SUPERVERSIVE: The BAD Daredevil

Tuesday , 4, April 2017 38 Comments

Image result for daredevil yellow suitNote: 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:

He’s like a weird red bumblebee or something

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:

Also, Battlin’ Jack is looking kind of sinister here, right?

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:

  • Daredevil goes blind as a child, giving the whole event a more tragic feel while keeping Matt’s heroism (he still saves the old man) intact.
  • Daredevil actually suffers negative repercussions from going blind. Netflix’s Matt wakes up in bed screaming that he can’t see, and as he deals with his newly enhanced senses the first time he screams that everything is “so loud”. In other words: Yes, he got super-senses, but the blindness itself is actually a weakness. Or at least a negative. Honestly, I’d settle for an inconvenience at this point. Lee’s Matt gives me nothing,

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:

And get used to repeated mentions of how "keen" his senses are, because he brings them up basically every panel.

And get used to repeated mentions of how “keen” his senses are, because he brings them up basically every panel.

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:

  • One man who is a nerdy science geek, and one man who is a nerdy lawyer (at least, as a kid he was picked on, which is similar enough)
  • Get involved in some major radioactive event while in High School
  • This indirectly leads to the tragic deaths of loved ones
  • So they make costumes out of material they happen to have on hand
  • Then they find their loved ones’ killer
  • They pursue him until he dies, though they do not kill their father’s murderer directly, even though his death is a result of their chasing

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:

Cross-promotion's the name of the game

Cross-promotion is the name of the game

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.

38 Comments
  • instasetting says:

    My rules of thumb are that if you started not gritty, then gritty is probably a cash grab, a lack of imagination, and dumb.

    Also, if you started not gritty you should stay that way. Gritty stories have to be legitamately so….I liked Constantine the TV show. It was legit dark. But Stargate: Universe was lame.

    • Anthony M says:

      This is probably a good rule of thumb, but it is NOT true in the case of Miller’s Daredevil. It was an improvement in every way. “Born Again” is one of the greatest comic book stories of all time.

      • Gaiseric says:

        That’s because Daredevil (like Batman) is fundamentally a gritty, kind of noir take on the superhero. Both went through extended periods of campiness before writers who really got what they were all about brought them to their artistic peak.

        Which, as we talked about in the last post, was slavishly and foolishly imitated by writers and characters that had no business being in any way noirish.

        But Daredevil is a character that was ready-made to be a noir superhero and he never really amounted to much until he became one.

        • Anthony says:

          To be fair, there’s a decent comic by the Loeb and Sale team called “Daredevil: Yellow” that plays this earlier era straight.

          It really only works, though, because Daredevil is looking back at events from his more tragic modern perspective.

    • john silence says:

      Props for selecting “Stargate: Universe”, that’d be the most perfect example of this unnatural cash-grabbing “grittification” that I can think of too.
      It would have been easier to swallow if it was a full reboot, with fully reimagined universe. The way they did it, by latching it onto established universe that was wholly unfit for the sort of mood and themes they were going for, and with it being continuation of consciously cheesy and geeky earlier series, their end result was hilarious and forced and fake.

    • jic says:

      “But Stargate: Universe was lame.”

      Their “creative consultant” was John Scalzi.

  • Rawle Nyanzi says:

    Fun fact: the Frank Miller run of Daredevil was the original inspiration for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

  • deuce says:

    Many, many times, when Stan Lee tried to create something without Kirby or Ditko to hold his hand, the results were subpar. Daredevil is a perfect example. Bill Everett was no Ditko or Kirby when it came to creativity. Stan had to wing it, with predictable results. Subpar concepts often require a bit of reimagining.

    Was someone wailing for the return of Daredevil to his #1 version and I didn’t notice? Miller drastically improved the Daredevil comic. I started buying about 3 issues in. However, the fallout from the “grim n’ gritty” explosion we had after that pretty much gutted comics. In many ways, it was a mutated form of Literary Realism. One could argue it favored French Naturalism, but the outcomes were about the same. Liefeld’s idiotically-named “Cable” screaming “This is War!!!” every other page. Somebody getting raped in every issue of the Watchmen. Slight exaggerations, but comics are often an artform of exaggeration. The whole ethos emphasized tawdriness and nihilism.

    When it comes to the pulps…I, for one, could see many ways to improve, for instance, Otis Adelbert Kline’s planetary romances with a reboot. I don’t have rose-colored glasses on when it comes to the pulps. That said, I still think the pulps, on average, got more things right than what came after. Their ethos of striving for entertainment first — and the target audience being just folks on the street — beats the didacticism and myriad rules/shibboleths that came after. Hands down.

