When we last checked in on Matt Murdock for this blog, he was engaging in an unnecessary (but still entertaining) slugfest with Captain America, while also moping over having been (sort of) dumped by his (kinda) girlfriend, Karen Page. All that, of course, went down in Daredevil #43, published in June, 1968. The three issues that followed that one told a single story, in which Daredevil was framed for murder by his newest arch-foe, the Jester, who’d been introduced in #42. I bought those issues when they came out, and the story was a pretty good one, as I recall. Nevertheless, I’ve opted not to blog about them here — mainly because the Jester’s not all that interesting to me as a villain, and I’ve already made most of the general comments I could make about scripter Stan Lee and penciler Gene Colan’s late-Sixties DD work in earlier posts.
Daredevil #47 is something different, however. “Brother, Take My Hand!” (for which Lee and Colan are joined by inker George Klein) is a standalone story without any flashy costumed super-villains, which deals meaningfully with some fairly unusual topics for a 1968 comic book — the Vietnam War, physical disabilities, and racial equality — without actually being “about” any of them.
Unknown to Willie and Sam, DD has been ready to go into action for awhile, but has remained waiting in the wings at the request of the military brass “for a certain wounded G.I. to arrive!” But now that said wounded warrior is on the scene, it’s showtime:
Offhand, I can’t recall another instance of a costumed superhero performing at an overseas, wartime USO show, though I figure there must be at least a couple more examples out there. In any event, it’s hard to imagine anyone doing a better job than Gene Colan does here at making a guy in red tights doing gymnastics look like top-flight entertainment.
Tragically, the last of Willie’s eyesight goes before he can see the last of DD’s performance — though later, at the post infirmary, he does receive the consolation of a special visitor:
Marvel Comics had referred to the war in Vietnam at numerous times in the past, of course; indeed, it was a central component of the origin of one of the publisher’s earliest superheroes, Iron Man. And in stories such as that one, published in 1963, or the “Thor” tale in 1965’s Journey Into Mystery #117, there had been a clear message of support for the war effort. These stories’ military villains were “red guerilla tyrants” or “red terrorists”, fervently serving the cause of Communism — a belief system capable of shaping a man into “a brutal, unthinking instrument of destruction”, as Stan Lee put it in that “Thor” story. In Marvel’s earliest years, one would look in vain for any indication that the Vietnamese conflict might be any more morally dubious than the Second World War, which Sgt. Nick Fury and his Howling Commandos prosecuted with gusto every month in their own Marvel comic. (Indeed, Nick and the boys even briefly went back into active military service to help out in the Southeast Asian conflict, as chronicled in their 1966 Annual, without missing a step.) Such was hardly a controversial point of view, of course; indeed, it was probably reflective of what the majority of Americans thought at that time.
But by the summer of 1968 — when Lee and Colan would have likely been putting this Daredevil story together — public opinion polls were indicating that more than half the county now opposed the war in Vietnam. Whether the new tone that Lee subsequently struck here thus represented a sincere change of heart and mind on his own part, a calculated adjustment to the shifting mood of his audience, or some combination of both, is obviously a question that can’t be decisively answered in this blog post. And there’s another point that must be noted here, as well — namely, that while it’s true that Marvel’s editor-in-chief grew more and more comfortable expressing opinions on social issues as the Sixties progressed, both in his comics stories and in his “Stan’s Soapbox” columns, it’s also true that those opinions, though generally left-leaning, rarely tended towards the radical. The sentiments that Lee expresses through Daredevil as the hero leaves Vietnam — “War! The most brutal — most idiotic — most loathsome manifestation of all that’s wrong with mankind!” — impress the reader (this one, anyway) as deeply and honestly felt; but they are also expressions of revulsion at war in general, rather than specific criticisms of the war in Vietnam. They could have been expressed just as easily about any other war — even World War II, which it’s probably safe to assume that Lee still considered to have been a necessary conflict.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that Lee, or Colan, didn’t feel negatively about American policy in Vietnam, specifically. As the artist put it decades later in his introduction to Marvel Masterworks – Daredevil, Vol. 5: “I loved the fact that we were speaking out about the Vietnam War and expressing some of the feelings we were having at home about the issues of that particular war, and most importantly showing the suffering and loss of our soldiers and their families.” The end of that sentence is important, as what transpires through the remainder of the present story, in which Willie Lincoln attempts to resume his civilian life back home, is where the difference between this tale and other, earlier comic books touching upon Vietnam can be most clearly seen — i.e., such comic books as Justice League of America #50, published roughly two years earlier, in which the whole JLA turns out to see a returning Vietnam vet honored as an American hero.
