The von Strucker Gambit
Prologue by Gregory Wright and Jackson Guice
Part 1: Crippling Death by Gregory Wright and Ron Garney
One Sentence Overview: Daredevil becomes embroiled with SHIELD when a genetically enhanced cat like creature from Hydra stalks the streets of Hell's Kitchen
This may be slightly out of sequence but I thought I would do the next annual now given the end of Ann's run and the commencement of DG Chichester's coming up next - kinda makes sense. As we have seen in the previous two years, this annual is part of a longer storyline being played out in other characters' annuals throughout the Marvel Universe. This time, though, we get the first episode, which at least helps with understanding what's going on in a meta sense. And, as seems to be the case with the annuals, Gregory Wright is scripting.
In a nutshell, the von Strucker Gambit appears to involve the resurrection of old Hydra baddie, Baron von Strucker, who has created three genetically enhanced creatures in the Hydra laboratories and who then go rogue. von Strucker sends three of his best agents to pin down each one, here it's the Crippler against the cat like, Sathan, whose appearance belies the fact that her main very impressive power is to age you to death at the touch of her paw. Whilst the 'Gambit' storyline continues in the Punisher and Captain America annuals, the main focus for von Strucker appears to be agitating Nick Fury who, by coincidence, just happened to have a new monthly title on the shelves. Now isn't that interesting?
So Sathan heads for Hell's Kitchen and Daredevil is shoehorned into the confrontation between her and the aforementioned Crippler. (Poor old DD manages to get his face in the way of Sathan at one point and we then have - literally - a poor old DD.)
Watching events, as ever is Ben Urich. Those who have read my reviews of Gregory Wright's writing in the past will note that I don't particularly like the way he portrays our favourite newshound. He's much more ambitious, cocky and confrontational than the dedicated, world worn reporter that other writers explore. Here, he blows smoke in the face of Detective David Hobbes (a corrupt cop left over from the last annual) and makes a rather distasteful joke at Daredevil's expense. Could you really imagine any other writer letting Ben say this?
In truth, the most interesting aspect of the story is the character of the Crippler, Carl Stricklan, whose debut appearance this is in the world of Marvel. The Crippler is, not to put too fine a point on it, a gleeful sadist. He sees himself on the side of the angels, a vigilante like Daredevil, who unsurprisingly isn't too thrilled at Stricklan's methods. When DD first encounters him, it's in a rather cartoony scenario where Stricklan is literally grilling a potential informant (note the inclusion of a chef's hat, of all things).
The Crippler likes to sing as he inflicts pain on others - here he sends a jet of flames over some zombie like creatures (don't ask) whilst singing, "Come on, baby, light my fire". (Hmmm, perhaps Gregory's a fan of 'A Clockwork Orange' and its innovative use of 'Singing in the Rain'.)
The Crippler is a rough, tough character somewhat in the mold of the Punisher, Wolverine or Deadpool. However, it's his delight in torture that perhaps sets him apart from these others. At times, his enthusiasm seems almost sexual - note his coaxing of DD to tighten his hold on him.
By the end, I kinda thought it surprising, given the success of Marvel's other slightly psychotic heroes, that he'd never been given his own book somewhere, though given his proclivities, I think we're looking at a MAX title here...
I wouldn't describe the story as a runaway success - I'm guessing it would appeal more to those interested in Shield/Hydra confrontations than the average Daredevil fan, weened on Frank Miller and Ann Nocenti. One perhaps could say that Daredevil is rather miscast here.
Battling Jack Murdock
The Crippler/Carl Stricklan
Baron von Strucker
Detective David Hobbes
Rating: 4 out of 10
The Dark Lady by Eric Fein and Don Hudson
Well, I don't know if somebody felt the same way about Gregory Wright's portrayal of Ben Urich as I do, but thank goodness the Ben Urich solo story is written by someone else, one Eric Fein. The story concentrates on the Kingpin attempting to manipulate Ben by bringing an old love back into his life. At one level it's a tale as old as time itself - Fisk brings the girl into the picture to show Ben his own moral weakness, though at the same time, I kinda felt that if the Kingpin had found something to destroy an enemy, then that's what he would do, rather than teach the reporter a 'lesson'. (The only rational explanation is that the Kingpin feels that he can control Ben in some way and 'better the devil you know'.)
There's also something else here that I struggle with a little in Ben's 'narrated' stories. Basically, Ben Urich is meant to be a dogged but brilliant reporter, yet his prose is often very pulpy and a little banal. That always seems a contradiction. I like Ben as a character but it strikes me that it may be better not to have him narrate as the writer may become unstuck.
Rating: 5 out of 10
Malicious Justice... Or Injustice? by Gregory Wright and Larry Alexander
And now, what we've all been waiting for - a Crippler solo story! Here we have Carl Stricklan's origin as a Marine and then cop but basically (unsurprisingly) too maverick for each career so he ends up at Hydra. Having freed himself from von Strucker's grasps in the above story, Crippler enjoys himself in New York tying young thugs to the back of his motorcycle and toying with would be rapists in the park (as you would). It's clearly an attempt by Gregory to pitch his new character for greater things. Who can blame him? As the story says at the beginning, there are 70,000 violent crimes in New York every year so having a character who reflects that is, well, just a sign of the times.
Baron von Strucker
Rating: 4 out of 10
Guns Don't Kill by Gregory Wright and June Brigman
Hurrah - the return of the Fatboys! Here the Hell's Kitchen neglected youth come across a gun and Daredevil shows them the error of their ways. It's curious how Gregory can be such a dark writer (and there's another attempted rape here) and yet, each of the Fatboys stories he's written, ends very morally with Daredevil turning up and saving the day. I guess maybe it's because they're kids, Gregory didn't want to go too grim but the Fatboys were at their best in the ongoing series when Ann was writing them as being from very broken homes with little direction or hope but somehow muddling through. In a strange way, Daredevil's interventions undermine that.
That said, I'm never sad to see the Fatboys. Particularly so here because June Brigman's art is just brilliant - lovely and simple, very reminiscent of Steve Dillon (the above would be a worthy additon to It's a Dan's World's 'Now That's a Splash Page' feature). And, hey, at the end of the day, would you really want to see lovely Eightball get his head blown up by some punk?
Rating: 6 out of 10
Overall rating: 4 out of 10