Monday, June 23, 2014

It's Miller Time - Daredevil 158

Today's cover should warm the hearts of our British readers!

Daredevil #158 (May 1979)
"A Grave Mistake!"
Roger McKenzie-Frank Miller/Klaus Janson

Doug: Does anyone around here have an explanation as to why in the past five years we've never gotten around to reviewing one of the hallmark series of the latter Bronze Age? Will someone please tell me? You know, it is funny. One would think that with 52 weeks of partner reviews in a year that we'd have gotten to some Frank Miller DD. But what you may not know is that in all of our meetings to come up with four-issue blocks to fill out the various months, this just never came up. It was always, "Hey, sometime we need to get to some Miller Daredevils!" and then we'd say, "But we haven't done the FF in awhile so let's find a good storyline." In fact, back in January when we were on vacation and plotting out 2014, we were going to do the Frightful Four storyline that we mentioned in our last Super Blog Team-Up. But no Daredevil. Today that changes.

Doug: With this issue, we're right up against the wall that symbolizes my departure from comics buying for around a five-year period. As I've remarked in the past, I left just as the "Dark Phoenix Saga" was getting underway over in X-Men. Ditto here. I know I had this issue, and DD #s 160-161. Then nothing until I got back into the hobby circa 1985. Sheesh. Talk about a ship sailed. But I've caught up on most of what I missed in one form or another (the "Golden Age of Reprints", indeed), largely because in this case I liked what I was seeing before I left. I'd like to start off with a question for everyone, aside from any thoughts you'll leave on the plot and my thoughts. That question is, who do you think is the quintessential DD artist: Gene Colan or Frank Miller?

Doug: Talk about dropped right into the middle of the action! We open with a splash page featuring Daredevil's then-cast of characters, and it looks like a scuffle has taken place. Natasha Romanoff is front and center, and bloodied. In the background we see a prone Foggy Nelson, and Matt Murdock's love interest at the time, Heather Glenn. A page turn later we find out what's up -- the Ani-Men (I can here you all gasp in horror all the way over here in Chicagoland) are on the scene and have busted up the place! You know, I've come across these goons a few times, and I just can never bring myself to say, "Holy snot! It's the Ani-Men!!" But apparently the fellows in this version are pretty nasty, particularly if they bloodied the Widow. But they've come for Matt Murdock, at the behest of "the boss". Natasha was out as far as secret IDs go, so she had no trouble jumping right back into the fray; Matt couldn't so easily do that. So while 'tasha tried to give Matt a chance to escape, she took some further physical abuse from Ape Man. Finally Matt called out that he'd go peacefully if no one got hurt. As the "Unholy Three" makes their move to leave, a lady in a wheelchair named Becky (help me -- I don't have my DDs anymore, so I'm going to need to be reminded here) fires something at Bird Man and knocks him for a loop. This gives the Widow an opening to launch herself onto his back, even as he flies out the window. She disables his flight pack, which drops him. Ape Man and Cat Man make it safely away with Murdock in tow.

Doug: Heather comes to the window to call Natasha back inside. She says that Foggy needs her help. Then she remarks that Matt can take care of himself. This shocks the Widow at a couple of levels, but mostly wounds her. Previously, only she and Karen Page had known Matt was Daredevil. How serious were Matt and Heather? thought Natasha. Cut to the mean streets, where Murdock's kidnappers make their way through Uptown. Along the way, Ape Man divulges the name of "the boss" -- Death-Stalker! Murdock suddenly pipes up, telling them they need to not deal with Death-Stalker -- he's a cold-blooded killer and their lives are in very real danger. Of course, it's the money for delivering the lawyer that they care about and blow off their charge's words. Shortly they are in a small cemetery, where they tie Murdock to a large stone crucifix. Death-Stalker emerges from a mausoleum. While his look was in no way original, I did think he was a cool-looking villain. One of my first DD comics was #128, and I was sold on Death-Stalker after that. The Ani-Men get their money, and huddle in the corner to count it. They're most happy to now only have to split it two ways.


