When I first started buying Marvel comics in 1968, Daredevil was one of the first of the company’s titles that I sampled; over the next couple of years, it would be one of my most consistent purchases from any publisher. With that in mind, it seems a little odd that when I returned to the adventures of the Man Without Fear in December, 1970, after more than a year’s hiatus, I came back by way of a crossover with Iron Man — a Marvel series I’d only read intermittently up to this point.
To be honest, I’m not sure why I picked up Iron Man #33 in October, 1970. As regular readers of this blog know, this was around the time I’d recently found my way back into the regular habit of comic-book buying, after a period of half a year or so when I’d largely lost interest. It may be simply that I was inclined to sample widely at this time; whatever the reason, the issue found its way into my hands; and since it turned out to be the first issue of a multi-part serial, so did the next several Iron Mans — as well as Daredevil #73, which ultimately tied into the same storyline.
Iron Man #33 was the fourth issue scripted by Allyn Brodsky, a young writer who also worked in the Marvel offices around this time. Brodsky’s comics-writing career was quite brief, lasting only a couple of years, and Iron Man was his most high-profile assignment. In the words of the brief biography published in Marvel Masterworks – The Invincible Iron Man, Vol. 7, Brodsky came to the Golden Avenger with “a desire to give the title a bit more of a conservative tint, to balance what he considered a stable of Marvel heroes that were too ideologically to the left.” In practice, this “conservative tint” showed up most explicitly in the writer’s first two issues, #30 and #31 (a couple of fifty-year-old comics your humble blogger feels obliged to admit he’d never read before beginning the research for this post). In the first of these, Iron Man helped foil a Chinese military plot against Japan, in which the “Reds” were aided by a young Japanese militant who decried “Yankee invaders” such as industrialist Tony Stark (aka Iron Man); in the second, he exposed a criminal’s scheme to manipulate environmental activists protesting a new Stark factory on an idyllic Pacific Island. After #31, the political angle became much more subtle; though Brodsky continued to lean hard into the notion of “American business tycoon as hero” in his portrayal of Tony Stark, I don’t recall my thirteen-year-old self picking up on the conservative subtext of the Brodsky Iron Mans I read at all (or, if I did, it was probably due to being clued in by readers’ comments in the books’ letters columns).
The story that begins in #33, and continues directly into #34 (with both parts being scripted by Brodsky, and drawn by Don Heck and Mike Esposito), concerns an attempt by a new costumed villain named Spymaster to infiltrate and steal research secrets from the New York headquarters of Stark Industries. Along the way the intelligence agency S.H.I.E.L.D. gets involved, with both its director Nick Fury and agent Jasper Sitwell (S.H.I.E.L.D.’s official liaison to Stark Industries) playing a role in events. The Spymaster’s gambit ultimately fails, but though his group of operatives, the Espionage Elite, are captured, the Spymaster himself escapes — though not before he shoots and badly injures Sitwell.
Iron Man #35 picks up exactly where #34 leaves off, with Iron Man cradling Sitwell’s unconscious form and vowing to have “Revenge!” (the story’s title) on his mysterious new foe. But although Don Heck and Mike Esposito are still on board as penciller and inker, respectively, Allyn Brodsky’s name no longer appears in the credits; despite having plotted the story (a fact that would be belatedly acknowledged in Daredevil #73), the only writer credited on IM #35’s splash page is the series’ brand-new regular scripter, Gerry Conway.
Thirteen-year-old me knew Conway’s name, despite the fact that he himself was only eighteen; he’d already been writing comics professionally for a year and a half, after all, having broken in by writing short tales and framing sequences for DC Comics’ “mystery” anthologies, though he was now making the transition to Marvel. I’d liked what I’d seen of his work to date, including on a couple of other “hero” books (DC’s Phantom Stranger and Marvel’s Astonishing Tales), and I’m sure I didn’t mind seeing him take over Iron Man from Brodsky, assuming I even noticed right away.
After establishing Iron Man’s determination to avenge Jasper, the Brodsky/Conway story quickly moves on to introduce other characters, including several who’d played no role in the preceding two issues — such as Whitney Frost, aka Madame Masque. I was already familiar with Ms. Frost, courtesy of having read Iron Man #19 over a year earlier, and thus knew about the one-time villainess’ tragic disfigurement and romantic attraction to Tony Stark; that she also had a long-standing attachment to Agent Sitwell was news to me, however. Anyway, learning of Jasper’s injury, a distraught MM leaps out of her window, hoping to sort out her feelings by swinging across the Manhattan skyline — a perfectly normal thing to do, at least if you’re a costumed adventurer in the Marvel Universe.
