Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Storytelling Engines: Daredevil

(or "One More Chance To Get It Right")

Daredevil really does start with a great central concept. It's important to remember that, as we discuss the first 100 issues or so of the adventures of the Man Without Fear, because I'm about to make the central point that Daredevil was really a pretty bad storytelling engine (and, not incidentally, a not-very-good comic) for the first 167 issues of its existence, and so it's important to remember that all storytelling engines start, first and foremost, with their central concept. Daredevil has a great central concept. All the other things that happened to it weren't his fault.

Everyone knows the hook of DD's origin; in all other respects, it's your pretty standard "avenging hero" plot (lawyer by day, super-hero by night, started out avenging the death of his father at the hands of a crooked boxing promoter)...but it's got that hook. Daredevil gained super-powers from radiation, just like many a hero, but he didn't just get amazing abilities beyond mortal ken. Daredevil wound up blind for life.

That's an amazing hook. Matt Murdock perceives the world differently from any other super-hero, and his abilities that give him power also take it away. It immediately makes him distinctive and memorable in a way that a lot of other heroes aren't. He's also got a good secret identity (lawyer, a convenient way to get him involved in stories and a convenient way to complicate them), a fun supporting cast in Foggy Nelson and Karen Page, and (after issue #7) an iconic costume. It's a good start to a storytelling engine.

Then it all starts going off the rails. Daredevil's powers, abilities, and origin are defined, but Matt Murdock as a character never really seems to gel for Stan Lee's entire tenure on the series. He comes off as "Spider-Man lite", just another wisecracking hero, and never really develops a personality beyond the dictates of the plot. And his Rogue's Gallery...it says a lot that in the first Daredevil Annual, when his arch-enemies gather to combine their forces against him, the assemblage winds up being Stilt-Man, Leapfrog, Gladiator, the Matador, and Electro. That's right, he had to borrow one of Spider-Man's B-list villains just to fill out the team. (Presumably the Owl and the Purple Man were busy that night, and the Masked Marauder was already dead by then. The Masked Marauder's only super-power, by the way, was a "blindness ray." Really picked the wrong super-hero to oppose, there...)

There are further signs that the series was flailing for a direction. "Mike Murdock" sums them all up, really...one wonders exactly how Stan Lee decided, when handed the Matt/Foggy/Karen office set-up, that what he really needed was for Daredevil to be a super-hero who also pretended to be his own non-existent twin brother. After that, Gerry Conway's plan to move him to San Francisco, write Foggy and Karen out of the series, and have him start dating the Black Widow seems downright sensible.

So many of the "defining elements" of the series don't even show up until Frank Miller's run, starting in #169; Hell's Kitchen, the Kingpin, the focus on organized crime, Bullseye and Elektra,
the street-level sensibility of the character...the Daredevil of the Essentials is scarcely even recognizable to modern fans. You can't really picture, for example, the "modern" Daredevil taking a cruise and winding up in the Savage Land, teaming up with Ka-Zar to stop the Plunderer from using a "metal-dissolving" ore to conquer the world with plastic guns.

With all that said, then, what made it possible for this...unfinished...storytelling engine to make it to issue #169? For starters, it really is a very good central concept, and a very good iconic look. Comics fans are willing to put up with a lot of bad stories about characters they really like, and Daredevil is no exception. For another thing, it was in the right place at the right time. Marvel was riding several bona fide hits throughout much of the 1960s, and Stan Lee was never averse to milking that to sell his "lesser" books. Spider-Man, the FF, and the Avengers all ride through town every so often, just to keep people's interest up.

And last but not least, Daredevil had some very talented creators working on it. Never underestimate the ability of good creators to disguise bad storytelling engines. Stan Lee might have written Daredevil as "Spider-Man lite", but his knack for Spidey-style wisecracks and snappy patter made even a watered-down Spider-Man fun to read. The series had a number of strong artists in its early days, from John Romita to the late, great Wally Wood, before finally settling on "Gentleman" Gene Colan, whose pencils were what can only be described as legendary. (It's almost worth picking up the Essentials just to see his art in black-and-white; if ever there was an artist who didn't need color to make his work look good, it's Gene Colan.) These fine writers and artists kept Daredevil alive long enough for someone to sift through the various discarded concepts and gimmicks that littered his early issues and figure out exactly what made the character tick. (And, given his propensity to assume other identities at the drop of a hat, what made him go cuckoo every half-hour.)

3 comments:

chris w. said...

That's the best explanation I've heard when it comes to explaining how Daredevil lasted for so many years before Miller came along. I'm no comics noob or a jaded soul who thinks everything pre-Modern Age is worthless, but even I have a hard time seeing the appeal for Daredevil back then.

It's really not any more complicated than people liking the character and WANTING the stories to be good, combined with a comic lover's skill at holding their nose and reading it anyway when something stinks. We've all done it.

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Miller came along with Daredevil.

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