Reevaluating early Daredevil

If you were thinking that I had gone back into hiding, I certainly wouldn’t hold it against you. It’s been over a month since my last post, and I’ve had my share of false starts over the past few years. However, I do have a few posts planned that I would like to get out there before too long, and I’m hoping to finish the year with a total of at least twenty for 2021.

For this post, I would like to talk about a rather surprising epiphany I’ve had over the summer, while working on my book. Or to be more specific, while rereading every single issue of Daredevil and taking detailed notes about how Matt Murdock’s senses are actually used. What I’ve discovered is that, contrary to the idea I’ve had that Daredevil’s senses have stabilized and gotten more “grounded” over time, a case could be made for a very different kind of evolution. Depending on what aspect of the character’s senses we’re talking about, Daredevil has actually been getting more powerful in at least some respects.

Considering that this is not my first time reading every issue of Daredevil (I have, in fact, read most runs many times), how could I have missed the things I’m now noticing? Where does my bias against the sensory portrayals of early, “pre-Miller” Daredevil come from? Well, I think it comes down to a few different factors:

  1. Silver Age comics in general do contain a lot of crazy storylines and contrived plot twists. Daredevil is by no means an exception to this. What’s there is certainly enough to give the overall impression of “weird and quirky” – albeit quite entertaining – and it’s no wonder if that ends up affecting how even the sensory stuff is read and remembered.

  2. The sensory outliers are really “out there.” Despite the fact that most issues feature a rather modest interpretation of Matt’s abilities, the extreme cases are very extreme. Again, it’s no wonder that these tend to color a reader’s overall impression of the earlier issues in ways that are out of proportion to their actual prevalence.

    I mean, we have pretty much everything that happens in Daredevil #2, then there’s Matt sensing “evil auras,” and Daredevil getting into an abandoned plane and flying to England (more on this further down). And, let’s not forget the time he dyed his own hair to match another person’s hair color (Daredevil #60, by Roy Thomas and Gene Colan, see below), or the time he applied his own theatrical make-up to take the place of a young boxer.

    In Daredevil #60, by Roy Thomas and Gene Colan, Daredevil dyes his hair darker to match that of an unconscious thug he is attempting to impersonate.

  3. There’s also the silliness that comes with how much of what Matt does is described. It’s not just that he is able to read print, he is able to do so faster than a sighted man! The same kind of hyperbole is applied to many other of his abilities. He is, for instance, described as a master mechanic, and can do all kinds of tinkering with his cane/billy club and other equipment, as evidenced by the sheer amount of weird stuff that were featured in the early comics.

  4. Most important, however, is the fact that there did use to be things that Matt was able to do, but which have been phased out definitively, never to be seen again. One such ability is the one I looked at in depth in my last post, the sensing of colors. Another related ability has also fallen by the wayside, that is the ability to decipher photos and other images by touch.

So, with all of the above in mind, what of my “epiphany”? Well, when you undertake the task of recording, page by page, every single reference to Matt using any of his senses, a picture begins to emerge of the less memorable ones. Those examples that are quickly forgotten because they are not jarring.

Not only does one discover that there are stretches, several issues long in many cases, where nothing Daredevil does appears to be particularly extreme. It is also the case that, for at least the first two to three dozen issues, pretty much everything Daredevil hears, touches, or otherwise detects is explained in great detail. This means that we get a pretty good description of what Matt does – and how – even when he’s not doing anything particularly spectacular.

The picture that emerges is pretty much this: Creators seem to make an attempt to keep Daredevil’s abilities modest, or at least explainable, the vast majority of the time. When they do deviate from this standard, usually for in-story reasons that can’t be solved by other means, there is a tendency to go all the way to Crazyville. Ironically, this background level of “moderation” is one of the reasons the extreme cases seem so incredibly jarring.

