When Words Collide

Mon, January 31st, 2011 at 1:58pm PST | Updated: February 2nd, 2011 at 4:49am

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer

THE DAREDEVIL DIALOGUES PART 2: THOMAS, CONWAY AND GERBER IN FRISCO

Last week, CBR's Ryan K. Lindsay and I kicked off our discussion-based retrospective on Daredevil. What was originally intended to be a one-week look at the history and significance of the character quickly turned into something much larger. After this week, we're creeping toward 10,000 words on the subject and we haven't yet arrived at the seminal Frank Miller run.

There's plenty to talk about in this installment, from Roy Thomas' contributions, to the character to the move to San Francisco, the long team-up with Black Widow, and Steve Gerber's madcap genius.

This is the Daredevil Dialogues.

Tim Callahan: The Roy Thomas run starts off great, by following up on an insane, killer robot multi-parter kicked off in "Daredevil" #50 with Stan Lee and Barry Smith. (And how much does the Kirbyesque Smith work of that era look like the Ladronn work of the "Cable" days? A lot!) But the Roy Thomas/Gene Colan run as a whole? I think it's a step down from the Stan Lee era.

It's crazily melodramatic, with Daredevil tormenting himself to almost Shakespearean proportions, as if Roy Thomas were doing a parody of Stan Lee. I really like Thomas' "Avengers" run of that same time period, but here's my theory: with the large cast of Avengers characters, Thomas' melodrama was tempered. It fit the epic mold of the plots, but in "Daredevil," Thomas packs all that overblown emotion into a single, human character, and its almost unbearable.

Plus, what new characters does he introduce? Stunt Master? Some other lame dudes who have failed to last as long as Mr. Fear or even the Purple Man or the Owl?

The Roy Thomas/Gene Colan run might work in small doses, but I recently read the entire thing in basically a single evening, and, wow, it makes even something like Bendis' "Decalogue" seem super-subtle.

Ryan K. Lindsay: The Thomas/Colan run might not be perfect, but I appreciate the fact it makes Daredevil stand for something. They take him away from the quippy goon who never had a future in comics and try something different. The emotional resonance might be overplayed, and it certainly gets perfected over time by other creative teams, but it was a start. The best aspect being the reveal to Karen that Matt Murdock is Daredevil. Once that happens then the tension amps up because she wants him to quit risking his life and just settle down with her. It makes for great drama and is played out in the long form. Plot threads and character motivations start to hang over for many issues and with a larger canvas a more operatic romance can be painted.

Thomas also starts to portray Daredevil as a character who doubts himself after a run in with Starr Saxon as Mr Fear. Defeat and uncertainty ring through Daredevil's mind, and while it's mildly overplayed, as the era often could be, it is still interesting to read as we see Daredevil finally separate from the herd and become an individual.

But you're right about longevity of the run. It's not something you have to read today. It's like the first female to ever be cast on stage; it doesn't matter that her acting wasn't perfect, but it paved the way for more to come in the future. Is that a sound analogy?

Then we get Gerry Conway's run, which moves even further around and plays with the Black Widow and San Francisco, but this is the run I have the least amount of exposure to. It does, however, also keep up appearances that Matt Murdock is a real lady killer. Why is he just about the only guy who could tame the Widow? She's a man eater, and yet with Daredevil she simply can't get enough, so this run is interesting even if just for that reason. The Widow still resonates opposite Daredevil, and maybe because, as a hero in her own right, she's able to escape his killer curse and I always like seeing them together. I'm surprised they haven't killed her off yet; "Shadowland" surely needed a death, right?

What do you mean "Shadowland" needed a death? Bullseye died! Daredevil died! Oh, wait, Bullseye came back during the event. And Daredevil didn't actually die, he just started wandering the earth. Yeah, I see what you mean.

Y'know, there was this wacky part of me that wanted Remender's Venom to be Bullseye beneath the symbiote. Maybe Steve Wacker's tongue slip is just a smoke screen to keep us away from this true gem waiting to be written...no?

Since we're talking "Shadowland," now's probably the time to point out that in the Roy Thomas and Gerry Conway runs, the Black Panther's current actions, as the headliner of the "Man Without Fear" comic, is foreshadowed. Or, another way to say it is that this current Black-Panther-in-Hell's-Kitchen plotline isn't something random. It's based in Daredevil history, with the relationship between the characters established as, at first, probably some cross-over mojo between what Roy Thomas was doing with the character in "Avengers" and what he was doing with street-level crime in "Daredevil," but it is a relationship that works pretty well, beyond the similarity in their costumes in the dark.

