Review by Win Wiacek
Beginning with Frank Miller’s late 1980s work and built on by his successors, Daredevil has been radicalised into a grim urban vigilante. As seen in Essential Daredevil Vol. 1, it wasn’t always that way, and this edition collects almost two years worth of stories from early 1967 to 1969.
The adventures are fairly typical 1960’s action-fodder. Matt Murdock is blind, but other senses hyper-compensate, making him a formidable acrobat and fighter, and a human lie-detector. He fights gangsters, a variety of super-villains, and even the occasional alien invasion. He also jokes and wise-cracks his way through life, unlike the grim and moody quasi-religious metaphor he’s been seen as in latter years. Very much a second string hero for most of his early years, he was nonetheless popular, due in large part to the incredibly humanistic art of Gene Colan, who finally shakes off the last remnants of his predecessor John Romita’s art style. When Colan took over he kept the clipped solid, almost chunky lines whilst drawing the Man without Fear, but increasingly drew everything else in his loose, fluid, near-tonal manner, and now follows his own instincts and a leaner, moodier hero emerges.
When not fighting crime in costume, Matt fights it as a court lawyer. A major early push turns the hopeless romantic triangle of Matt Murdock, best friend/law partner Foggy Nelson and their secretary Karen Page into a wacky quadrangle by introducing fictitious twin brother Mike, who would be “revealed” as Daredevil to divert suspicion from the blind attorney who actually battled all those weird villains.
Stan Lee shipped in many of those from other titles. The sample page of original Colan art is from the protracted epic clash with old Thor foes the Cobra and Mister Hyde, which requires DD to masquerade as Thor. A trip to the 1967 Montreal Expo results in an ambush by Spider-Man enemy the Beetle, and the Trapster involves Hornhead in a plot to destroy the Fantastic Four. The best of other people’s enemies is the startling ‘Don’t Look Now, But It’s… Doctor Doom!’ and companion ‘The Living Prison!’ in which Doom swaps bodies with the sightless crusader to facilitate an ambush on the FF. Jack Kirby draws the battle royale conclusion.
A moody one trick pony sees extraterrestrials foiled when their blindness ray proves inexplicably ineffective against the Crimson Crime-Buster, while 1967’s Daredevil Annual is a visually impressive, but rather lacklustre detailing of five old foes ganging up on Daredevil.
This entire volume provides a snapshot of an era ending. The final stories introduce a new African-American character, one of far too few in those blinkered times, in a story of Vietnam War turbulence, and have Foggy becoming District Attorney, but acrimoniously turning his back on his oldest friend, seemingly forever. Vol. 3 sees the scripting handed over to Roy Thomas, and the social turbulence that marked the end of the 1960s would begin to transform the dashing, wise-cracking Daredevil into something closer to his current dark archetype.