Daredevil: Swinging Under the Radar

Monday, March 19, 2007

Daredevil

He will dwell forever in the shadows, and not because he is a blind superhero. Daredevil, around since Stan Lee and Bill Everett created him in 1964, is destined forever to be a so-called ‘cult favorite’ rather than a mainstream favorite in the mythology of superheroes.

Other Lee creations, the ones virtually every single man, woman and child in the civilized world knows by name and iconic costume (Spider-Man, Hulk, Fantastic Four), will always be more famous, more popular and more beloved by the world at large. Throw in Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Wolverine and a handful of others, and the spotlight is pretty crowded.

But some – members of the ‘cult’ I suppose – not only like it that way but wouldn’t have it any other way. Yes, ‘Web-head’ will always have a bigger audience, but ‘Horn-head’ fans know the delightful fun of cheering for a lesser-known underdog. Not that Daredevil hasn’t had his fair share of fame and glory, he has. But, if you will pardon the pun, the scarlet swashbuckler has always flown, or swung rather, a little under the radar.

But we cultists (it would be deceitful of me as a writer if I didn’t disclose that I am a hardcore member of this particular sect of fandom) glory in the status of our very favorite fictional heroic character.

Matt MurdockWe glory in DD’s coolness because of the shared secret that this tormented, red-garbed, seeker-of-justice’s status as hero is only elevated by his lack of fame and glory. We glory that Mathew Michael Murdock not only makes things right with his vigilante purity as a crime fighter but as a first-class lawyer who does all in his power to ensure that the weak are defended inside, and when needed, outside the law. Perhaps most central to the character, we glory that our hero isn’t a super-powered mutant or a product of leading edge technology (although some nuclear waste to the eyes was involved in the origin), but that he is human. And not just human, but a human with a disability! (Even if he does cheat a bit with super-heightened senses that make up for the loss of his sight.)

All of the previously mentioned motives for being part of Daredevil fandom happen inside the Marvel Universe, but there is a major advantage outside the mythology of Marvel Comics, here in the real world. For those readers among us (and what respectable comic book cultist could be otherwise), we glory that the title has attracted the top talent in the sequential art medium. Those working in the comic book/graphic novel medium enjoy working on the Daredevil title as much as we enjoy reading it.

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The aforementioned Lee is, of course, a living legend who has left his mark on comics and culture both. He should be considered one of the most important figures in 20th Century popular literature, but he might not even be the most important figure to work on the title! Oh the sacrilege!

It could be argued that Frank Miller’s work on the monthly “Daredevil” book changed everything. By “everything” I mean not the world of Hornhead, but the medium of comic books, with ripples that are still being felt in Hollywood as recently as the moment you read this sentence. Early returns on “300,” his latest comic book (always called a graphic novel in mainstream media and Hollywood, to add prestige) to hit the big screen, estimate the movie pulled in roughly $70 million in three days on its opening weekend. This of course shatters any March opening ever, but those paying attention to Miller from his Daredevil days are hardly surprised.

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In May 1979, Miller was handed the bi-monthly comic book along with inker Klaus Jansen. The hero and his monthly title were thought to be on their last legs. Reportedly the feeling was that a 1964 to 1979 solo title run for a character that was a “Spider-Man knock-off” was all that could be expected. In those 15 years, Daredevil had almost been folded together into one title with Iron Man (soon to be another major film blockbuster and current animated DVD smash) and did incorporate the Black Widow into his book’s title while the two spent time in San Francisco during some trippy, hippie-era storylines. Miller climbed aboard and tackled the title with some fresh energy and ground the stories in a more reality-based setting. The first issue, Daredevil Volume 1, #158, retailed for 40 cents. Today a copy of it costs a hell of a lot more.

Under Miller’s hand, Matt Murdock and his alter ego grew up, and as it happened, the comic book medium had no choice but to pay attention and try to keep pace. Ten issues into the run the title had really caught its stride and fandom had caught on. Miller pumped new life into DD’s origin by introducing a character of his own creation that figured prominently in Murdock’s early life, even if nobody knew it before Frank did: Elektra. Initially written as a one-issue arc, the red-garbed assassin has an encounter with Daredevil, not knowing he was really her former true love, Murdock. Tragedy separated the young lovers and sent them on opposite paths; Elektra to kill for money, and DD to preserve life and achieve justice at all costs.

