In his 2013 book Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, Sean Howe tells of how young writer Gerry Conway first came to work for the publisher, circa 1970:
Born in Brooklyn, Conway was eight years old when Fantastic Four #1 hit the stands. By the time he was sixteen, he was writing scripts for DC Comics; soon after, he met [associate editor] Roy Thomas, who assigned him a Marvel writers’ test. But [editor Stan] Lee was, as usual, less than impressed with the way another writer handled the characters he shepherded.
“He writes really well for a seventeen-year-old kid,” Thomas reasoned.
Lee, who himself had first walked into Marvel’s offices at that age, paused. “Well, can’t we get someone who writes really well for a twenty-five-year-old kid?”
The point of the anecdote (at least for Howe) seems to be the irony of Lee’s doubting that someone could be ready to start writing for Marvel at age seventeen, when that’s exactly how old he’d been himself when he’d begun working for his cousin’s husband, Martin Goodman, circa 1940. But, after some consideration, your humble blogger is of the opinion that Stan the Man may have been on to something.
Maybe Gerry Conway wasn’t quite ready to handle the monthly adventures of Daredevil, Iron Man, Sub-Mariner, et al, fresh out of high school.
In fairness, however, it’s not hard to see why Roy Thomas thought Conway was worth the gamble — or, for that matter, why the teenager himself thought he could probably handle it. By the end of 1970, the by-then-eighteen Gerry Conway already had a rep as something of a wunderkind, having not only gotten his foot in the door of the comics industry (originally via Marvel’s primary rival, DC Comics), but also having broken into the prose science fiction/fantasy market — a feat noted in the Bullpen Bulletins column that ran in that December’s Marvel comics, via an item which gave the writer pride of place in a list introducing several new, young talents who’d recently begun working for the company:
That “couple of science-fiction paperback sales” may have been a bit of an overstatement, or at least slightly misleading, as 1971 would see the release of only one paperback novel under the name of Gerard F. Conway, The Midnight Dancers. Nevertheless, as the new year dawned, the young author had already seen two of his short stories published in a couple of the magazines that represented that era’s other major market for SFF writers (the November and December, 1970 issues of Amazing and Fantastic, respectively). And he would have yet another story appear in a paperback anthology of original SF stories before the year’s end, Universe 1.* (And anyway, it’s not like any of the other new writers at Marvel were selling paperback novels in 1971.)
My younger self was hardly tuned in to the field of science-fiction publishing in 1971, however, so I was only aware of these accomplishments of Gerry Conway’s due to Marvel telling me about them. Still, I knew his name — and his work — even before he took on his first Marvel monthlies, thanks to comics like House of Mystery #188, Astonishing Tales #3, and Phantom Stranger #11. Twelve months later, as 1971 wound down, I’d have come know him a good deal better, as the scripter of as much as a third of the Marvel Comics material I’d bought and read during that period. More specifically than that, I’d know Gerry Conway as the mastermind behind the “Mister Kline” saga — an ambitious mega-storyline that, as it wove between issues of Daredevil, Iron Man, and (very briefly) Sub-Mariner for over half a year, represented an experiment in interconnected serial narrative that could only have been compared at the time to Jack Kirby’s Fourth World tetralogy over at DC… a mega-storyline whose conclusion, fifty years later, still ranks as one of my most vivid disappointments as a young comics reader (at least among those that didn’t involve a series’ actual cancellation).
I had originally planned to write about “Mister Kline” throughout the past six months — not devoting an individual post to every single installment of the saga, of course (we’re talking upwards of a dozen comics, folks), but hitting at least the beginning, the ending, and a few key points in the middle. After I’d actually re-read the whole thing through, however, I realized that wouldn’t work. There simply wasn’t enough substance in most of those stories to support an entire post — at least, not when there were so many better, or at least more interesting, comic books I wanted to write about in that May through November timeframe.
Still, the “Kline” saga looms so large in my memories of my comics-reading experience of a half century ago that I didn’t want to ignore it entirely. And so, I’ve decided to cover the whole thing in one single post, giving a brief recap of each issue in the order of their publication (more or less) before providing a more complete treatment of the storyline’s climactic chapter in the comic book that provides this post with its title: Daredevil #84. I’m afraid that this will inevitably make the post longer than some of you will feel comfortable reading in one sitting (or in whatever other physical position you choose to consume this blog; I’m not picky). I thank you in advance for your indulgence, and also apologize for the sore tuchis (or feet, or whatever piece of personal anatomy may apply).
Gerry Conway took over writing Daredevil with issue #72; the first beats of the “Mister Kline” plotline showed up five months into his run, with #77 (Jun., 1971). If that comic’s Sal Buscema cover looks familiar, it may be because we recapped much of the issue in our post about Sub-Mariner #40, with which it crossed over; we didn’t include the following scene in our discussion then, however, as it didn’t figure into the main Subby and Spidey guest-starring action in any way (and vice versa). So let’s proceed directly to…
And, well, that’s it for DD #77, actually. While it’s clear from this brief scene that Matt (Daredevil) Murdock’s best friend Franklin “Foggy” Nelson is in trouble, we don’t get an inkling of what kind until we move on into issue #78 (brought to you by the same creative team of Conway, Gene Colan [pencils], and Tom Palmer [inks]). Before we get to that bit, however, we’re obliged to make the acquaintance of a nice young couple named George and Dia Alec, who are visiting New York; they’re evidently based on the late SF writer George Alec Effinger and his then-wife Diana. (George Alec was a fellow graduate with Conway of the 1970 Clarion Writers’ Workshop; they’d also both landed a story in the same anthology, Universe 1 [see cover above]. Effinger would go on to do some writing for Marvel himself as the decade went on, and would serve as the assistant editor on The Haunt of Horror, Marvel’s short-lived horror fiction magazine for which Conway was the chief editor.)