Meanwhile, Iron Man is over at the police station where the captured members of Spymaster’s Espionage Elite are being booked, drilling them for information on their boss’s whereabouts. But, when Shellhead threatens one of the recalcitrant prisoners with violence, he’s immediately called on the carpet by attorney Matt Murdock, aka Daredevil. This scene serves to bring DD — a featured guest star in this issue, as we already know from the cover — on stage early on in the narrative, but it’s otherwise entirely superfluous. Nothing that the Scarlet Swashbuckler will get up to later in this story (or in its continuation in Daredevil #73) refers back to this scene in any way.
The story moves on now to the Spymaster himself, following him as he reports in to his own, heretofore-unseen employers in their secret lair:
Who, or what, was the Zodiac? And what was their beef with Daredevil? In December, 1970, my younger self had nary a clue. That was largely because of my aforementioned months-long hiatus from buying most comics in 1969-70, but there was at least one significant hole in my knowledge that had more to do with my not having started to really get into Marvel until 1968. And while there was enough in the way of flashback sequences and other basic expository material included in both IM #35 and DD #73 to get me through the current storyline without too much confusion, many of the details remained tantalizingly out of reach. It would be years before I was finally able to put the whole Zodiac backstory together.
That story had begun with writer-artist Jim Steranko, who’d introduced the concept in the form of a single astrological sign-based character, Scorpio, and his mysterious weapon, the Zodiac Key, in Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. #1 (June, 1968). Though appearing to perish at the end of that adventure, taking the secret of his true identity to a watery grave, Scorpio nevertheless returned to face Fury and company for a second time in Steranko’s final issue of the series, #5. This time, Scorpio’s identity was revealed to Fury as the masked villain made his getaway on the story’s final page — but Steranko didn’t let the reader see what Fury did, leaving the question of “Who Is Scorpio?” (the title of issue #1’s story) a bedeviling mystery.
Not that I lost any sleep over the mystery, you understand. The Scorpio stories came out in 1968, when I was still feeling my way with Marvel’s characters, and I passed on both of them. Which is probably one reason I found it relatively easy to pass on Avengers #72 (Jan., 1970), a book released just as my temporary disaffection with comics was picking up steam. In that issue, writer Roy Thomas tied off most of Steranko’s dangling plot threads re: Scorpio in his own fashion, revealing not only that the enigmatic wielder of the Zodiac Key in those S.H.I.E.L.D. tales had been Nick Fury’s own brother, Jake — but also that Scorpio was but one of twelve costumed criminals who together formed the Zodiac cartel. Oddly enough, the Scorpio appearing in this story wasn’t Jake, who remained among the missing, but Fury himself, who masqueraded as his errant sibling in order to infiltrate the cartel. In the end, Fury and his Avenging allies defeated the Zodiac members in battle, but by using the power of the Key, the baddies yet managed to escape.
Thomas brought the Zodiac back to Avengers a few months later for a storyline which, prior to reaching its resolution in issue #82 of that series, made a quick side trip over into Daredevil #69 (also written by Thomas). In that story, the Black Panther — who’d learned DD’s secret identity back in DD #52 — enlisted the Man Without Fear’s help in dealing with a criminal gang called the Thunderbolts. The two heroes were ultimately successful; but due to his being occupied with that adventure, the Panther wasn’t around when several of his fellow Avengers were attacked and captured by the Zodiac’s leader, Aries, as part of a grand scheme that involved invading the island of Manhattan with a private army and holding its entire population for a billion dollars’ ransom. Of course, that simply meant that the Panther was available to rescue his teammates — something he and Daredevil teamed up to accomplish in the climax of Avengers #82. The tale ended with the Zodiac’s army defeated, and Aries apparently killed. The other members of the cartel — who never appeared on panel during the course of the issue — remained at large; however, along with losing their leader and much of their hired manpower, they also suffered the loss of the Zodiac Key, which fell into the hands of the authorities after Aries’ ship was blasted out of the sky. Adding a measure of irony to the story’s denouement, the Thunderbolt gang defeated by Daredevil and the Black Panther in DD #69 turned out to have been affiliated with the Zodiac all along, meaning that Daredevil had crossed the cartel not just once, but twice, in the course of this crossover. So, you can easily understand why they’d have it in for ol’ Hornhead in Iron Man #35 — though why Aries’ successor as the Zodiac’s leader, Capricorn, thinks it’s critical to capture and exact vengeance on Daredevil right now is something that Brodsky and Conway’s story never really gets around to explaining.
