Sunday, 28 May 2017

Daredevil ... and other disabled defenders

LATE TO THE PARTY in the mid-1960s was the final addition to Stan Lee's classic superhero lineup, Daredevil. And with this one, Stan took his concept of "a hero with a flaw" even further and gave Matthew Murdock a disability: he made him blind.

I've mentioned in an earlier entry in this blog that in 1965 I marvelled at the idea of a blind superhero. Maybe because losing one's sight is one of our great primal fears - often the cover subject of the more extreme 1950s horror comics - and certainly something that scared me silly when I was a kid. Perhaps because of that, that issue of Daredevil, where he battles the Matador, made quite an impression on my ten year old self.

Nowhere on the cover does it mention Daredevil's Unique Selling Point. However, Stan does mention that the interior art is by Wally Wood. Is this the first time Stan cover credited an artist?
Though I'm quite sure that Daredevil 5 (Dec 1964) was the first issue of that title I saw, I don't really remember the order of the issues that led me to being a fan of the character. Certainly, the guest appearances in Fantastic Four 39 and 40 (Jun & Jul 1965) are in there somewhere and there's little doubt that Daredevil 7 (Apr 1965) is one of the great superhero stories of the 1960s ... but what I hadn't realised back then was that, as astonishing as the idea of a disabled superhero was, it was by no means unique in the history of comics.


BATTLING TOUGH ODDS

In fact, the concept of a blind superhero was first used back in the pre-comic days of the pulps. The Black Bat (the second character to bear that name - the first was a plain-clothes, Saint-style detective debuting in 1934) was the alter-ago of crusading district attorney Tony Quinn, who is blinded when acid is thrown in his face in a revenge attack by mobsters. Quinn puts on a bat-like costume and fights crime, beginning in the June 1939 issue of Black Book Detective. It seems likely that DC's Batman, who hit the stands shortly afterwards, bore just a coincidental similarity, as Thrilling Publications and DC entered into an amicable arrangement where both characters could exist on the newsstands side-by-side.

The Black Bat's costume bears more than a passing resemblance to Batman's, though in fairness it should be pointed out that both characters appeared on the stands at around the same time.
Actually, more similar to The Black Bat than Batman was DC's later hero Dr. Mid-Nite, both attacked by vengeful gangsters - both rendered blind in the attack, both becoming masked vigilantes waging a war on criminals. Dr. Mid-Nite's special ability is that though essentially blind in daylight, he can see perfectly in pitch black. 

Though he was very much the second attraction in the long-running All-American Comics, after Green Lantern, Dr Mid-Nite never rated a cover appearance. The first time he was cover-featured was on All-Star 8 when he was inducted into The Justice Society of America.
Dr. Mid-Nite enjoyed a long run in All-American, lasting until the title was cancelled with issue 102 (Oct 1948), and was a long-serving member of the Justice Society, appearing in most issues of All-Star Comics, from 8 (Dec 1941), his first appearance, through to the end of the Justice Society's run in the final issue, 57 (Feb 1951).

Another Golden Age character who battled against tough odds was the original Daredevil, who first appeared in Lev Gleason's Silver Steak Comics 6 (Sep 1940) and went on to have a long and successful run in his own title, Daredevil Comics, starting in July 1941. Though the character was created by Jack Binder for editor Jack Cole, it was legendary creator Charles Biro who took over and wrote and drew the character for the rest of his ten year run.

Though Daredevil started off in Silver Streak Comics in a yellow and blue leotard, by the time he got his own title, the costume had transformed into red and blue and his inability to speak had been dropped without explanation. Comics, eh?
Bart Hill became Daredevil after a childhood trauma, where he witnessed his father's murder by criminals and was himself branded. The boomerang-shaped scar drove the youngster to develop his facility with boomerangs, though the experience left him mute. Adopting a blue and red costume and the name Daredevil, he waged a vigilante war against crime and criminals.

By the January 1950 issue, with superheroes in a sharp decline, Daredevil had been edged out of his own book by his kid side-kicks, The Little Wiseguys, and there was little scope for any further disabled heroes until super-characters made a return towards the end of the decade.


AND ... YOU'RE BACK IN THE SIXTIES

At the beginning of the 1960s, in response to DC's burgeoning line of superheroes, Stan Lee had bucked boss Martin Goodman's trend and done something different rather than just copying what was selling. He created a line of superheroes with flaws, the first of which was the ever-popular Ben Grimm, also known as The Thing, who viewed his enormous strength and orange, lumpy skin very much as an affliction.

