When I first saw the cover of Daredevil #51 on the spinner rack fifty years ago, I believe I must have known something was up.
After all, I’d been buying and reading this series for a whole year now, and even if I wasn’t the most sophisticated spotter and identifier of individual artists’ styles at age eleven, I believe that I could tell a Gene Colan Daredevil cover from, well, anyone else’s.
Not that there hadn’t been any non-Colan DD covers in the twelve months I’d been following the book — there’d been issue #43‘s, which was a Jack Kirby job. But that particular issue had guest-starred Captain America, and since Kirby was Cap’s regular artist at that time (and also his co-creator, of course, though I probably didn’t know that yet), that had made sense.
But who was this, who’d drawn the cover for #51? I mean, Daredevil’s head looked… different (and not just because it was giant and translucent). There was something sort of Kirbyesque about it, actually, but it wasn’t Kirby. So who?
It wasn’t until I opened the book to the first page that I discovered that there was a new penciller on the book (there was also a new writer, but I probably didn’t apprehend that change quite as quickly) — some fellow named Barry Smith:
This wouldn’t have been the first time I had seen the artist’s name, though. As a faithful reader of the “Bullpen Bulletins” page that ran in every Marvel comic, I’d seen the notice in the previous month’s edition that had announced the 19-year-old Englishman’s arrival. I’d even seen his work, as he’d done the cover for my first issue of Doctor Strange (purchased that same month), whose interiors had reprinted a classic Steve Ditko story — but since Smith (or Windsor-Smith, as he calls himself today) hadn’t signed it, I hadn’t known it was by him (and may well have assumed it was by Ditko).
And while I don’t remember if I had the Bullpen Bulletin’s invocation of Jack Kirby and Jim Steranko as reference points for this new artist’s style in my head as I began to read “Run, Murdock, Run!”, I suspect I could see the similarities between Windsor-Smith and those two worthies, regardless.
But before getting into that story — which, as you can see from the opening splash, begins in medias res — we’d better back up and fill in a bit, since the last issue of Daredevil I blogged about here was issue #47. This task will be a little more complicated than it might otherwise be, however, due to the fact that my younger self missed two of the issues between #47 and #51. Though I was a “regular” reader of the series, the fact remains that in early ’69, I still had to rely on my parents for transportation to the local stores that sold comics; and even if I could get there every week, it was possible that I wouldn’t see an issue, traditional newsstand distribution being what it was.
So — at the conclusion of #47, Matthew Murdock (aka Daredevil) was still on the outs with his former secretary and romantic interest Karen Page, who’d tearfully left his employ several issues earlier — feeling she couldn’t continue to work for a man whom she loved, and who she believed also loved her, but wouldn’t say so. In the next issue, #48 — the first of the two I missed — Karen came back, but ended up leaving again almost immediately, when Matt threw both her and his law partner and best friend, Franklin “Foggy” Nelson, out of their shared offices on a night when Foggy was planning to use it himself for his political campaign to become New York City District Attorney.
What Matt couldn’t tell either of them, of course, was that he’d discovered that the super-villain called the Stilt Man had been hired by Foggy’s underworld enemies to kill him, and would be attacking him at the Nelson & Murdock law offices that very night. So, when Stilt Man showed up, Daredevil was there to stop him — and as a result, Foggy was safely able to successfully complete his run for D.A., winning in a landslide. Once elected, however, Foggy made it clear that he and Matt were just as through as Matt and Karen (again) were.
Issue #49 — which I did buy — opened with Matt returning home to his apartment, declaring that he was “giving up the role of Daredevil — forever!” Stan Lee’s script informed me that this was because Matt blamed his costumed alter-ego for causing him to lose both his beloved and his best friend — but if I wanted more details than that, I was out of luck. An editorial footnote by Stan (see right) advised me that the matter was “too complicated to explain!” Gee, thanks, Stan.
Here, however, those fans who had read DD #48 were no less mystified than I was, because this was a brand-new threat — although there was a connection to the events of the last issue I’d read, #47. In that one, as you may recall, Matt had befriended a blind Vietnam War veteran, Willie Lincoln, and worked to clear his name from a frame-up that had occurred prior to his going into military service, when he’d been a police officer. In clearing Willie — with Daredevil’s “help”, naturally — Matt had sent the true culprit, a crime boss named “Biggie” Benson, to prison.