Anyway, around the same time that Spymaster is getting his new marching orders, Iron Man pops over to S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters to check in on Agent Sitwell’s condition. While he’s there, Nick Fury takes the opportunity to ask Shellhead if he thinks his “boss”, Tony Stark, might be able to help the S.H.I.E.L.D. lab boys figure out how to operate the Zodiac Key. The Key has been dormant ever since Avengers #82, but, wouldn’t you know it, it chooses this very moment to wake up, take control of Fury, and start indiscriminately discharging its destructive energies. Luckily, Iron Man manages to wrench it free from the S.H.I.E.L.D. Director by magnetizing it (?) and coating it “in a repulsor field”, rendering it inert and harmless — for the moment.
Meanwhile, night has fallen upon the city of New York, and Madame Masque continues to prowl the streets, still brooding over the eternal question, “Why must there always be pain?”
That’s right — Daredevil, the guy that Spymaster, has just now been assigned to capture, randomly runs into Madame Masque, who’s currently all torn up over Spymaster’s messing with the object of her affections, Jasper Sitwell. What are the odds of that? And while we’re at it — what are the odds that, before DD can even manage to learn this mystery woman’s name, Spymaster himself will show up to fulfill his mission?
On second thought, forget I asked that last question.
While Spymaster and his crew transport the captive DD and MM to the Zodiac’s hidden base, the story turns back to Iron Man. At this point, the Golden Avenger has taken the Zodiac Key to Stark Industries to run tests on it there; he’s assisted in this by Kevin O’Brien (or O’Brian, as it’s spelled at least as often), a young Irish engineer at S.I. who’d joined Shellhead’s supporting cast in issue #31. Nick Fury is also on hand, which is just as well — for the Zodiac, using a homing device hidden in the Key, have just now tracked the reactivated weapon to the S.I. complex, and Iron Man, Fury, and O’Brien soon find themselves under attack. The assault is led by Capricorn, who’s accompanied by two other members of the cartel, Aquarius and Sagittarius, as well as a few nameless goons. (One does have to wonder why, if the Zodiac thought it was this easy to break into Stark Industries and rob it, they even bothered to hire Spymaster and his Espionage Elite in the first place. But never mind.) In the ensuing battle, Iron Man learns that Spymaster’s earlier attack on Stark Industries was conducted on the Zodiac’s behalf — a bit of information that gives the hero some extra motivation to take these guys down, and, as a consequence, also lends a little extra drama to a fairly standard fight scene:
Of course, the third player on the good guys’ team, Kevin O’Brien/Brian, is fairly well outclassed (and outnumbered) by his Zodiac opponents, and he gets beaten down pretty quickly — though it turns out he still has a part to play in the proceedings:
Having admonished Spymaster for being ungracious in victory, Capricorn proceeds to gloat over how satisfying it is to see Iron Man, Daredevil, and Nick fury “trussed by the forcefield like a set of hams on a rack! Helpless!” (Guess he’s a “do as I say, not as I do” kinda guy.) Next, he announces that the Zodiac now “can begin to plan its crimes in earnest!” Not so fast, says the talking cloud from page 18: “There still remains but one final aspect of our agreement to fulfill…” Sure thing, responds Capricorn…
With that, we’re finally ready to move on to the titular subject of this post. And since we’ve already presented the Marie Severin-Herb Trimpe cover of DD #73 up top, we’re going to head right to the book’s splash page:
As noted previously, this issue’s credits provide Allyn Brodsky with his only acknowledgement for having plotted Iron Man #35 as well as Daredevil #73; the actual scripter, Gerry Conway, was also the title’s new regular writer, just as he was with Iron Man (though he’d in fact started on Daredevil one month earlier, with issue #72).
What I’d most like to highlight here, however, are the credits for the book’s artists — penciller Gene Colan and inker Syd Shores — since their work is my primary reason for presenting a blog post about an extended storyline that mostly took place in Iron Man as a Daredevil write-up. Because while I found (and still find) the Don Heck-Mike Esposito art in the previous installments to be adequate at best, the work of Colan and Shores continues to give me as much delight today as it did fifty years ago. And if I’m going to follow my normal procedure of pulling the lion’s share of the panels and pages presented here from the “main” comic book featured in the post, I’d rather those panels and pages be by Colan and Shores. (Sorry if that disappoints any Heck-Esposito fans out there, but it’s my blog, y’know?)
