DAREDEVIL was something of a lesser title for Marvel during the 1960s and particularly the 1970s. It had started out as a book nobody wanted to do: Marvel owner Martin Goodman had discovered that the name was available for trademarking, having previously been the name of one of the longest-running series of the Golden Age, and he asked editor Stan Lee to come up with a book under that title. Specifically, he was looking for a Spider-Man knock-off, something that would scoop up the readers who were making AMAZING SPIDER-MAN the firm’s top seller. Lee complied, but I don’t know how much his heart was in it, at least at the start. The early issues of DAREDEVIL are a bit of a mess, with a variety of creators–notably Bill Everett, Joe Orlando and Wally Wood–each contributing in some fashion. It was Wood who largely got the series on track, completely redesigning Daredevil’s costume and giving the series his traditional slick finish. But Wood chafed at working under Lee and the fact that, as the artist, he was expected to do the lion’s share of the plotting without any additional remuneration. So he left the book with issue #11. Initially, Lee intended to bring on Dick Ayers as the new penciler, and in fact Ayers did pencil a few pages for what would have been #12. But then, fortune dropped a windfall right into Lee’s lap.
That windfall was John Romita, who had worked at Marvel when it was Atlas back in the 1950s and was a terrific artist. During the downturn in 1957 when Goodman’s distributor went belly-up and the firm almost followed suit, Romita was one of the freelance artists let go with no warning. He’d successfully found work over at DC Comics in the aftermath, where he became their leading romance comic artist. But Romita was a perfectionist who had a hard time facing a blank page–so after a number of years, he was intent on ;leaving comics for the world of advertising, having secured a position at the firm of BBD& O. But he had a chance encounter with Stan Lee on a trip into the city–and while Romita was still steamed at Lee for his sudden dismissal, the editor was able to convince John that the business was looking up again, and that he belonged in comics. Plus, Romita wasn’t looking forward to commuting into the city every day–he preferred to stay home with his family and work away at the drawing board. So Lee brought him back into the fold. Initially, John only wanted to work as an inker–he still dreaded facing an empty sheet of paper. Lee agreed, but almost immediately called on Romita as a penciler when Ayers wasn’t working out on DAREDEVIL.
This issue, DAREDEVIL #14, was the first issue in the run that Romita penciled entirely on his own. He had started out on DAREDEVIL #12, bringing in the opening couple of pages. But John wasn’t yet used to working Marvel style from a plot description from Lee, and he’d been doing romance stories for so long that his natural sense of pacing and dramatics was keyed to that more internal approach. As a primer in the Marvel style, Lee called up Jack Kirby and had Jack plot and break down the next two issues for John (though they did use John’s original splash page in #12, as quiet as it was.) After working over Kirby’s layouts, a light bulb went on in Romita’s head, and he internalized the Marvel approach as Lee wanted it–to the point where he would soon after become the person who would indoctrinate newcomers in how to tell a story in the exciting Marvel fashion.
This issue, Romita’s first one completely in the driver’s seat, was one of the books that made its way to my hands in my Windfall Comics purchase of 1988, where I got 150 silver age comics for fifty bucks–a phenomenal deal. The story is a bit of a mess, going from Kirbys plotting approach to Romita’s, and involving an attempt by Lee to transform Kirby’s version of the Plunderer–who was a modern day pirate–into a more traditional super-villain. It was also the third part of a story designed to bring back Ka-Zar. The jungle lord had been a character from Martin Goodman’s pulp days, and he must have had a soft spot for the concept, because a new version had been introduced in a throwaway issue of X-MEN that was accorded a lot more promotion than it deserved. This three-part DAREDEVIL story delved a little bit more deeply into Ka-Zar: revealing that his true identity was Kevin Plunder, and that his brother Parnival had become the villainous Plunderer. Marvel had high hopes for Ka-Zar as a lead character, but he never quite managed to get there during the 1960s, despite regularly showing up in disparate titles along the way.
A quickie stop here for a house ad, since we all seem to enjoy looking at these things. The Marvel revolution is powering up at this point, with the Galactus Trilogy going down in FANTASTIC FOUR this month and the Amazing Spider-Man having made the transition to college. Notably, MARVEL COLLECTORS’ ITEM CLASSICS had gone from being a one-shot to a regular quarterly series. There was enough interest in these early Marvel stories that, even though some of them had only been first published 3 or 4 years ago, there was enough demand from readers to sustain a series–multiple series, actually, as MARVEL TALES also continued as a regular title not long after this.
