When we last saw Matt Murdock, at the end of last month’s post about Daredevil #51, our Man Without Fear was in pretty bad shape. After undergoing an ordinary blood test in his costumed identity, he’d had a drastic adverse reaction to the due to the radioactive particles in his bloodstream (or something like that), and after wandering around in a delirium for a bit, had collapsed in an alley. Meanwhile, the New York Police Department, having been clued in about the imminent danger to the Scarlet Swashbuckler, had put out an all-points bulletin for our hero. And while all this was going on, DD’s current nemesis, a sinister robotics genius named Starr Saxon, had accidentally stumbled onto his foe’s secret identity — and had also, on pretext of being a friend of Matt’s, had convinced the blind lawyer’s almost-girlfriend, Karen Page, to accompany him, leading her into who knows what dread danger.
And that’s where things stand as our storytellers Roy Thomas (writer) and Barry Windsor-Smith (penciller), rejoined by Johnny Craig as inker (the EC Comics veteran had inked Windsor-Smith’s first DD story, in issue #50, but had been spelled by George Klein for #51) — pick up their tale, on the opening splash page of Daredevil‘s “52nd smash issue“:
Reading this story for the first time as an eleven-year-old in March, 1969, I doubt that I paid much attention to the signage appearing in the background of this New York City street scene (save for the story title and creator credits, of course). Revisiting it five decades later, however, I found myself curious about “Perfume By John Peel”, which seems too specific to be random. After doing a bit of online research, I’ve concluded that this is most likely a reference to The Perfumed Garden, a late-night music program hosted by the late, great British DJ John Peel on the “pirate” station Radio London for several months in 1967. The appearance of “PG” in the lower right corner of the main “Perfume” sign, not to mention the word “Garden” on the marquee to the sign’s left, would also seem to support this conclusion. If the identification is correct, I’d wager that Windsor-Smith, a Briton who was nineteen years old (and recently arrived from the UK) when this comic was published, was responsible for the reference, rather than the twenty-eight year old Yank, Thomas (though of course I could be wrong).
The almost wordless double-page spread that follows shows the young penciller — his own individual style still in its formative phase — demonstrating his deep indebtedness at this stage of his development to his two major influences, Jack Kirby and Jim Steranko. The figure work on the Black Panther is derived primarily from Kirby, while the page layout all but screams “Steranko”:
It’s worth noting, I think, that at this point in the history of the Black Panther as a character, Roy Thomas was the only writer to have scripted his adventures outside of the hero’s co-creator, Stan Lee.* Following the Panther’s 1966 debut in Fantastic Four, and his subsequent appearances in both FF and Captain America — all of which had been produced by Lee with the character’s other creator, Jack Kirby — the Panther had moved into the Thomas-written Avengers, where he’d been based ever since. Outside of a cameo here and there, this story was the first time T’Challa had appeared anywhere besides Avengers since his arrival there with issue #52.
Perhaps, after writing about him for over a year in Avengers, Roy Thomas was beginning to feel invested in the Black Panther, and chose to guest star him in Daredevil — only one issue after he’d started writing that series — in the interest of raising his profile. However it came about, though, this appearance was well placed, and timed, to give my eleven-year-old self a new and better appreciation of the character.
The Black Panther had been a presence in every Avengers story I’d ever read, except for the first one. But even though I liked the guy well enough, he hadn’t yet made that great an impression on me. I hadn’t bought the one issue of Avengers that had prominently featured him since his joining the team (#62) despite my having bought the previous four (I’d also buy the next nine, with no further interruption). And while it’s possible that I simply never saw that book on the stands, it’s also possible that I saw it and, realizing T’Challa was the focus of the story, opted to pass. If the latter, I’d like to think that it wasn’t because I found a black African king somehow less relatable than, say, a white Nordic god — but I’m not sure I should give my eleven-year-old self quite that much credit.
But, for whatever reason, as a young reader I was fascinated by superheroes who could be said to resemble each other — in their costuming as well as in their powers and modus operandi. Some three years earlier, I’d felt that way about Batman and Wildcat, when I first saw them together on the cover of Justice League of America #46. Now, the pairing of Daredevil with the Panther was perfectly set to make the latter character intrinsically more interesting to me.
“They were the eyes of… a man!” Um, as opposed to what, exactly, D.A. Nelson? The eyes of an actual jungle cat? (Sorry, fellow Roy Thomas fans, but that’s not exactly one of the Rascally One’s better lines. Though the underlying message — that true “manhood” may be exemplified by the willingness to help a stranger in need — is, of course, quite sound; and since I’m pretty sure that important message came through loud and clear to me as a young reader, maybe I should just give Mr. Thomas a break.)
If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ll recognize the brief appearance of Yellowjacket and the Vision above as yet another tie-in to the multi-title crossover Egghead-Mad Thinker-Puppet Master storyline that Roy Thomas and friends had going in Avengers, Captain Marvel, and Sub-Mariner this month. But if you don’t know what I’m talking about (or were simply hoping not to have to read about Egghead again for at least another week or two), don’t worry — the scene has no bearing on the rest of the story that’s our subject today.