Of course, JLA #50’s Eddie Brent only had being kidnapped and brainwashed by the Lord of Time to contend with, whereas Willie Lincoln — besides having certain other disadvantages clearly not shared by the sighted (and white) Sgt. Brent — has to deal with the fact that, before going into the service, he’d lost his job with the NYPD through being framed for a crime he didn’t commit. Discussing the matter with his old police precinct captain, Willie is told that he ought to get himself a lawyer. Apparently having already forgotten DD’s tip to look up Matt Murdock when he got back home, Willie isn’t sure how to go about doing that, and thus turns up at a Welfare Department office — where he’s met by what is, to us regular readers, a very familiar face:
Yep, it’s Karen Page, who’s been AWOL from Daredevil since walking out of the Nelson & Murdock law offices in issue #43. Considering that she’d appeared in almost every issue prior to that, one can forgive the breathless way that her reemergence was trumpeted in that month’s Mighty Marvel Checklist (“The secret of Karen Page!”), even if the fact of her going to work for the Welfare Dept. wasn’t what you’d call an especially dramatic reveal. (On the other hand, Karen’s career move here seems rather more plausible than the parallel one she makes in the second season of Netflix’s DD TV series, despite the latter’s presumably more “realistic” take on superheroes.)
For what it’s worth, my most vivid recollection from when I first read this scene as an eleven-year-old is my amazement that Karen had changed her hairstyle from when we saw her last. I mean, are comic book characters even allowed to do that?!
One of “Biggie”‘s hoods suggests that maybe they should make sure Mr. Lincoln never gets to court, y’know what I mean? Biggie likes the idea, and soon said hood has hoofed it over to Willie’s apartment building — only to find that a certain Man Without Fear, having anticipated such a move, is lurking in the stairwell:
And so, the next day, we readers get to see Matt do his attorney thing in a courtroom — an occurrence that was rarer in the Sixties than you might think. (Enough so that this scene, too, was ballyhooed in this issue’s Mighty Marvel Checklist entry, right before the return of Karen Page: “A courtroom bombshell!”)
And in two pages, it’s over. Gee, Matt must be a good lawyer — it always used to take Perry Mason a whole hour to exonerate someone!
“Maybe it’s because I had to study — to work — a little harder than…” Maybe, Matt — but don’t you figure having super-enhanced senses that actually allowed you to navigate through the world better than a sighted person might also have helped, just a little?
Matt’s great idea, of course, is to pummel the would-be assassins senseless in the dark while pretending that he’s actually Willie. “Here in the darkness,” he muses silently, “the odds are all in favor of a blind man!” (Of course, they’re even more in favor of a blind man with super-enhanced senses, etc. — a fact that somewhat undercuts the story’s only moment in which it’s suggested that Willie’s disability might actually provide him with an advantage over a sighted person, in certain situations.)
The hoods try to make a break for it through the window, but…
And so, with a little help from Willie’s never-named seeing eye dog (good boy!), DD puts the last of Biggie’s thugs down for the count.
“Maybe that’s what brotherhood is all about!” And so our tale ends, with parting words from Willie Lincoln which, in addition to serving as the story’s last lines, also happen to be the first lines in it which probably wouldn’t have been included had Willie been drawn as a white man.
And that’s what makes Daredevil #47 so interesting as a “brotherhood” story, from the perspective of a half-century later. If “Brother, Take My Hand!” were to be published today, there’d be nothing at all remarkable about the fact of Willie being black; indeed, it would probably be seen as more unusual that, once we get past the opening scenes in Vietnam, Willie’s the only African-American character we see. And Willie’s final musings in the last panel would be a virtual non sequitur, coming seemingly out of nowhere.
But, of course, things were different in 1968 — a year which had, in the months just prior to the creation of this story, seen the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., followed by a subsequent wave of rioting in cities throughout America, and then, ultimately, the passage of the Civil Rights Act of of 1968. In the context of those times, the restrained approach that Lee and Colan took here — in contrast to that of such similar efforts as Gardner Fox and Mike Sekowsky’s “Man, Thy Name Is — Brother!” in the previous year’s Justice League of America #57, or even Lee’s own script for Silver Surfer #5, published a few months after DD #47 — might indeed have been subtle, almost to a fault*; but that didn’t mean it was invisible, or ineffective.
Of course, one could also say that the implied message of this story — which might be paraphrased as “we’re all brothers and sisters under the skin; so give your sibling a helping hand when they need one, and they’ll likely do the same for you” — was a rather mild one, which didn’t go as far as it could or should have in confronting the evil of racial injustice. One could even say that about the more explicit messages evident in the aforementioned SS #5, or in Lee’s “Stan’s Soapbox” column that had appeared in Marvel’s books the month before DD #47’s publication (shown at right).
And, perhaps, one would be correct in saying so. Nevertheless, speaking as someone who, in 1968, was growing up white and Southern Baptist in the city of Jackson, MS (which, for all practical purposes, was 100% racially segregated at that time) — and who was finding an ever-greater discordance between the homily “Jesus loves the little children; all the children of the world” that I heard sung at church, and the ways in which children of color were actually perceived and treated in my society — these messages, in which an adult I respected called out racism and bigotry as “insidious evils”, were ones I needed to hear, and to hear often.
Would a more forceful message have actually been more effective, for me and other kids like me, in 1968? Perhaps; I have no way of knowing. Still, I am, and will remain, grateful to Stan Lee and his collaborators at Marvel (as well as to their fellow travelers over at DC), for providing the messages that they did.
Pax et Justitia, indeed.
*Introducing this story in the 1975 collection Son of Origins of Marvel Comics, Lee himself noted: “I was trying to really say something in this story, and to say it softly.”