I've gone slightly out of sync here. Although the cover date of the annual should have (I think) coincided with Daredevil 328, the stories in here really follow directly on from the "death" of Matt Murdock in DD325. Hence we have a bald Elektra and a grieving Black Widow in the two tales that make up this annual.
Before we get started, a brief word on the 'contents' page herein which is illustrated by something I find quite lovely - a mosaic of 'corner box' images. I've already eulogised on this little Marvel comic book idiosyncracy at the end of my post on DD318 so I'm thrilled to see that there must have been at least one staffer in the bullpen who was also sufficiently misty eyed at their demise so as to create this montage.
Well, whoever you are, job well done. Hmmm, wish I could say the same for the rest of the annual. Anyway, here goes...
Vendettas by Gregory Wright and Kris Renkiwitz
One Sentence Overview: A previous enemy of the Master of Kung Fu, Ghostmaker, is resurrected by the Snakeroot and told to take vengeance on Daredevil
In case you'd thought we'd seen the last of the 'About Face' obsessives, the Snakeroot, well, you're wrong. Here they are, still smarting that Daredevil (and more specifically the Devil Ge Rouge) thwarted their attempts to get their mucky paws on the strange, multifaceted virus thingy. In order to extract revenge, they resurrect an old enemy of Shang Chi, the Master of Kung Fu. That doesn't appear to make a lot of sense initially but Ghostmaker is an old Hand hand, so I guess they have to work with what they've got, yeah? Given that it's Daredevil, though, perhaps they should have gone with the Masked Marauder? All the same, that seems a lot of trouble to go to, especially when the Snakeroot seems to be choc full of ninjas presumably itching to have a go at the man without fear.
Of course, Ghostmaker's appearance makes a guest spot from Shang Chi all the more logical. For those interested in the details of their previous encounter, the Master of Kung Fu foiled the Ghostmaker's plot to take down the Queen of England back in the early 80s. The Queen of England! It's because she's so menacing and threatening, right?
I like how the two foes re-encounter each other late in the tale and go all 'noble' before battle. (Actually Ghostmaker gets bored pretty quickly and soon resorts to reaching for his shooter.)
Of more interest than Shang Chi, though, is Elektra's appearance here. The story is actually double billed (Vendettas - Daredevil and Elektra) recalling the good old days of Black Widow sharing the title's logo. Elektra is often at her worst when her character is overwritten or over-explained and so it proves here early on, with an attempt to get inside the assassin's head only serving to make her seem like a needy subordinate from romantic fiction.
She's much more intriguing when wrestling with her dark side, something Shang Chi, intentionally or not, provokes in her towards the end of the tale.
The dialogue vascillates wildly. As well as the example of Elektra above, there's some bizarre taunting from the Ghostmaker. At first he seems quite friendly, "Come dance with me," he implores to Daredevil (aw, ain't that sweet) only to follow it up with "Prove your worth to die of my naked kill!" Eh?
However, I did like Gregory's description of Ghostmaker's resurrection early on, which gives voice to a sense of disorientation in recovering from a state of nothingness. "I sense blackness," the reforming creature tells us. "And then I realise that I have not sensed anything sense my death." I think that's pretty poetic.
The art by Kris Renkiwitz is quite simple and cartoon-y in comparison with what we've become accustomed to in the pages of DD recently. He does a nice job of building up Ghostmaker's sinews as he becomes reformed from the dead.
And Daredevil taking down the villain is portrayed with Hanna Barbera relish.
I'm not so keen on the policy, soon to become commonplace in many comics, of having big panels full of not very much, see for example, this shot of Daredevil that takes up nearly half a page.
The story, as such, is not so much epic as a relatively short sojourn given plenty of room to breathe.
Shang Chi/Master of Kung Fu
Rating: 4 out of 10
Dead End by Mindy Newell and Sergio Cariello
The annual concludes with a solo Black Widow story which, as I noted above, takes place shortly after Matt's 'funeral' and is interesting inasmuch as Natasha is clearly not in the loop about the fate of her ex-lover. We treated to a little introspection initially (of which I'm always a fan) but Tash can't blub into her coffee for long because Nick Fury comes calling to ask her to look into a secret serum called... yes, you've guessed it... About Face. Sheesh, can't they just leave it alone? It's too confusing, Nick. Take an aspirin instead.
Natasha's investigations lead to a confrontation with one of the Snakeroot underlings, Osaku. This character appeared before in Daredevil and looked very much like a bloke. Heck, 'he' looks like a fella early on in this story too.
But actually Osaku alisa is a very unmasculine, Karla, who just happens to be an old chum of Natasha's from her days behind the Iron Curtain. This allows the story to meander into a nice little subplot involving the Widow's defection from Russia and, told partly in flashback, allows her hero to run around beside the Berlin Wall.
It's okay, in fact, there's much more to read here than the much lengthier 'Vendettas' and there's good art from Sergio Cariello (who also did DD328). The moral seems to be that no matter what country you live in, you're still in the servitude of other male leaders - the powerful woman subjugated by patriarchy. The tale's written by Mindy Newell, not a name I was familiar with, but who had previously written for DC. In fact this story appears to be one of the last she wrote before returning to a career in writing, though she writes a regular column for a website called ComicMix (Denny O'Neill also appears to contribute).
Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff
Rating: 5 out of 10
Overall rating: 4 out of 10