A lot of time has been spent on analyzing the Marvel output of the early 1960s, trying to determine who did what and who really deserved the credit for the success of the line and the many characters and ideas presented therein. To reiterate my essential position on this, I feel as though at this late date, it is impossible to attempt to concretely separate out the contributions of any one player from the overall mix, so the only credit that makes sense to me is: Stan Lee and Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko and everybody else. But that said, it is perhaps worth a look at a title on which neither of the big, powerhouse artistic creators worked with any regularity: DAREDEVIL. And so, here we’re going to take a look at my absolute favorite DAREDEVIL storyline–a three-part opus that’s absolutely bonkers in every way, and which provides a clue as to what sorts of impact Stan Lee might have been having on the other series that he was writing.
By 1967, Lee was working on DAREDEVIL with Gene Colan, a top-notch illustrator with a particularly photorealistic style. Lee clearly loved working with Colan and/or working on DAREDEVIL, as he kept the assignment longer than most of his other output such as AVENGERS or X-MEN, both of which he seemed happy to hand off to new hire Roy Thomas without a backwards glance. Which is a little bit strange given that, looking over this particular run of DAREDEVIL, neither Lee nor Colan was especially interested in plotting the book. Consequently, the stories became daffier and daffier as ideas were haphazardly hurled against the wall, each one more bananas than the last. I mean, stuff just happens in these stories, with virtually no rhyme or reason. Too, with really only one exception (The Jester) no new villains of note were created during Colan’s tenure with Lee. Instead, the pair were content to bring back old established foes of the sightless crusader, or to put him up against enemies from other series entirely–which is where this story kicks off.
Ultimately, though, DAREDEVIL gave Lee the opportunity to focus on the aspects of super hero storytelling that he felt were the most important: and those were characterization, soap opera and humor. Lee for the most part didn’t care what the plots of the stories were, he was interested in creating character and romantic drama, and in dropping in lots of zingly one-liners and witty exchanges, and creating a sense of fun. I get the sense from these books that Colan wasn’t all that interested in the plots either, he just wanted to draw cool stuff. So there’s a bit of a ping-pong situation that plays out in these stories, where the two men have talked about the ideas in general, Colan then draws the stories up, adding in crazy incidents along the way, and often Lee heightens that craziness in the manner in which he chooses to dialogue those situations, and how he guides Colan editorially in the direction of the next issue (or the next sequence in some cases.) No Marvel series of the period feels quite so improvisational as DAREDEVIL does–and it’s that feeling that makes it so wildly entertaining IF you can approach it on its own level. In some ways, it functions almost as a wild parody of the other Marvel titles–almost as though a regular Marvel book had gotten drunk and was partying with abandon, heedless of any consequences.
The story opens with Matt Murdock becoming aware of a crime spree being perpetrated by the Cobra and Mister Hyde, two old super-powered foes of Thor. Matt decides that he needs to run them to ground as Daredevil, and he concludes that the best way for him to draw them out of hiding will be for he himself to dress up as Thor and swing around town. And so that’s what he does–layering another costume (with “flesh-colored plastic” arms and face) over his own scarlet duds and with his billy club next to his fake hammer, Daredevil heads out to find these two enemies of society. But not before stopping off for a tete-a-tete with Foggy Nelson and Karen Page in his third identity as Mike Murdock.
Mike Murdock, you ask? See, a few issues ago, Spider-Man fought Daredevil and in the course of that adventure, he worked out that DD must really be attorney Matt Murdock. So Spider-Man decided to send Murdock a letter, telling him that Spidey had learned his identity but that he’d never reveal it. Sounds like a real Spider-Man thing to do, doesn’t it? Of course, Murdock is blind, so when the letter got to the legal office, Karen and Foggy opened it intending to read it to Matt, and the jig was up. Improvising quickly, Matt concocted the cock and bull story that Daredevil was actually his own twin brother, Mike–and then he adopted the guise of a goofy hipster (complete with cool sunglasses to hide his sightless eyes) to assuage their suspicions. Despite the fact that Foggy went to college with Matt and knew his father, both of them fell for this preposterous ruse–and Matt so enjoyed playing the part of the outrageous Mike that he kept it up.