Top 10 List of most important talents to work on Daredevil:

  • Brian Michael Bendis
  • Gene Colon
  • Klaus Jansen
  • Gil Kane
  • Stan Lee / Jim Everett
  • Alex Maleev
  • Frank Miller
  • Ann Nocenti
  • John Romita Jr.
  • Wally Wood

ElektraSave only Wolverine, Elektra is the most important of the Marvel characters created in the “modern” era. Thanks Mr. Miller! Twelve issues after taking over the title the Miller/Jansen team had elevated sales to comfortable monthly levels and the comic was setting the standard for quality in superhero titles across the industry. The team wasn’t alone in innovation or new levels of more mature storytelling, but Miller definitely made his mark and helped open what is considered one of the greatest eras of comic books ever over the next decade. Elektra, of course, came back and has been impossible to keep away since. She was on the cover again by issue #174, both helping and opposing Daredevil and then, in 1982′s issue #181, he killed her off – and brilliantly. I have no shame in saying that, as an eleven-year-old, I cried while standing in a supermarket reading the issue that was completely sold out at every regular comic outlet I knew. My parents were very worried.

(As I type I can’t help but look over at my Elektra Premium Format figure from Sideshow Collectibles, worth mentioning because she serves as my muse on my writing desk and because I finally have the answer to what exactly she was wearing beneath that red loin cloth! Now if only I had the white-costumed Exclusive to complete the set! *sigh* )

Part of the greatness of Miller wasn’t simply making new characters, but making old characters shine as never before. Nemesis Bullseye, crime lord The Kingpin (a previously one-dimensional Spider-Man foe), and even J. Jonah Jameson of The Daily Bugle were suddenly vivid and dynamic characters. None have been the same in Daredevil or any other title since. And Miller may have written the best single Hulk issue ever in Hornhead’s Volume 1, issue #163.

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Miller eventually moved on but years later returned to the title to tell a Kingpin story-arc that involved elements of the Vietnam War, Captain America, and Murdock’s original secretary, Karen Page, that once again set a high-water mark that was difficult to even approach for many writers. But, while the book may have suffered through some dark days from a creativity standpoint, the excellence was far from finished.

Space doesn’t allow as much elaboration on all the different highpoints in the title’s history, but eventually, after 380 issues, the book was re-launched in Volume 2 with issue #1, written by Kevin Smith (yup, the movie guy) and drawn by current Marvel chief, Joe Quesada. David Mack took over the writing chores and drew a series of covers that, in this fan’s opinion, should have been opening a show at the hottest and best gallery in Manhattan.

Brian Michael Bendis, a hot writer who labored in small-company comics to much acclaim, took over the title and stayed with it for five years. In that time he further tortured the always abused Murdock/Daredevil, eventually outing the blind lawyer as the vigilante with horns on his head with father issues. Bendis is currently one of the principal forces behind the present-day Marvel Universe and handed off the writing reigns to Ed Brubaker. The title retains its more sophisticated tone, while still enjoying the man-in-pajamas-swinging-around-fighting-crime premise. Thankfully, most agree, the comic is consistently one of the best on the market, month after month.

Another benefit to preferring horns over webbing on your hero’s costume (sorry Spidey devotees!)… or a bat symbol… or a giant “S”… is actually having some possibility of getting something resembling a complete Daredevil collection of either comics or merchandise. Want a complete run of Spider-Man titles? Unless your last name is Rockefeller, plan to win the lottery.

Amazing Fantasy #15, the first appearance of Spider-Man, will cost you between $15,000 and $125,000 according to www.comicspriceguide.com. That same money could probably buy you a mint collection of every issue of Daredevil ever published. Superman and Batman just get worse, a lot worse.

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Further, if you love to buy merchandise based on comic heroes (and if you are reading this, chances are you do) Daredevil stuff is at a manageable level. For every pair of boxers featuring The Man Without Fear, Webs has five or ten, and for every toy with an articulated Daredevil figure, Spider-Man has a whole line of figures – sometimes DD is actually part of the Spidey line.

There is still a delightful stock of Hornhead items for the collector to search out. Besides figures, there are patches, costumes, t-shirts, glasses, buttons, pins, Slurpee cups, caps, die cast cars, cards, shot glasses, calendars, and more; plenty of stuff to keep you busy on the hunt, but not so much stuff as to be completely overwhelming.

Ultimately the joy of collecting (Sideshow and otherwise) stems from the enjoyment of the character. So while DD can’t lift a car above his head, fly to the moon, defeat the Hulk (although he tried his best in the previously-mentioned issue), read minds, stop locomotives, or pull a trick off his utility belt, he can do something far more challenging. He can consistently move us with his humanity, entertain us with his passion, and inspire us with his tenacity; the qualities of which true heroes are made.

Daredevil fans will not want to miss this excellent web site: http://www.manwithoutfear.com/

Collectors will also find this site http://daredevil.dreamhost.com/main.htm invaluable and fascinating.

About the Writer: Larry D. Curtis is a reader of nearly everything he can get his hands on but especially in ‘genre’ fiction. He is also a writer and makes his living working for a newspaper, writing about video games, books, pop-culture and sports. He enjoys variety and also does work for websites and magazines. He dabbles in photography and enjoys the company of those who are passionate about their hobbies including film. [Email Larry].

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