Now, from prison, Benson was plotting revenge against the Scarlet Swashbuckler. As explained in a flashback, Benson had hired a criminally-inclined robotics genius named Starr Saxon to assassinate Daredevil, by means of a robot — or “Plastoid”, the somewhat less generic term the story eventually came to call the ohtherwise-nameless automaton — which used “scentolator” technology to locate a subject by smell as well as by sight. (Somehow, Saxon had acquired a sample of Daredevil’s bodily aroma, or something like that… anyway, this is all the explanation we ever get for how the Plastoid was able to identify Matt Murdock as Daredevil and then stake out his apartment.)
Taken by surprise, Matt was overcome and knocked unconscious by the Plastoid, who threw him over his shoulder and begins heading for Saxon’s lair, on foot, via the public streets (!). When he heard an unexpected tapping, however, he got spooked, and promptly dumped Murdock on the sidewalk so that he could flee back to Sazon unimpeded (!!). The source of the tapping turned out to belong to the cane of none other than, believe it or not, Willie Lincoln — Matt’s friend and former client, and the very reason for Benson’s vendetta against Daredevil in the first place (!!!). Willie took Matt to his place and patched him up, after which Matt went back to his apartment to suit up as DD and wait for his robot assailant to return — which, of course, the Plastoid promptly did. Being prepared this time, DD made a better showing — but he was still overpowered by his artificial adversary, who at the end of the issue, had him rolled up in a gym mat and was preparing to squeeze the life out of him.
My eleven-year-old self was certainly eager to find out how Ol’ Hornhead was going to get out of this one — unfortunately, I missed issue #50, also. So, I didn’t get to read Stan Lee’s last issue as the book’s writer (which also happened to be Barry Windsor-Smith’s first as penciller). That story explained how DD extricated himself from the mat-trap using his billy-club’s cable line; then, resuming the battle, managed to drive the robot into a wall-set fuse box, damaging some of its circuitry. Still retaining its basic functionality, however — and also now demonstrating an heretofore unknown ability to increase in size — the now giant-sized Plastoid made an abrupt exit, hastening back to its master’s hidden lab (just as before, by way of the public streets [!!!!]). This time, though, Daredevil was able to follow his foe, and ultimately confronted Starr Saxon. As the two battled, Saxon accidentally fed the Plastoid a computer card that altered his programming, so that Biggie Benson became the robot’s intended prey, rather than our hero. Oops! Leaving Saxon for later, DD pursues the Plastoid straight to the prison, conveniently located just a few minutes’ walk from Saxon’s hideout (!!!!!). The prison guards, attempting to stop the marauding robot, accidentally shoot Daredevil instead; but don’t worry, gang — to quote DD, “It’s only a flesh wound!” Our bleeding hero manages to stagger on to Biggie’s cell, reaching it just ahead of the Plastoid — but before he can explain what’s happening, the con clocks him, knocking him out.
Which, of course, is where my eleven-year-old self came (back) in, with the opening scene of issue #51. And while it would have been nice if brand-new writer Roy Thomas had tossed a little exposition my way, to explain just why the Plastoid — about to murder Daredevil at the end of issue #49 — was now trying to exterminate the very man who’d paid to have DD killed in the first place, I managed to soldier on without it. Hey, I’d already paid my twelve cents, so what else was I gonna do?
With the Man Without Fear currently out of commission, it falls to the prison guards to attempt to stop the murderous robot:
Thomas’ inclusion of a Tony Stark-designed super-gadget, first introduced in an Avengers story that he himself had written a while back (naturally), is a nice, continuity-enhancing touch.
The first blast from the “Stunulator” staggers the Plastoid, and he releases Biggie, but doesn’t fall; so, the guards gamely give it another shot:
Well, so much for saving Biggie Benson, I guess — but at least the Plastoid won’t be hurting anyone else. (Maybe.) Meanwhile, what of our hero?
I dunno, DD… something tells me you should wait around for those test results. (Ominous foreshadowing, anyone?)
The guy barging into Dr. Roberts’ examining area in that last panel turns out to be a police inspector, who wants Daredevil’s opinion on whether it’s safe to start dismantling the now-immobile Plastoid. “Go right ahead, Inspector,” replies our hero, “if you want this place to up in flames!” [sic]
Did you get all that, folks? For some reason, Saxon has built a detonator for blowing up his robot into a tracking device he’s then placed on that same robot. That makes no sense at all, of course — but it serves the story’s purpose, which is to get the villain where he needs to be for the major plot development that will occur in the next several pages (and which I’m sure the savvy readers of this blog can already see coming).
