Friday, 11 January 2013

Daredevil: The Best of Volume One

I haven't tried to quantify the top DD stories since issue 300 where I counted down the Top 25.  As I've completed volume one I thought I'd tried to pull in what I think are the best 50 issues.  Boy, this was a hard list to compile, revealing to me, unsurprisingly, just how good some Daredevil stories are.  As such, there are some crackers that haven't made the cut so I think I need to make some honourable mentions of those tales lurking just outside the top 50 and they are (in chronological order):

Issue 1 The Origin of Daredevil
Issue 139 A Night in the Life
Issue 173 Lady Killer
Issue 205 The Gael
Issue 214 The Crumbling
Issue 241 Black Christmas
Issue 242 Caviar Killer
Issue 280 Twilight of the Idols
Issue 297 Last Rites Pt 1
Issue 347 Inferno Pt 3

Hard luck to those 10 runners up.  And now here's my 50 favourite issues of Volume One:

50 Issue 271 Genetrix
A chilling satire on cloning and male domination, Daredevil uncovers that drug dealer Skip Ash isn't just interested in making the perfect bacon sandwich but also the perfect submissive woman.  Number Nine's whispered 'daddy' when she is freed at the end of the story is unnerving.

49 Issue 304 34 Hours
Not just a day of a life of a Daredevil but a day and a bit, with Dan Chichester revealing our hero's reaction not only to some potentially tragic events but also the queasy underbelly of New York society - and no big boring brightly suited supervillains to get in the way of some very fine storytelling.

48 Issue 255 Temptation
Mary's extraordinary seduction of Matt Murdock begins, cruelly and brilliantly against the backdrop of Karen's voice on an answering machine, whilst Daredevil tackles Typhoid, for once completely unaware that these two personae are one and the same.  Tense and heartbreaking.

47 Issue 359 The Devil You Know
A tale not dissimilar to the above '34 Hours' has Daredevil doing his thing whilst his girlfriend, Karen, as Paige Angel canvasses opinion about the man without fear on her radio programme.  The idea works due both to Karl Kesel's creative writing and how well Cary Nord captures the night-time disc jockey.

46 Issue 299 Last Rites Part 3: Regicide
Dan Chichester's response to Born Again builds here with Daredevil craftily plotting the Kingpin's downfall.  Dan's always keen to show Matt's vengeful side but, despite that, this is tense, well written stuff.

45 Issue 251 Save the Planet
Ann Nocenti presents an ecological tale that is unafraid to portray the dark side of environmental protest, whilst at the same time delicately unwrapping one of Daredevil's most intriguing father son combinations, the heavy for hire, Bullet and his disturbed child, Lance.  Bullet comforting the boy with a hand covered in radioactive waste is an extraordinary image revealing the ignorance of his actions.

44 Issue 290 Bullseye!
An issue built around a central conceit of Daredevil in Bullseye's costume and Bullseye in Daredevil's costume... and the reader not really being able to tell the difference.  Hmmm, perhaps there's a metaphor contained within, eh?  Clever stuff.

43 Issue 266 A Beer with the Devil
A morose Daredevil spends Christmas at a bar, surrounded by ne'er do wells and the lonely.  The story explodes with surprising violence though Matt's hallucinogenic seduction by Mephisto perhaps jars with an otherwise near perfect tale.

42 Issue 226 Warriors
Still smarting from the death of Heather Glenn, Daredevil's at a low ebb and shouting hellfire and fury at his dad for making him be a lawyer, one of the most explicit occasions that indicates how Matt has adopted a role not of his own making.  Some wonderful scenes with the Gladiator, another man with a troubled psyche, help this issue sing.

41 Issue 318 Grease Monkeys
An extraordinarily irreverent piece of nonsense involving Daredevil and a bunch of second rate gangsters re-enact "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World".  The story works because it sticks rigidly to the rules of farce and reveals that sometimes a highly enjoyable and silly little tale trumps an attempt to write an overly complex blockbuster.

40 Issue 185 Guts
Another great comic issue with Foggy Nelson (wonderfully introduced by Matt on the first page, breaking the fourth wall) going undercover to investigate all that's gone wrong at Glenn Industries and practically ending up as the Kingpin's new henchman.  Bizarre, over the top but perfectly plotted and very funny.

