One Sentence Overview: Despite the best efforts of the Black Widow, the Unholy Three kidnap Matt and take him to a nearby graveyard and the Death Stalker
If, like me, you first came across this story in the 'Daredevil Visionaries: Frank Miller' collected edition, you'll no doubt have found the experience of kicking off with the concluding part of an ongoing storyline involving the Death Stalker rather jarring. Of course, for completists, Marvel compiled this particularly collection with Miller's first story, despite the fact that it leaves the new reader in limbo. And, of course, no-one at Marvel back in the day had the faintest idea as to how significant their new young penciller would be.
How is Miller the artist in this first issue? Well, pretty good. He has a very distinctive style, a little rough and ready perhaps, but in a good way. Whilst Marvel had a range of artists who would render their characters very anatomically correct and quite beautifully, like John Romita, Jack Kirby and the like, Frank Miller is more in tune with the likes of Gene Colan who are a little more abstract and unusual in the ways they illustrate. Especially with Klaus Janson on hand, Frank Miller's art may appear a little rushed at times, lacking in detail or accuracy in actual body form, but, although the artwork initially irritated me at first (like Bill Sienkiewicz or Judge Dredd artist, Mike McMahon), I grew to love its idiosyncracies. Illustration like this draws you in, rewards you for sticking with it.
In this first issue, Frank Miller is already exhibiting great movement and dynamism in the action scenes, effortlessly demonstrating this in the second panel he draws - the Widow making mincemeat of the Unholy Three. Later on, we also catch an early glimpse of something I associate with Miller's artwork - a run of panels shot from the same position with small changes in each succeeding frame. I really like this kind of thing - it's quite common in today's books, but perhaps that's more to do with the artists copying and pasting frames. Back in the late 70s, Miller would have done all these himself.
Frank also enjoys drawing Daredevil's female supporting cast. Early on here, there's the strange sight of four different women being part of the ongoing retinue. One panel captures well their distinct personalities. Debbie nurtures her poor boyfriend, whilst Natasha's ready for more action. Heather remains bumbling and kooky whilst Becky takes the sensible approach, phoning for help. Actually, I rather admire Becky this issue. She lends Natasha a hand early on by hurling a name plate at one of the villains. By the end of the story though she's resigned herself to being an also ran in the Matt Murdock love stakes. Bless.
On to what's going on. The Storefront has been ransacked by the strangely named 'Unholy Three' - i.e. Ape Man, Bird Man and Cat Man - as the names suggest, D-listers from Marvel's early days. Characters like these would only be introduced ironically in today's books. Strangely, it's revealed that the men beneath the masks are not the original villains but instead the Death Stalker's hired hands (apparently the original characters died in a then recent issue of Iron Man).
Possibly more by accident than design, there's a moment in this issue that really signals the sea change that is occuring in comics. Having delivered Murdock to the Death Stalker, the uber villain ruthlessly disposes of Ape Man and Cat Man (the Widow having already taken out Bird Man earlier in the issue). Here the childlike black hatted villains of the comics of the early 60s are extinguished - from here on in, we're going somewhere with more nuance and ambiguity. As I say, I don't know how intentional it was, but it kind of works as a kind of handing over of a stylistic baton (if that's not too pretentious).
As for the Death Stalker himself, we finally have his origin. He's actually the Exterminator from Daredevil issues 40 and 41 - a fella who had invented a ray gun that sent him flying around into time and space (which I guess explains DS's powers to an extent). Naturally, I'd completely forgotten about this old bad guy but it's interesting to note that he was involved with the 'death' of Mike Murdock, whereas here he has a grave prepared for poor old Matt. Incidentally, the gravestone reveals, weirdly, that 'Michael' is Matt's middle name. I'm not sure we knew this already - certainly it's the first time I've picked this up.
In what must be one of the classic fates of any Daredevil villain, the Death Stalker reaches his brilliant end in rather grizzly fashion (it certainly beats falling from a great height). A way which must have been quite disturbing for younger readers back in the day and, no, I won't reveal it, in case you want to pick up the aforementioned Visionaries collection (highly recommended of course). But if you need some kind of clue, let's just say that the story title's a rather neat little pun.
Not a bad start, but certainly not a foretaste of what is to come. Next issue will cement more firmly the direction the book will take but this has been an enjoyable little romp all the same.
Natasha Romanoff/The Black Widow
Rating: 6 out of 10
Rating: 6 out of 10