Note: This is an article I originally wrote for the Superversive blog way back in 2015; naturally nobody noticed. With the discussion about comics starting up again I thought it would be timely to bring it back.
As I’ve made clear in the past, I’m a big fan of Netflix’s Daredevil, despite having never seen the Ben Affleck film and reading literally none of the comics. I knew three things about Daredevil going into the series, gained through cultural osmosis: He’s Catholic, he’s a lawyer, and he’s blind. That was it. Oh, and his Lex Luthor was some guy called the Kingpin, who was like a big bald mob boss or something. And because of that, I went into the series with virtually no expectations, and was duly impressed.
As is the case when I get really interested in something, I got curious about the history of Daredevil and how well his comic book counterpart stacked up against his show. Wikipedia to the rescue! I learned that the incarnation of Daredevil most of us recognize is taken from an 80’s run by the legendary Frank Miller, widely considered one of the best stretches of any comic ever. And here’s where it gets interesting.
Miller took Daredevil and made him what is commonly called “gritty” – or, to be more precise, he took a character that had been turned “gritty” relatively recently and actually started writing good stories for him. His stories were so insanely good (at least in comparison to the previous dreck) that Daredevil comics went from the brink of total cancellation to getting released more often (monthly instead of bi-monthly) within three issues! Wow.
Miller rebooted Daredevil’s origin story as well. His was the best sort of reboot: Keeping the essential parts of the original and improving on the faults. Very nice, but what was the original anyway?
I looked it up – turns out you can find it online. He’s another Stan Lee creation, apparently. I read the first issue with interest. And when I was done, I realized something:
It was terrible.
Not merely “bad”. Not a quaint “dated”. But really, really awful. Like, almost no redeeming qualities awful. Had I read this when It came out, I would have made it a point to avoid all other issues of Daredevil from then on.
First off, let’s start with the origin story: Hmmmm, great student, picked on a lot , gets in an accident that gives him superpowers, father killed, becomes a vigilante to avenge his father’s death…sound like another Stan Lee creation?
Yes, friends, the original Daredevil was a blatant Marvel cash grab. Rather than creating a new, interesting hero they just took all of the essential characteristics of Spider-Man and added a new coat of paint. They didn’t even think the costume through well…and don’t use the time period as an excuse for it, because Spider-Man’s original costume is brilliant. Here’s Daredevil’s first costume, from the cover:
Who puts yellow in a costume that’s supposed to look like a devil? With the exception of the tiny little bumps cutely sticking out from the tip of his head he doesn’t come off as even slightly devilish (the prominently placed “D” surprisingly hurts his case in this situation). He looks like a dork.
(Here I’ll pause to make a positive comment. Treasure it, because it’s the only one I’ll make: the artwork is pretty good. That’s not the issue. It’s the writing that sucks.)
And Matt Murdock’s reaction to going blind is ridiculously blase. Take a look:
For some reason no matter how I edit it the shot comes up blurry, so let me share some quotes:
“It could be worse! Even if I do lose my sight…at least I’m alive!
“I’ll still keep up my studies using books written in braille! I’ll get my diploma yet! You’ll see!”
I get it. Matt is self-confident. Matt loves his dad. But could he at least frown at one point? HE WENT BLIND. This isn’t a broken leg.
Now here’s my question to all of you readers: If you went blind in a freak accident that gave you weird radioactive superpowers, wouldn’t you be…I don’t know…upset? In some way? Feeling pain? Perhaps frightened? Our general impression of Murdock is not “the Man Without Fear”. It’s “the Man Who is Creepily Chipper About All Things”.
This is the big problem with Matt’s blindness: It’s a gimmick. It’s not a weakness. It doesn’t affect Matt’s life in any way, except insofar as he decides to fake physical disadvantages in order to hide his powers…which, come to think of it, is actually another advantage of being blind.
If it’s also not clear here, Matt is about to enter college, which makes his whole origin story seem weirdly compressed when compared to the Netflix Show.
The show took most of its inspiration from Miller’s classic “The Man Without Fear” for Daredevil’s origin story. In the show’s version:
It’s not helped by the fact that Matt undergoes absolutely no training. And remember, as much as Stan Lee ripped off his own character, his powers aren’t the same as Spider-Man’s. He doesn’t crawl on walls. His super-powers are much more mundane. Basically, he’s more physically adept than everybody else.
In keeping with the theme of Lee sticking to the Spider-Man template, Matt’s father is murdered by the mob for refusing to throw a fight. Even THIS the show improved. In Lee’s version, good old Battlin’ Jack has gone to “The Fixer” to get him fights but doesn’t realize that he’ll be asked to take a dive at one point, because he’s an idiot. In the show, a few shades of gray are thrown into the mix. It’s heavily implied that Jack has thrown fights before, and he initially accepts their offer to throw the fight before reneging at the last second.