Ben Grimm saw his transformation into the Thing in Fantastic Four 1 (Nov 1961) as a disability, and Tony Stark's life-threatening heart condition, shown here in Tales of Suspense 40 (Apr 1963), would certainly class him as disabled. It wasn't immediately clear in X-Men 1 that Professor X is wheelchair-bound, and Stan and Jack don't show him in his wheelchair until page 8 - though given that he changes from armchair to wheelchair mid-sentence, this may have been a mistake on Jack's part. (Click image to enlarge)
Right behind him was Tony Stark, who in Tales of Suspense 39 (Apr 1963) took some shrapnel in the heart and was cursed to wear an iron chest plate to keep him alive and which also turned him into the superhero, Iron Man. Then, not six months later, Professor Xavier, wheelchair-bound leader of The X-Men debuted in X-Men 1 (Sep 1963), though the similarly afflicted Chief, leader of the Doom Patrol, had appeared three months earlier in My Greatest Adventure 80 (Jun 1963). I'm not including Dr Don Blake here, as his disability disappeared when he transformed into Thor, much like the earlier Freddie Freeman/Captain Marvel Jr.

So it's not like it was a giant step to introduce Daredevil in 1964, as the accidently-blinded Matt Murdock whose other senses are greatly enhanced by the radioactive cannister that struck him across the eyes. If, like me, you were unfamiliar with the unsighted heroes who had gone before, this was pretty radical concept.

All through the first issue of Daredevil (Apr 1964), Stan Lee plays cat and mouse with the reader, hinting that Daredevil is Matt Murdock, and suggesting that his blindness might be cured somehow some time, until finally revealing that Daredevil is, indeed a blind superhero.
Stan Lee cleverly withheld the secret of Daredevil's abilities until very late in the story. So we readers see the yellow and red costumed hero beat up on some shady gangster types, then we cut to Matt Murdock's back story. Where we learn that as a young boy, Matt idolised his father, a fading heavyweight boxer by the name of "Battling" Murdock (we never do learn his real name in this first issue). But Murdock senior wants to make sure his boy studies hard and makes a real success of his life, and so struggles to keep his son in law school, signing with a very shady promotor known as The Fixer. It all comes to a head as Murdock Sr rushes home to tell Matt of his newly "revitalised" boxing career, and at the same time, Matt is injured while trying to saving an elderly blind man from being run over. In the ensuing accident, Matt is struck by a container of radioactive material that tumbles from the truck, blinding him.

Stan throws in a red herring on page 9, where Murdock Sr suggests to Matt that his eyesight might be restored in a few years time, "after the tissues have healed". And of course, Battler Murdock has success after success in the ring, little realising that The Fixer has arranged for his opponents to take "dives". Finally, Murdock Sr has a shot at the title but is told by the Fixer that it's the end of the line and this time he'll be losing. A basically honest man, Murdock can't bring himself to deliberately throw the fight while his son is watching, and somehow manages to win. But The Fixer doesn't like not getting his own way, and has Murdock murdered right outside the boxing arena. And it's this that spurs the blind Matt Murdock to become a superhero and avenge his father's murder.

Bill Everett, pictured at the 1970 New York Comic Convention.
What is kind of curious is that Stan hired Bill Everett to draw the first issue of Daredevil. Everett had worked for Marvel on and off since 1939's Marvel Comics 1, creating, then writing and drawing, The Sub-Mariner for this and other Timely titles. 

As the Timely superheroes wound down at the end of the 1940s, the Sub-Mariner vehicle Marvel Mystery Comics became the horror title Marvel Tales and Everett switched seamlessly from one to the other. Everett also drew stories for Marvel's growing line of romance comics, and took over Timely's last stab at a superhero, Marvel Boy, from Russ Heath. Though he'd be a regular contributor to the Atlas mystery titles throughout the 1950s, Everett also drew briefly for Eastern Color (New Heroic Comics, Personal Love) and Orbit-Wanted (Wanted). 

Marvel Tales was a retitling of the Sub-Mariner vehicle Marvel Mystery Comics, and Everett provided the cover for the earliest issues. In the mid-1950s, The Sub-Mariner had a brief revival, still drawn by Everett and right at the end, there was Everett turning in one of the very last covers of the Atlas era.
Right up until the Great Atlas Implosion of 1957, Everett was one of Stan Lee's main artists, drawing mystery, romance and war tales with equal facility, reviving The Sub-Mariner for a short run between 1954 and 1955, turning in around 20 pages an month as well as two or three covers.