See? I told you these stories were bananas.
Okay, so we cut to the medical offices of Doctor Donald Blake, were the good Doctor hears news reports of “Thor” swinging around the city. The Thunder God apparently can’t be bothered to go after his old low-rent foes Cobra and Hyde, but an impostor is something else entirely, so he transforms himself into his godly persona and wastes no time locating the disguised Daredevil. And this being Marvel in 1967, when two super heroes first meet, they have to fight. Daredevil attempts to explain his ruse, but he sounds legitimately like a nut, and so Thor kicks him around for a while–until ultimately, the swashbuckler promises not to go parading around in Asgardian garb any longer.
So Thor takes off. But we learn that, watching from the bushes have been the Cobra and Mister Hyde. And while the pair of them really want revenge on Thor for imprisoning them in the past, they instantly decide that it might be a smarter plan to fight Daredevil instead, despite not having a single thing against him and in fact never having met him before now. So they attack him, double-teaming him handily. DD holds his own, of course, and pursues them back to their hidden lab, where they’ve got a special weapon ready that they were going to use on Thor. It’s a serum designed to make a man blind! Now, Daredevil is the absolute worst super hero to use such a serum on, given that he’s already blind, so this should be a real windfall for DD. But it’s not! Because for no really good reason, this liquid designed to deaden the optic nerve in Daredevil’s case renders his radar-sense inoperable–so it turns out that he’s now truly blind! With Cobra and Hyde ready to mash him into a pulp, that’s where this first installment is To Be Continued!
The next issue opens with Daredevil realizing his plight. Fortunately, the police have followed his battle with the Cobra and Mister Hyde to their lair, and the two super-villains take it on the lam. But tis still leaves Daredevil unable to see with the cops closing in. Now, Daredevil isn’t wanted by the police, but he seems to feel it’s important to get out of there before they can find him, but rather than doing something smart like changing into his other identity of a blind attorney, Daredevil instead makes his way out onto the street by feel–where he’s accosted by well-wishing admirers before he can make is way back to Murdock’s apartment by calling himself a cab.
Now, if you were Daredevil, at this point you might choose to consult with a doctor, to see if there was any way your condition might be reversed. Or a scientist for that matter, someone like Matt Murdock’s client Reed Richards. But not our hero! Instead, he decides to head into the law office–but again, for no discernible reason, he chooses to go not as Matt Murdock, whom everybody knows is blind, but rather as Mike Murdock–who will need all sorts of crazy uncharacteristic assistance to get across town. These strike me as choices that Colan makes while he’s drawing the story and which Lee attempts to make plausible as he scripts it–but it really doesn’t work. Anyway, getting to the law office, Mike banters with Foggy and lets him know that, like his “brother” Matt, Mike/Daredevil is now also sightless.
Meanwhile, the Cobra and Mister Hyde embark on a crime spree across the city, apparently rightly convinced that their enemy Thor (who goes unmentioned for the rest of the story) will not stop them. By sheer coincidence, they hit the building across the street from Nelson & Murdock’s law offices–and when Hyde threatens to drop a cornice on the crowds below, Daredevil is spurred into action. Assisted by Foggy, the truly sightless crusader makes his way to the rooftop, where he awkwardly hurls his billy club line across to the next building and attempts to make the crossing. The Cobra and Hyde are stunned by his appearance, and make no move to stop his approach–which is good, because Matt almost slips off his line to his death repeatedly. But somehow, this convinces the two villains that Daredevil is in full fighting form (“No one but Daredevil would have the nerve to clown around that way thirty stories above the ground! We can’t fight him and the police!”) and they skedaddle.
A chagrined Daredevil slowly inches his way back to the law office rooftop and to safety, and is praised for his bravery by both Foggy and Karen, neither of whom acknowledge the stupidity of what he’s just done. That evening, after the crowds have dispersed, Foggy walks Daredevil to the street, taking him back to Matt’s apartment–god only knows what story Mike dreamed up to make that course of action plausible. But suddenly, Foggy momentarily disappears–and when he grips Daredevil’s shoulder again, we see that it’s no longer Foggy but rather the Cobra, who now has the sightless Daredevil at his mercy! To be Continued! Actually, that final panel looks strange to my eye–the Cobra figure in particular looks like there was some other hand in it. So I wonder if Colan didn’t wrap this issue up in a different way and then Lee asked for a change to get some manner of good cliffhanger into the story. The balloons, too, look as though they were re-lettered somewhat in the office.