Unfortunately for George and Dia, as they’re on their way to meet up with their friend Gardner (probably SF editor and author Gardner Dozois), they’re waylaid by a Jeep-riding group of thugs, led by one Bull Taurus:
This is the first reference to Mister Kline by name, not counting this issue’s Herb Trimpe-Frank Giacoia cover (which, incidentally, is the last time Kline will be directly referenced on a Marvel cover, at least by that name; as we’ll soon see, he’s a pulling-the-strings-behind-the-scenes sort of guy, whose activities don’t lend themselves well to dramatic cover compositions — not until very near the end, at any rate).
Luckily for George and “Dee-Dee”, Matt Murdock is in the area, hears their cries for help, and intercedes as Daredevil — driving Bull and his confederates off, at least for now. At this point, the story finally takes a moment to check in on Foggy Nelson…
…and though the narrative doesn’t explicitly link this scene to the one in the previous issue where our anxious D.A.. got rousted out of bed, it’s a safe bet that there is in fact a connection.
Later, while Daredevil finds his new young charges a safe haven in the apartment of his “friend” Matt Murdock, Bull Taurus learns the price of not having brought the mysterious “Professor” a suitable couple of research subjects…
Soon after, DD once again encounters Bull’s cohorts — an encounter that eventually leads him to the Professor’s waterfront lair, and a confrontation with the results of the latter gentleman’s experiment:
The story continues in DD #79, which features another cover by Sal Buscema, while Colan and Palmer continue as interior artists. Interestingly, this episode’s script is by Gary Friedrich, working from Conway’s plot.
Daredevil is significantly overmatched by the Man-Bull, strength-wise — and eventually, one of the brute’s haymakers knocks him out of the ramshackle building and into the water beyond; when he doesn’t surface, Man-Bull assumes he’s drowned (though of course we readers know better). Meanwhile, George and Dia go out looking for pizza, and are once again waylaid by the Jeep boys; this time, alas, with no superhero to come to their rescue, the abduction is successful…
“R. Kline”? So the guy’s got a first name, or at least a first initial? Well, maybe, but it must not be important, because it never gets used again.
Anyway, as you’d probably already guessed, Kline is the person blackmailing Foggy. And in case you were wondering, we’re not supposed to know at this point just what the former has on the latter — though it appears to be pretty bad, since payoff amounts like $50K, and then $100K, start getting thrown around fairly quickly…
At last we see Mister Kline… or at least an arm and a leg of him…
OK, so it looks like the Professor’s experiment wasn’t supposed to make Mr. Taurus a beast-human hybrid, just super-strong. Good to know — though Kline’s ultimate aims for the project remain rather vague. But we won’t learn any more about them from this particular conversation, as at this point the other thugs show up with their captives. Fortune continues to smile on the Alecs, however, as DD shows up again a few moments later — and in this return match, DD’s superior skill allows him to ultimately triumph, by using his billy-club line to hurl the charging Man-Bull into the side of a building, thereby knocking him out. The episode concludes with our hero seeing George and Dia safely off with their pal Gardner, still blissfully unaware of Mister Kline’s machinations.
With the story’s next installment, the Mister Kline saga ceases to simply be an extended story arc in a single title to become something rather different — because the next installment arrives not in the following month’s Daredevil, but in the same month’s Iron Man. In Iron Man #41 (Sep., 1971), Conway joins with penciller George Tuska (who also drew the cover) and inker Jim Mooney to show us how Kline’s schemes are too far-reaching to be contained in a single title.
The story begins in Washington, D.C., as our storytellers introduce us to a couple of characters tinkering with some high-tech equipment in an alley near the Capitol. The duo, Demitrius and the Slasher, are clearly up to no good; they’re also saddled with a couple of the most hideous supervillain costumes ever designed. (But don’t fret too much — after this issue, we’ll never see these guys, or their ugly polka-dot suits, ever again.)
That plane, as it turns out, is carrying Tony (Iron Man) Stark, on his way to appear before a Senate subcommittee, accompanied by his girlfriend, Marianne Rogers. And with timing finely calibrated to the needs of narrative convenience, the plane lands just moments before Slasher finishes tinkering with his transmitter, and so…
While Marianne is distracted by the unfolding disaster, Tony darts away to change into his armor (carried in his briefcase, of course), so that he can come to the rescue as Iron Man. Though the outlay of power required strains his systems, he manages to prevent any casualties.
Slasher and Demitrius, of course, get clean away, though they keep bickering… it’s kinda their thing:
(That bit with Kline repeating his last statement for emphasis is one of Gerry Conway’s most characteristic writerly tics of this era — I guess he felt that it added drama, but the device is really, really overused.)