Once the Atlas work dried up, Everett left the comics field and took a managerial job at a paper company in Massachusetts. In an interview with Roy Thomas for Alter Ego in 1970, Everett revealed how he came to pencil the first issue of Daredevil: 

"I must have called Stan, had some contact with him, I don't know why. I know we tried to do it on the phone. I know he had this idea for Daredevil; he thought he had an idea ... With a long-distance phone call, it just wasn't coming out right, so I said, 'All right, I'll come down this weekend or something. I'll take a day off [from his job as art director at Eton Paper Corporation] and come down to New York' ... I did the one issue, but I found that I couldn't do it and handle my job, because it was a managerial job. I didn't get paid overtime but I was on an annual salary, so my time was not my own. I was putting in 14 or 15 hours a day at the plant and then to come home and try to do comics at night was just too much. And I didn't make deadlines – I just couldn't make them – so I just did the one issue and didn't do any more."

It seems that Bill Everett's art for Daredevil 1 was so late that it caused problems getting the book ready in time for press, according to latter-day Marvel publisher Joe Queseda: [Marvel Production Manager Sol Brodsky and Spider-Man artist Steve Ditko inked] "a lot of backgrounds and secondary figures on the fly [and] cobbled the cover and the splash page together from Kirby's original concept drawing."

The splash page of Daredevil 1 was pasted together in the Bullpen by Sol Brodsky, using a Jack Kirby drawing of Daredevil. It's not clear why Bill Everett didn't provide a splash page himself, as I'd have thought that would have been, for many reasons, the first thing he drew. Or perhaps he did and Stan Lee didn't like it.
And the idea that Jack Kirby designed the Daredevil costume was remembered by Mark Evanier in his blog, News From Me: "[Jack Kirby] seems to have participated in the design of Daredevil's first costume. ... Everett did tell me that Jack had come up with the idea of Daredevil's billy club ... Jack, in effect, drew the first page of that first Daredevil story. In the rush to get that seriously late book to press, there wasn't time to complete Page One, so Stan had Sol Brodsky slap together a paste-up that employed Kirby's cover drawing ... Everett volunteered to me that Jack had 'helped him' though he wouldn't – or more likely, couldn't – elaborate on that. He just plain didn't remember it well, and in later years apparently gave others who asked a wide range of answers."

When Everett returned to The Sub-Mariner in the mid-1950s after a five-year hiatus, his art style was even more polished than it had been - certainly one of my favourites of that era.
In the end, Bill Everett's art for that first issue is curiously old-fashioned and more than a little cartoon-y, quite unlike anything else Marvel was doing at the time. It was a world away from Everett's classically rendered Sub-Mariner art, especially the smoothly-polished style he was using in the 1950s. So I'm not sure it was such a bad thing that, with the second issue, Everett was replaced by EC mainstay Joe Orlando.

Behind a Jack Kirby/Vince Coletta cover, penciller Joe Orlando brought some creative and modern-looking storytelling to his first work for Marvel Comics.  The scene in which he breaks up the car-theft ring (centre) is dynamic, and Orlando's scenes of Matt Murdock's civilian life have the look of a romance comic.
Daredevil 2 (Jun 1964) was again written by Stan Lee and placed the character firmly in the burgeoning Marvel Universe, with a guest appearance by The Thing and the rest of the Fantastic Four and Spider-Man's old foe Electro for a villain. It's a pretty good second issue and, though Stan hasn't quite worked out what Daredevil's U.S.P. is, there's still a good balance between action and drama with a bit of comedy provided by Ben Grimm's guest appearance.

I'm sure Stan thought getting Joe Orlando on-board as penciller was a bit of a coup, but saddling the EC great with Vince Colletta  as inker was a body blow that Orlando's pencils just couldn't recover from.


ORLANDO'S HIDEAWAY

Joe Orlando got into comics after being discharged from the US Army in 1948, when he started working on "Bob Brown of Notre Dame" in Charlton's Catholic Comics, a religion themed anthology, beginning with issue v3#1 (19, Jul 1948) and various strips for the same company's Cowboy Western. Then, for whatever reason, the work dried up at Charlton and Orlando didn't work for a few months, until he fetched up at Fox, where he contributed to the Jungle Lil (Apr 1950) and Jungle Jo (May 1950) one-shots, met Wally Wood and worked with him for the first time.

Joe Orlando's earliest work was for Charlton. Cowboy Western 23 (Jul 1949) featured his art on the cover. Jungle Lil 1 (Apr 1950) had one story pencilled and inked by Orlando. Avon's Rocket to the Moon one-shot (1951) was entirely pencilled by Orlando and inked by Wally Wood.
Orlando would continue to work with Wood at other companies, Orlando pencilling and Wood inking, first at Avon, on the one-off title Rocket to the Moon (1951), then at Youthful Publications on Captain Science 4 & 5 (Jun & Aug 1951), and Space Detective 1 & 2 (Jul & Nov 1951). But all this was just a prelude to a life-altering transition for both artists.