39 Issue 176 Hunters
Episodic tales sometimes lose focus and miss out on big emotional moments.  Hunters, however, walks the tricky tightrope between the introduction of a plotline and its future conclusion quite brilliantly through a mix of great character development of the likes of Turk, Grotto and Heather, tension between Matt, Elektra and the Hand and humour, with a great throwaway sequence featuring Wall Eyed Pike's apartment being gradually totalled by a succession of visitors.

38 Issue 175 Gantlet
One of the first issues to really reveal Elektra for who she is - not so much a hero as a ruthless individual who will stop at nothing.  So much so that you fear for Matt.  Some nice support from Foggy and a great opening splash page by Frank Miller featuring Elektra at her most supple.

37 Issue 70 The Tribune
One of only two pre-Frank Miller stories to make the top 50, the Tribune makes its mark thanks to some brilliantly blatant political commentary from the flower power era, with a right wing cowboy, Buck Ralston, wreaking havoc on hippiedom, literally using a gavel as a weapon of death.  It's not too hard to see the satire but it's a wonderful illustration of the paranoia of the time.

36 Issue 213 The Blindness Men Wish For
Sometimes the DD canon contains cameo appearances by supporting cast members that amount to greatness.  Such can be said of Professor Horatio Piper, who is involved in a cautionary tale worthy of Shakespeare.  An honourable man, who has been duped by his investment - and blind belief - in Micah Synn, this issue details both his comeuppance and redemption.

35 Issue 265 We Again Beheld the Stars
Bizarrely Ann Nocenti has an entry in both the best and worst lists for her Dante referencing Inferno tie-in. Whilst the previous entry had been chaotic and confusing, Ann still lays on the surreal but is much more focused in what she is doing, demonising a poor dentist, New York cabbies and the poor Fatboys.  By using ordinary citizens, Ann demonstrates how each individual can be brutalized by the society in which they live.  It seems bleak but Ann pulls off a terrific piece of writing.

34 Issue 343 Recross
Warren Ellis' only issue is something of a triumph.  Writing on the back of Dan Chichester's reinvention of Matt Murdock as Jack Batlin, Warren plays with the idea of identity and effectively deconstructs all those things that most readers disliked about the end of Dan's run.  Boldly straying away from a costume, whether red or armour plated, Matt seems very human tackling some low level thugs and pondering, in a wonderfully philosophical way, about his role in the whole scheme of things.  Sounds ambitious but written with the lightest of touches.

33 Issue 300 Last Rites Part 4: Long Live the King
Dan Chichester's finest issue recounts the final humiliation of the Kingpin, a stark contrast to Born Again.  Dan's plotting has never been better as he outlines Matt's ruthless pummeling of his nemesis but just when you think Wilson Fisk is down and out, there's a sting in the tale when he returns and exacts brutal retribution on a former underling.  All this and a quote from Enoch Powell too!

32 Issue 209 Blast from the Past
For a brief moment in the mid 80s, it seemed like every writer wanted to tell a tale about the bullies from Matt's childhood.  Arthur Byron Cover's take, though, is elevated both by a sympathetic portrayal of the 'villain' and also by a phalanx of weirdly creepy and effective little girl robots.  Told with black humour and compassion, the story is a winning combination.

31 Issue 254 Typhoid
The introduction of an amoral femme fatale with an interest at being the Kingpin's assassin in chief?  Well, surely that's been done.  All the more triumphant then that Ann Nocenti made Typhoid Mary such a distinctive, rich character who is just as compelling as Elektra.  Skirting between good and compliant and manipulative and ruthless, Typhoid is intriguing and brilliantly presented, in contemporaneous stylings, by John Romita Jr.

30 Issue 151 Crisis
Daredevil was never a completely compelling character before Frank Miller got a hold of him.  However, his immediate predecessor in scripting terms, Roger Mackenzie, is partially on hand here, giving us a hero who is shown to be capable of complete mental and emotional collapse.  Fantastic art from Gil Kane helps elevate Daredevil from an also ran to a character who is both remarkable and fragile, preceding the great changes that would come to the book within the next couple of years.