So who are these “people” that Slasher and Demitrius were intended to destroy? The timing seems iffy for Tony and Marianne — but Conway’s script doesn’t offer any other candidates. Oh, well, moving on… Tony finally makes it to his Senate subcommittee hearing, only to find himself blind-sided by its chairman, who accuses both him and another witness, builder Ben Crandal, of shoddy workmanship and general negligence in their business practices; it appears that the airport terminal building that was damaged earlier by Slasher and Demitrius was one of Crandal’s. Tony attempts to mount a defense, but before he gets very far, an explosion rocks the Capitol. Of course, it’s our dastardly duo, still following their assignment from Mister Kline. But this time, Iron Man is able to home in on the sonic signal that triggered the blast, and follow it to its point of origin.
His arrival on the scene is, unsurprisingly, not greeted warmly…
As the battle continues, Marianne Rogers, having felt herself oddly drawn towards the mayhem, shows up on the scene — and Demitrius has a severe allergic reaction to her presence. It seems the young woman, who’s displayed some mild precognitive abilities in earlier issues, is in fact a powerful psychic; in her proximity, Demitrius is unable to maintain either his gigantic stature or head-sprouted tentacles — they were just illusions, anyway — and Iron Man quickly cleans both the bad guys’ clocks.
And that’s that for these two sad sacks, whom, as we’ve already noted, have yet to make a return appearance, a half-century later. (Note to any current Marvel writers, or editors, who might be reading this post: please don’t take that as an invitation. Or a challenge.) Following their defeat theyre promptly carted off to jail, where one must assume they keep their mouths steadfastly shut about their employer, since the authorities never seems to start looking for this Kline guy at any time during the storyline. (The same goes for Bull Taurus and company over in Daredevil.)
So, what do we know about the enigmatic Mister Kline at this point? Well, he seems to have an interest in creating super-powered operatives, per the Professor’s experiments in Daredevil — despite the fact that, as shown in Iron Man, he already has such working for him. (Granted, you can see why he’d think he could maybe do better than Demitrius and the Slasher.) He’s also attempting to manipulate events on both a relatively small scale (blackmailing a local District Attorney) and a seemingly larger one (discrediting a couple of major federal contractors). And, of course, as of the latter pages of IM #41, we now know that Kline, himself, isn’t calling the shots, but reports to an even more mysterious master. What, one must wonder, is “the Overplan“? We readers haven’t been given enough information to hazard even a guess, but I’m sure Gerry Conway must know. Mustn’t he?
Um, let’s move on to our next chapter, in Daredevil #80. With this one, Conway returns to scripting duties, rejoining the Colan/Palmer art team as they show us Mister Kline adjusting his modus operandi once again by enlisting a known supervillain to do his dirty work, rather than either growing his own (like Man-Bull), or hiring guys with no résumé (like Slasher and Demitrius). As you can see from the Gil Kane/Marie Severin/Frank Giacoia cover, that villain is that old DD standby, the Owl… whom we first see in the issue first boasting to, then berating an underling. But he has to cut that stuff short, because he has his own boss to answer to…
So Mister Kline chafes at having to answer to his own master, eh? How ironic. We also learn in this scene that our villain has moved on to targeting Daredevil directly — which is interesting, considering that DD basically stumbled into the Professor/Man-Bull business, and Kline (presumably) has no way of knowing about the close connection between the hero and D.A. Franklin Nelson.
Rather than go after DD immediately, the Owl opts to rob a midtown department store first — but it works out OK, I guess, because our hero turns up to stop him. The two old foes’ battle climaxes with a fight aboard the baddie’s Owl-copter…
The woman watching in horror (via TV) as Daredevil apparently meets a violent end is Karen Page — who, as you might remember, learned back in issue #57 that he was really her beloved Matt Murdock, subsequently found she couldn’t deal with the knowledge, and ultimately decamped to Hollywood, where she almost instantly became a movie star — you know, the way New York secretaries so often do. (And now you can forget all about that, because Karen plays no role whatsoever in the remainder of the Mister Kline saga.)
We’ll learn DD’s fate in a bit, but first, let’s take a look at Iron Man #42. Scripter Conway and penciller George Tuska are joined by inker Frank Giacoia for this one (Tuska and Giacoia also produced the cover), which finds Mister Kline’s Washington-based operations proceeding apace:
“Soulfather“, eh? Well, I guess he has to call himself something. At least “Destroy Stark!” is a clear, straightforward directive — though I’m not sure that going through Marianne, rather than aiming straight for Tony, makes a whole lot of sense.