At this early stage of his career, Windsor-Smith’s approach to rendering the human figure, especially in action, indisputably owes a great deal to Jack Kirby; but, as becomes ever more clear as the present story progresses, his page layouts clearly demonstrate how much he’s been influenced by Jim Steranko, as well.
When I read this story for the first time in 1969, this was a memorably startling moment. While I’d read other comics in which the villain, or someone else (even, in one case, the entire world) discovers a superhero’s secret identity, it was still a pretty rare occasion; and in the comics where such a thing did happen, it was almost always telegraphed from the beginning of the story (and usually featured on the cover), rather than being stealthily introduced halfway through, as it is here by Thomas and Windsor-Smith.
DD lands hard, but thankfully not quite as hard as if he’d plunged all the way to the street; and he manages to pick himself up and drag himself home. But he’s feeling unusually weak, and is also sweating profusely — and the more astute readers of this book are surely beginning to suspect by now that its hero really ought to have waited around a few minutes for those blood test results.
Next, Matt calls his estranged pal Foggy, and the two agree to meet for lunch the next day to talk things out. Yep, it looks like everything is going to be…
This is a pretty unsettling scene even before Starr Saxon drops his verbal bomb on Matt. The reader can easily see that something’s very wrong with our hero; but since his mental faculties are becoming impaired at the same rate as his physical ones, he can’t see it himself.
The chilling effect of the moment when Saxon tells Matt his name might be marred somewhat for readers of issue #50, who would likely remember that Daredevil never learned the name of the Plastoid’s maker, and so it wouldn’t mean anything to him. (Of course, since my younger self hadn’t read that issue at the time, this particular gaffe went right by me.)
Just in case anyone reading this story hasn’t yet noticed how much Windsor-Smith has been influenced by the work of Jim Steranko, the artist hands them a huge clue with the fifth panel of page 15 (shown above) — as Matt Murdock appears to stumble into the same alley where we saw Steve Rogers light up his pipe on Steranko’s opening splash page for Captain America #110, published three months earlier (see right).
It’s a nice way to set up the very next page, which in its pop-art psychedelia is the most Steranko-ish thing Windsor-Smith has done in the issue yet:
With the next page, we’re abruptly pulled out of Matt’s hallucinatory fantasia (or whatever it is), and dropped back into the “real world”. In spite of the immediate crisis, Matt’s going ahead with his lunch date with Karen, as though nothing is amiss. Yeah, I think it’s pretty clear someone’s operating with impaired judgement, here:
Well, that didn’t go so well, did it? And as Starr Saxon leads the unsuspecting Karen Page away, we can be sure that the worst is yet to come.
Next up is another page full of Steranko-like graphic effects, including some dime-store surrealism via the dripping face-into-face-into face image of the last panel:
With just one page of story left, Thomas and Windsor-Smith finally let the other shoe drop regarding those blood test results:
Reading this story all these years later, I have to admit to being somewhat confused about exactly what’s going on here. Presumably, the “radioactive particles” the blood test found in Daredevil’s bloodstream are those that have been there ever since the childhood accident that both blinded him and gave him his powers. Is the “injection” simply the needle-administered blood test itself? If so, are we supposed to think that Matt has never had a blood test in all the years since his accident, as this reaction has, we must presume, never happened before? That seems extremely unlikely.
I can assure you, however, that my eleven-year-old self had not one of those quibble a half-century ago. I took the “medical explanation” provided by the comic’s storytellers at face value, and focused (as they intended) on the immediate crisis: “If he isn’t found at once — and treated — he’ll die!” For the next month, I would eagerly await the next chapter in the story — which, though heralded as “Death Calls for DD!” in issue #51’s “Next” blurb, would actually be entitled “Night of the Panther!”
Yeah, that guy. Come back in a month, and I’ll tell you all about it.
But, before I go… and speaking of the Black Panther…
One of the pleasures in looking back over my fifty-year-old comics is seeing names turn up in the letters columns which, though meaningless to me at the time, would prove significant in years to come. Here’s a great example from DD #51’s edition of “Let’s Level with Daredevil” — a missive from one Donald F. McGregor of Providence, R.I., weighing in on Daredevil #47:
Yep, that’s the same Don McGregor who, just a few years later, would be exploring his predilection for comics stories about “breathing, feeling, perceptive, three-dimensional people” as a professional comic book writer, himself. McGregor would eventually write for a number of publishers, including Warren, DC, and Eclipse, but will probably always be best remembered for two groundbreaking runs at Marvel in the ’70s — “Killraven” in Amazing Adventures, and — of course — “Black Panther” in Jungle Action.