    • caleb says:

      Indeed.
      “You shrug your shoulders, but come, what has your Naturalism revealed to us about all those disheartening mysteries that surround us? Nothing. When it has to explain a passion of any kind, when it has to probe some trauma, to treat even the most innocuous of the soul’s cuts and bruises, it puts everything down to the account of physical appetites and instincts. Lust and infatuation, those are its only diatheses. In short, it’s explored nothing but the parts below the navel and resorts to banal platitudes whenever it finds itself approaching the groin: it’s a surgical stocking for the emotions, a truss-maker for the soul, and that’s all!”

    • Anthony says:

      Was someone wailing for the return of Daredevil to his #1 version and I didn’t notice?

      Yes, I was clearly referring to the literal, actual calls from specific people to bring Daredevil back to the way it was in issue 1. That’s a fair reading.

  • Andy says:

    I think DD was pretty bleh even in its own time. As you say, it comes off like a pale knock-off of Spider-Man. It had a weak start, got a bit better when Wally Wood took over for a few issues, changed the costume to the modern all red look, and we got one straight up classic, the DD vs. Namor issue. Then Wood quit and the comic sank into mediocrity, with the only bright spot being Gene Colan’s beautiful art. But Colan wasn’t much of a plotter, so it was gorgeous comics with not much really going on. Miller definitely took it a level it had never been before.

    • deuce says:

      “I think DD was pretty bleh even in its own time.”

      As a preteen during the pre-Miller days, “bleh” is exactly how many comics fans saw him. I remember — still a kid! — wondering how Daredevil hung on/wasn’t cancelled. There just wasn’t much “there” there.

      Maybe it was because the first DD ish I bought — begged off a barber shop, actually — had the JESTER in it, but I always saw DD as just as much a Batman ripoff. Of course, in the ’40s, when Stan Lee was solo-creating classic heroes like “Jack Frost”, there was the original Daredevil who shared several traits found in the Marvel version. His costume was lame as well.

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Daredevil_(Lev_Gleason_Publications)

  • Aaron B. says:

    That original sounds a lot like the cheesy Affleck movie (which might be in so-bad-it’s-good territory). He gets blinded, and then within minutes, through the power of the montage, he’s dancing on rooftops and fighting better than he ever could have with sight. It’s shrugged off with a line about his other senses compensating, but that doesn’t come close to explaining why he can do most of what he does. But then, they never bother to explain the ridiculous skills of the other characters either.

  • Alex says:

    “Who puts yellow in a costume that’s supposed to look like a devil?”

    I dunno, a blind guy?

    • Anthony says:

      Doesn’t work. He could tell color by touch (seriously, they went out of their way to eliminate every possible weakness of being blind).

      • Alex says:

        Huh… Does he sense the spectrum of light being reflected?

        Cuz that is ‘calibrating your ki vibrations to match sunlight’s wavelength so you can punch vampires’ levels of bullshit.

        • Anthony says:

          I don’t even think they attempted to justify it. They just had him say something like “I could tell which color is which by touch!”

          I really can’t emphasize enough how poorly written this issue is.

          • Alex says:

            I’ve always had this sneaking suspicion that Stan Lee was a hack, but I’m more of a DC person, so I haven’t delved very far into his actual work.

            To be fair, though, I don’t like most of the DC stuff I’ve read prior to the 80s either, so…

          • deuce says:

            When you realize the “Marvel Method” that Stan invented was having the artists draw the issue how they wanted and then he put in word balloons, then things become obvious. Even Stan, who was never shy about hogging glory, admitted he had no idea who or what the Silver Surfer was until he turned up in an FF panel.

            Kirby was all about being pulp and cosmic at the same time, while Stan was more about hackery and something approaching SF New Wave. I’ll admit that Stan wa better at dialogue, as we saw when Jack left Marvel. We also saw that Stan really couldn’t “create” anything worthwhile if he didn’t have a high-caliber, real-deal creator to lean on. Here’s a good piece on the Surfer and how Stan screwed him up by trying to make him a literary mouthpiece for prog platitudes:

            https://books.google.com/books?id=B-8aBwAAQBAJ&pg=PA146&lpg=PA146&dq=%22silver+surfer%22+wild+cosmic+kirby+galactus+-alpha+-sabretooth+-sabertooth&source=bl&ots=qb5Mb0LSq5&sig=3PhusB_hpdDe-Vp1ykXSdh57fDY&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiTyov_tIvTAhWMyoMKHamrD744ChDoAQglMAI#v=onepage&q=%22silver%20surfer%22%20wild%20cosmic%20kirby%20galactus%20-alpha%20-sabretooth%20-sabertooth&f=false

          • Andy says:

            Fans often like to characterize Stan and Kirby’s working relationship as “the Lennon and McCartney of comics!” (i.e., equal but different) but I daresay it was more like Brian Wilson vs. Mike Love. You had the creative visionary pushing his limits vs. the guy going, “Come on Jack, can’t we just recycle the old hits over and over?”