Soulfather, or Mikas, or whatever, teleports himself out of Mister Kline’s “Mutant Sector” — which seems to be a high-tech facility staffed by guys wearing lab coats (thereby raising the question of why Kline had the Professor working out of what amounted to a waterfront shack In Daredevil #78-79, with no assistants save for Bull Taurus and his lowlife buddies, but never mind). He reappears in Marianne’s D.C. hotel room, where he instantly places her in mental thrall prior to abducting her. Then, in short order, he’s also got Iron Man in his clutches, having transported both him and Mairanne to what looks like some sort of sulfurous, demon-haunted netherworld…
Mikas’ power set is pretty ill-defined — he calls himself a mutant, but his abilities seem to have been enhanced, or at least awakened, by the Sector’s experimentation. He can control minds, shoot energy bolts out of his hands, control demons, and God knows what else. Whatever it is, it’s enough for him to put our hero down for the count by the end of the issue. (Along the way, we also learn in this installment that the U.S. senator leading the charge against Tony Stark, Ernest McJavit, is actually an android controlled by Mister Kline — just before Kline destroys him by remote control. Guy’s got a long reach…)
And now our saga takes a rather bizarre detour into Gerry Conway’s third monthly Marvel title, by way of Sub-Mariner #42 (Oct., 1971). As you might recall from our S-M #40 post a few months back, after the murder of his beloved Lady Dorma, Prince Namor had renounced his Atlantean throne; subsequently, he’d begun a search for his human father, long thought dead. More recently, in issue #41, he’d been waylaid in a small town in upstate New York by a woman named Aunt Serr, who’d mutated virtually all the town’s inhabitants into monsters. That story continued into the issue we’re looking at here, #42. But all you really need to know (besides that it was produced by the team of Conway, Tuska, and Mooney) is that Subby is in the middle of throwing down with one of the biggest and strongest of these monsters (see the Kane-Giacoia cover at left) when there’s an unexpected interruption:
Once his mental link with Namor has been severed, the shiny fellow called “Son” tells his “Father” all about Namor’s great loneliness, and the nobility of his silent suffering…
And with that little plug, our strange interlude is over. The Sub-Mariner comes to with no memory of the events we’ve just witnessed (which a caption tells us all transpired “in half an instant!“) and goes on to complete his current adventure, while Father and Son move on to… well, you’ll find out a little later.
The next two episodes of our saga both hit stands in August, 1971 — the one (and only) month that virtually every Marvel title went to a 25-cent/48-page format (or as we like to call it around here, “Giant-Size Marvel Month“). Interestingly, both Daredevil #81 and Iron Man #43 were outliers of a sort, as neither featured an extra-length lead story, but filled out their expanded page-counts with reprints. As explained at the time in a Marvel Bullpen Bulletin, the plan was for both series to combine into a single title the following month; that never happened, but it’s interesting to consider the road not taken in the context of our present discussion. Would the Mister Kline saga have concluded with a single-issue, 30-plus-page team-up between Hornhead and Shellhead in their shared showcase? Perhaps, but we’ll never know.
Even at standard length, DD #81 did bring a major new player into the storyline, as heralded by the comic’s Kane-Giacoia cover: the Black Widow, fresh from her recently cancelled solo berth in Amazing Adventures. Added first as a continuing member of Daredevil‘s supporting cast, but later upgraded to a co-billed partner of the titular hero, Natasha Romanoff would remain part of the series long after Mister Kline had become no more than an unpleasant memory.
Conway, Colan, and new inker Jack Abel bring ‘Tasha onto the scene moments after DD’s plunge into New York Harbor…
As she swims to retrieve our unconscious hero from the bottom of the Hudson River, the Black Widow frets about her so-called “curse”. This was a plot element first brought into Ms. Romanoff’s short-lived solo series by Roy Thomas, then taken forward by Conway, which involved the propensity of men who came into the Widow’s orbit to meet sudden and violent ends; frankly, it never made much sense to you humble blogger, and though it would eventually go away, it took way too long.
Being blind, Daredevil naturally can’t see — and thus doesn’t recognize — his rescuer. After pulling the hero ashore, the Widow slips away into an alley, from which she watches as he wakes up and then promptly quits the scene. She gets the wrong idea from this, as she shares with her chauffer and aide, Ivan, while changing clothes in the back of her car. (This sort of thing happened a lot in Daredevil while Natasha was appearing in the book, just as it had in her solo series.)
Then, as the Owl proceeds to move forward with his own schemes, his former boss reports in to his mysterious master:
Back in August, 1971, my fourteen-year-old self was definitely surprised by this Big Reveal concerning Mister Kline — or should I say MK-9? Or, rather, should I say “Assassin” (and does that come with a definite article, by the way)? I was basically OK with the idea of Kline being an android, as best as I can recall; but I did have some reservations about whether his appearance here was really consistent with the admittedly shadowy, but still very human-looking representations of earlier episodes. And why was an android almost constantly smoking a cigarette? Finally, despite MK-9’s still-unseen master calling his new codename a “reward“, I hardly thought that “Assassin” (or the Assassin, if you prefer) constituted an upgrade over “Mister Kline”. Rather, it sounded generic, and not even especially apt, given that we hadn’t yet seen Kline actually murder anyone.
The story moves on to deal with the Owl’s next attempt at a crime, as he and his gang attempt to rob the Treasury building; both DD and the Widow respond, and ultimately take down the hollow-boned crimelord together…
Tossing away his jacket, eh? It does seem like we’ve have entered a new phase of the storyline, one in which the Mister Kline identity really may be irrelevant. Let’s see how that works out in the next chapter or so.
