Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Essential Daredevil - Volume 1 Hardly Is, Though It Does Get The Story Started!

The Good: Begins the story of Daredevil and has some character development.
The Bad: Over-the-top melodramatic writing style, Character is less clear than I would like, Black and white.
The Basics: Essential Daredevil - Vol. 1 collects the first twenty-five issues of Daredevil and reminds readers why the comic book medium lacks mainstream respect.

I am always fascinated by what makes it and what doesn't in terms of longevity for a series - be it television, book or the career of a musical artist. In the case of Daredevil, the costumed superhero from Marvel Comics, I am absolutely baffled. I write this not because I think the concept is bad, but after reading The Essential Daredevil - Volume 1, which featured the first twenty-five comics in the Daredevil series, I am shocked that such a melodramatically-written series would ever become popular.

As my loyal readers know, I have dubbed 2011 my Daredevil Year, though so far I had only read and reviewed Daredevil: Guardian Devil (here!) and the film Daredevil (here!). I have just started work at a brand new comic book shop and one of the few anthologies on the shelf at the moment is Essential Daredevil - Vol. 1 and over the past two weeks, I've been reading it. Unfortunately, reading this collection of twenty-five comic books from 1964 through 1967, I am reminded of all of the prejudices I once had against comic books. This volume is not literature and it's not even particularly good, so I am left with the nagging question of "How did Daredevil survive such rocky origins to become a superhero that credible writers might actually want to work on it?"

In the NewYork City already populated by Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four, a young man begins fighting crime, vigilante style. His first target is the Fixer, a man whose operations include throwing fights and muscling locals with a protection racket. The vigilante, Daredevil, has a personal score to settle with the Fixer, as the hero's mundane identity is that of Matt Murdock. Matt Murdock is the son of Jack Murdock, a local prize fighter who was all washed up, but who began to turn things around through the efforts of the Fixer. But when Battling Murdock refuses to take a fall, he is killed by the Fixer's men. Matt, blinded before his father's death, takes his grief and puts it into working out and honing his other senses to become Daredevil.

Following dealing with the Fixer, Daredevil encounters a rouge's gallery of villains whom he must thwart. While looking into insuring the Fantastic Four's skyscraper, he encounters Electro. Daredevil is overrun by the weird forces of The Organization and after leaving his law practice, he ends up on a mysterious island where his radar sense no longer works. There is a conflict with Spider-man and a conflict with the Leap Frog, a villain whose defining power seems to be a pair of super springs attached to his feet!

Throughout the adventures that define the superhero aspect of Daredevil, The Essential Daredevil - Vol. 1 features threads of the non-super life of Matt Murdock. Matt Murdock is a blind lawyer, who went into practice with his best friend in the world, Foggy Nelson. Foggy hired Karen Page to be their secretary and Karen has a hidden love for Matt. But Karen's affection frequently reveals itself in her mentioning experimental operations which might allow Matt to regain his sight and Matt is unwilling to risk losing his super powers - strength, a radar sense and exceptionally strong hearing - in order to see again. For his part, Foggy gets the chance to shine when he realizes that Karen is attracted to Daredevil and he attempts to convince her that he is Daredevil. As Karen realizes Matt will not reciprocate her feelings, she opens to Foggy's advances.

Daredevil is plagued in The Essential Daredevil - Volume 1 by two main problems. The first is a melodramatic writing style which is just awful and the second is an unclear sense of what Daredevil's powers are. The writing style in these Daredevil comics is one that reminds one instantly of serialized comic strips, not comic books and certainly not a well-written graphic novel. Instead, covers presented in the book tease readers with either the potential value of the comic or the outlandish nature of the story. But the problem is, virtually every line of exposition on the covers and in the book is either unnecessary or annoying. The text reads like a schiester doing the hard sell. So, readers are told just how exciting the volume will be, but because so much text is taken up with selling the reader on the circumstance, the actual sense of mood is completely gutted. In other words, the writers - primarily Stan Lee - spend far too much space and time "telling" what they ought to be "showing." Much of The Essential Daredevil - Volume 1 reads like the voiceovers to a particularly campy serial film where exposition is so extensive that it uses the medium poorly. The reader is not left feeling the excitement they are told they will feel and there is a strong sense of disappointment while reading the book then.

The other essential problem with Essential Daredevil Volume One is that Daredevil's powers are not made particularly clear in these pages. Daredevil is blind, but he has a radar sense which allows him to sense where things and people are. But that radar sense is not clearly defined, so it seems to come and go or have variable limitations. In fact, that radar sense is not even mentioned in the first issue; he seems to spend a lot of time reasoning things out by basic sound clues. But the power becomes something he can lose, as he does in his battle with Ka-Zar, so it is not a skill as much as an innate ability brought on by the radioactive material that blinded him. For much of the book, Daredevil seems more like a circus performer fighting crime than anyone with any extensive strengths.

Daredevil also has superhero gadgets, in this case a cane which has a secret latch that allows him to transform the cane into, essentially, nunchucks. The super hero also undergoes a simple costume change in these first few issues, but essentially the catch is that Daredevil is a blind superhero and he has a radar sense which allows him to see better than most sighted people. He has extensive strength, but no real invulnerability. His main mission is to clean up local crime and while he generally focuses on that, some of the turns in the book step well over into the ridiculous - like Daredevil being launched into space by Electro.

While much of the book involves taking down the gang of criminals spearheaded by the Owl, there is not so much a cohesive narrative as there is an escalating series of villains thrown against Daredevil which he must thwart. While he fights the bad guys as Daredevil, Matt Murdock tries to avoid the law firm turning into a soap opera and he pretty much fails at that.

Essential Daredevil - Vol. 1 is a black and white comic anthology, so the book seems more like a collection of comic strips than a cohesive graphic novel. The artwork is frequently very simple, lacking sophisticated depth and shading, so it looks like an extended comic strip for much of the book as well. Despite this being the origin of a super hero that managed to endure in a pretty crowded marketplace, The Essential Daredevil - Volume 1 simply does not have enough going for it to recommend to serious comic book readers . . . or even Daredevil fans.

For other super hero stories, please check out my reviews of:
Luthor - Brian Azzarella
Batman R.I.P. - Grant Morrison
Watchmen - Alan Moore


For other book reviews, please visit my index page for a complete listing of my reviews!

© 2011 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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