Moving on into the story itself… Naturally, due to it’s picking up immediately where “Revenge!” leaves off, “Behold… the Brotherhood!” opens with a flashback to the events of Iron Man #35. And because that still doesn’t quite explain what the heck DD is doing in the middle of this Stark Industries/S.H.I.E.L.D./Zodiac business, that’s instantly followed by another flashback explaining DD’s role in Zodiac’s defeat in Avengers #82. (Since I hadn’t read the latter issue, my thirteen-year-old self rather appreciated that one.) Finally, by page 7, our storytellers are ready to move the plot forward:
The count of “five heroes” includes once-and-future villainess Madame Masque, as well as Kevin O’Brien — perhaps foreshadowing what Conway and co. had in store for the redheaded Irishman in the near future.
We’ll probably never know what inspired Jim Steranko’s original design for the Zodiac Key — or what, if anything, he had in mind for its backstory — but it resembles an ankh closely enough that you can see why Brodsky and/or Conway decided to make that hieroglyphic symbol the basis for their take on the origin of the mysterious Key. Like the Zodiac signs themselves, the ankh is of ancient origins (though its own are Egyptian, rather than Babylonian, as the astrological star signs’ appear to be). Based on my admittedly limited research, the ankh seems to have generally represented the life force; the notions of it having something to do with the “eternal balance between order and chaos” (see the first panel of the next page), or of of “Ankh” being the name of a god, seem to be pure Marvel inventions.*
Upon hearing that all the misdeeds committed in the name of the Zodiac Key can be traced back to this decision by the Brotherhood of Ankh, Kevin O’Brien becomes incensed at their presumption in so deigning “to deal in the lifeblood of men“. For his effrontery, the Lawholder uses the power of the Key to instantly transport Kevin back home to our dimension (leaving one to wonder what exactly was the point of including him in the story in the first place). The Lawholder goes on to explain to his remaining “guests” that the Brotherhood has determined that the Key’s power — and the balance it serves — can most efficiently be renewed by a struggle between the Zodiac members and their foes:
Even as DD finds himself squaring off against Capricorn, he resists being used as a pawn; as he’ll soon discover, however, he has little choice in the matter. Meanwhile, Iron Man doesn’t need any external compulsion to be convinced to go after the object of his intended revenge, Spymaster:
Shellhead’s retort to being called an idealist? “Maybe that’s all I’ve got going for me — a little thing called altruism! But you know something? I could do a lot worse!” Take that, Objectivists!
As Hornhead tries to reason with… Other Hornhead?… Madame Masque and Nick Fury are busy contending against Aquarius and Sagittarius. Neither of these good guys has any super-abilities, or even any high-tech gimmickry (at least, not on ’em), but that’s OK, as their opponents appear to be in the same boat.
Meanwhile, DD is finding that Capricorn is resistant to his arguments. Or maybe the Zodiac leader just wants to show off how versatile and useful his set of red horns are, in comparison to Daredevil’s puny little nubs:
Capricorn hurls DD towards a wall, but our Scarlet Swashbuckler twists around in acrobatic fashion and manages to come in for a relatively gentle landing on the floor. But then…
The sudden advent of the “burning flakes” is rather mysterious; no one but Daredevil ever acknowledges them directly, though we can infer from the next page’s dialogue between the members of the Brotherhood than they are probably the result of the cosmic balance not responding well to how the Lawholder’s plan is faring in its execution:
That’s some fairly heady moral philosophizing going on at the issue’s conclusion, though it doesn’t do much to convince the reader that anything that transpired in the last 20 pages served to accomplish anything. But, oh, well — what we really want to see is how our heroes finally manage to defeat the Zodiac, anyway, right? And for that, we’ll have to come back for the story’s conclusion in Iron Man #36.
Which your humble blogger indeed did, back in January, 1971. Though when I did, I was probably a little confused by the fact that there was no sign of Daredevil, Nick Fury, or any of the Zodiackers — not even Spymaster — on the book’s cover.
I’m sure I was at least somewhat mollified, however, when I turned to the splash page, which showed Shellhead, his fellow heroes, and their enemies all making the return trip from the Brotherhood of Ankh’s world back to Earth (depositing then at Stark Industries rather than at Zodiac HQ, for some unexplained reason) — although with Heck and Esposito back on the art chores, I didn’t enjoy it as much as I had Colan and Shores’ rendition of the outgoing voyage from page 8 of DD #73.
