With Mark Waid’s relaunch of DAREDEVIL currently reaping all kinds of well-deserved critical acclaim, it seems like a perfect time to look back at where it all began for Marvel’s Man Without Fear, and take a quick look at how things have changed over the years.
Daredevil first appeared in April 1964 in the pages of, logically enough, DAREDEVIL. The creation of then-Marvel editor Stan Lee and artist Bill Everett, DAREDEVIL featured the adventures of crusading attorney Matt Murdock, who secretly prowled the streets of New York fighting crime as Daredevil. The hook? Murdock was blind, but exposure to radiation (the secret ingredient in nearly all of Marvel’s early characters) had heightened his remaining senses, as well as granted him a mysterious “radar sense,” which allowed him to function far better than the average man.
Although this wasn’t quite the first appearance of a “Daredevil” in the comics. There was actually a much earlier Daredevil in the comics, dating all the way back to 1940, as a matter of fact. Little known nowadays, the first Daredevil was published by Lev Gleason in the pages of SILVER STREAK COMICS, and was a fairly standard mystery man of the era, sporting a distinctive red and blue suit, spiked belt and boomerang. (Although he did eventually earn his own magazine, first entitled DAREDEVIL BATTLES HITLER, and later settling on the somewhat less specific DAREDEVIL.) The Lev Gleason Daredevil survived until 1950, when he was ignominiously elbowed out of his own magazine by his sidekicks, the Little Wise Guys, about whom the less said, the better.
Anyway back to Marvel’s DD. It has to be admitted that at least at the outset, the concept is a little thin. There’s a bit of the usual psychosis involving the loss of a parent to crime and the standard vengeance motif, but for the most part, at least up until the ’80s, Matt Murdock dressed up like a devil and caught bad guys just because it needed doing. Even the aspect of his blindness wasn’t overly stressed, and more often than not, Daredevil was more in the role of a wisecracking acrobat, similar to Spider-Man.
In fact, at its inception, after the initial “avenge-my-father’s-death” origin story, DAREDEVIL settled into a fairly routine “superhero vs. supervillain” pattern with ol’ Hornhead (hey, don’t blame me; that’s what Stan called him) facing off against such evildoers as Electro, the Owl, the Purple Man, the Matador, Stilt Man (try and guess what his power was) and the Masked Marauder. There was a bit of melodrama involving a love triangle between Matt, his law partner Foggy Nelson and their secretary Karen Page, but overall the tone was pretty light, with such hijinks as Matt creating a fictitious twin brother for himself, swingin’ Mike Murdock, to keep his co-workers in the dark about his double life as Daredevil. You knew Mike was hep by the cool checked sport jacket he wore…
Not until Frank Miller took over the series did the tone really shift to more serious, gritty drama. Miller, a big fan of the EC crime comics of the 1950s, took much of that feeling and applied it to DAREDEVIL, one of the few Marvel series that would allow that kind of shift in tone. With the re-definition of the crimelord character the Kingpin and the assassin Bullseye, making them more realistic and genuinely menacing, and the introduction of femme fatale Elektra, inspired by strong female characters like P’Gell and Sand Saref in Will Eisner’s THE SPIRIT, the ground was set for a landmark run on DAREDEVIL that would influence the series for the next two decades.
One of the things that really helped the character early on was the shift in costume to a deeper, more devilish red, as opposed to his original outfit, resplendent in bright yellow. I’m certainly not the first to use the joke, but it does indeed look like it was designed by a blind man. There was also a truly awful armored suit Daredevil briefly wore in the ’90s, when giant shoulder pads and spikes were all the rage in superhero fashion.
Even more so than most, a lot of Daredevil’s adventures seem to revolve around his secret identity or lack thereof. Ben Urich pieces together the secret in DAREDEVIL #164, followed by Elektra in #168. The Kingpin doesn’t discover the face beneath the mask until issue #227, some five years later. However, a closer look back through Daredevil’s past indicates that it’s not a secret he’s particularly good at keeping, as some 25 other Marvel characters have stumbled onto the info over the years; everyone from his partner Foggy to the Black Panther to Spider-Man has either been told or put it together themselves. In issues of DAREDEVIL by Brian Michael Bendis and Alex Maleev, Matt’s secret identity was revealed in the tabloids, with Matt publicly denying it, a storyline that carried on through Ed Brubaker’s run and continues on today into Waid’s current storylines. Of course, Matt Murdock’s handling it better nowadays than the last time the newspapers outed him in the “Fall From Grace” storyline, in which he faked his own death…
Don’t know where to start? Well, to begin with, you should pick up THE ESSENTIAL DAREDEVIL. The first 25 issues of the original 1960s series, with scripts by Stan Lee and quite a star-studded lineup of artists; Bill Everett, Wally Wood, Joe Orlando, Jack Kirby, John Romita and Gene Colan. At 15 bucks for over five hundred pages of comics, it’s hard to argue with the value here, even if it is in black and white.
Also a must are the three volumes of DAREDEVIL VISIONARIES: FRANK MILLER. Spanning roughly thirty issues of DAREDEVIL, these stories are where Frank Miller truly came into his own as a writer and artist. In these pages can be found the introduction and loss of Elektra, and the classic clashes with Bullseye and the Kingpin. Everyone who’s worked on DAREDEVIL for the past twenty years has done so in the shadow of this remarkable work. Looking back on it now, it may seem a bit tame and melodramatic compared to what’s out there today, but it’s important to remember that no one was doing this kind of storytelling at the time, especially at Marvel.
While just about everyone considers Miller’s first run on the series to be the revolutionary stuff, I’ve always found his second stint to be much more powerful. In BORN AGAIN, we see what happens when the Kingpin is handed a slip of paper with that most precious of commodities: information. To be exact, Daredevil’s real name. After the Kingpin succeeds in completely destroying Matt Murdock’s life, we see Murdock slowly lose his grip on the world around him, and descend into what can only be described as a full nervous breakdown. Miller takes us through hell with Matt Murdock, and sees us through to the other side. Some of the best writing of Miller’s career, equalled by fantastic pencils and inks from David Mazzuchelli that evoke Miller’s style without merely copying it. DAREDEVIL: BORN AGAIN is available collected in trade paperback.
Director/podcaster Kevin Smith has taken a crack at DD, in the critically acclaimed GUARDIAN DEVIL storyline. With gorgeous art by current Marvel head honcho Joe Quesada, GUARDIAN DEVIL shows us a Matt Murdock once more on the brink of insanity, this time with an infant’s life hanging in the balance. A word of caution: more so than any of the other DD books under discussion, GUARDIAN DEVIL requires a certain amount of knowledge of Daredevil in particular and Marvel Comics in general to get the most out of it, so make sure you read the others first. GUARDIAN DEVIL is available collected in trade paperback as MARVEL VISIONARIES: KEVIN SMITH.
In the days and weeks to come, we’ll take a look at some more recent DAREDEVIL adventures from the likes of Brian Michael Bendis, Jeph Loeb, Ed Brubaker and Mark Waid, explore ol’ Hornhead’s pop-culture impact, focus in on some favorite stories, and lots more. Hope you stick around.