A Farewell To Smarm
(Soundtrack: The Soviettes — LP)
For 17 glorious issues, Matt Murdock’s obnoxious “twin”–the Marvel plot contrivance to end all plot contrivances: a third identity dreamed up to explain away the second, brought to you by tousled hair, “real-gone” sunglasses, and insult-comic dialogue–dominated the Stan Lee-Gene Colan Daredevil. That’s right, Matt started out (in issue #25) wanting to protect his friends from exposure to the dangerous knowledge that he n’ DD are the same guy, and wound up transforming their cozy law office into a borscht-belt lounge. What’s up with that?
Now, good people have expressed their undying hatred for this character, and I’ve written a bit on the subject before–but I just can’t let go of it! I think it’s a really important part of the Marvel Story.
Well, if you’re familiar with this material, you might have noticed that Stan scripts Matt (as DD) and Peter Parker (as Spider-Man) very similarly. Both characters fill every inch of their word balloons with a mixture of mild invective and kicked-inna-head enthusiasm. Swear to god, I think Stan was using Andy Hardy as a template for this dialogue! Just imagine what Andy would say, if he ever got a chance to face down the Matador, instead of the school principal!
So, putting aside questions of morality for the nonce, it looks as though nine outta ten critics were right! We’re in “power fantasy” territory! The interesting thing is that, for these characters, the fantasy isn’t really about hitting people, it’s about “cutting loose” with an unending stream of lame jokes and semi-effective put-downs. That’s what true freedom is all about, right? Saying whatever the hell you want to, without worrying about the effect of your words. Speaking “truth to (super-villain) power”–even if the “truth” usually reads no more fascinatingly than this (from DD Special #1–1967):
Matador: Caramba!! I have defeated the most deadly toros in a thousand bull-fights!!
DD: Save your breath buddy–I’m no booking agent! You can show me your scrapbook someday!
In sooth, Silver Age Marvel battles are nothing more than confrontations between ham actors (this is even more evident when Lee/Colan introduce The Jester, a failed Shakespearean, in issue #44–but more on him later… Also “Born Again”, which I’ve just re-read and am ready to praise to the stars! Yes, it’s gonna be all-DD all the time here for a little while!) What counts is what happens off-stage. And this is where Amazing Spider-Man and Daredevil begin to diverge. Pete and Matt start out with pretty much the same problem–to put it bluntly, they’re socially-awkward. They never say the thing they want to say, especially to attractive women. Putting on the costume gives each of them an outlet–but, ultimately, it’s not a very useful outlet, because the main truth that emerges out of conferences with outlaw pinatas (it’s wrong to exploit asymmetrical power relations) may be important, but it fails to address a lot of fundamental human concerns.
What it is, of course, is practice. If you can tell the Green Goblin how you really feel about him, maybe, someday, you’ll be able to do the same with someone you actually care about. And that’s precisely what does begin to happen, in the spider-man stories. Peter goes from hapless nerd to popular young-man-about-campus without doing any of the things that more simplistic narratives of this type usually give us. He doesn’t “stand up” to his persecutors. He doesn’t adopt an “outsider” identity. He just wakes up one day (the day after Steve Ditko left the strip, in fact!) ready to plunge into social life. Which doesn’t mean, of course, that he always says the right things to the people in his neighborhood. However, thanks to his experience in the magazine’s “starring (sparring?) role”, he eventually comes around to a more just appreciation of his right to take part in the drama of life as Peter Parker as well!
Matt Murdock, on the other hand, gets off track somehow–and that’s why Mike is such a train-wreck! By importing his DD banter into “real life”, Matt threatens to turn “all of life into a stage”! As H has noted, if the only way that you can think of to interact more spontaneously with your friends is to make fat jokes at their expense and hit on them in swinger drag, then you aren’t a very good friend! So many crazy things happen in DD #26-41, and I wish I had more time to write about it (especially the big trip to Montreal’s Expo ’67, in #34), but let’s just fast-forward to Mike’s “death” a’ight?
It happens in #41, and it just can’t be a coicidence that, as the issue begins, DD is trapped “out of phase with reality”, in good A Christmas Carol, It’s A Wonderful Life , Carnival of Souls fashion! Look at that cover up there! This is a man that has fooled himself clear out of the intersubjective realm. Or almost, anyway.
One of the most interesting aspects of this series is the tiny cast. There are really only three characters (not counting all of Matt’s extra identities), and here, more than in any other Marvel Comic, we really feel the impact of the protagonist’s swashbuckling upon his peers. “Mike Murdock” certainly helps to drive home the point. Whenever he is present, Matt obviously can’t be, but Mike isn’t really there either (the most powerful expression of this idea comes on the last panel of page 5, issue #28–it’s a simple, but very moving, Colan close-up of Karen Page, hemmed in by Mike’s thought balloons: “she’s staring at me–trying to figure me out! Even a blind man could feel…could sense…the burning intensity of her gaze!” as usual, this puts me in mind of The Blithedale Romance, and a similar scene in which Zenobia asks Coverdale what he hopes to discover through his scrutiny of her eyes: “The mystery of your life,” he replies, “and you will never tell me”… This particular panel is occasioned by Mike’s weird announcement that Matt will be lecturing about UFOS at a nearby university. Karen fumbles over her words, wondering: “Were you…joking before…when you said that Matt was going to lecture at College… about flying saucers? I don’t understand! Why would they ask him?” Why indeed? It’s a tour-de-force! If you ask me, I think Stan put more of his real feelings about the genre he had helped to recreate into this series than any other! He literally pummels the reader and the supporting cast with outrageous non-sequiturs and coincidences–all of them, it seems to me, designed to showcase the unbelievable toll the protagonist’s commitment to his own legend takes upon his friends, without putting Karen and Foggy in physical danger all the time! As usual, in a superhero comic, physical danger is not the real issue! The more I read of the sixties Daredevils, the more comprehensible Karen Page’s desperate situation in “Born Again” becomes. She really gets put through the wringer here…)
Anyway, back to issue #41! Immediately upon making his escape from his place of exile outside of the temporal continuum–which is, quite rightly, depicted as the most horrible of predicaments–Matt realizes that he can’t continue down this path, no matter how much he enjoys being Mike, the “unholy ghost” in his belief system’s particular trinity. An exorcism is in order. But is the damage he’s done to his relationships irreversible? (guess so, hunh, if Miller/Mazzucchelli were still crawling through the wreckage 20 years later?) I’m looking forward to volume three!
Next time! The Jester! Check out Pierre Comtois’ excellent discussion of Colan’s Daredevil at the Silver Age Marvel Comics Cover Index (direct link doesn’t work, but it’s the 6th in the series of “in-depth reviews”, which you can reach through the side-menu on the homepage! it’s really worth the extra clicks!)
Good afternoon friends!