            Allegedly, Kirby finally got sick of Lee hogging all the glory and challenged him to create an FF villain completely on his own. Lee’s response was a guy named The Monocle. Because he was an aristocratic guy who wore a monocle. Kirby meanwhile had Darkseid and the other New Gods in his notebook but wasn’t selling them to Marvel.

          • deuce says:

            Without Roy Thomas stepping up as both a writer and editor, Marvel would’ve likely crashed and burned by the mid-’70s. Meanwhile, Stan just keeps grinning and shilling and doing MCU cameos.

          • Alex says:

            While I never got into the New Gods stuff on their own, Kirby’s character showing up every so often was just about the only thing that ever made Superman remotely interesting for me.

          • Gaiseric says:

            Marvel may yet crash and burn. After having one of their executives openly admit that their embrace of diversity drove away their core market of white males, they’re kinda going the same way with their movies. More slowly, thankfully, and we get brilliant, superversive “don’t trust Big Brother government” stuff like Winter Soldier every so often, but the new Spider-man has blackwashed, brownwashed or pinkwashed almost every character in the canon except for Peter Parker himself.

            As much as it sometimes ticks me off that they’re blackwashing, brownwashing and pinkwashing all of “our” characters, I have to remember that (((Stan Lee))) created most of them anyway. Not sure how much they ever were “our” characters to begin with.

          • Anthony says:

            That’s cause you’re looking at it the wrong way. They’re not “our” characters because they’re white, they’re “our” characters because we grew up with them.

          • Gaiseric says:

            Yes, but were “our” characters ever really what we thought they were, or was that just an artifact of our imagination all along?

            Maybe it’s time to accept that as what we grew up with has become hopelessly pozzed by a company that’s become hopelessly SJWified, written by a creator who’s only to happy to take the huge paychecks he’s getting to the bank in his old age without complaint, we realize that we need to build our own, rather than expect 50-60+ year old characters to still do it for us.

            It’s a hard thing to let go, maybe—but maybe it’s time.

          • Anthony says:

            I don’t really know what you mean by that.

            Of course they’re artifacts of the imagination. They’re fictional. But I simply know too many fans of the comics to believe there was never anything to be a fan of.

            What would letting go even entail? Letting Marvel and DC die?

            Trust me. You think you want that, but if you like comics at all…you don’t. That would crash the industry.

            I’m not saying support dreck just because, but there’s nothing wrong with wanting writers to put out good stories.

          • deuce says:

            “I have to remember that (((Stan Lee))) created most of them anyway. Not sure how much they ever were “our” characters to begin with.”

            You’re giving Stan way too much credit and I’m sure he would thank you for that. If you want to disinherit Jack Frost, the WWII-era Destroyer and She-Hulk from what’s “ours”, be my guest.

          • Andy says:

            “we need to build our own, rather than expect 50-60+ year old characters to still do it for us”

            I think this is exactly what needs to be done all around. I love these characters, too, but as Bilbo might say they’re stretched awful thin these days.

        • Jesse Lucas says:

          There is literally nothing wrong with Hamon.

  • Xavier Basora says:

    It would be interesting to compare Stan Lee with his European near contemporaries like Goscinny, Udzero,Peyo Ibanez and Van Hamme.

    I read comics on both sides of the Atlantic. I found the European comics to be better written while the American had better graphics by and large.

    I was unaware that Stan Lee is a middling comic book artist
    I thought he was so much more original

    Live and learn

  • icewater says:

    So, that unmentionable Affleck flick wasn’t so unfaithful after all. It’s just that it was faithful to wrong damn Daredevil!

  • GoldenEye says:

    The original Daredevil shows the limitations of the Marvel method. One of the reasons why this issue is so bad is because while Bill Everett can draw, he can’t necessarily write. The Marvel method requires that whoever does draws the comic must also be at least competent in writing.

    It should be remembered that in comics, the ideal person is the cartoonist, who writes and draws their own work. Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko are cartoonists because they write and draw their own comics.
    I think Stan was a fine editor, but his actual writing was kind of eh. His real strength was in picking good talent, spotting trends, and being a great salesperson. In that sense, he might be one of the best in the field.

    • deuce says:

      Even when it came to spotting trends, Stan had huge blind spots. He was sure that Thongor was the better choice over Conan. He also flat-out told Roy Thomas that he had no idea what people saw in the whole thing. During the ’70s, Conan went on to match and surpass sales of Spidey and the Hulk. Stan was able to spot trends only within his little window. He only knew superheroes and he couldn’t create an original superhero concept with a gun to his head, as Daredevil amply demonstrates.

  • […] different this version of the character was from his current incarnation, but after learning about Daredevil’s original pre-noir personality I realized that Gaiman’s Daredevil was actually a really entertaining version of that […]

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