The Gerry Conway run overall is weak, though. The series becomes imbalanced in favor of superhero action at the expense of characterization, as Matt Murdock and his supporting cast fade away so we can get more scenes of Daredevil and Black Widow punching costumed criminals. The shift to San Francisco doesn't do much more than distance Daredevil from Foggy Nelson, and it's not like Conway uses San Francisco in any interesting way. It's used as Non-New-York, but not even distinctively so.

Maybe I shouldn't bring logic into my comics, but I hate the fact that Matt Murdock moves to San Francisco and suddenly Daredevil shows up there. If there was any journalist worth his or her salt in the Marvel U they'd find that out really quickly and slap it on a front page years later when Murdock is outed as the horned hero. Every time I think of the SF stories I can't help but think of that.

Losing Foggy was certainly one mistake. He's one of those strange "sidekicks" that really makes the title feel more rounded. Sure, replacing him with a hot red-headed Russian spy was something you'd have to try once, but Conway certainly doesn't do that much with it. It's a true shame.

Before I go into it, I have to ask -- have you read Steve Gerber's work on the Daredevil, especially his first issues?

I have read the entire Gerber run. It doesn't last very long -- just a couple of years. Though that seems longer than a lot of runs nowadays, I guess.

Gerber's name is barely a blip on the history of Daredevil, and yet he steered the ship for quite some time. Maybe some people just don't like the run, but it's one of my favorites. I think Steve Gerber's run, right after Conway, starts as both one of the most off-character depictions of Daredevil while still being one of the most interesting. It seems that Gerber wanted to try and take Daredevil in a different direction. Obviously, seeing 100 issues of sales mediocrity made him think, perhaps readers wanted something different from the man without fear. Gerber decides to play to his strengths, he makes Daredevil a cosmic and horror character. It sounds crazy, but Gerber did his best to make the comic unlike anything it had ever previously been before.

While it's a spectacular failure, it's also a must-read purely because you won't ever get the chance to see Daredevil in these situations again. This is where Angar the Screamer is introduced, but that isn't as wacky as Gerber gets. Daredevil soon gets transported to the moon of Titan. There's a Captain Marvel fight against a herald of Galactus. Murdock and Moondragon knock boots. It's nothing like any of the tales from before, but it has to be respected purely because Gerber commits so much to it all. Why he thought a blind lawyer would be a good lead for galactic struggles is a little beyond me, but it certainly brings something unique to the table. Perhaps in twenty years people will marvel at what Andy Diggle would do with the character...I don't know.

It's even more interesting to see Gerber admit, in a later letter column, that he was consciously trying something different and that he recognizes it did fail pretty hard. Once his new tone for Daredevil did not pan out, he simply returned to telling Daredevil tales the way they usually were constructed. I think if Marvel released a trade of these few cosmic Daredevil issues, they would surely get some bites. I'd purchase it, for sure. Gerber filled these issues with manic violence and paranoid uncertainty and reading them is like finding a stash of old vinyl and hash under your dad's bed; it's anachronistic, but it makes for one hell of an afternoon.

One of the hallmarks of the Gerber run is his constant attempts to write the Black Widow out of the story. And that continues into the following run as well, but it seems like every other issue from about "Daredevil" #102 to maybe issue #120 ends with the Black Widow saying some dramatic goodbye. Yet she's back again in the next comic. I have no idea what the editorial situation was like, but it sure feels like someone kept forcing her back into the book, even as the writers tried to get rid of her.

And, honestly, as much as I like the idea of a sexy superspy hero to play off the conflicted and too-serious Matt Murdock Daredevil, it's not like the Black Widow was ever used to any great advantage. She was a curvy figure with an attitude in all the stories (or a curvy figure who was mind-controlled), and she never measured up to Karen Page as a love interest or as a source of dramatic conflict.

But, yeah, those Gerber issues are some of my favorite "Daredevil" episodes ever, because they have a strong authorial voice, in the way that no previous "Daredevil" issues really did. Stan Lee's voice shifted depending on which artist he worked with. Roy Thomas seemed to sublimate his authorial voice to do some over-melodramatic proto-Stan Lee shtick and Gerry Conway wrote superficial action tales that lacked spark.

Gerber? He wrote Steve Gerber stories, even though the comic said "Daredevil" on the cover. And yet they work as Daredevil stories. They are insane, but good. And though Conway didn't take advantage of the San Francisco setting, Gerber did. Angar the Screamer, zooming down the highway in a convertible with his decomposing girlfriend in the passenger seat? That sounds about right.

Gerber was particularly good at creating a sense of the bizarre, adding texture that made things feel more realistic. He could put in a villain who was using mind control to become Kerwin J. Broderick, "King of San Francisco," but because the villain was so human, and so flawed, it felt like a story that fit into Daredevil's world more than it might have. And Gerber created a never-before-seen sister to Foggy Nelson who was involved with the industrial/scientific shenanigans that led to the birth of Man-Thing.

