Sunday, September 7, 2014

Origins, Redux

New readers to a Marvel book didn't have to wait too long before they were given a re-telling of the character's origin, whether in a cover-to-cover issue or in capsulized form in the middle of the current story. A complete issue dedicated to an origin tale was something of a rare treat. Typically, the first publication of a character's origin only took up a partial amount of space in that first issue, leaving room for seeing the character in action to presumably motivate the reader into picking up the next issue. In the case of the Fantastic Four, for instance, their origin was handled in five pages, before they went on to deal with the Mole Man.

The team would receive a more expansive origin issue eleven years later, in issue #126; yet prior issues would make sure to sustain interest in their origin by condensing it to a few panels and weaving it into the events of the featured story. For example, the team's origin was tailor-made for inclusion in a story such as "A Visit With the Fantastic Four"--and nearly eight years later, when Reed was making another attempt to cure the Thing, it seemed the perfect time for his thoughts to drift back to when it all started:

Iron Man, by contrast, seemed to have a tough time out of the gate, in his own title and away from the buffer that Tales Of Suspense provided him--and so, even though he received a full origin issue with his first appearance, he would be granted another one as part of the current storyline taking place in Invincible Iron Man #47. Another character, Daredevil, appeared to be in the same boat--his first issue a complete portrait of his origin, supplemented shortly afterward with another origin tale in issue #53. It would become more difficult to tie Iron Man's origin to the Vietnam War period (eventually, it would be completely revised in terms of time and place)--but, thanks to the basic elements of DD's origin, it would be easier to keep his origin intact, needing only to glaze over the time period.

Just as with the FF, it would be eleven years later before Daredevil's origin tale was dusted off and given a few tweaks. Only in this case, with two full issues dedicated to his origin (we can safely omit issue #1, since #53 doesn't stray from it to any great degree), it becomes more interesting to take a close look at how these issues parallel each other as well as their deviations.

With its larger panels taking up page allotment, Daredevil #53 doesn't really have the luxury to elaborate on the prior origin tale and offer fresh takes on its events. You get a sense of those constraints as soon as page one, which must somehow link the origin which follows to events currently taking place in the comic. As you'll see, writer Roy Thomas doesn't waste any time opening the door to Stan Lee's segue:

In the later 1980 story, writer Roger McKenzie would distance himself from the calendar graphic in Lee's '69 tale that ties Matt Murdock to being about 12 years old in the year 1950--which, in McKenzie's story, would have put Daredevil in his early forties. But McKenzie's retelling (working with artist Frank Miller) would still be able to retain all the basics, as well as provide a more reasonable segue for Matt recalling the past:

The obsession of Matt's father with keeping Matt virtually chained to the study desk always bothered me a bit, as parents typically make an effort to balance their child's schooling with extracurricular activities. But each of these origins stays true to the reason behind Jack Murdock's insistence--that it's due to a promise he made to his wife on her deathbed (which seems to imply that Mrs. Murdock didn't have a high opinion of Jack's own career as a boxer). And each tale, in its own way, manages to convey Jack's sense of loss and responsibility, though Lee pares it down a bit from his earlier story.

That brings us to an interlude where Jack, no longer in his prime as a boxer, is forced to hook up with an unscrupulous manager named Sweeney--better known behind closed doors as "the Fixer," which should tell you all you need to know about how he makes his money off of boxers. Sweeney is now Jack's only hope for work, so that he can see Matt through college:

But despite Sweeney's smooth talk, it's easy to see that the guy can't be trusted. And in McKenzie's story, Miller adds some nice touches that give some depth to the situation Murdock finds himself in, as well as the lengths he'll go to in order to provide for Matt:

Finally, the pivotal point of this story is reached: Matt's accident that leads to the loss of his sight, and his subsequent rebirth as "Daredevil." In the original story as well as Lee's retelling, Matt is injured while saving a blind pedestrian from being struck by a cargo truck carrying radioactive cylinders from an atomic research lab, a scene which Lee doesn't spend much time on:

McKenzie, on the other hand, provides some fascinating revisions that fill in a few blanks. For one thing, the cargo truck is no longer from a private research company, but is now owned and operated by the government. Also, the original chain of events, which involved the driver being alerted to the pedestrian's danger by his co-worker who had spotted him, seemed unlikely for a truck which was probably needing to move slowly through city streets due to its dangerous cargo. And so McKenzie gives us a more reasonable set of circumstances:

With one more key alteration added--perhaps not really necessary, but it serves to heighten the drama of Matt's accident. It's difficult to believe that a truck carrying radioactive cylinders would have them stored so unsecurely as to have them topple out if the truck should skid to a sudden stop, let alone leak enough material to harm only one person with radiation in a crowd of onlookers--and so McKenzie provides a more exciting method of creating our superhero:

From this point, things progress steadily between the two tales. Matt resolves to graduate, despite his affliction, and finds that his senses have been heightened to a degree which, in many ways, allows him to function better than a sighted person. Meanwhile, Sweeney has scheduled Jack for a main event in Madison Square Garden--and Jack has been told by Sweeney to take a dive in the first round. But Matt's drive and determination have served as an example to his father--and with Matt in the crowd watching the fight, Jack makes a decision that will put him in the crosshairs of "the Fixer."

But McKenzie decides to take a different approach, again lending the scene more depth. First, we see Jack's opponent twist the knife as far as assessing Jack's worth as a boxer (as well as a man):

But then, Sweeney decides to do much the same thing, by disclosing to Jack that his previous bouts were "fixed" in his favor. It's the final straw for Jack, and it motivates him more than ever to win this fight for his son. And Jack more than lives up to his name as "Battlin' Murdock":

Sweeney later gives the order to his flunky, Slade, to murder Jack--which leads to Matt's resolve to find his father's murderer and dispense justice. But Matt also remembers his promise to his father to lead a life of nonviolence--and so he devises a workaround, where another identity would do the kinds of jobs that Matt Murdock couldn't. That, of course, cues the creation of Daredevil, who eventually corners both Sweeney and Slade as they flee down a subway tunnel:

McKenzie, on the other hand, chooses to separate the two. While Sweeney flees, Slade stays at the gym to take on Daredevil (who dons a pair of boxing gloves, presumably out of homage to his father):

But DD still catches up to Sweeney in the tunnel, where his fate remains the same:

McKenzie's story doesn't address the original story's closure, which has the two men confessing within hearing of the police--but perhaps McKenzie intends for such closure to take the form of Matt's actions on behalf of his father, rather than provide a neat, bow-wrapped confession from both Sweeney and Slade which was probably a little far-fetched. (And we can always assume that Matt has done his homework on this case, and has enough to implicate Slade.)

I'm not a Daredevil reader in good standing, but I enjoyed the fresh take that McKenzie and Miller brought to his beginnings. Daredevil's origin is one of the best and has a lot to admire about it--triumph from adversity for both Matt and his father, as well as the birth of a unique hero, if not a "super"hero in the traditional comics sense. There isn't too much more mileage that a future writer could squeeze from McKenzie's story--but thanks to a solid foundation, any retelling from here on is likely to still be a good read.

Daredevil #s 53 and 164

Scripts: Stan Lee (with Roy Thomas); Roger McKenzie
Pencils: Gene Colan; Frank Miller
Inks: George Klein; Klaus Janson
Letterers: Artie Simek; John Costanza

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