Captain Science 1 and Space Detective 1 were pencilled and inked by Orlando and Wood, covers and interiors. Then, mixing it up a little, Space Detective 2's cover was pencilled by Wood and inked by Orlando.
Wally Wood had already been working for Bill Gaines' legendary EC Comics. His first story for Gaines had been "The Living Corpse" in Crypt of Terror 18 (Jun-Jul 1950), followed very quickly by "The Black Arts" in Weird Fantasy 14 (Jul-Aug 1950). So it seems highly likely that it was Wood who introduced Joe Orlando to the EC editors. Orlando's first job for EC was "Forbidden Fruit" in Haunt of Fear 9 (Sep-Oct 1951), a grisly tale of the terrible fate awaiting a couple who fail to heed warnings and steal the food of a fellow desert island castaway.

Joe Orlando's art for the EC line, even in his debut story, "Forbidden Fruit", is slick and confident, with a gorgeous smooth inking style and strong pencilling and storytelling.
From there, Orlando worked almost exclusively for EC, becoming one of their mainstay artists and contributing to almost every EC title: Haunt of Fear, Panic, Shock Suspenstories, Vault of Horror, Weird Fantasy and Weird Science, as well as the later "New Direction" titles: Impact, M.D. and Valor, and the short-lived "Picto-Fiction" magazines: Crime, Confessions and Terror Illustrated.

Joe Orlando drew for every phase of EC Comics, right up to the end, contributing many classic stories for the line, but curiously few covers.
If Orlando deserves to be remembered for one stand-out EC story, then that must surely be "Judgment Day" in Weird Fantasy 18 (Mar 1953). At a time when comics were under scrutiny for being "subversive", Al Feldstein wrote a story where an interstellar ambassador from Earth, Tarlton, visits a planet of robots, and notices that the robots are divided into those with orange casings and those with blue. Yet while observing the manufacturing process of the inferior blue robots, he notes, "The internal units, my friend, the same designs, original designs. No improvement. No difference. Exactly like yours." One of the blue robots then comments, "The [blue] sheathings make that difference to the orange robots, Tarlton. It limits us to the rear of mobile-buses ... places us in different recharging stations ... forces us to live in a special section of the city."

At the end of the seven-page story, a saddened Tarlton tells the orange robots that they're not ready to join the Great Galactic Republic yet. Until they learn to live together as equals, as mankind has done, only then will real progress be possible. Then he boards his space craft and takes off his helmet, "... and the instrument lights made the beads of perspiration on his dark skin twinkle like stars."

Astonishingly, when Gaines and Feldstein sought to reprint this story in Incredible Science Fiction 33 (Jan 1956), the Comic Code administrator Judge Charles Murphy wanted the black astronaut changing to a white man. Gaines refused, saying that it would make nonsense of the story. The Judge then wanted the beads of sweat removed from the artwork, presumably because a black man's sweat may somehow give offence. Gaines again refused, threatening this time to sue the Comics Code. Judge Murphy backed down.

But it was the last colour comic Gaines would publish.

Probably the bravest thing I've ever seen in comics. Back in the 1950s, racism was a daily way of life. Anyone who railed against that risked being branded a "pinko" or worse. Yet in Weird Fantasy 18, of all places, Bill Gaines, Al Feldstein and Joe Orlando took a stand against discrimination, more than a decade before anyone else really dared to. And they were all white guys.
After the ignominious collapse of EC Comics in 1956, Orlando packed up his portfolio and moved across the street to Martin Goodman's Atlas Comics, where he cranked out stories for such titles as Astonishing, Battle, Journey into Mystery, Marvel Tales, Spellbound and Strange Tales for a much lower page rate, for the next two years. At the end of 1957, the great Atlas Implosion again left Orlando out of work, so he found pencilling work at Prize Comics, on All For Love, Black Magic and Justice Traps the Guilty, as well as contributing an increasing number of features to Mad Magazine. It was when Prize published its last comic book in 1963 that Joe Orlando washed up on the shores of Martin Goodman's Marvel Comics.


HE WHO DARES ...

