The Birth of Netflix’s world of Marvel’s Daredevil- the cornerstone on which was built a rather successful TV show quintet culminating in this summer’s The Defenders- really began in Daredevil #159. Hey, it’s the one I’ve got handy, so roll with me. No, it is, I’ll prove it- much like Daredevil #219’s “Badlands” will be the premiere of a story-telling style in modern comics that presages his breakthrough in the Sin City series and movie.
The issue before began Frank Miller’s smash adaptation of the character, who dates back to 1964 and the last of the creative burst of titles that defined The Marvel Age. With its supervillians, that debut issue doesn’t really foreshadow what’s to come, though it does depict, as notahoax.blogspot points out along with their many fun insights, the entirety of that era’s Daredevil supporting cast. Ah, but it’s that next one, “Marked For Murder,” where Roger MacKenzie, Frank Miller and Klaus Janson begin the transition from supervillain hijinks to hard-boiled noirish pulp in athletic illustrative guise. Rightly recognizing 158 as the last part tie-up of what came before, Tom Brevoort chose Daredevil #159 to begin the reprints featured in Marvel Super-Heroes Megazine #1, which is how I came to own my copy. That same Megazine presents the beginning of John Byrne’s runs writing and penciling (and inking FF) on Fantastic Four and Incredible Hulk, but also, John Romita’s first work at Marvel on Invincible Iron Man #115. Like DD #158, that issue features its title character against the Ani-Men gang, just like Chris Claremont’s opening arc on Uncanny X-Men (thanks again, Notahoax Matt!).
But “Marked For Murder”...oh man, it’s so taut! If a superhero taking on a gang of ordinary hoodlum gunmen seems like a cliché you’ve seen before, I assure you, it’s done here with maximum suspense, clever but clear angles, masterful figure drawing, and vivid storytelling vision. And here, to me, begins the inspiration for the adaptation of the founding Netflix Marvel success- a television series that it seemed about nine out of ten respondents praised with high confidence.
These aren’t the first Miller efforts on Daredevil, the character. That honor goes to Peter Parker, The Spectacular Spider-Man #27 & 28! Spider-Man’s been blinded by longtime Maggia foe The Masked Marauder, a disability that panics him, one with, uhm, no end in sight. The multiple agility images and use of shadow, Miller-style, debut there. It’s an interesting pair of issues, watching Daredevil figure out how to guide the stubborn and discomfited wall-crawler through a unique team-up, tracking down the Maggia plot and taking him meanwhile for an examination of his wounded eyes.
“Marked For Murder,” though, keeps a breath-taking pace while demonstrating layouts you’d swear require Miller to swim the desolate pier and climb the rundown rooftops. His sense of space, from panel to panel, puts you in the thick of Daredevil’s danger and acrobatic risk-taking. You’ve been in the moment after several pages of action, and suddenly a near-impossible trick reminds you of Daredevil’s individuality as a superhero. In the framework of its down-to-Earth possibilities, Daredevil’s climatic stunt is positively amazing but totally believable, too.
Framed in slide show form, we get a montage of action shots that show us what went before, in this ongoing struggle between psychotic Bullseye and our protagonist. Its past tense, in-story cinematic presentation makes it seem less realistic, a colorful step removed from what is to come. Ever the street-level hero at his core concept, everything that happens in this issue will have the quality of being something that could, under familiar laws of physics and drama, really happen between people. What came before’s more like -well, what was thought of as comic books to that point. Visually, our tone from this point, until the surrealistic art era by Ann Nocenti and John Romita, Jr, will use the dynamism possible in comics to tell action stories along the lines of the more realistic cop TV shows and martial arts movies, often with hard-boiled sensitivities but surprising emotional resonance.
From here out, we’re in the territory that inspires the Netflix series, with many of the same key players. So, cold-blooded, unglamourous murder is the discussion. Slaughter’s death-mask-like face glows hauntingly by the projector light in the shadowy room, invaded by the superhero-like, yellow-background frame of Daredevil, the intended target, on the wall. The non-costumed man showing the footage is Bullseye himself. It’s as though the underworld, filled with its hard-bitten struggles for money and power and survival, aligns with Miller himself to target the brightly-colored world of childish superheroism. With a generous down payment to the retired criminal arranger- like a pulp figure shaken out of the seedy past- the hit is on.
Soon we’re at closing time, outside Murdock & Nelson’s free clinic. Even elements of the show that didn’t begin here are represented nonetheless. Nearby, reporter Ben Urich’s thoughts take first step towards uncovering Matt’s double I.D. We next get an actual court case, complete with a sinister-looking judge who hates the bleeding-heart lawyers providing the legally-guaranteed defense with sincere effort. Every figure conspires, as thugs threaten Matt and Foggy on the street. They’re having an ordinary, humorous conversation of the sort show fans would recognize when they receive a terse message: contact Daredevil. A shadowy alleyway frames Matt’s unseen departure.
By page seven, we’ve joined Daredevil himself at a dizzying height perched above lonely Pier 42. This issue’s shorn of other subplots, diving straight into an extended eleven-page action sequence. Miller gives us a true battle scene, complete with Daredevil’s unique reconnaissance, sense-by-sense uncovering his opponents. Daredevil constantly strikes from higher ground while grilling the hit crew. He makes deft use of his weighted baton- which also gets a fun page spotlighting its characteristics, at the end. Miller thinks of how to be Daredevil- he applies a martial arts concision to the logistics of picking off foes one by one. A tackle off the ship that takes three fighters into the drink leads to one being picked off by an eager killer who takes the shot on Daredevil because he doesn’t like the thug this endangers, anyway. The water looms as their potential grave, which DD uses as cover to resume his attack. The angles constantly emphasize the power of Daredevil’s dives and strikes.
I love this combination of choreographed dangers and power with real vulnerabilities- those endemic to a physically-normal human being, but also the double-edge sword implicit in heightened senses. Nearly every opponent taken out, Daredevil charges into a missed attack that releases a devastating, head-splitting shot by his head. Pain closing his sensitivities, he survives with a life-saving stunt that underscores Daredevil’s skill and guts: he takes out a gunshot with his baton! He questions his rattled foe, when, ironically, a life-preserver hurled from a nearby motor boat, breaks the interrogant’s neck. Out of reach, Daredevil “reads” a man, filming the scenario and speeding now away.
The ending ties it together: clearly the man at the end is the one at the beginning. He’s got a picture, again, of a target, a shattered portrait of former Daredevil partner, Black Widow. Reconnaissance, we see, is not just the province of the Man Without Fear. The hit was never expected to work. This adept combat display is now opposition research, in the hands of the villain who never misses.
His supporting cast plays integrally to the drama going forward, including a show-rehabilitated Karen and wild Elektra, but everyone’s vulnerable, and Matt, imperfect, secretive, dedicated, is driven to save innocents and liberty. His moral code’s contrasted not only by great villains like the Kingpin, but antiheroes like The Punisher. McKenzie clearly wanted to collaborate on a realistic tone. We’re miles from the experimental era of Gerber’s stories, with science fiction foes and ally Moondragon tied to Starlin’s stunning new efforts, a tapestry of Marvel continuity. The echoes of headlines, however, from that run’s gritty government secrets, now serve an isolated world of criminals getting away with murder-up against a lone vigilante, with powers we imagine vividly from the state of our own senses.