29 Issue 291 All the News that Fits
Ann Nocenti ends her run with a whimper, not a bang.  That sounds like a criticism but, given that I've rated this tale in the top 30 of volume one, that's obviously not the case.  Instead, the reappearance of Bullet and Lance allows Ann to explore the pathos and world weariness of that villain, whose meek surrender to Daredevil somehow feels more realistic than the bad guys who'll keep pummelling away, on a hiding to nothing.  As ever, Ann's feel for character usurps the requirement for melodrama.

28 Issue 164 Expose
The first issue of Daredevil gave us the man without fear's origin wonderfully well.  It's a theme ongoing comics revisit from time to time especially for the sake of new readers but rarely does it top the initial telling.  This story does, revealing the newly introduced Ben Urich as an essentail and wise character, a counterbalance to Daredevil, both assisting the hero and challenging him.  The tale's highlight occurs early on when, in a wonderful sequence across a run of six panels, DD initially lies about his true identity but then comes clean. 

27 Issue 239 Bad Plumbing
If you weren't sure about what Ann wanted to do during her DD run before this issue, then the saga of Rotgut really established her writing style and interest in social justice.  The 'Bad Plumbing' isn't just about the literal inadequacies of a rundown tenement building but also the poverty that has imbued Rotgut since his childhood.  Rotgut could be a pretty horrible character but the fact that Ann gives him sympathetic edges elevates the whole tale - as well as a scene of Daredevil taking a beating from some street level thugs (that's just not very superhero-y, is it?).

26 Issue 240 The Face You Deserve
Comicdom is strewn with good opening chapters of sagas then spoiled by poor conclusions.  However, the Rotgut story doesn't miss a beat and the second half of the tale is, if anything, a little better than the opening part.  What impresses is that the story doesn't just focus on Rotgut's vengeful mission but is full of vivid pen pictures of Hell's Kitchen residents threatened by his actions.  One small scene where a boy goes to inform a tenant about poisoned water but is met with a sharp response and so decides not to bother is outstanding.

25 Issue 218 All My Laurels You Have Riven Away...
If Daredevil is regarded (by some) as Marvel's Batman, then the Jester may be perceived as the Joker's poor relation. He's certainly not as compelling or menacing as that DC villain but that doesn't mean he's a complete waste of time, as demonstrated here in a gloriously silly and entertaining little tale where Jonathan Powers rails against the fact that he was never allowed to fulfil his acting dreams.  Its highlight, though, is in the surprising moment where Daredevil decides to help Powers and goes all Mike Murdock by flouncing around in the Jester costume himself.  Not everyone's going to like this one.  But, oboy, I did.

24 Issue 248 A Cage in Search of a Bird
Having surrendered his legal career for the simpler life of a short order cook, events conspire to make Matt question this choice.  The blinding of a young boy, Tyrone, makes Matt realise that his Daredevil persona can't solve every situation and he realises he's going to have to turn to the law to help the boy.  That part's perhaps not surprising but what makes this issue so compelling is Matt's resentment in having to return to legal duties.  Truly, the title says it all...

23 Issue 216 The Second Secret
The short appearances of the Gael in Daredevil won't be everyone's cup of tea but any Irish readers will find not only the villain but the political backdrop to his psychopathy intriguing.  As a child, I found the tale's ambiguous portrayal of Irish 'freedom fighters' difficult to swallow.  Years later, post peace process, it's the Gael's ruthless torture of his victims that is perhaps most shocking and hopefully a reminder of the pain and futility of violence.

22 Issue 220 Fog
An issue with a fairly run of the mill second half must have something pretty special in its opening pages to chart as highly as this.  Dear reader, issue 220 has an absolutely jaw droppingly stunning opening sequence, detailing both Heather Glenn's desperately sad suicide and Matt's horrifying revelation that he had ignored her cries for help.  Not only beautifully told by Denny O'Neill but accompanied by some of David Mazzucchelli's best - and shocking - artwork.

21 Issue 178 Paper Chase
If strange little partnerships are your thing, then you'll love Paper Chase.  This tale not only features a great guest appearance by Power Man and Iron Fist, introducing an enduring friendship that Brian Bendis, in particularly, liked to exploit but also made the most of those knockabout henchmen, Turk and Grotto.  Most guest appearances feel gratuitous but not this one, where there's both a legitimate legal reason for the duo's introduction but also because the heroes are very comfortable in the same kind of urban territory.

