This bumper black and white collection supplies almost all of Gerry Conway’s two year run on Daredevil from early 1971, the missing issues being his starting point, and supplied in Essential Daredevil Vol. 3. It’s very much a period of growing into Daredevil’s world, and it’s Daredevil Conway is interested in, not Matt Murdock the lawyer. Conway features just the single courtroom drama, relegates Foggy Nelson to the point where he’s redundant, and thereafter the only law firm seen is a plot device connected with something else.

Conway’s earliest stories here are blessed by having Gene Colan’s art, making them look a lot better than they are, and Colan elevating the better, later stories even higher. These are set in San Francisco, and Colan makes spectacular use of the city and surroundings, really impresses with car chases, and brings a romance comic gloss to the civilian scenes. Tom Palmer inks most stories, and there’s an argument to be made for the crisp black and white reproduction being the preferable format for seeing the beginnings of a classic artistic combination. It’s not without bumps, though, as Palmer initially attempts to force Colan’s pencils into something more traditional for superhero comics, but when he returns after a brief gap he’s more faithful to the flowing pencil lines and the results are sumptuous.

There’s a feeling at first that Conway has no real idea what he wants to do with Daredevil, and much of this collection is marking time. Although the improvement isn’t immediate, adding Black Widow to the cast messes with the status quo, so is interesting, and having a hero operate in a city other than New York was a great novelty for Marvel in 1971. Daredevil and Black Widow are San Francisco’s only costumed protectors, whereas even then New York had dozens. An unlikely amount of Daredevil’s villains also seem to have made the move, but it’s Black Widow’s problems and the people associated with them that come to dominate. Because her milieu is the spy thriller it adds a different tone, broadening Daredevil’s world.

Even allowing for the times, when Conway hits his stride there are still a few clunky moments, but the relationships are convincing, the action flows and there’s at least one excellent piece of misdirection.

There’s a smooth transition of Conway plotting a final story for Gerber to script, although it’s not a classic, and the same applies to Gerber’s first solo effort, where the emotional realism drops several notches. It’s fun seeing Hawkeye and Daredevil having at it, though, imaginatively drawn by Sam Kweskin, one of only a handful of Marvel comics he illustrated. It leads to Daredevil signing up for Steve Englehart and Bob Brown’s also ordinary battle between the Avengers and Magneto.

Like Conway, Gerber takes time to settle in, and while the hallucinogenic experience of Angar the Screamer is a very 1970s concept, in practice it’s poor as drawn by Rich Buckler, and the preceding 100th issue is surely one of the dullest celebrations Marvel ever issued. Gerber improves with the content of Essential Daredevil Vol. 5.

The more expensive hardcover and colour reproductions of these stories can be found starting in Marvel Masterworks: Daredevil Volume 8, and continuing in Volume 9, with the final few opening Volume 10.