Doug: Death-Stalker waves a hand toward an open grave, with a headstone bearing Murdock's name and the inscription "May he burn in Hell". He then narrates an origin that stretches back to DD #41, when he was known as the Exterminator. He had built a time-displacement ray, and after the defeat of the Ani-Men Daredevil had thrown the switch to the machine. This forced the Exterminator into the time stream, where he drifted in limbo. He was able to anchor himself at one point and steal AIM tech that allowed him to craft his death gloves. And now Daredevil would pay a price for the Death-Stalker losing his former life (it seems that this is all about the destruction of the time-displacement ray, which for some reason could not be rebuilt? -Flimsy...). As the Ani-Men count their loot -- all $100K of it -- Death-Stalker leaves Murdock to walk over and kill both of his mercenary assistants. That distraction was just enough time for Murdock to finish loosening his binding. It's swashbuckling time!


Doug: Matt removes his clothes to reveal his DD costume. Death-Stalker wants it that way and Matt obliges. DD thinks that he has to be very careful, as Death-Stalker exists a second out of the timestream -- he's blurry in his movements to DD's radar sense. But suddenly the Stalker's heartbeat becomes more audible. DD thinks that -of course!- Death-Stalker must materialize on this time plane in order to use his death grip. DD takes that window of opportunity and strikes! The two men engage, with Daredevil always staying away from those white gloves. But as DD drives the Death-Stalker back toward a large monument, D-S blinks out -- jumping back into limbo. As Daredevil tries to get a bead on his adversary, Death-Stalker re-emerges above Daredevil. DD is barely able to roll to the side and away from the grip of death. The two continue to tussle until Matt becomes aware of a street lamp overhead. Rifling his billy club into the heart of the globe, he plunges the cemetery into darkness. But seriously -- I wasn't buying this. They're in the heart of the city! Even if they were away from any sort of "downtown" area, the neighborhood wouldn't be a black-out. But not to hear Death-Stalker complain... "What sort of game is this, Daredevil? I cannot see you in the darkness!" Boo hoo, dude. Come and get your whuppin'. The combat continues, with DD having the obvious advantage. Finally, Death-Stalker lurches toward a monument of an angel, thinking it's Daredevil. As he stretches out his white gloves for the coup de grace, Daredevil uses his club to strike down hard, smashing the Death-Stalker's hands -- and with them, the tech that allowed him to kill by touch. Now blind with fury, Death-Stalker lunged at DD, but with his concentration gone did not realize that he had partially phased through a headstone. Unable to control his anger, he solidified -- half in and half out of the monument. End of battle.

 

Doug: Back at the storefront offices of Nelson and Murdock, Matt's quite moody. He's exhausted from his ordeal with the Death-Stalker. Foggy's been bandaged up. Becky tells him that there's been no word from Natasha since she left to look for him. As everyone gets ready to leave, Matt says he is going to stay behind to get some work done. As he broods in his office, he hears a noise and voices Natasha's name. But it was Becky, who apparently has a secret thing for him. To be continued.

Doug: Frank Miller's pencils were quite a departure from the work of Gene Colan, who had most recently been back on the book (issues #s 153-157). I had enjoyed Bob Brown's much earlier run on the title, and found Miller's "look" to be similar to Brown's. But whereas Brown's figures could at times seem stiff, there was none of that in Miller's pencils. His figures seemed to burst with the frenetic energy that Colan imbued them with, but in a more realistic style that evoked acrobats, or dancers in a ballet. There was drama in his pencils. And Klaus Janson's inks remained steady, as he'd been on the book for several issues prior to Miller's arrival. But I'd submit that Janson's inks over Miller's pencils changed the tone of the book from how I had perceived it over my previous years as a regular reader. So while Miller would not write the Daredevil feature for several more issues, his (and Janson's) presence was nonetheless a watershed moment on the book -- and for Marvel. And help us all -- it was great. I only wish it had not continued down a path that has brought us to where we are today in comics, where ninjas and bloody violence permeate our comics and the anti-hero takes center stage more often than the noble helper. Give me the way-back machine... 

18 comments:

Murray said...