Stan wastes no time in the third part recalibrating the situation at the end of the preceding issue, as Daredevil instantly realizes that it’s the Cobra he’s walking with and that Foggy has been taken out of commission. Matt doesn’t seem especially concerned about his old friend and partner–though, in fairness, he’s got some more immediate problems. For some reason, the Cobra leads Daredevil to a waiting car driven by Mister Hyde, and the trio take off for yet another hide-out. Hyde is upset that he’s been fooled, so he wants some manner of elaborate revenge on his unseeing foe–again, this all reads like Lee trying to make some logical sense out of the events that Colan has drawn. He fails–but you kinda just have to roll with it. Hyde’s revenge is so complex that the villains drive Daredevil all the way to New England, where they transfer him into a speedboat and head for a nearby lighthouse. By my estimation, this trip must have taken them at least four hours–I hope that Daredevil at least managed to get some sleep during the ride.
The story is moving at a snail’s pace at this point, as Colan spends an inordinate amount of time depicting the journey to this lighthouse (with a brief cut-away where Foggy recovers and then tries to convince the police that Daredevil is blind and needs their help–to no avail.) Once they arrive at their destination, however, the Cobra and Mister Hyde begin to pointlessly bicker with one another, giving Daredevil a chance to creep backwards away from them and attempt to find some way to reverse his luck. And find it he does. There’s a generator providing power to the lonely lighthouse on this dark, rainy night, and Daredevil is able to put it out of commission, plunging the whole place into utter darkness. Now, everybody is de facto blind, and the advantage is once again his.
What’s more, that klutz Mister Hyde yells out to te Cobra to keep Daredevil away from the antidote to his condition–which means that, in order to kill Daredevil, these two dopes have just driven him four ours to the one place on Earth where he can get his sight back. Nice job there, guys. A big ol’s extended action sequence breaks out at this point, all lovingly colored in monochromatic blue to get the effect of darkness across, as the three characters vie for the bottle of antidote, playing keep-away with it as they struggle. And forget about the fact that Mister Hyde is strong enough to tear steel and the Cobra is both agile and ductile and has poisonous weapons–with no powers other than his familiarity with moving in darkness, Daredevil beats these two clods senseless.
Eventually, of course, Daredevil is able to lay hands on the elusive bottle of antidote–and seconds after he downs it, his radar-senses come back to life. Now once more restored to his fighting trim, the Man Without Fear Or Many Brains finishes mopping up on the two baddies, causing Hyde to go hurling through the wall of the lighthouse and plummet to the ground below. Now, being Mister Hyde, the villain not only survives that fall, he immediately gets up, races to the speedboat and takes off–but Daredevil a this point has decided that he’s had enough of this story. Maybe Thor will eventually show up to take Hyde in. DD’s happy enough to hand over the Cobra to the arriving authorities, who will presumably use their helicopter to give him a ride back to far-off New York. And that’s how this whole masterwork wraps up!
So what does this all show? Well, for one thing, it proves that Lee’s reliance on witty banter and forward-moving action could keep even the most rickety storytelling entertaining. But it also showcases the disconnect between writer and artist, especially when it comes to the plotting. Lee never cared to do most of the plot work, and his development of what became known as the Marvel Method meant that most of the time he didn’t have to–as long as he was paired with somebody with a strong story sense like a Kirby or Ditko or even a Romita. But alongside weaker plotters like Colan, the stories would ramble and not quite hold together–but Lee would somehow bull them through by relying on snappy patter and a sense of self-effacement. This was where he would put his emphasis when it came to Marvel stories. And it has to be said that he wasn’t entirely wrong about this. In the hands of most other scripters of the time, these three issues would have been an unmitigated slog to get through, rather than the delightfully screwball mess that it turned out to be. That was the strength of what Lee was bringing to the table.