Comic Book Review: Essential Daredevil Vol. 4 edited by Stan Lee and Roy Thomas
Created in 1964 by Stan Lee and Bill Everett, Daredevil is Matt Murdock, a blind lawyer. He was struck in the face with radioactive material as a teen while shoving a blind man out of danger, which both blinded Matthew and gave him extraordinary senses. When his father “Battlin’ Jack” Murdock was murdered for refusing to throw a boxing match, Matt donned a bizarre devil-themed costume to avenge him. He then continued to use the Daredevil identity to fight crime and help people.
This volume contains Daredevil #75-101, plus an important issue of the Avengers, #111. Gerry Conway wrote most of these issues with Gene Colan on pencils. (As usual, Colan’s work looks great in black and white.)
We open with Matt having mostly broken up with his long-time romantic interest, Karen Page, who is pursuing an acting career. They’re both having second thoughts, so it’s several issues before they move on and Daredevil can devote his full attention to Natasha Romanova, the Black Widow (who got to share the cover title for a while.)
#75 seems to be a filler issue, with Matt and his law partner and best friend Foggy Nelson visiting South America. Daredevil battles a revolutionary calling himself “El Condor” after a local hero. It’s an interesting story because it’s clear that El Condor’s identity was supposed to be a last-page reveal (always wears a mask, the one person who sees his face reacts with shock, and there’s a character who the story logic says it had to be) but El Condor simply dies (crushed by a statue of the original!) and then Matt leaves the country without El Condor’s true identity even being mentioned.
Then begins a long sequence with the mysterious “Mr. Kline” acting against Daredevil and Matt Murdock in various ways. First he sponsors a mad scientist’s experiments that wind up turning a man named William “Bull” Taurus into the Man-Bull. A nice touch in this story is that Bull has his own mini-gang and a character named “Freakface” explains why he’s personally loyal to Bull. At the same time, Kline begins to blackmail Foggy, who at this point is New York City’s district attorney.
Then Kline frees the Owl from prison and provides the gliding financier advanced technology to attack Daredevil. At the same time, he manipulates the Black Widow into meeting Daredevil as part of a long-term backup plan. As well, the reader learns that “Mr. Kline” is not as we might have thought one of Daredevil’s old enemies, but an android (MK-9) controlled by an even more mysterious master which codenames it “Assassin.”
Kline’s next maneuver is sending out the Scorpion, who acts somewhat out of character (actually an android), and is apparently killed by the Black Widow. The Assassin then has Foggy insist on prosecuting Natasha for murder (her background as a Communist spy prejudices people against her.) The trial is rigged further by Mr. Hyde (another android) murdering the coroner and replacing him with a duplicate.
The trial ends when all the evidence is destroyed by an explosion, but Black Widow is still under suspicion. She heads to Switzerland, where the Assassin springs the backup plan of having her convince Matt Murdock to undergo an operation to restore his eyesight.
The secret boss is finally revealed to be…no one we could have reasonably guessed. Baal, a computer from the far future, is trying to avert a disaster in the past that Daredevil (and Iron Man of all people) will eventually cause. Trying to kill him has failed, though they have managed to prevent Foggy Nelson from eventually becoming the president of the United States. But restoring Matt’s eyesight will also eliminate Daredevil.
The plan doesn’t work because too obvious, and a deus ex machina prevents Baal from reverting to the “kill Daredevil” idea.
After a couple of transitional issues which resolve the Karen Page subplot, Matt Murdock moves to San Francisco with Black Widow and her chauffeur Ivan, taking a set of rooms in her house there. At this point in time, the Comics Code prevented unmarried characters from sleeping together.
The local police are less than enthused about their new vigilantes, especially Commissioner “Ironguts” O’Hara. It takes him a long time to warm up to the colored longjohns set, even though they’re a big help against powered criminals like Electro and the Purple Man. (The latter has a flashback sequence to explain how he escaped from jail–which is missing a crucial panel.)
Another lengthy plotline involves Project Four, the very first case Natasha ever worked on as a spy, and the return of her first partner, Danny French. Danny is ethically bankrupt (he’s now a private detective introduced working both sides of a blackmail case) but winds up having some redeeming qualities. A new Mister Fear also shows up, but is a red herring.
Gerry Conway wraps up his run with the return of the Man-Bull, and Steve Gerber takes up the writing chores as of issue #97. He introduces another mysterious mastermind who is empowering seemingly random people for unknown purposes, starting with Mordecai Jones, the Dark Messiah.
This plotline is interrupted by a guest appearance of Hawkeye, Black Widow’s former love interest, who wants to see if he can rekindle the relationship. No, but it does lead into an Avengers crossover. They need DD and BW’s help against Magneto, who has managed to mind control the X-Men and most of the Avengers, and is trying to seize the United States’ nuclear arsenal. (This includes a really skeevy scene of Magneto compelling the Scarlet Witch to dance for his pleasure, which would get even skeevier in hindsight once she was retconned into being his daughter.)
Daredevil turns down an Avengers membership (at this point his supersenses are not sufficiently tuned to allow him to work in a large team) but Natasha accepts. He thinks that means she’s leaving him.
Issue #100 has Daredevil being interviewed by Rolling Stone and recapping his origin for the readers, in between bouts of mass hallucination. The latter turns out to be the work of Angar the Screamer, an aging hippie being controlled by the mysterious mastermind previously mentioned. Black Widow returns (she plans to commute to Avengers meetings) and they manage to drive Angar off…for now.
The good: Gene Colan art, some nifty villain appearances, Black Widow getting to be competent most of the time, random civilians getting the gumption to fight back against criminals on their own.
Less good: Matt Murdock’s internal monologues tend to the verbose at best, Daredevil too often feeling he needs to protect Black Widow from danger even though she’s repeatedly shown her competence, gratuitous scenes of Natasha dressing/undressing/showering in a way we don’t see Matt doing, Marvel’s writers just not “getting” the counterculture or feminism despite theoretically catering to them, and the Marvel soap opera formula meaning that Matt can never just be happy for an entire freaking issue without finding something to angst about, often completely unnecessarily.
That said, this is a decent run on the title (though nowhere near the quality of Frank Miller’s first run) and worth checking out at the library.