I remember really enjoying Daredevil under Frank Miller. The issue starring "Guts" Nelson (blowing smoke into Kingpin's face! Priceless!). The repeated criminal incompetence of Turk and Pike. It was a great mix of drama, humour, action. But, all most fans and detractors seem to remember are Elektra, Ninjas and (bleh) Stick. The dark muck churned by copycat hacks.

To me, these are the perfect blend of qualities that Mark Waid and team have recaptured in the last few years on the re-re-reboot of DD. I've heard many young snots complain it's too goofy and not the chest-deep in blood DD they grew up with, the work done by the hacks. To me, this "new" Daredevil is the same quality material where he deals with the life and death stakes of battling Kingpin while dealing with Matt Murdock being bodyguarded by Heroes for Hire.

Thanks for the reminder!

Edo Bosnar said...

Before this, I had read maybe 3 or 4 issues of Daredevil (plus the stories in Son of Origins). I don't know what it was, I guess the cover just grabbed me, but I bought this and was immediately blown away, and became a regular reader right away. And it didn't bother me a bit that it started in the middle of an ongoing story (and to this day I've never read ish #157).
Naturally, I agree with all of your praise for the art here - it is Frank Miller at his best (literally: in my opinion he never topped the art he did in his first DD run).
I also think Roger McKenzie deserves a shout-out here. People tend to forget that he was the writer for the initial part of what we now call the Miller run on DD - and there were some really good stories in there.

Murray said...

Well mentioned, Edo. After (I should remember to do it "before") I posted my comment, I dug out the Daredevil issues in question. Some of my fond memories are the efforts of Mr. McKenzie. He gets a nice thumbs up from me.

Though, it's always a deep secret in the comics how much the "writer" inputs to the story and how much the "artist" does. Sometimes the artist is only "following orders" of a detailed plot/script. Sometimes it's a major team effort. Sometimes the writer supplies only the roughest outline idea and the artist has to turn that into 17 pages.

Still, major props to McKenzie indeed!

Humanbelly said...

Although I've acquired many, many issues of the Miller run on Daredevil over the years, I know that I've never sat down to have a read-through, nor filled in the considerable gaps therein. The neat thing that strikes me in this (fine-as-always) recap & review is that this issue really does seem to be a bridge-point between "old, kinda goofy, reliable" Marvel, and "modern gritty noir" Marvel. There are all of the heart-rending soap opera elements w/ soooooo many (!!!) of Matt's romantic interests on hand or nearby, and the shallow villain w/ the overcomplicated survival story (along w/ hilariously glossed-over scientific gimcrackery), and of course the perennially 3rd-rate Animen--- but there's also an undeniable darkness in tone, both visually and in the sense of somewhat elevated brutality in the violence. And geeze-- that's a fairly inescapable and gruesome end for Death-Stalker, there. It really is Good Comics, and makes me want to track down this run all the more. It strikes a fine balance and creates a superhero book with a very unique, distinctive tone. And as is always, always, ALWAYS the problem with comics, we saw it eventually fall victim to the easy-out, short-sighted strategy of perpetually aiming to one-up itself on what were perceived as being its popular elements. Ugh. That's how we eventually end up with multiple, multiverse-imperiling Infinity Wars and such. Or dead & revived & dead & revived Electras. And !@#$ ninjas.

Quick question to add:

Where in the WORLD do these amusingly low-brow, materialistic Ani-Men ("Unholy Three" indeed-! Geeze, their name is more intimidating than they ever are!) think they're going to be spending all of this loot? As far as I've ever been able to tell, this bunch has NEVER been able to pass as remotely human, even w/ a Ben Grimm level of clothing. The level of their haul is fairly small peanuts in the supervillain community-- heck, they couldn't even buy much more than a suburban house with it even back then-- and it's not like they could walk into Sears and pick out a nice big television or stereo system. Man, I don't think they'd even get through the Arby's drive-thru undetected. . .

HB (moving his critiques from the physical sciences to the social sciences. . . )

Ace Hamilton said...

This was the first Daredevil comic I ever picked up and it was because the cover knocked me out. I kept reading and became a fan of DD.

Hey, sometimes you can judge a book by its cover.

david_b said...