20 Issue 191 Roulette
If I have a few question marks over the plausibility of the story's central conceit (a young, possibly autistic, lad moved to gun down classmates due to a poor relationship with his father), the issue, nevertheless, works brilliantly in a symbolic sense.  Not only does Daredevil's game of Russian Roulette appear to take place in a metaphysical hospital ward but the Jurgens' troubled relationship seems to act as a partial metaphor for Matt's uncomfortable relationship with his own father.  If Chuckie thinks shooting his friends will impress his dad, what are we to make of Matt's shenanigans as Daredevil?

19 Issue 267 Cremains
Another issue with Bullet and Lance's dysfunctional relationship in the background (I think I've underestimated how much I love these two) but, on this occasion, it's Daredevil's own fragile mental health taking centre stage.  Matt's had enough of New York and this tale basically recounts his decision to leave his home city.  The story's strength is in its episodic nature of little events building on top of each other in melancholic fashion - Daredevil visiting Sister Maggie, Lance preventing his dad and Matt knocking merry hell out of each other, the worn out hero slumped in the train and his ignoring Skip Ash's drug dealing - that make this issue very memorable and affecting.

18 Issue 183 Child's Play
A story so edgy that it was held back for nearly two years.  The Punisher and Daredevil trouble themselves with some dodgy drug dealing that's victimising kids in a local school.  Billy O'Koren is portrayed as a boy seeking revenge for his sister's death and it's up to DD to try to stop him going over the edge, whilst the Punisher busies himself with just damn well cleaning up the filth.  The outstanding cover is the cherry on the cake.

17 Issue 225 ...And Then You Die
The first half of the phrase that's suggested here by the title presumably wouldn't have been permissable in comics back in the day, but the whole belies that we're in for one of the bleaker issues of Daredevil to be encountered (and let's face it, there're are a good few contenders for 'Bleakest Issue Ever').  Matt's mourning for the recently passed Heather is contrasted with the weariness of one of Marvel's oldest (in both senses, I guess) villains.  Not only is the Vulture portrayed as, well, a bit crap in the villainry stakes, Daredevil's final bettering of him is accompanied by a beating so cruel and gratuitous that the reader is very much left in doubt as to who is the hero and who is the villain.  If DD182 (see below) is about denial, then the stage of grief on display here is very much anger.

16 Issue 259 The Children Are Watching You
One of the bravest of all Daredevil stories, focusing on the abuse children suffer, not just in a very literal sense in a disturbing plotline involving a child abduction, but also vicariously through the neglectful attitudes of those who are meant to care for them.  Bullet hits on Typhoid Mary in front of his very suggestible son and, in one of the most outstanding sequences for me in the whole of Daredevil, Fatboy member Butch's loss of trust in Matt Murdock is brilliantly portrayed.

15 Issue 182 She's Alive
An issue which deals pretty much entirely with Matt in denial at the death of Elektra.  It's one of the first issues to be very explicit about Matt's fragile psyche and it's particularly intriguing to see him 'bargaining' with Kingpin (another stage of grief) to tell him where Elektra really is.  Although later events somewhat undermine its long term impact, it still has a great ending with Foggy, for once, showing why he's a great friend to Matt and my All-Time Favourite Comic Book Cover.

14 Issue 231 Saved
I guess Born Again is officially seven episodes long, thanks to how it's been collected in the trade paperback, but for me this is its true finale.  A relentless shock of violence - Doris Urich is nearly hanged, whilst Matt takes on a deranged faux Daredevil - is finally subdued by a marvelous reconciliation between Matt and a drug ravaged Karen.

13 Issue 252 Ground Zero
A 'Fall of the Mutants' tie-in must have panicked regular readers into thinking that Daredevil was going to be slugging it out with some deadly mutant overlord.  In Ann Nocenti's hands, however, this tie-in resolutely and powerfully focuses on the sidelines and the devastating impact of a big X-gene showdown on the ordinary citizens of New York.  Daredevil's heroics are limited to helping folk out and, as is often the case, it's Ann's portrayal of those he encounters which raises the quality of this wonderfully plotted tale.