So what’s the story about? Well, Matt Murdock had left New York City on a cruise in an attempt to forget about his love for Karen Page. Along the way, his ship was attacked by the Plunderer, a pirate whom it turned out was related to Ka-Zar, the lord of the hidden prehistoric Savage Land. Both Ka-Zar and the Plunderer possessed halves of a locket given to them by their father before his death. When reunited, the two locket bits allowed the Plunderer to open a vault containing a mysterious vibrating anti-metal. The Plunderer nicknames it the Plunder-Stone, and fashions it into a weapon hoping to embark on a career of conquest and, well, plundering. Ka-Zar, meanwhile, has been captured by the police and awaits trial for attacking Parnival Plunder, his brother. In a momentary pause, Matt sends for Foggy Nelson and Karen Page in order to give Ka-Zar the best possible legal defense while he hunts down the Plunderer. DD is able to infiltrate the Plunderer’s ranks by clobbering one of the men and putting his uniform on over his own scarlet costume. Which is, it must be said, a good trick.
It’s clear that Lee and company may have been trying to turn Ka-Zar into another Namor, as the Sub-Mariner had proven to be extremely popular among the early Marvel readership. So the jungle lord is put on trial in Matt’s absence, and Foggy just doesn’t know what to do to get him off. Matters come to a head, though, when Ka-Zar bursts his restraints and starts to run riot in the courtroom. Meanwhile, Daredevil has worked out the secret of the Plunder-Stone: it disintegrates all metals, but weapons made entirely of plastic will still be effective against the Plunderer and his men. The sightless crusader arranges for this bit of info to be broadcast from the Plunderer’s own headquarters, thus revealing his critical weak point to those he might attempt to subjugate. From there, things devolve into a punch-’em-up, in which Daredevil clearly has the upper hand on the overmatched Plunderer.
Once beaten and with nothing else to lose, the Plunderer confesses that the murders Ka-Zar is being tried for were actually committed by a spy in his employ. so Ka-Zar gets off scot free–though he’s still hospitalized thanks to the gas needed to subdue him in the courtroom. And by the story’s end, Matt is back with Foggy and Karen and the trip prepares to head back to New York and further adventures, the status quo restored. This last page is a good example of how Romita’s romance training came in handy when it came to depicting the soap opera romantic conflicts in his super hero stories. Romita liked working on DAREDEVIl and was proud to learn that sales shot up during his tenure on the series. He had no plans of leaving the book, but fate and Steve Ditko had another destination in mind for John. Only a couple of months later, Ditko would depart Marvel, leaving his flagship character without an artist. It was a breech that lee would guide Romita into, and in John’s hands, Spider-Man became even more popular than it had been.
By 1966 when this issue was released, the Marvel style had crystalized somewhat. No longer was it a wild west operation. With a little bit of success under its belt, Lee and his team were able to define the elements that were making the books connect with the audience. One of Lee’s greatest innovations was the monthly Marvel Bullpen Bulletins page, which both acted as a concentrated plug for other titles in the line while presenting a riotous and rose-colored look behind the curtain that made readers feel like they were genuinely a part of the Marvel experience. Additionally, teh earliest Marvel merchandise was beginning to become available, as seen in this nifty house ad for sweatshirts, posters, T-Shirts and stationary sets, all bearing the likeness of Marvel’s heroes and all conveyed with the same bombastic-yet-self-deprecating manner. It was all very appealing.
Also, Lee had given in to his readers’ demands and begun to run a two-page letters section in every title, another area where he could continue to shill not just for the Marvel books, but for himself and the other Marvel creators as personalities. While they fell into formula over time, the earliest years of these letters pages were often very entertaining and funny. They felt genuine, even when Lee wasn’t being particularly truthful or when he was benging reality in order to get to a goofy punchline, as he often did. The DC lettes pages at their best were scholarly, but the Marvel ones were a party where people got to express their enthusiasm for the three-ring-circus that Lee was overseeing.