I've been a fair-weather DD fan for years, initially collecting during the comparatively-regarded 'bland years' (103-130), but they were also my fav years. Loved with Gerber tie-in with Mar-Vell/Moondragon, and emmensely enjoyed the Mandrill/Negra/Shanna takeover of the White House (nearly the same month as the Secret Empire culmination in CA&F.., oddly), which carried on Gerber's writing on the unfortunately-brief Shanna title. Dull, perhaps light-weight by comparison, yes, but I still liked the style with Foggy Nelson, and, yes I had a healthy appreciation for Natasha. Bobby Brown's inks were a HUGE improvement over Heck's work, generally when Gene Colan was busy doing other work.

Much from what I knew of Miller's tenure was, unfortunately, the ninja's etc which came later. I do like the dark noir approach, but I also was fond of the smiling, light-hearted more wise-cracking DD with some crazy villains (Owl, etc..) which seemed to have disappeared by this phase. Under Miller, the title just seemed to inherit some dourness to it's story-telling. Considered more intense and interesting for most, it came across as dull to me.

'Unholy Three'..? Once of the more long-standing villainous groups to plague DD, I never quite understood them, muchless liked them. To have a 'cat man', 'ape man', 'bird man'..? Woefully Silver Age, I generally felt they would perhaps best been left back in the early Wally Wood days. To use HB's phrase, never quite understood their usefullness in the 'modern gritty noir' mindset, but there you have it.

Now I thought Death-Stalker was a pretty cool new villain, loved him back in ish 113/114 with Gladiator, whose powers were finally used for their darkest potential.

Great review, Doug and always loving more DD love. Would love to explore the Mandrill/Negra storyline from Shanna to DD's pages (and to the Defenders eventually..).

Humanbelly said...

My one criticism of Miller's art here (well, and maybe in general) is that his page and panel layout tends to feel cramped and crowded to me. He loves his medium-range shots to carry out his action choreography-- but it's hard to take a lot of that in all on one page- especially w/ a lot of dialog. It can tend towards being, I don't know, a little visually tiring? Is that a good way to put it?

Oooooh, I know they're a bit of a tangent here, but I just can't leave them daggone Ani-men alone! They ARE originally a DD nemesis, is that right? And have been popping up as cannon-fodder ever since? See, the only reason they've stuck with me is because they were right there in the first issue of the X-Men's re-launch-- #94-- as the villainous super-muscle in Count Nefaria's scheme to take over NORAD mountain, or something. And I had NO CLUE who they were at all, and there was never any reference in that issue as to what the heck their origin was. Animal Men? With radio receivers instead of ears?? Hello. . . suddenly the editor's footnotes dry up??? And then I think they popped up in a back-issue of the Avengers I read, yes? Mixed up in a plot involving. . . Magneto & the Savage Land. . . and they were just kind of mixed in w/ those indigenous Swamp Men guys? Or. . . am I mis-remembering that, as well? And wasn't there also a Frog-guy and a Moth-lady that joined them sometimes as well?

Who. . . who ever thought they were a good idea?

HB

Humanbelly said...

Holy Cats-- it's deja vu all over again--!

I was thinking that my ranting about the Ani-Men felt awfully familiar, and then I checked your imbedded reference link, Doug, and sure enough, there we all were, having a lot of the same conversation-! (My personal curse as a writer is that I never, EVER seem to retain what I've written once it's finished. My compositional "muse" seems to exist almost entirely at the outer periphery of my short-term memory. This can be quite embarrassing when someone asks you to explain or expand upon a point at some later date. . . and the only possible answer available for them is "I have no earthly idea. . . !" Yeesh--!)

That-- was a very fun earlier post from about a year and a half ago! Very cool how it had a major Daredevil tangent all its own.

Y'know, his poor book really went through some major contortions over the years, didn't it? I did subscribe regularly later in the Miller run, which I believe morphed into the Miller/Mazzachelli run (?). Also gritty and dark, that period still had a compelling aspect to it. And then we eventually worked our way into the. . . Ann Nocenti/JRjr period, was it? That eventually had me giving up, as Mephisto, of all folks, became a major player, and the plots became a kind of surreal, incomprehensible, existential mess of conflicting, discordant genres.

