midst. Got it? Good! Because if that goes down hard, break out the bourbon! There’s a lot more to swallow …
… starting with the Exiles, the aforementioned villains of this issue. Among Jack Kirby’s lesser creations, the Exiles were introduced in Tales of Suspense #41. They’re a group of would-be world conquerors and former allies of the Red Skull, and boy, do these guys like to carry a grudge. They have names, and powers after a fashion, but I won’t burden you with them. Suffice to say that their leader is a guy in a wheelchair who gets pushed around on a beach (which must really make everyone cranky).
The Exiles fight with fearsome weapons, like a really nasty scarf.
I kid you not.
The Red Skull is particularly amused to see his Cap-self waltz around with these tools, but then makes a mistake they covered on the first day of class in Supervillain 101, tuning out on Cap’s struggles before his opponent’s inevitable demise.
Yep, that’s right up there with leaving Batman alone in a death trap, or leaving the self-destruct lever to your secret base in the “up” position right next to the coat hook. I might charitably allow that the limitless power afforded by the Cosmic Cube has made the Red Skull careless, but it’s probably more accurate to say that writing this story in fifteen minutes or less made Stan Lee careless.
But maybe we can forgive the Red Skull his indulgence. This is a man with a plan!
Hitting the streets of Manhattan in the body of Captain America, the Skull laughs behind-hand at the unreserved affection afforded Captain America.
(Or maybe this is the way Cap really feels about his fans. Wouldn’t THAT make for a story!)
Yes, the Red Skull is on the loose in Captain America’s body, performing unspeakable acts of evil, like stiffing a cabbie on his fare!
Is there no bottom to the Red Skull’s villainy??
After checking into a hotel under Cap’s name, we leave the skull to run up a big room service tab — which I’m sure the scoundrel has no intention of paying — and return to Exile Island, where Cap/Skull has been rescued from scarf welts on his bum by the timely intercession of a mysterious falcon.
And this, my friends, is the first handshake between Steve Rogers and his soon-to-be-partner, Sam Wilson, a.k.a. The Falcon. You can be forgiven for not recognizing our heroes, given that Cap is in the body of the Red Skull, and that he’s removed his Red Skull mask and given himself a disguise with mud “just like he used to do in World War II.”
I swear to you, friends, I am not making this up.
Not missing a beat, Cap does what any brain-swapped superhero would do when meeting a big city brother and his pet bird on a remote island — he tells Sam that he needs to don a costume, call himself the Falcon, and fight crime! (“Don’t knock it, fella! It’s been known to work!”)
It all seems rather sudden, and Stan and Gene must have realized as much, because they’ve reached the end of the issue without actually introducing the character promised on the cover! To redress the oversight, the final panel of issue #117 is a kind of suit-up montage, giving us a look at the Falcon and warning us not to miss the next issue!
The month between issues does nothing to dissuade Cap from his crazy plan, and so confident is the body-swapped Sentinel of Liberty that Sam decides to go along with it.
“Stranger things have happened, Sam!”
(No, they haven’t).
If it’s training time, then there’s only one solution — montage! In the space of a page or two, Sam Wilson is … The Falcon!
Yes, it’s a cheesy origin, and the first African-American superhero in comics deserved better than meeting his date with destiny after answering a want ad for a falconer on a remote tropical island (which happens all the time, of course). In the scheme of things, though, maybe we should have been satisfied … Steve Englehart would later reveal that Sam was a mobbed-up pimp who had his memories manipulated by the Cosmic Cube. Later still, the Falcon would become a mutant (during those halcyon days when Marvel made everyone into mutants) before going back to … I dunno.
I really can’t tell you what the Falcon’s origin is supposed to be.
Let’s never speak of this again.
With his training montage complete, the Falcon and Cap/Skull win their return engagement with the still hopelessly-lame Exiles. Stan channels his Sgt. Fury days by busting out an “Ach Du Lieber!” so you know it is ON!
With issue #119, our fortunes improve — a little — as the Red Skull tires of this body-swapping nonsense. Resuming his true form, the Skull constructs a Bavarian stronghold through the power of the Cosmic Cube, then summons Cap/Skull and the Falcon to meet their final doom.
And the Skull is not messing around this time. Even Redwing — the Falcon’s “accursed bird” — isn’t safe from the Red Skull’s vengeance!
Thus begins a rather silly fight between the Skull, Falcon, and Cap, which sees the Red Skull restore Cap to his correct form (just because he wants to), before using the unlimited power of converting wishes-into-reality to trap poor Redwing in a birdcage.
Still, the addition of an A-list villain like the Red Skull can’t help but raise the rent of this wobbly tale.
Unfortunately, no sooner does the story start to groove along to fist city with our colorfully costumed characters than it is over, and right out of left field. A subplot running through these issues is finally resolved, as Modok — entirely off-stage, mind you — creates a MacGuffin that nullifies the Cosmic Cube, which he just happens to activate when the Skull was about to blast our heroes into atoms.
Sorry, Cap, it wasn’t “fate” that punched the Red Skull’s ticket, but rather the most heavy-handed of story conceits, a genuine deus ex machina. (Modok Ex Machina?) Either way, it’s an unsatisfying end to an uneven tale. Maybe Stan wrote himself into a corner and didn’t know how to conclude his story, or maybe he was just exhausted after three issues of body-swapping silliness. I know I’m exhausted just from reading it!
Which seems like as good a reason as any to bring this month’s Dollar Box to a close. I’ve probably been a little too hard on Captain America #117-119. Goofy as it is, the first appearance of the Falcon drives the price of #117 — despite that .15 cover price — up past the $20.00 mark, and the later two issues will set you back five or ten dollars, as well. After all, these issues feature fine Gene Colan art, and some good scenery-chewing from the Red Skull. You also get the Cosmic Cube and a cameo from Modok. It’s probably not that much sillier than the usual Silver Age story … but even so, I doubt even Ed Brubaker could make this tale seem reasonable in a modern context.
And maybe that’s OK. Maybe it’s kind of a wonderful thing that the Falcon traces his origin to answering an ad for a falconer wanted on a remote island inhabited by costumed Nazi war criminals, and that he received his superhero training from a body-swapped Captain America inhabiting the disguised body of an unmasked Red Skull.
Yeah, sure it is …
(This article originally appeared at Stash My Comics).
NEXT WEEK: #133 Longbox Soapbox (Summer 2014)
This week’s F.O.O.M. Friday brings us memories of a good news/bad news variety.
The good news was that Marvel posted a contest challenging readers to write a comics page. That’s kinda cool … it gave fans a chance to participate in the creative process, and maybe learn if they were cut out to write comics.
The bad news was … readers were expected to write like Don McGregor?
Now, that’s just cruel. It’s hard enough trying to write a comics page without any kind of context (I tried just now, and I keep thinking of Scar killing Mufasa in Lion King!) …
… but there’s no way anyone besides Don McGregor could write like Don McGregor. His tortured syntax was unique in the field. Reading his Jungle Action nearly broke my brain!
Anyway, give it a go if you like, and post your scripts to my comments section. This particular Marvel contest is long since closed, but creativity is its own reward, and … you never know!
See you back here next week with a less cruel F.O.O.M. Friday!