Moving on to August’s Iron Man, issue #43 (which features another cover pencilled by Kane, with inks attributed to either Giacoia or John Romita, depending on the source) picks up with our hero still trapped in Mikas the Soulfather’s weird underworld. It soon becomes clear that Mikas knows that Iron Man is in reality Tony Stark — which is interesting, since Mister Kline himself didn’t appear to know that back in IM #41. Though he acknowledges that “death was not the original end we’d planned”, Mikas decides he’s had enough of the Golden Avenger, and sends him tumbling into a fiery chasm…
“– for a man — to be free!” Shellhead’s power pack kicks in just in the nick of time, and he soars back up out of the pit — but, as a thought balloon tells us, he’s only got about five minutes of juice to overcome Mikas and free himself and Marianne — after that, his pacemaker will stop and he’ll die. Yeah, that’s a lot of pressure, but of course it doesn’t prevent our hero from taunting his foe even while walloping him with repulsor rays…
Soulfather is slowly wearing Iron Man down, but as Marianne watches her would-be rescuer suffer, she comes to recognize that the man in the armor is the man she loves, Tony Stark — and Mikas’ spell over her is broken…
Soulfather threatens them with a giant serpent called Doomprayer (or, as it’s spelled once, “Doomsprayer”. Doom’s prayer? Doom sprayer? Whatever. It’s a goofy name, in any iteration.)
The clock is running down rapidly, so Iron Man puts all he’s got into one final effort:
That seems to get the job done — at least, there’s no sign of Mikas, Doom(s)prayer, or anyone else when the smoke clears. And wouldn’t you know, our hero’s luck holds out just a little while longer, because rescue arrives before his heart literally gives out — in the form of his friend and Stark Industries employee Kevin O’Brien (remember Kevin from December, 1970’s pre-Kline crossover between Iron Man and Daredevil? Sure you do.), presently wearing the “Guardsman” armor he and Tony have been working on…
So… Mikas was a robot this whole time? What was that “Mutant Sector” stuff all about, then? Oh, well, moving on… In Daredevil #82 (which features yet another Kane-Giacoia cover), the Conway-Colan-Abel team depicts how Mister Kline (yeah, we’re going to keep calling him that, at least for a while longer) puts the next phase of his plan into effect, as he sends the Scorpion — or at least someone who looks just like the Scorpion, and has his abilities — to capture the Black Widow, all to lure Daredevil into a trap.
Meanwhile, Foggy Nelson appears to have had all he can take…
In case you’re wondering… no, Conway still hasn’t let us in on D.A. Nelson’s dirty little secret (though the “two years ago” line at least gives us a timeframe of sorts, which is more information than we’ve had up until this point). But it must be pretty awful if good ol’ Foggy is contemplating cold-blooded murder, right?
Kline’s tossing away his jacket at the conclusion of Daredevil #81 suggested that his play-acting as a human being had come to an end. But here he is back in a suit, and still smoking a cigarette, even. Does he actually heat up the gun in Foggy’s hand, or just make him think he does? Does he show Foggy his true face? This scene leaves us with more questions than answers.
For the issue’s climax, DD and the Widow battle with the Scorpion atop one of the twin towers of the World Trade Center, still under construction…
Yeah, that’s really lousy timing with that guy showing up at the end, since it sure looked to me like DD was at least as responsible for the Scorpion’s fall as was the Black Widow. Still, it’s the Widow who gets hauled off to jail in Daredevil #83 (cover by Romita), as chronicled by Conway with the surprise fill-in art team of Barry Windsor-Smith (layouts), Bill Everett (inks), and, in his first credited gig at Marvel, Alan Weiss (pencils). (Regular readers of this blog will recall Mr. Weiss from last week’s Batman #237 post as that pal of Dick Grayson’s who really liked parade floats.)
And if you’re wondering why we’re heading right into the next issue of Daredevil, rather than flipping over to the concurrently-published issue of Iron Man as we’ve been doing — well, the answer is that there wasn’t an issue of Iron Man released in September, 1971. Although the Golden Avenger had managed to avoid having his title folded into a joint book with the Scarlet Swashbuckler (and vice versa), Iron Man‘s anemic sales had nevertheless resulted in its frequency being knocked down to bimonthly.
Conway’s script for DD #83 includes the usual blather about Natasha’s “curse”, as well as some rather more novel and interesting rhetoric about the deck being stacked against her in the American legal system, due to anti-Russian prejudice, but none of it is very convincing. That’s because the Black Widow’s fate basically comes down to the prosecutorial predilections of one man — Matt Murdock’s best bud (and current boss), New York District Attorney Foggy Nelson:
Hmm, do androids prefer filtered or unfiltered, do you suppose? Note that our villain is referring to himself as “the Assassin”, now — at least while talking to Foggy.
Due to Foggy fast-tracking the case, the Widow’s trial begins just two weeks later. Things don’t go well for Ms. Romanoff, as the government brings witnesses to testify to her previous career as a Soviet spy (should that even be admissible?), and it evidently never occurs to the brilliant attorney Matt Murdock to counter with character witnesses from the Avengers, or S.H.I.E.L.D..
But, fortunately for ‘Tasha, Matt’s not completely useless. Following a hunch that something seemed “off” about the Scorpion when he was fighting him, he decides to visit the morgue as Daredevil to have a closer look at — er, make that a closer sensory examination of — the late villain’s body. But when he gets there, he’s ambushed by another old-time Marvel villain — Mister Hyde, this time. After temporarily deafening our hero with an explosive capsule, Hyde helpfully informs him that he’s been ordered specifically to prevent him from examining the Scorpion’s corpse. “But… good Lord, man… why?” queries DD.
Both Hyde and the Scorpion are completely disintegrated by this blast** — and with no murdered corpse on hand, D.A. Nelson opts to dismiss the case against Natasha Romanoff.