And seriously, nobody tell me that this is about “A difference in attitudes” are some such rot. It’s not about dark versus light, it’s about what makes a good story. Creating a complex character as opposed to a bland one-off? That’s an improvement. Giving Matt actual emotions in response to being blind and giving him consequences he has to deal with? That’s an improvement. Having Matt get trained in martial arts rather than just being a super-gifted fighter automatically, with no build-up? Another improvement. Having a costume that actually looks devilish? BIG improvement.
And this is considered one of the best comics of the Lee era! It’s considered a classic!
And then there’s his superhero name. You want to know why he’s called Daredevil in the Lee version? Because that was what bullies called him when he was a kid.
What? It doesn’t sound realistic to you that schoolyard bullies would call you an obscure, rather specific word (that no bully has ever used ever) in order to sarcastically taunt you? Well, that’s good, because it shouldn’t. It’s stupid. Why not just have one of Daredevil’s first villains say something along the lines of “Look at the way that guy moves! Look at what he’s doing! He’s a daredevil!”, or something to that effect? That would make more sense, since Daredevil in this case would be acting like a daredevil.
So, why didn’t they do that? I dunno. Probably because Lee and co. half-assed it, and it never occurred to anybody in the half hour they spent brainstorming the plot.
It gets dumber, too. After Battlin’ Jack is killed by mobsters our hero goes off to find them and deal with the guy who ordered the kill and the guy who pulled the trigger personally. Naturally, he has a brilliant plan for –
– Haha just kidding, he has no plan and what he does makes absolutely no sense. He goes into a room with armed thugs, starts insulting them, then discovers mid-fight that, whew, he was right. Turns out the radiation did turn him into a gifted fighter after all!
No, I’m not kidding. Here it is, in all its dumb, dumb glory:
Let me read some of that dialogue for you: “I was right all the time! My senses are so keen I can do anything a man with eyesight can…and do it better!”
In other words: He was just sort of banking on the fact that maybe he had superpowers strong enough for him to take on multiple armed men. I mean, might as well. He’s probably right.
Oh yeah, to top off the Spider-Man similarities, when Daredevil chases the Fixer he dies as a result despite not being killed directly by Daredevil directly. Kind of like when Spider-Man chases Uncle Ben’s killer and he dies as a result despite not being killed by Spider-Man directly.
And so we have:
Is that, combined with the poor story-telling, still not enough to convince you that this was nothing more than a cash-grab? How about the fact that the inside cover for “Daredevil” literally has a giant arrow pointed directly at Spider-Man, lest you missed the similarities? Or that the outside cover actually looks like this:
In case you didn’t notice, that’s another big arrow pointing at Spider-Man, with the caption “Remember when we introduced…Spider-Man”. To repeat: Arrow number two.
“Hold on Anthony,” you all say, “Maybe Stan Lee took a lot of inspiration from Spider-Man, and maybe the writing isn’t great, but after all it IS the same creator. We should expect similarities, right? And after all, Spider-Man was his most popular hero. It only makes sense to cross-promote. That doesn’t necessarily mean it was just a cash grab.”
Well, my friend, if all of that was STILL not enough to convince you, how about this: The issue was rushed so much that many of the backgrounds that were supposed to be penciled by artist Bill Everett actually weren’t done in time, and had to be drawn by Steve Ditko (by the way, to hammer the connection home even MORE, a Spider-Man artist) and Sol Brodsky.
Worse still, even the cover was a last minute affair cobbled together from a concept drawing by Jack Kirby, which helps explain Daredevil’s vaguely awkward jazz hand style pose. From former Marvel editor-in-chief Joe Quesada:
Here’s another quick history lesson. Did you know that Daredevil Vol. 1, #1 was so late from Bill Everett that it cost the company thousands of dollars and that’s thousands of dollars in the early Sixties. In the end, Steve Ditko and Sol Brodsky ended up inking a lot of backgrounds and secondary figures on the fly, they cobbled the cover and the splash page together from Kirby’s original concept drawing, and so forth.
That’s right. They cared so little about the comic that the artist didn’t even bother finishing the first issue in time, because they waited until the very last minute before releasing it.
So why did I go through all of this? I’ll tell you why. Here at Superversive SF there’s a lot of nostalgia for the past, including the occasional lamentation that we’ve gone too “gritty” and lost the charming, campy optimism of the golden and silver age comics.
But the original “Daredevil” was written smack in the middle of that campy, optimistic silver age of comics. And here’s the thing: The first issue is considered a genuine classic. It is considered to be one of the best issues of the Stan Lee era. And it’s awful, a blatant ripoff of the Spider-Man origin story covered in a new coat of paint, full of bizarre, nonsensical character decisions and lazy, uninspired writing.
And the Frank Miller era from the 80’s is darker, less optimistic, more overtly violent, and much, much better. As is the modern Netflix adaptation.
So, understand what you’re asking for. As all of us here know – heck, as this whole movement is based around – progress is not inherently good. But sometimes darker and grittier really is better than campy and optimistic. Sometimes, progress really is a step up. And it’s good to be reminded of that before we long for a return to “the good old days” that weren’t actually good in the first place.