Quite how Joe Orlando ended up at Marvel at the tail-end of 1963 isn't very clear. Stan Lee has always been very open about wanting artists who knew how to break down a story with minimum supervision, or even input, from him. Some artists liked that approach and some didn't. Some felt  the "Marvel Method" gave them enormous freedom to develop their strips that they wouldn't have had elsewhere, and some felt - wrongly in my opinion - that they were doing all the work and that Stan was getting paid for doing nothing. So Joe Orlando, with his enormous storytelling experience and artistic reputation must have seemed like an excellent recruit for Marvel Comics. And putting Orlando straight onto a new character like Daredevil was a big vote of confidence from the Marvel editor.

For his third outing, Daredevil faced The Owl, a Wall Street financier whose dodgy deals finally catch up with him. Rather than face court and disgrace, he becomes a fully paid-up supervillain and hides out in an inconspicuous owl-shaped house on a cliffside overlooking the city.
Daredevil 3 (Aug 1964) was Stan's chance to start giving the character his own style and identity. For a start, Daredevil wasn't up against any old Spider-Man castoff. He had his very own super-foe to play off, The Owl, another in Stan's long line of animal villains. And Stan had Orlando design a weird little napsack for the hero to carry his civilian clothes in, which unfortunately looked a bit daft.

After years of crooked deals and tax dodging in the financial industry, "The Owl" finds himself arrested and indicted. Seeking a lawyer at random to defend what he thinks is a flimsy case, The Owl, engages Nelson and Murdock. But The Owl doesn't bother turning up for court the next day, and is now a fugitive. The Owl hides out in an owl-shaped building a couple of miles outside the city to plot his next move ... which is recruiting a couple of thugs - "Sad Sam" Simms and "Ape" Horgon and underlings. Inexplicably, the next time we see The Owl and his henchmen, they're lurking in the office next door to Nelson and Murdock, in some kind of bizarre attempt to retain the services of Matt Murdock. Daredevil discovers them and a fight ensues. The noise attracts the attention of Karen Page and The Owl captures both of them, and places them in giant bird cages. Of course, Daredevil escapes and another battle ensues which ends with The Owl plunging into the waters of the Hudson and sinking without a trace.

It's all a bit creaky and the story has a couple of holes you could drive a truck through, but it was still a big improvement over issue 2. For me the biggest let-down was still the inking of Vince Colletta. Stan must have felt that putting a long-time Marvel inker like Colletta was just an insurance policy to make sure Orlando didn't go off in any unexpected directions ... and there was the problem.

Orlando had mostly inked his own stuff, apart from his very earliest pencils which were inked by Wally Wood, and his own inking style was polished and very smooth. Colletta either didn't understand Orlando's style or didn't care, and his scratchy style refused to mesh with Orlando's pencils, giving a very unsatisfying result. There are flashes of brilliance from Orlando, but for the most part his art is lost in a murky swamp of "hay".

Daredevil 4 (Oct 1964) had a better story, even if it was one of Stan's old plots recycled. But sadly, the art wasn't getting an better, with Orlando's delicate pencils being hammered by Colletta's ham-fisted inking.
Things got a bit better with the fourth issue of Daredevil, an issue I wouldn't see until much later as it had fallen victim to the great Thorpe & Porter distribution snafu of 1964. This time, Stan and Joe put Daredevil up against a more cerebral villain, Killgrave, The Purple Man, who has the ability to make people do what he tells them to.

Stan had used the idea before - most notably in the Ant-Man story in Tales to Astonish 44 (Apr 1963) and also in the Iron Man story in Tales of Suspense 41 (May 1963), where Dr Strange (no, not that one) takes mental control of Iron Man. But in DD4 it's done quite a bit better, with a more interesting resolution, as Daredevil figures a way to block The Purple Man's power because he's virtually immune to it himself.

But for whatever reason, the Orlando-Colletta team wasn't firing on all cylinders. I've not found any reasons given in any of the interviews I've read, but whether Orlando left or Stan wasn't happy has gone unrecorded anywhere. But I can make a best guess ...

In the new letters column in issue 5, "Let's Level with Daredevil", Stan explained that Bill Everett had drawn the first issue of Daredevil "as a personal favour for Stan. Then, another buddy of Stan's, valiant Vince Colletta, offered to ink the mag for a few issues if jovial Joe Orlando would pencil it. Both these guys gave up lots of their own free time to help out until we could find a steady artist."

That may well be true. If Stan had pushed Orlando out, then it's unlikely that his immediate successor, Wally Wood, would have accepted the gig, given Joe and Wally's history together. So it probably was a case of Orlando pinch-hitting for Stan until a permanent artist could be found.

In any event, Wally Wood's tenure on the title wouldn't be much longer that his EC stablemate's ... and the  split between Wood and Marvel would be a mite more acrimonious. But that's a story for next time.

Next: Hooray for Wally Wood