12 Issue 179 Spiked!
A story that perhaps helped serve as a template for Frank Miller's Sin City, this is a dark tale, with a seemingly bleak ending, narrated by Marvel's superlative newshound, Ben Urich. Frank really shows how highly skilled he is at giving his characters distinctive voices and outlooks and Ben is never more compelling than he is here trying to figure out who Elektra is.  And, as is often the case in noir, rather regretting his involvement by story's end.

11 Issue 227 Apocalypse
The opening chapter of Born Again is one which details the systematic destruction of a lawyer by a dark underworld figure with limitless resources.  Matt's downfall is all the more poignant for it being precipitated by a desperate Karen Page selling his secret identity for a shot of heroin.

10 Issue 186 Stilts
In amongst all the bleak storylines, it's easy to forget that Daredevil has some tremendous left-field comic escapades.  Perhaps the best is this peculiar little yarn, featuring long suffering low life, Turk Barrett, finally seemingly going up in the world (literally) by stealing Wilbur Day's Stilt Man costume from him.  The long panels featuring Turk in his costume are terrific and, if this wasn't all, the tale also has a really disturbing and chilling coda, with Matt manipulating Heather into agreeing to marry him.

9 Issue 184 Good Guys Wear Red
The conclusion of the PCP killer storyline has many highlights.  Matt questions his judgement, due to his being fooled by a bad guy's pacemaker, which plays into a bigger narrative about whether his ways are better than the Punisher's.    Billy O'Koren's escape from committing murder isn't accompanied by gratitude but a kind of world weary acceptance which makes you fear for him in the years to come.  And, of course, Daredevil actually shooting Frank Castle - that's a classic!  Wasn't overly sure about the plausibility of Coach Donahue dealing drugs to his own students though...

8 Issue 256 Blindspots
A story which really puts Typhoid Mary on the map as a formidable villain.  Using sex to manipulate practically everyone she comes across - a seemingly small time crook, Rip, becomes her servant, whilst the Kingpin is mesmerised by her.  Of course, where the tales tips into tragedy is in Typhoid's seduction of Matt, who is manipulated by Mary to begin an affair, whilst battling Typhoid and, all along, wondering what on earth is going on.  The issue is summed up by one fabulous panel of Mary leaning back suggestively against a statue of an angel - even stone submits to her will.

7 Issue 229 Pariah
Matt at his very lowest - sleeping in the trash in a back alley and then getting knifed by... Turk Barrett dressed as Santa Claus, of all people.  Oh, you can see the irony!  Elsewhere both Ben Urich and Karen Page are in desperate situations that seem impossible to escape from.  But just when you can't take any more, Matt wonders into a church and David Mazzucchelli finishes the issue with his own jaw dropping pieta.

6  Issue 169 Devils 
A tale that tries, to some extent, to get inside Bullseye's head, with delusions of Daredevil on every corner.  At this stage, Daredevil still sees some merit in trying to save Bullseye and urges him to seek help.  Where the issue really leaps into life, though, is in the early evocation of the Hell's Kitchen Greek chorus - the citizens around whose lives Daredevil and company revolve.  Here, Bullseye's rather strange relationship with two film buffs manages to inject some surreal humour into a deadly tale.

5 Issue 181 Last Hand
Two issues previous to this one, Frank Miller had given us a tale told by Ben Urich.  Here he tops that with a much trickier narrator, Bullseye (in contrast to DD169!).  Having a psychotic unravel the story means that the reader's ability to empathise with what's going on could be severely compromised.  That he transcends this reveals Frank at the top of his game here.  Elektra's death, illustrated with gratuitous savagery, is a truly appalling moment, but not dwelt upon, other than through a fantastic wordless sequence where she crawls to Matt's doorstep.  Truly heartbreaking stuff that ultimately leads Daredevil to exact his own vengeance.

4 Issue 260 Vital Signs
Whilst the cover rather gives away what occurs within, it can't possibly capture the glory of the journey the reader is taken on to one of Daredevil's worst falls (again, literally).  Typhoid Mary and the Kingpin have been on DD's tale for a while now but it's not their appearances that steal the show.  Instead it's the work of their pawns, Bullet, Bushwhacker and Ammo, who lay out Daredevil in preparation for their employers.  DD is mauled and left to hallucinate, just in time for two Turk Barrett level thugs, Jet and Spit, to come along and drag Daredevil to his final fate.  As tragedies go, this is the business.