A look at Daredevil #24

Allow me to take one example I hinted at above, the one of Daredevil flying a plane to England in Daredevil #24, by Stan Lee and Gene Colan. After being teleported by the Masked Marauder straight from New York to some location in Europe in the previous issue – so that he could do battle with the Gladiator the old-fashioned way inside a replica of the Colosseum in front of some mob bosses – Daredevil finds himself in a pickle with a gun aimed in his direction. To get us up to speed, the caption on the first page reads:

“After defeating the Gladiator in battle last ish, the sightless Daredevil finds himself alone and unarmed in a hostile nation torn by strife and revolution! And, if this dramatic dilemma grabs you the way we hope it till, then read on, frantic one… read on…”

Daredevil spends the first few pages battling the armed men who appeared out of nowhere at the very beginning of the issue. Nothing spectacular happens. In fact, the way Daredevil even figures out what he’s up against is by counting “Six pulse beats in front of me!,” hearing “The sound of triggers being cocked!,” and deducing from this that he is “confronted by armed men…”

This kind of scenario, where Matt’s ability to sense the shape of people and objects around him is called upon only after other sources of information have been tapped – and sometimes not at all – is so common throughout Daredevil history that I’ve taken to giving it its own name: CAR. Which, in case it wasn’t obvious, stands for “conspicuously absent radar.” I first mentioned this concept in a post years ago, dealing with the scene below, where Daredevil has successfully fought off his attackers and finds the plane that will eventually take him to England.

From Daredevil #24, by Stan Lee and Gene Colan. Daredevil thinks to himself: There’s a clearing below me… with a strong scent of jet plane fuel! That means just one thing… I’ve found my ticket home! Only one heartbeat in the area! A solitary guard is near the plane! But… not for long!

So, Daredevil knows there’s a plane there by the scent of jet fuel? I mean, he probably does sense it’s physical presence at some point after that, but the difference between what he’s doing here, and what he does after he gets on the plane is truly extreme. As he takes off, after punching the guard, he notes to himself: “I’m in luck! There’s enough fuel to reach England! And, from there, I’ll hop a transatlantic jet!”

Of course, Stan Lee knows this is a far-fetched use of Daredevil’s powers, and addresses the readers in a caption box on the bottom of the page, hoping to preempt an onslaught of fan outrage:

“To save you the trouble of writing scathing letters to us, we’ll explain here and now how the sightless D.D. can pilot a plane! He feels the vibrations of the needles and dials within the instrument panel, and his own natural radar sense takes care of the rest!

Of course, this kind of explanation didn’t make sense in the infamous Daredevil #2, and it doesn’t make sense here either. There are so many questions left unanswered. How does Matt know how much fuel it takes to get to England when he doesn’t even know where he is? What direction should he be going, and where will he find an airport? What information can you get from “vibrating” needles and dials when you can’t possibly put them into context without seeing the numbers and scales they are attached to? And how on Earth does the radar sense, treated as an afterthought moments earlier, become powerful enough to track the ground thousands of feet below? These are the kinds of scenes that tend to stick in the reader’s mind.

Matt spends the rest of the issue in London, trying to help his friend Kazaar, who has gone on a rampage. At one point at the end of the issue, the two fall into the ocean, and encounter a submarine. Gone is the “flight radar” from a few pages ago, and Daredevil instead comments on how the water (negatively) affects his senses. However, he finds that he is still able to detect a submarine:

“I was right! It’s just ahead of me! My radar senses couldn’t miss it at this distance! Just what I guessed I’d find — a hidden submarine!”

The submarine in question appears to be, at most, 75 feet away. So, even with the water to consider, this hardly comes across as impressive. In fact, this is typical of the modest default level you can expect from Silver Age Daredevil comics. And I think gets to the heart of the issue: It is not merely the case that the senses in early Daredevil are occasionally written in ways that seem extreme, it is that they appear in such stark contrast to how incredibly modest they appear to be 90 percent of the time.

From the Silver Age to the Bronze Age

Since I’m making some pretty sweeping statements about “early Daredevil” in this post, I should probably also adress the fact that the title goes through major changes during it’s first fifteen years of publication. This is, of course, consistent with the changing comic book landscape. In the timeline of comic book historians, the end of the “Silver Age” and the beginning of the “Bronze Age” is usually dated to the year 1970.[1]See this resource for a very in-depth look at the different comic book eras The Bronze Age, which ends around the mid-1980s, meant a turn to slightly darker stories and “real world” themes pertaining to various social issues of the day.