HB

Garett said...

I loved Miller's run on Daredevil. The art had great impact, and the storytelling was exciting. I'd say he's the best DD artist. I liked Colan's art on DD, especially with Palmer's inks, but I think that team worked better on Dracula.

But...I don't like Miller's DD now quite as much as I used to. Maybe it seemed fresher before? Maybe Miller's later work and annoying personality have tainted it, like the Matrix sequels tainted the original? I still like it and want to read it again, but it keeps getting put on my shelf.

HB I like your description of this issue being a bridge between goofy and gritty. Many of the titles I enjoyed at this time had that combo. Doug thanks for the Miller review--hope to see more in the future!

J.A. Morris said...

Thanks for the review Doug, this is one of those "landmark" issues that lives up to its reputation.

I don't need to mention this to the regulars here, but I often point out that the "Miller era" of DD issues should really be called "Miller/Janson era", since his inks added so much to Miller's pencils. Go read a story drawn by Miller without Janson and you'll notice it's not as good.

As for "definitive" Daredevil artist, it's still Colan for me. I discovered Colan through 1960s back issues and I was blown away by the fight scenes and the panels that feature DD swinging around New York.

I've said before on this blog that the younger version of me LOVED the Ani-Men. I became aware of them when a friend bought the X-men issues where they served as Nefaria's flunkies. I proceeded to track down most of their appearances, only to realize that up until then, they were just generic thugs in animal costumes. I remember buy their 1st appearance in Daredevil #10 & 11, for $7.50 a piece when I was 10 (I had to save up for quite a while). I can't defend them, but they're my favorite C-listers!

Dr. Oyola said...

I had all these issues fairly recently, but gave them away to a friend who was actively trying to get his own and, while I like the art a lot, when I went back to reread these, they were not as good as I remembered, writing-wise.

I think Edo is right, these are Miller's artistic highpoint, but writing/plotting I prefer Dark Knight Returns.

Much like Days of Future Past and X-Men I think Miller's success with Daredevil was its own worst enemy - in that since that era comics have been mostly about recapitulating what has succeeded and driving it into the ground, rather than continuing to innovate.

William said...

I actually never picked up this issue, (but I have read it in reprint). My first Miller Daredevil issue was the next one #159. I had never really read DD that much, but something made me buy that issue, and I never looked back. Daredevil soon became my favorite comic and I remained a loyal reader all the way through Miller & Janson's run (in fact I even got a subscription). I tried to stick around for a few issues after they left, but the magic was gone.

For a few years during this time, DD actually supplanted Spider-Man as my favorite superhero. I eventually went back to 'ol webhead, but hornhead still remains my solid #2 favorite Marvel character. In fact DD, by Mark Waid is the only current new comic that read. Although I'm not as in love with it as I once was, because I don't really like the direction the book has gone in lately. Mainly because DD no longer has a secret identity, which really ruins the whole point of the superhero thing for me. I mean why bother wearing a mask and a costume if you don't even have secret I.D.? I swear, writers today have absolutely zero respect for the traditions that made the idea of costumed superheroes popular in the first place.

But back to Miller. His run on DD stands as one of my top 5 favorite comic runs of all time. (Up there with Lee/Ditko's Amazing Spider-Man, Lee/Kirby's FF, Byrne's FF, and Claremont/Byrne's X-Men). I had every issue of Miller's run, but I sold them off during my great comic-book purge of 1992. However, I have since replaced them all in trade paperback form. I own all three of the soft-cover volumes, as well as the tome sized hardcover Omnibus.

To answer your question of whose the definitive DD artist, I will personally have to go with Miller. However, if he'd stuck around on the book for a few more issues, I might give the nod to Wally Wood, one of my all-time favorite artists period.

Looking forward to more reviews of these comics. Keep up the great work.

Doug said...

I really appreciate everyone's thoughts and kind words.