Their shared experience has brought counselor and client closer together, but, wouldn’t you know it, the client already has feelings for the counselor’s costumed alter ego. It’s Superhero Comics Romantic Triangles 101, y’all.
Back on the other side of the saga, Iron Man #44 brought a couple of adjustments on the creative end of things (not that you could judge by the cover, yet another nice Kane-Giacoia piece). And while it perhaps wasn’t all that noteworthy that George Tuska’s pencils were inked by Vince Colletta this go-around, the change on the writing end of things was more significant. As he had earlier in the Mister Kline saga with DD #79, Gerry Conway provided only the plot for this installment ,while the script, quite unexpectedly, was by veteran DC Comics writer (and once-and-future DC editor) Robert Kanigher. This was the one and only time the prolific Kanigher would write for Marvel over the course of his four-decades-plus career; and, honestly, if you’ve read this comic, it’s not hard to see why he didn’t get a follow-up gig. One wishes to make allowances for someone just learning the ropes of the “Marvel method” of comics-making — but I have a hard time believing that Kanigher actually read any issues of Iron Man before scripting this one, based on how out-of-character Tony Stark’s and other characters’ dialogue reads.
The tale picks up in the aftermath of issue #43’s victory over Mikas, as the Guardsman rushes Iron Man to Avengers Mansion in hopes of using their equipment to repair and restart his pacemaker. The effort is successful, and Tony’s life is saved; but as he lies unconscious on a surgical table, he finds his dreams haunted by an old foe, the Night Phantom (first and last seen in Iron Man #14, where he died, or at least appeared to). Of course, it’s all the work of our old friend Mister Kline…
Following Kline’s command, the Night Phantom invades Tony Stark’s penthouse, where our hero is recovering under Marianne’s care. Seeing his beloved in danger, Tony manages to suit up, and despite his weakened state, he overcomes the Phantom with one desperate release of repulsor-ray power:
At least, it seems that the Night Phantom is down for the count. But even as the exhausted Iron Man sinks back in relief, the villain’s inert body begins to twitch…
This episode ends abruptly (and perhaps mercifully) after only 13 pages — the remainder of IM #44’s pages were taken up by an Ant-Man short — for reasons I suspect had something to do with the abandoned plan to feature Iron Man and Daredevil together in a single 25-cent title. But whatever the cause, we end on a cliffhanger that won’t be resolved for two months, due to the title’s new bi-monthly schedule; rather ironic, given that by that time, Mister Kline will have been…
Whoops. Almost gave away the ending to Daredevil #84, which would be a shame, seeing that it’s taken us over 5500 words (and an uncounted number of image scans) simply to arrive at the comic book that’s the ostensible “main” subject of this blog post. Yes, faithful readers, we’re there at last…
Behind another cover by (say it with me) Kane and Giacoia***, Gene Colan returned for this climactic chapter (from what I’m sure was a well-earned vacation). Joining him was inker Syd Shores — who, while not the ideal finisher for Colan’s impressionistic pencils that Tom Palmer was, was still considerably better at the job than Jack Abel, at least in the opinion of your humble blogger.
Rather remarkably, considering how much important narrative content they’re going to have to squeeze into the next 20 pages, Conway and Colan open with an entirely extraneous action scene involving DD helping the cops corral some jewelry-store robbers. Of course, even while dodging bullets, our hero’s thoughts drift away towards a certain someone…
“What are the thoughts of a woman alone? Dare we pry?” I guess not, though “we” don’t seem to mind spying on her while she’s in a state of undress, do we?
Tthat’s a segue back to the jewelry-store fracas in New York, which ends almost exactly as you’d expect…
And with that, Foggy Nelson walks out of our story, his role in the Mister Kline saga complete. And no, we still don’t know what his “stupid mistake” was.****
See those “two dim figures“? Yeah, it’s Father and Son from Sub-Mariner #42. You didn’t think that Conway had forgotten about them, did you?
Seventeen hours later, Matt’s plane lands in Switzerland. On their way to the ski lodge, Natasha explains to him about how Dr. Emil Borgdsky’s “new surgical approach” may be able to cure his blindness…
DD follows Borgdsky from the lodge to an unusual structure composed of several domes. Along the way, he delivers an expository interior monologue explaining how, before flying to Switzerland, he’d checked out Mister Kline’s former Long Island HQ (presumably he got the address from Foggy) and found it deserted. Investigating further, he’d learned that a plane chartered by Kline had disappeared over the Atlantic — but that its destination had been Switzerland. A conicidence? DD doesn’t think so; and, of course, he’s spot on, as he discovers when he enters one of the domes…
And here, at last, is Mister Kline’s great secret — he’s from The Future! And his mission in the 20th century is to prevent an undesirable timeline from coming to pass. OK, I guess that tracks. And his mysterious master is named Baal, after the ancient Levantine deity, because… well, because it sounds cool, I guess.
On the right side of the last panel above, we see transparent tubes holding the inert figures of Mister Hyde, the Scorpion, and… I’m not sure. It looks more like the Spymaster (who appeared in that earlier Iron Man-Daredevil crossover I mentioned earlier) than anyone else I can think of; maybe Kline built an android replica of him as well, but never got around to actually using it? (If anyone has another idea, please share in the comments.)