The Panther drops down to a street near to where Matt Murdock lives; almost immediately, he senses a presence, very close by:
“Don’t just sit there… smirking like the villain in a bad “B” movie!” Oh, Karen… I’m afraid you may have just given the mysterious Mr. Saxon some ideas.
Meanwhile, back out on the street…
Back at the beginning of issue #49, Matt had vowed to give up his career as Daredevil, due to it having recently come between him and his friends (who included D.A. Franklin “Foggy” Nelson as well as Karen Page) — although he’d also, as DD, prevented an attempt on Foggy’s life by the Stilt-Man as part of the same series of events; so one might question his reasoning, there. But, truth to tell, Matt giving up his superheroing gig (or at least trying to) seemed to be happening every few issues or so towards the end of Stan Lee’s tenure as writer (Lee’s last issue was #50).
“Skulking about like Lon Chaney…” Remember what I said earlier about Karen giving Saxon ideas? From here on out, our villain’s dialogue will be colorfully peppered with movie references — though he hadn’t dropped a single one such previously, from his first appearance in issue #49 up until now. It rather seems as though Roy Thomas latched onto this idea mid-script; and once it arrived, decided to run with it.
Windsor-Smith’s layout for page 11, with its straightforward 4-panel grid and tight close-ups, is very much in the vein of what Jack Kirby was doing around this time — but on the following page, the fourth panel’s “strobing” figure of Daredevil is pulled directly from Jim Steranko’s bag of tricks:
At about that time, a police car pulls up outside. New York’s finest are accompanied by Foggy, whose thought balloons let us know that this is the second time the cops and he have tried Matt’s place — and that he’s concerned about Karen’s whereabouts, as well as Matt’s:
Of course, DD has a lot more to worry about than whether Karen might mention Matt’s little accident from issue #51, and raise the police’s suspicions — after all, there’s a bad guy lying unconscious on the floor who already knows that Matt Murdock and Daredevil are one and the same.
And, yeah, the business about our hero having escaped death merely by chance, via “a sizable cut” on his hand, does seem like a rather contrived, not to mention anti-climactic, way to resolve the “race against time” scenario that both fueled the previous issue’s cliffhanger ending and allowed for the Black Panther’s entering the story this issue. Things are happening so fast at this point, however, that a reader might not even notice (I suspect that my younger self didn’t, in 1969; or if I did, I didn’t much care).
As a young reader, my favorite images in this comic were those that juxtaposed the two figures of Daredevil and the Black Panther — such as the cover, of course, as well as the last two panels on page 16 — and my favorite, the full-page (and very Kirbyesque) splash panel that immediately follows, on page 17:
Don’t those guys look great together? My eleven-year-old self sure thought so.
I can recall being genuinely startled in 1969 by Daredevil’s decision to let Starr Saxon walk. I don’t think that I necessarily thought he’d made he’d made the wrong choice — but seeing a superhero let a murderer go free, whatever the context, was something very new. That there was now a bad guy out there who knew the hero’s secret identity — which probably seems like old hat in 2019 — was also new and strange to me as a reader at the time. While I’m sure I expected that Saxon would, ultimately be brought to justice, and in a way that preserved DD’s secret (which, of course, is what did ultimately occur), it was still an unsettling turn of events
The story concludes on the next page as Saxon, the Black Panther, and Daredevil each get a row of panels all to their respective selves — textually as well as visually — to make their exits. Here, Roy Thomas manages to justify his rather abrupt grafting of a film-buff persona onto his villain, by having it provide the central metaphor for Saxon’s final, taunting words:
I thought, and still think, that it was a great touch to have the Panther learn Daredevil’s secret identity, and then choose not to let DD know that he knew — though T’Challa’s line about possibly meeting Daredevil “in battle!” at some later date is a little ridiculous (why in the world would they have any reason to fight?) — and yes, I do know that “heroes fighting each other” was (is?) a big part of Marvel’s brand, especially in the 1960s. Thankfully, the next time the two heroes met — in Daredevil #69 (Oct., 1970) — it would once again be as allies.
And while I didn’t come away from this comic book having suddenly become the Black Panther’s biggest fan, I was at least a little more impressed with him than I had been before — a pretty neat trick when you consider that, throughout the comic book’s twenty pages, he doesn’t really do much of anything.
Finally. we have Daredevil’s closing soliloquy, in which his thoughts turn back to how this day began, thereby serving as a sort of postscript to the entire five-issue storyline that Stan Lee and Gene Colan had initiated back in DD #49’s “Daredevil Drops Out”. Over the course of that story, Matt Murdock’s firm resolve to leave his costumed persona behind has been completely thwarted by circumstance, but his ability to effectively maintain that identity seems as untenable as ever. Windsor-Smith’s final sequence of images, with his “camera” pulling back, and up, from its tight close-up on part of Daredevil’s face, underscores the hero’s solitary plight, as in the last panel we see — at a distance, and from above — his lone scarlet-clad figure all but swallowed up in the whiteness of the falling, swirling snow.