If we are going to map this change in tone to the publication history of Daredevil, I would say that the start of Gerry Conway’s run marks a pretty clear dividing line between Silver Age and Bronze Age Daredevil. Conway’s first issue was Daredevil #72, which is cover-dated to January 1971. Stan Lee had been writing Daredevil for its first 50 issues, before turning over those duties to Roy Thomas for the following twenty some issues (Gary Friedrich was the writer for Daredevil #70). Gene Colan as the regular artist obviously straddled these eras and offered some needed consistency.

Roy Thomas’s style lines up very closely with that of Stan Lee, but by the time Conway comes along, there’s definitely a noticeable change in tone. Matt spends countless issues obsessing over the loss of his and Karen’s relationship, and there are a couple of early issues where Matt even seems to resent the blindness in ways we haven’t seen before. Before long, the Black Widow is added as a regular character in the Daredevil comic, and the two heroes move to San Francisco. Conway’s run as the writer of Daredevil is followed by that of Steve Gerber, Marv Wolfman, Jim Shooter (for a few issues), Roger McKenzie, and Frank Miller. Along with a the occasional guest-writer, of course.

The Black Widow rescues Daredevil, from Daredevil #81 by Gerry Conway and Gene Colan
The Black Widow rescues Daredevil, from Daredevil #81 by Gerry Conway and Gene Colan

When it comes to the senses-writing, it continues to be relatively modest, with comparatively fewer “WTF” moments than were seen in the Silver Age comics. There are certainly some, such as in Daredevil #100 when we see Daredevil flying home on the Avengers Quinjet, and touch-sensing a silhouetted figure displayed on a dashboard screen. However, I’m generally finding myself falling in love with 70s Daredevil. Many of the stories feel quite modern and strike a nice balance between the superheroics and Matt’s civilian life. In fact, I enjoyed my reread of these issues far more than I have enjoyed the current comic since ca 2014 (not counting occasional highlights).

So, what’s wrong with the modern comics?

So, the more obviously insane elements from the Silver Age are gone. Of course. There is no more sensing color by touch, and Daredevil hasn’t been portrayed as a skilled driver or pilot of any kind of vehicle in a long time. Daredevil’s sense of smell, almost entirely forgotten for most of the first fifteen years of the comics – save for a few unimpressive exceptions – was brought into the stories in a more meaningful way during the Miller run. Which is good. The underuse of any of Daredevil’s senses can be almost as conspicuous as taking things too far, and makes many of his feats seem needlessly strange.

But, there are also many examples of Daredevil’s senses growing more extreme, and this is particularly true of his sense of hearing. Early Daredevil features very few instances of him hearing things from truly impossible distances. One of the earliest breaks from this previous status quo came in the issue by Frank Miller, Daredevil #169, in which Matt focuses on ever softer sounds to zero in on the sound of the cough of one of Bullseye’s kidnapping victims.

Similar scenes have been repeated since, including during the Brubaker/Lark run, and even in the Netflix show. I cannot emphasize enough just how impossible this kind of thing is. Physically. Sound does not have infinite reach. Superhero comics are full of things that are physically impossible, sure, but it’s worth noting that you don’t really see much of anything close to this kind of thing in the earlier comics.

The Bendis/Maleev run, too, was full of things that were on the same level of impossible as Daredevil piloting an airplane. The only difference was that these scenes did not have the same air of obvious goofiness. I’ve talked about my annoyance with this otherwise excellent run before (full rant here), but it makes me sad to realize that these issues were pushing the wring kinds of boundaries in even more ways than I’d previously fully realized.

There is also the treatment of Matt’s blindess, which might qualify for its own post one of these days. I can’t say that it has ever been close to what I would like it to be, but the Bronze Age comics come just as close to delivering the goods on this point too as any of the more modern comics do. There are obviously exceptions, and this varies greatly from one writer to the next, but there is not some straight line indicating a more modern, mature handling of the subject.

I thought Mark Waid (art by Paolo Rivera/Marcos Martín/Chris Samnee) did a really good job here. I also enjoyed the Brubaker/Lark run in this respect, and even Bendis/Maleev managed to somewhat balance the ridiculous senses writing with a portrayal of Matt as genuinely blind in meaningful ways. Still, it’s not massively better than some of the early writers. And it’s frustrating.

I think I’ll end here. This post came out longer than I’d intended, and I’m not sure it has a perfect natural ending. In fact, these thoughts are still maturing and stewing in my mind, and I thought it might be interesting to share them with you.

 

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