The idea of a supercomputer that has become the last sentient entity on the Earth of the far future, and wants to change history so that its own timeline can’t come to be, is actually a fairly cool one; it’s muddled, however, by the additional complication that this same future world is also in imminent danger of total destruction, for reasons never explained. (The human race is already extinct, we’re told, so despite Kline’s rhetoric, it’s hard to see how that’s on us.) Conway really needed more room to flesh out these two discrete ideas more completely; in retrospect, he’d probably have done better just to pick one, and run with it.
As the fight continues, the Assassin grumbles about how “living humans may not be anticipated“, which is why he gave up on using real live agents like the Owl in favor of androids…
Um, what was that about the plan “against Stark” going so well? Has the Assassin gotten a peek at Iron Man #45 before the rest of us?
Hey, Father and Son, you made it! I gotta say, though, you guys have cut it pretty close. We’ve only got one more page of story left in this comic book, so if you’re going to do something, you better get on with it…
Conway’s future timeline is all screwy — Baal was supposedly communicating with Kline from 12,000 years in the future, but Father and Son claim to be from both “thirty centuries” in the future and “a time after the explosive death of Baal!” But thirty centuries is only 3,000 years. Methinks we should assume that Conway meant “thirty millennia“, which would put F. and S. as coming from 30,000 years hence, and let it go at that.
And in any event, it’s all over now. The Assassin has been blown to kingdom come, and the future of the Earth is safe — if not for us human beings, then at least for our shiny-skinned successor race, “the Final Sons of Man”. Daredevil and the Black Widow appear to be poised to begin a new life together, which should be nice. Yes, the Mister Kline saga has at last reached its ending, and it may fairly be called a happy one, on balance… wait, what did you just say?… Oh, damn, you’re right.
I forgot about Iron Man. (I’m tempted to add, “just like Marvel did”. But I won’t.)
Roughly a month after the release of Daredevil #84, Marvel gave us an odd, perfunctory little wrap-up to the Iron Man side of the Kline storyline via the first five pages of IM #45 (cover by Kane, Giacoia, and Romita, according to the GCD). Its “get-this-over-with-quick” vibe is easily explained by a notable change in the title’s creative team; for, while Tuska and Colletta continued on artistic duties, Gerry Conway was no longer involved with the writing, even as plotter; Iron Man‘s new writer was Gary Friedrich.
Friedrich gets Tony and Marianne out of the tight spot Conway and Kanigher had left them in by revealing that our hero’s armor contains a brand-new, previously-unmentioned “power booster” which, when he turns it on, gives him the zip he needs to take down the Night Phantom android once and for all…
“…what will he toss at us next?!” Well, Tony, that would be… well, nothing, actually. Y’see, after a brief scene set at a meeting of the Board of Stark Industries, in which said Board decides to oust Tony as President in the wake of his recent problems with the federal government, the narrative returns to Mister Kline one final time:
And that’s it. Kline is dead (if that’s the word) and gone, and Gary Friedrich moves on to spend the rest of IM #45 telling his own story, about a campus protest and the Guardsman. And if Tony Stark ever has a fleeting thought down the line on the order of, “Gee, I wonder whatever happened to that Kline fellow who was giving me such a hard time for a while there,” we readers are never made privy to it, as best as I can determine.
Back in 1971, this was probably my greatest disappointment regarding the Mister Kline saga — that not only did the story not end with a convergence of the two tracks of the storyline, i.e., a team-up between Daredevil and Iron Man to take down their mutual enemy, but that the Kline plot thread in Iron Man was simply cut off, with no real resolution whatsoever. And I blamed Gerry Conway for it.
Which, in retrospect, was probably a little unfair. After all, Conway wasn’t responsible for the decision-making at Marvel that led to Iron Man‘s almost being merged into Daredevil, then cut to a bimonthly schedule. Nor was he in charge of who got to write what series for the publisher. (Although it’s probably a good bet that, given the chance, he’s unlikely to have told Lee and Thomas, “Gosh, I appreciate you guys offering me the chance to succeed Stan on Thor, but I really need to stay on Iron Man until I see this Mister Kline thing to the end.”)
On the other hand, it makes all the sense in the world to lay the other major failings of the saga at Conway’s feet — the muddled SF of the solution to the mystery of Kline’s identity, for instance; or, even more so, the wildly shifting objectives and strategies of this supposed master manipulator. At first Kline doesn’t know that Tony Stark is Iron Man, then he does; first he just wants to capture Daredevil, then he wants to kill him. and so on. Gee, you’d almost think the writer was just making it all up as he went along.
Which he almost certainly was. According to what he told interviewer Richard Arndt some four decades later for Alter Ego #131 (Mar., 2015), that was pretty much the common practice among comics writers at the time:
It was a different era. We were probably less polished and thought things through less than writers do today. I’m always stunned when I hear somebody like Joe Straczynski say he’s got story arcs plotted for a two-year stretch. I’m like… Whoa! That’s pretty impressive! For me, it’s like “What am I doing next month? I don’t know.” I’m writing this issue here. I’m plotting or setting up plot ideas that may take place in the upcoming months, but it was mostly writing by the seat-of-my-pants. There was a lot of energy and primitive power to that for me and other writers who were doing similar work, but as far as an in-depth working out of where things were going to go, there were only a handful of writers who were doing that, if that many. Honestly, I doubt a lot of people who say they were plotting things out that long, because unless they were doing just one book a month, nobody had the time to think things through seven months or ten months in advance. You couldn’t make a living writing comic books unless you were doing three to four titles a month…
Fair enough. A man’s gotta eat, and it’s not my place to second-guess a young man’s life choices, especially a whole half-century after the fact. But here’s a thought; maybe if you’re just getting started as a comic book writer, still learning your craft, and you know you’re going to have to “pants it” to get the job done, a complicated long-term continuity intertwined between two or maybe even three titles, built on a central mystery, may not be the optimal approach to take. Or maybe you should at least know the rudiments of how your mega-story is going to end before you plunge headlong into things. Like I said, it’s just a thought.