It made for a satisfying, if ambivalent, conclusion to the most compelling storyline — and, perhaps, the most memorable single issue — that I’d yet encountered in the thirteen or so months that I’d been reading Daredevil. After finishing this story, I was keen to see where the new creative team of Roy Thomas and Barry Smith (as we knew him then) would take things from here…
… and so, I was a bit surprised to turn to #52’s letters page, and learn that that issue, Barry Windsor-Smith’s third, would also be the young Englishman’s last. Gene Colan would be returning as Daredevil’s regular artist with the very next issue, #53.
And when that issue showed up on the stands a month later, there was yet another surprise in store. Stan Lee was back as well — and he and Colan were here to retell the story of Daredevil’s origin, of all things.
Not that I was unused to seeing superheroes’ origins retold, or otherwise re-presented, in my comics. After all, my very first issue of Thor had incorporated his origin tale within its pages — although in that instance, the original art and story from Journey Into Mystery #83 had simply been inserted between new framing pages by Lee and Kirby. Which raises the question — if Marvel thought it was time to present the tale of Daredevil’s beginnings once again, how come DD #53 didn’t do the same thing Thor #158 had, and re-use the Bill Everett-drawn pages from Daredevil #1?
In a letter published some months later (in DD #58), a fan posed that very query; and the editorial response indicated that the reasons were twofold. The first was that Marvel had reprinted the original Lee-Everett tale not all that long ago, in Marvel Super-Heroes #1. The second was that Gene Colan had wanted to draw his own version of the hero’s origin for some time, and had even begun working on it in his spare time, while he and Lee were still doing Daredevil together. By the time the story was complete and ready to go, however, Roy Thomas was writing the series; and he decided to integrate it into DD’s “present” by replacing Colan’s original opening splash with a new one, as well as adding a new closing page:
And all of that was fine with me. Although I’d started reading Marvel comics too late to have picked up Marvel Super-Heroes #1, I had still read Lee and Everett’s Daredevil origin story — kind of, anyway. Most of it had been reprinted in Lancer Books’ 1966 Daredevil paperback, which I’d bought around the time I bought my first issue of the DD comic, perhaps even earlier. But in that volume, the story had been truncated, as well as cut up to fit the panels into the 4.25″ x 6.825″ paperback format — and it was in black and white, to boot. So I was more than happy to see a new version of the story that was complete, as well as being in color — and, truth to tell, Gene Colan’s art was more appealing to my younger self than Bill Everett’s 1964 work, which even in 1969 came across as a little “old-fashioned”.
Since I knew most of the details of the plot already, the main pleasure for me in this new telling proved to be seeing Daredevil’s original yellow-and-red costume in color, in such dynamically-rendered action sequences as the one below:
And so it goes, until page 20, where Lee and Colan wrap up their retelling of DD’s debut adventure — and then it’s on to the “bonus” page 21**, where Thomas rejoins Colan just long enough to set up the next chapter in ol’ Hornhead’s ongoing saga:
Bear in mind that in the little more than a year that I’d been reading Daredevil, Matt Murdock had first staged the death of his fictional twin brother “Mike”, effectively killing off DD as well — then, almost immediately, decided he didn’t want Daredevil dead after all, which required him to invent a “second” DD, supposedly Mike’s trained successor. Several issues later, as we’ve already discussed, he got fed up with the way his costumed identity was continuing to mess up his personal life, and decided once again to “retire” as DD. Now, our hero has determined that the problem isn’t Daredevil at all — it’s Matt Murdock! And so, having already offed Matt’s imaginary twin, DD is now going to “kill” Matt Murdock himself, and live only as the Scarlet Swashbuckler from now on. Hey, what could possibly go wrong with a great idea like that?
Well, plenty, of course. And you can rest assured that I’ll be back to tell you all about it in a future post. Before we get around to that one, however, we’ll be taking a look at what came next after Daredevil for Barry Windsor-Smith, who thankfully wasn’t put out of work by Gene Colan’s return to his old stomping grounds. Rather, in what amounted to a clean swap, the young artist succeeded Colan once again, this time on the book the latter had been drawing since he left Daredevil. As things turned out, Windsor-Smith’s stay on Avengers would be even shorter than his Daredevil stint… but we’ll have to leave it at that, until May. Here’s hoping you’ll join me then.
*Barry Windsor-Smith, on the other hand, was the seventh penciller to draw the Panther, as best as I can determine — following Jack Kirby, John Buscema, Don Heck, Werner Roth, Jim Steranko, and Gene Colan.
**20 pages of art and story content was the norm for Marvel’s 12-cent comics at this time.