Yes, when the editor's footnotes in the "Daredevil" issues start referring to issues of "Fear" and zombie comics, you know that Steve Gerber's providing the scripts.

It is nice to see an author finally write Daredevil as their own character and not just borrowed from The Man. Gerber's run epitomizes, for me, the idea that no matter what you're writing, you swing for the bleachers. You might strike out, but you'll go out in style. If you weren't swinging, then you weren't even giving yourself a chance to hit a home run. Nothing great is ever safe.

You mention that the Widow was never as good as Karen Page. The Widow is Murdock's ultimate rebound girl. She's the casual constant he can rely on for a good time, but he's never out for a great time. She's the in-betweener, the good time Sally, but never the real deal. That might be a bit harsh, but she's just a fictional character so I feel all right saying it.

Murdock always seems to work better with a girl who seems simpler or easier than him but who is actually always going to be the rock for his broken hard to be laid out upon. Dating a superspy would mean he'd have to be tough and strong all the time but dating a receptionist or a community worker meant he could let himself come down. He could show some aspect of fear within himself.

But enough about relationships, let's just marvel at the wacky, and fear inspiring, ideas Gerber laid onto the page. I'll always love this run for daring to be itself, well, for as long as it dared before Gerber fell a bit more back into line.

I really dig Tony Isabella's short run after Gerber's as he does a HYDRA tale in Daredevil's world. HYDRA is out to kidnap Foggy, at this point the New York District Attorney, but in steps S.H.I.E.L.D. to help out and actually attempt to recruit Foggy. If nothing else, it led to an issue being titled, "Foggy Nelson: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.," and that's worth the expense of this tale alone. The story, while bringing plenty of espionage and HYDRA villains and goons into the mix, also plays on Daredevil's perceptions of his relationships. He often ponders if he can handle being back with the Widow because she's so strong. He doesn't know what he wants and that's a trait for Matt Murdock that future readers become very familiar with. It's short, nothing spectacular, but worthy of a read, that's for sure.

I like the Foggy Nelson and HYDRA stuff well enough, but the tone of the Isabella issues feels off. And a larger question, something that we'll probably circle back to later, is how Foggy's stint as New York District Attorney factors into his characterization.

I mean, here's a character who is often portrayed (then and now) as a kind-hearted buffoon, or as a bit of a weakling who finds himself surrounded by extreme situations, but, for a time, he was a powerful public figure. DA of NYC in the Marvel Universe is nothing to sneeze at, and yet it barely seems to have resonated as part of the character in the long run.

I suspect many current or recent "Daredevil" readers would have no idea that Foggy Nelson used to have such political clout or career success. It certainly doesn't show on the character now.

As for Marv Wolfman's run, I'd argue that his first issue -- which he co-wrote with Len Wein -- is the first "real" Daredevil comic, in the sense we understand today.

It's the beginning of the Copperhead story, and though it's not noir, it's absolutely pulp, and it seems more like the precursor of the Daredevil that we've known in the Modern era than any other "Daredevil" comic before it. It's issue #124, and the Copperhead character jumps right off the pages of a pulp magazine, so that helps provide the right kind of dark, violent tone, but it's also inked by Klaus Janson (over Gene Colan), and Janson provides the same kind of shawdowy world that would later become essential to the Frank Miller run and beyond. After the two-parter ends in "Daredevil" #125, with a bit of a deus ex machina, unfortunately, the series goes back to high-octane action for a couple of years.

But if you're looking for the inklings of what "Daredevil" would mature into, issue #124 is something special.

Why don't we check in on Foggy as he stands so far. I always hated that image of him on the cover of the first issue. He looked like one of the Little Rascals all grown up, just a horrible image. But as a character, he's an interesting man. This far into the series run I don't feel he ever truly gets the respect he deserves. But yet he's held solid position, tried tough cases, and obviously holds the firm together while Matt is out busting up Josie's Bar and bedding any chick with a heartbeat. I can't believe that Matt would be the legal savant who doesn't need to work and just "gets" it all. I prefer to think that Foggy is the Milton Berle of the legal world; he only ever shows enough to win that showdown. Eventually, Foggy is going to unfurl the entire Uncle Miltie and the Marvel U will never be the same again.

Sadly, Foggy is more just used as a proxy to show how Murdock's actions affect the ones he loves, the ones who depend on him and thus the whole world of civilians. Foggy is the personification of the mess left behind in the real world and he often suffers as a character to portray this. He's the mirror held up to Murdock, he's the reaction to Murdock's life. Every now and then a writer will give Foggy some room to breathe, maybe give him one of Murdock's exes or give him some title, but it never feels respected because that rug gets pulled from under him far too often. Though, there are some great examples of his tales, but they come a little later.