Beginning next Monday, we'll drop back in the next issue. That will get us rolling on a 3-part Bullseye story. We'll really get a taste of how perfectly Miller "saw" Daredevil and his movements, and then translated those to the bristol board for our wondrous eyes to peruse. The battle scenes in the next story are breathtaking!

Doug

Humanbelly said...

Good heavens, according to my inventory pages, I have the next issue-- #159! Do you guys want me to dig it out and try to figure out who this Becky woman is-??

Also, I forgot to put in my vote for Gene Colan as the definitive Daredevil penciler. . . or at least my personal fave. One of Gene's hallmarks was his uncanny ability to somehow add visual legitimacy to even the most absurd-looking villains. And Hornhead, as has been discussed, certainly had more than his share of those. To illustrate this point, though, I'll take us away from the pages of Daredevil and move over to Howard the Duck, who (I'm sure we all remember) had an arch-nemesis in one Dr. Bong. Under Gene's hand, this laughable parody of a Supervillain could hang at the same cocktail party as Iron Man, DD, Sub-Mariner, Dr Strange, and Dracula and not look a bit out of place visually. Gene made him look just as "real" as any of the other characters he was responsible for. So Stilt-man and The Owl, for instance, are lent a visual gravity and legitimacy that, perhaps, the characters themselves never exactly earned. . . !

HB

Fred W. Hill said...

Coming in a day late, although I had been regularly collecting DD for years at this point and was eagerly awaiting to get this conclusion to the Death Stalker story, it never showed up at the Navy Exchange which was at the time my sole source for comics! I had issue 157 wherein it looks like the Death Stalker is about to kill DD and next DD issue I find is 159 with story & art that struck me as very unusual. I never got #158, although I eventually read it in a collection of Miller's DD work (but which I didn't purchase because I already had every other story reprinted in it). I thought D.S. was cool from his introduction during Gerber's run and I recall that it was a fan who suggested the concept and original, more standard super-villain costume which was quickly replaced by the heavy coat and large hat get-up. I'd never even heard of the Exterminator and have no idea it was Gerber's idea all along or McKenzie's to make them the same. BTW, although Miller gets nearly all the credit or blame for making DD a darker/grittier title, my perception is that the process was well under way before Miller came along. Miller certainly added his own twists and a unique artistic style that initially I didn't like but gradually won me over. I would never have guessed that when I did get issue 159 I was entering what would become perhaps the most significant era in the title. I still wish I had gotten #158 when it was "only", what 40 cents?

Ben Herman said...

I have always appreciated the grim irony (or perhaps it was poetic justice) of having Death-Stalker getting killed by accidentally materializing while phased halfway through a tombstone. Certainly a very memorable finale for a macabre villain by Roger McKenzie, who I regard as an underrated writer.

Goldenrulecomics said...

Daredevil had been my favorite hero since I started reading comics with issue No. 80, but by issue No. 150 or so I was reading the series more out of obligation than anything else. It simply wasn't all that interesting and had been knocked down to a bi-monthly.
Then this issue hit, and wow!
Not only was the art eye-grabbing, but we finally found out who the Death-Stalker was (I was a bit disappointed because I actually had never heard of the exterminator.)
This issue is probably one of the top 10 of the 1970s, as far as impact in the years following. I agree Roger McKenzie doesn't get the credit he deserves. He really helped set the course for making Daredevil a top Marvel character!

Matthew Bradley said...

Hoping to bring a little clarity. The wheelchair-bound Becky Blake was introduced in #155 as Nelson and Murdock's new secretary, and much was made of their dueling handicaps as she carried a secret torch for blind Matt. (I found it frustrating that on this issue's splash page, she, Heather, and Debbie are all depicted with exactly the same hair color; if Becky hadn't been in a wheelchair, and Debbie hadn't been wringing her hands over Foggy, it would have been almost impossible to differentiate them.) As for the hirelings, they were called the Unholy Three when the Exterminator replaced the Organizer (from #11) as their employer. So it makes sense that when he, as Death-Stalker, hired their replacements---the originals having been killed in IRON MAN #116---he would use the same name. The "Ani-Men" moniker was more a feature of the days when they worked for Count Nefaria, as in that X-MEN arc.

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