Okay, we've reached the end of the pre-Miller era. The (fairly) commonly held belief is that Daredevil was actually not very good up to this point. And then suddenly became amazing when Frank Miller unzipped his pencil case. Well, is that entirely fair? Here are eight things you'd miss if you started reading your DD comics with issue 158...
1 A comic with a blind character centrestage
Okay, there are obviously profound difficulties with what I've just said. You could argue that Matt can hardly be called disabled due to the fact that his sightlessness is basically a moot point due to his other heightened senses. That said, I still think it's cool that Stan Lee sat around in the early 60s and thought, "You know what, the hero of my next book isn't going to be able to see." It's easy to forget, with hindsight from the 21st century, that Stan was quite a progressive liberal. Yes, there are some instances of cringeworthy dialogue about Matt' "handicap" in early issues but I think the intrinsic message of the early issues of Daredevil demonstrates to readers of the book that those who are sightless, those who are disabled, are worth far more than this one aspect of their character. Anyone who's seen the recent episode of ace US drama 'Mad Men' where a young firebrand loses the use of a limb and is suddenly dramatically scrapheaped will realise that not everyone in the early 60s was as farsighted (if you'll excuse the pun) as our dear Mr Lee.
2 Some pretty damn fine Gene Colan artwork
I loved Wally Wood's brief run on the book but the actual look of the book really began to soar and be distinctive once Gene the Dean took over. Immediately he changed everything. Instead of square panels he would do splash pages, unusual angles and excelled, oh, yes, excelled, at action scenes. A keen fan of pugilism, Gene really went to down when he had a scrap to illustrate. At times, it's simply stunning.
3 Late 60s political and social idealism
Wunderkind Gerry Conway, still in his teens when he took over scripting, was not at all shy in pouring out his heart and soul into the book. And it's very clear where he's coming from. Clearly a child of the revolution (as was Steve Gerber who would follow), Gerry's work is soaked in the hippy idealism of the times. Matt has been very tame and conservative in the book to date but his values are constantly challenged in Gerry's run. He takes time to hang out with non-stereotypical South American rebels and lets a couple of beatniks crash in his house. He frequently reflects on how America is changing and maybe the grey hairs are just misunderstanding the discontented youth. Any GC issue you pick up, you sense change in the air. It may be one sided and perhaps naive but it's also illuminating and refreshing to see a writer dare to explore ideas about society in a book where the hero's only meant to bash some other costumed jerk around.
4 Steve Gerber's wacky run
Having been a huge fan of Howard the Duck for years, I was perhaps more surprised than most to see that he penned a run on Daredevil. If ever there was a mismatch between character and writer, this was surely it. However, it's sometimes a disadvantage to read a run in hindsight, particularly in post-Miller light, and a little unfair to Steve Gerber as the 'gritty, realistic' style that Daredevil would acquire was not set at this stage. In fact, DD was bouncing around sunny San Franscisco at the time the new scripter set to work. Perhaps taking a leaf out of Gerry Conway's book, Steve unashamedly decides to tackle big themes in his work - the Dark Messiah is, if anything, a comment on the power of religious belief. It maybe over-reaches and has more questions than answers, but don't you love the fact that he has the cohones to make the effort? Later, he tries out a sci-fi saga involving a trip to Venus... which is very rapidly (and perhaps unfairly) retconned by the editor. Steve doesn't mind going for broke with his storylines but, by the end, it appears that the restrictions on what Daredevil should and shouldn't be lead to, yes, a sense that they're mismatched. But it's a brave, fun ride.
5 Mike Murdock!
Or... the most preposterous storyline in comic books ever. Well, not really. Daredevil piloting a spaceship in the second issue probably tops that. Love him or hate him (and let's face it, for most, it's the latter), Mike Murdock was an audacious bit of creative hoopla. It could have been the moment that the book jumped the shark - after all, he's Scrappy to Matt's Scobby Doo. However, despite all the cringey-ness of each story that features the chilled out dude, there's some psychological value in the character of Mike. Rewind to Matt's origin - here's a young man repressed by his father and made to study to become a lawyer and not wind up as a no good brainless bum. Okay, he takes out some of this in Daredevil but Mike allows Matt the opportunity not only to be the testosterone fuelled hero but to be able to play the fool the pent up serious young scholar was never able to. In other words, Mike's persona was probably cathartic for Matt. Hey, take a look at the book nowadays, with Mr Doom and Gloom Murdock and tell me that he couldn't use a bit of Mike love these days. (Apologies for the unintentional Beach Boys pun there, folks.)
6 Buddy, buddy
Despite a long run with Karen Page to begin with, Matt fairly zings from one woman to another, drooling over the Black Widow, Moondragon, Candace Nelson and Heather Glenn in pretty rapid succession. All through this, though, Matt's one constant is his faithful buddy, Foggy Nelson. And the duo have a heartwarming, faithful companionship that was rare in for male characters back in the day. At first, you feel the creative team aren't sure what to do with him - the focus is more on Matt and Karen - and early issues hint that Foggy might turn bad at any moment. It's often hinted early on that Matt's holding the company together (despite never being at his desk...) But, fortunately, this is resisted and instead Foggy remains Matt's pal. Sure, a bumbling klutz at times but he is Matt's constant. It is who he can come back to when it's all becoming too much.
7 Issue 139
I wasn't a huge fan of Marv Wolfman's run, but there is one issue that precipitates everything that would make Daredevil great. That was Wolfman's 'A Night in the City' from Daredevil 139. It's not quite a masterpiece - there are too many flaws and coincidences - but it is daring. Interweaving storylines involving a young female heroin addict, a missing boy, a deadly bomber and Daredevil going a little bit nuts, Marv writes an audacious tale of a broken city that pre-empts the greatest DD stories. In truth, this story alone cannot bare responsibility for the sea change that Frank Miller brings - Gerry Conway, Tony Isabella and Jim Shooter also wrote storylines that helped cement the ethos of Daredevil as being rooted in the city's alleys as opposed to megalomaniacal uber powerful supervillains. However, this tale perhaps makes explicit what DD's raison d'etre should be.
8 Guest stars
No, not the endless, mindless tie-ins that are ten a penny in comics but real folk turning up in the book. There's President Ford and President Kennedy (well, kind of). There's Walter Cronkite. There's two obscure sci-fi writers (whose names I can't even remember, they're that obscure). There's even Stan Lee and his missus hanging out outside the theatre. But best of all, there's spoonbender Uri Geller in what is basically a very, very odd (and hugely enjoyable) team-up with the man without fear.
So was Daredevil a great comic book before Miller. In truth, no, probably not. But did it have great moments? Oh, yes, absolutely. Anyone checking out my ratings will see that a fair number of stories have scored six points or more, which means these are pretty interesting issues. True, there are relatively few truly great tales but if I had to point you to any essential reads then check out these five issues...
1 Issue 1 - naturally, DD's origin, brilliantly told with the effortless economy of Stan Lee
2 & 3 Issues 70 + 71 - a fantastic right wing political satire featuring the Tribune
4 Issue 139 - see above!
5 Issue 151 - a dynamic, emotional punch to the gut, Matt finally lets rip in heartbreaking fashion.
Okay, now onto Mr Miller's first issue...