I felt Marv Wolfman's run was stable, but nothing overly spectacular, though he does set up some interesting threads that are mostly capitalized on by Jim Shooter. Murdock dates Heather Glenn while also investigating a conspiracy involving her corporate father, Maxwell Glenn. As Daredevil digs deeper towards the centre that holds the Purple Man, waves of other villains are sent to distract him. It's a well-told tale, especially when Daredevil and Paladin crash into the YWCA and Paladin gets his charm on instead of focusing on the fight. It's funny and yet in service of the character and plot.

In Shooter's run, Murdock is the closest to being the sort of hero Miller will eventually nail on the page. He's dealing with hard crime, he's not sure of the best way to handle the situation and he's eventually faced with a Pyrrhic victory. The Glenn saga is really the death knell for the Scarlet Swashbuckler. He fails here and, though it's not entirely his fault, he shoulders the blame. The world sits on Matt Murdock's shoulders and all he wants to do is shrug. It's sad and frustrating and exactly the sort of thing that made this comic exciting and a title you had to read because you weren't getting this sort of story elsewhere.

I wonder if Marvel would ever consider releasing cheap trades of smaller arcs like Gerber's cosmic tales, or Isabella's HYDRA arc, or perhaps just the worst of the Heather Glenn saga that ends in too many suicides and a further darkening of Daredevil's world. It's good that Marvel is slowly releasing all old issues in Essential or Masterwork format but I wouldn't mind certain stories being selected for cheap consumption, or perhaps digital distribution.

While I firmly support more classic comics being readily available, I'm rarely in favor of reprint volumes that focus on a theme or a run. The ideal format for me, and it's never done this way, though it should be, would be something like the "Jack Kirby Omnibus" editions, but in softcover. Something that collects about 20 issues of a series, in sequential order, using paper that isn't overly thick and glossy. I truly dislike the Essentials, with their loss of color, and the Masterworks don't give quite enough story content for the price (even though I buy them, since they are the only choice at the moment for some of the earlier Marvel comics).

But the idea of just doing a reprint of the Gerber run, or the Wolfman run, or the Shooter run, in isolation, bothers me. Their runs are informed by what came before, even if they don't follow the same tone or plot threads. I guess I'm just too much of a completist, but I like to read things in context, and doing reprints based on creative teams instead of by issue number seems inferior to me.

As a man with only so much money, I don't want to have to buy an entirety of a title to get to the good stuff. Sure, I want to own every "Daredevil" issue, but I don't want to have to buy decades of "Thor" before I get my Simonson Omnibus. I'm a man who doesn't mind dipping in and out of a series or character so if Franken-Castle is good I'll get it regardless of what came before, though that was relatively standalone. If Miller's run is good then you should be able to buy just that, and the same with Gerber. If they offered a Gerber Omnibus I'd be all over that but I don't want to buy six omnibi just to get to his run.

I agree, the Essentials isn't the ideal format, but it does serve a purpose and makes for great library reading. I don't own any Masterworks. I feel that any character within a shared universe will more likely than not have tales that rely on some form of past knowledge, but I don't want to have to buy those tales. Well, I want to but I can't afford it. I've bought a few Daredevil Essentials, but mostly I've just tracked down each run, issue by issue. Hard work, but worth it. But as much as I love my Gerber issues, I swear they're the most abused and crushed ones. I guess more lazy stoners bought these and so I'm just going to wait for Marvel to put that omnibus out -- they read this column, right?

Of course. We are taste-makers and, um, deal-breakers? Or not.

Obviously, there are some exceptions to my sort-of-hard-and-fast-rule about collecting series in sequential order. "Batman: Year One" stands on its own, and wouldn't make sense in a reprint of Batman comics from issue #400-420. But nothing in "Daredevil" is as self-contained as that. Not even "Born Again," as much as it is marketed as the "Year One" of "Daredevil" stories. Hmmm, it's almost like they share a creative team or something.

"Born Again" is very beholden to much of what comes before it, but that's getting ahead of ourselves. First we need to look at Frank Miller's initial run on Daredevil. I'm wondering, do you think Frank Miller's take on the man without fear stands alone in a satisfying way?

I don't. And I might even go so far as to say that Miller's stint as writer/artist on "Daredevil" is one of the most overrated runs in the history of comics. To be continued!

NEXT WEEK: Frank Miller and beyond.

In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" and editor of "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen regularly at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.

Follow Tim on Twitter: TimCallahan

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