In the 1960’s Marvel Comics were on a roll. Spider Man and the Fantastic Four were huge hits. Thor, Iron Man, and The Hulk had been moderate hits, but combined to form The Avengers and score a big hit, while strips like Doctor Strange showcased the creative demented genius of Steve Ditko. Most of these titles had some of Jack Kirby in them, and although the creative influence of Stan Lee is at best, debatable for many of these titles, Daredevil is one where the actual creation of the character is probably forever shrouded in mystery.
What is clear that Stan Lee, Bill Everett and some of Jack Kirby’s DNA combined to create Daredevil #1 cover dated April 1964.
That cover tells a story in itself. It’s as much of a hodgepodge as Daredevil’s ugly original costume with Everett’s Daredevil being crowded off his cover by Kirby’s Fantastic Four and Spider Man, and – most notably – Wally Wood’s bottom right panel. It’s Wood that’s the name to note here because the truth is that Daredevil wasn’t especially a great comic. Lee’s heart didn’t seem to be in a second rate Spidey clone, and Everett was too ill to put any serious effort into it.
It’s Wally Wood who took a grip on the character in #5, and shook it up in one of the quickest revamps of any major Silver Age character. Wood redesigned the garish yellow and red costume to the traditional all-red outfit we know today, added the double DD logo, and injected a shot of excitement and energy into Lee’s lacklustre story ideas. In doing so, Wood in his short run created a tone and look that the series ran with when it wasn’t going through one of its many barren spells.
Fortunately, there are some shining lights over the next 50 or so years. Gene Colan’s run from #20 to #100 has some amazing issues in there, and even when Colan is struggling with a bad idea from Lee or a poor script from Roy Thomas – Lee’s successor – he managed to add a touch of noir to what is still regarded by fans of the time as a second rate Spidey. Colan’s run though is a thing of wonder and, in many titles of the time, was the best the series could be.
After Colan left, some good creators tried their hand at saving Daredevil from slipping into a bi-monthly schedule (the first sign that your cards are marked and cancellation is on the horizon in the 1970’s), but when Colan left the title hit a terminal slide. This would last until #158 in 1979; but when this particular issue was unleashed, the face of mainstream comics changed forever.
Frank Miller was a young artist who’d been popping up and doing fill-in work across Marvel’s titles for editor Jim Shooter. Shooter’s an often – and rightfully – maligned figure, but he also had an eye for talent – not to mention spotting if that talent was such a rare beast as Miller clearly was – then Shooter would be happy to let that talent flourish. Miller started off working with Roger McKenzie’s scripts, but quickly convinced Shooter he was able to hold his own as a writer/artist, something not common in the churning machine of mainstream superhero comics at the time.
Miller’s sheer storytelling bravado using McKenzie’s scripts was clear as this amazing sequence from #164 shows as reporter Ben Urich confronts Daredevil with the revelation that he knows he’s the blind Matt Murdock.
Miller’s use of panels to break time down is used to stunning effect here, and although Miller’s clear influence is the superb work of Will Eisner, he added a then daring touch by increasingly drawing upon Japanese Manga artists for influence, as his strips had ninjas everywhere – including his own creation, Elektra.
Miller threw out much of what had come before him. Daredevil was no longer a smart arse cracking jokes and fighting bizarre super-villains on brightly coloured pages every other month. Instead Daredevil fought gangsters, muggers and thugs on the grim streets of a very real feeling 1980’s New York. Miller even took a joke Spider-Man baddie called The Kingpin and transformed him into something scary, terrifying and human. Daredevil becomes the first real example of a creator revamping a character in his own image years before Alan Moore does so with Marvelman or Swamp Thing.
Through Miller, the title started selling in numbers again – serious numbers. Its bi-monthly status was revoked and once again it became a monthly book. Marvel not only had a commercial hit, but a critical success like no other title it published at the time – but like all good things, it wasn’t to last. Miller was lured to DC Comics to produce his creator owned title, Ronin, and Daredevil #191 proved to be his last issue. For the time being at least…