There’s also this: there are a number of Gerry Conway stories I like a lot. But they’re mostly early short tales, such as those that he did for DC’s mystery books, or the Dr. Doom ten-pager he produced with Gene Colan and Tom Palmer for Astonishing Tales #8 — a comic which, incidentally, came out in July, 1971, smack dab in the middle of the Mister Kline shenanigans. (For what it’s worth, that’s a story I really wanted to cover in a blog post, but just couldn’t manage to squeeze in.) After 1971, there were still plenty of Gerry Conway comics I thought were “okay” — in other words, they were entertaining enough that I didn’t begrudge having bought or read them (it helped, of course, that he worked with a number of very talented artists over the years) — but only a handful I thought were really, really good.
Looking back half a century, I have to wonder if Conway may have tried too hard, too fast, when he was just starting out. If he’d spent more time learning his craft on the shorter stuff — maybe pursued his short-lived sideline of prose SF writing a little longer, so he could have worked with different, and perhaps more attentive, editors — before taking on as many monthly serials as Marvel was willing to give him, then maybe today I’d have a higher opinion of his later work.
I was curious to know what the writer himself made of the Mister Kline saga several decades after the fact, so I checked out the introductions he’d done in the 2010s for the Marvel Masterworks volumes collecting these stories. While he doesn’t mention specifically mention the storyline in his intros to the relevant Daredevil or Sub-Mariner tomes, his 2013 preface to Marvel Masterworks — The Invincible Iron Man, Vol. 8 includes the following paragraph — framed, incidentally, as “an apology”:
Iron Man (along with Sub-Mariner, and soon after, Daredevil) was my first foray into scripting an ongoing comic book series. I’m afraid it shows, particularly in the poor development of that man of supposed mystery, the puppet master I called Mister Kline. I honestly don’t recall what I intended when I introduced him as the player-behind the-scenes, but the final reveal (here and in a concurrent issue of Daredevil) must have been disappointing for readers. What can I say now, but, sorry, folks—I was still on the bottom end of a long learning curve. (A curve I’m still following to this day, I might add.)
Well, damn. It would be churlish not to accept an apology offered in what seems to be as sincerely humble a spirit as that one, and I’d like to think I’m not a churl. So, Mr. Conway: I accept. And so does my inner fourteen-year-old (though I can’t say he hasn’t had to be dragged along for at least part of the way).
And who knows? Over the next few years, as this blog makes its way through the years that represent Gerry Conway’s maturation as a comics writer, as well as mine as a comics reader, maybe some of his post-Kline stories will read better to me now than they did originally, all those years ago. As they say, only time will tell.
Speaking of time, I’d like to thank you, faithful reader, for sticking with this very long post all the way to the end. I’d also like to offer my special thanks to Blake Stone, Comicsdad, gardibolt, and the other participants in the “Marvel Masterworks Marathon” threads posted monthly to CollectedEditions.com’s Masterworks Message Board. These folks have been discussing the “Mister Kline” stories for the last seven months while I sat back, stayed mum, and made mental notes; inevitably, their insights have found their way into my own analysis. (Though I hasten to add, all the lousy ideas are completely mine.)
*Somewhere around this time, Conway also sold a short story to Harlan Ellison, whom he’d met at the 1970 Clarion Writers’ Workshop, for an upcoming anthology entitled The Last Dangerous Visions — a collection which, alas, still remains unpublished at this writing, three years after Ellison’s death in 2018. (Though if J. Michael Straczynski is to be believed, there’s still hope.)
**About six months later, Captain America #151 (Jul., 1972) — which was written by Conway — revealed that Mister Kline had captured the real Scorpion and Mister Hyde so that he could build android replicas of them. Eventually, of course, the dastardly duo escaped, and returned to their nefarious ways.
***OK, Mike Esposito may have helped out as well (according to the Grand Comics Database).
****Daredevil readers would eventually be let in on the secret, courtesy of a scene in issue #86 in which Foggy unburdened himself to Matt at a party (text by Conway, art by Colan and Palmer):
Ironically, your humble blogger missed this reveal back in 1972, as I’d taken a brief hiatus from buying Daredevil after #84 (it lasted all of two issues, if you’re wondering), and so I didn’t learn what Mister Kline had on D.A. Nelson until — well, until I started doing research for this post a few weeks ago, actually.
Truth to tell, however, I might not have felt all that much more enlightened if I had bought DD #86, as the earlier issue footnoted by “Studious Stan”, #60, had been published during another, longer period in 1969-70 when I wasn’t buying Daredevil (or much of anything else, for that matter). But since Foggy decides by the end of the following issue, #87 (which I did buy), to forget about the whole thing and keep on being District Attorney, the details didn’t really matter much in the long run, anyway.