Once back on terra firma, all of our players pick up fighting each other right where they left off (though Fury and Madame Masque swap sparring partners) — even Daredevil, who, though he’d been reluctant to pummel Capricorn at the command of the Brotherhood, is quite happy to do so for his own reasons:
Over the next five or so pages, DD, MM, and Fury basically beat their foes into submission. Iron Man, alas, is not so fortunate — his battle with the Spymaster inadvertently causes a car accident, and while Shellhead is busy rescuing the innocent victim, his nemesis gets away:
And with those two panels at the top of page 8, the Zodiac storyline sputters to a somewhat anticlimactic conclusion.** The remainder of the page is taken up by a scene in which Madame Masque, unaware that Iron Man is Tony Stark, asks him for advice in dealing with her Tony vs. Jasper situation; classic Marvel soap opera stuff. After that it’s back to the office, where Tony takes a meeting with Kevin O’Brien in which neither man has a word to say about all that bizarre business Kevin just went through, even though it’s presumably the very next morning. Weird, right? From there, we segue right into a brand new storyline, in which the Golden Avenger goes up against the big alien robot dude featured on #36’s cover, Ramrod. The issue ends on a cliffhanger, but I can’t tell you how it turns out, as I passed on Iron Man #37 when it came out in February (and still haven’t read it, half a century later). I was still invested in Shellhead’s vendetta against Spymaster, but since it seemed Conway was prepared to ignore that plot thread for the time being,*** I was prepared as well to ignore Iron Man. (My continued lack of enthusiasm for Don Heck’s art would also have contributed to making that a relatively easy decision.) I’d find my way back fairly soon — as early as issue #41, in fact — and when I did, it would ironically enough be by way of a storyline that once again tied into, you guessed it, Daredevil. But that’s a discussion for another post, at another time.
Speaking of Daredevil — you might expect that, having just become enjoyably reacquainted with what had been one of my favorite Marvel titles in the past, that I’d be game to start buying the series regularly again. But that didn’t happen, at least not right away. Yes, I was a fan of Gene Colan and Syd Shores’ art on the book — but they’d also been the art team when I’d walked away from Daredevil, back in the fall of ’69. As I explained in a post last year, I’d been disappointed with the outcome of what had seemed a turning point in the series, i.e., the hero’s revelation of his secret identity to his beloved Karen Page in the 57th issue, as well as with Matt Murdock’s constant equivocating about his double life. Had things changed any since I’d stopped reading over a year before? Perhaps they had, but the story in #73 didn’t give me a clue one way or the other, as it had completely eschewed giving any time or space to subplots, in favor of flashbacks to Iron Man #35 and Avengers #82.
So, I continued to skip picking up Daredevil, at least for another few months. When I did finally deign to sample the title again, it would be for yet another crossover — though not with Iron Man, this time. But to learn more about that, you’ll have to check in with the blog in April, 2021.
*The notion of the cosmic balance between order and chaos, on the other had, is one that Conway had already used in his story for Phantom Stranger #11, published by DC just one month before. Both stories may reflect the influence of British science fiction and fantasy author Michael Moorcock, who since the early 1960s has employed the concept in a myriad of works.
**Capricorn, Aquarius, and Sagittarius all get hauled off to jail as per page 8, but the rest of the Zodiac — including Libra, who shows up for a panel or two in Iron Man #35 but otherwise plays no role in the adventure — are, presumably still at large. What they were all doing while Capricorn and co. were executing the cartel’s scheme remains an unanswered question, but they appear to have managed to break their buddies out of prison in time for them all to appear with the rest of the gang (including a new Aries and new Scorpio) in Marvel’s next major Zodiac story arc, which began in Avengers #120 (Feb., 1974). As for the Zodiac Key, the Brotherhood of Ankh seems to have held onto it for a few years, until it inexplicably fell out of the sky over New York City, striking a derelict on the head (seriously), as revealed in Defenders #49 (Jul., 1977). The derelict promptly pawned it, and the pawnshop owner sold it soon afterwards to — wait for it — Nick Fury’s long lost brother Jake, unseen (save in flashback) since Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. #5 (Oct., 1968), who promptly resumed his career as Scorpio. And so it goes; just another day in the Marvel Universe.
***Actually, Conway never did bring back Spymaster. Jasper Sitwell eventually recovered from his injuries, and the rationale for Iron Man having a special animus towards the guy who’d almost killed him consequently went away. By the time someone did bring Spymaster back (David Michelinie and Bob Layton, in 1978) he was just another C-list super-villain.