3 Issue 228 Purgatory
Having lost everything to a wilful Kingpin in DD227, Matt is spiralling towards his lowest ebb.  On his way there he's stuck, feverishly, in a low rent hotel before indulging in some of his most disturbing behaviour ever. Firstly he attacks and almost leaves for dead a poor hotel manager and then pummels some anonymous thugs in a subway.  This is all topped, however, by the scene of Matt muttering into a payphone, seemingly getting help, until he walks away and the discarded phone reveals he's been chatting to the Speaking Clock.

2 Issue 168 Elektra
What I love about the first appearance of Elektra - and Frank Miller's first Daredevil script - is that it works absolutely perfectly as a one off tale about an old girlfriend of Matt's.  I could imagine some cynics finding the story a little saccharine, perhaps - you could imagine the tale turning up in a two-bit romance.  But I think that's unfair to a perfectly plotted story that introduces a fantastically ambiguous character and that concludes with a gorgeous and heartbreaking ending with, for once, Daredevil in charge of his emotions.

1 Issue 230 Born Again
Let's face it, there are a heckuva lotta of tragic DD tales with emotionally gut wrenching moments that practically drive the reader to despair, albeit accompanied by a sense of wonderment.  You'll forgive me, then, for allowing the story to top my list to be one with, shock horror, an optimistic conclusion.  Fans of Daredevil punching people will regret that Matt spends the whole issue recuperating in a hospital surrounded by nuns - and that perhaps says as much about what I think's good about a Daredevil story than anything else - but there's still plenty going on here.  David Mazzucchelli uses some brilliantly cinematic panels, slowly pulling in on Ben Urich, to accompany the journalist's eavesdropping on the murder of Lt Nick Manolis but the greatest moment is when Matt's two closest friends, Matt and Karen are reconciled.  So, my friends, raise a glass for better days and the hope of Daredevil 230.

Phew!  That took a while.  Next, one of Daredevil's most obscure appearances...


Anonymous said...

Hi Robert, Congratulations on compiling an impressive list. I'm sorry to say that there's quite a few post-Born Again issues I haven't read. I need to rectify that. I'm surprised that Badlands (is 220?) didn't make the cut and i was wondering if that was an oversight of simply a comment on the quality of the competition.
Cheers, Oliver

entzauberung said...

I'll always see DD 181 not only as my favourite Daredevil issue but my favourite comic overall,
I have no problems with the comics that beat it though, just goes to show how strong DD was in the 80s.

Are you going to do v2 now? I'd love to see your take on "The Death of Jean DeWolff". It's generally seen as one of the best Spider-Man stories ever but is arguably just as much a DD tale.

Robert said...

Hi, Oliver

I rated Badlands 8 out of 10 and I do think it's a very good story. Because I'm a big 'Matt Murdock' fan, I think the reason I'm not as sold on this particular tale as others is because Matt is pretty much anonymous throughout the tale and his appearance in the strange town where the story takes place seems out of character. As a story in and of itself it's very strong. For someone who loves Matt as a character it feels out of kilter and that's why, for me, it didn't make the list. Hope that clarifies things (but still a very good tale and I get why you like it).


Robert said...

Hi entzauberung

I've been quiet recently what with tying things up on volume one and Christmas. However, I do intend to keep going. I promised some time ago to do Frank Miller's Man Without Fear mini-series so I'm going to do that first but work on volume two will hopefully follow before the end of January.


dhole said...

This is a terrific list, and a great reminder of why Daredevil has been one of my favourite comics for so long (at least in the top two). I especially appreciate the good showing by the Denny O'Neil run, who is my favourite DD writer after Miller. And I've dusted off some of my Nocenti issues to give them another look, as well...

I'm curious to read your reviews of Volume 2, although for my money nothing there can compare to the stuff on this list.

Many thanks, Happy New Year!

Tupiaz said...

I'm a little sad that Daredevil 219 didn't get a spot. One of my favorites because it puzzles me. The same goes for 265 (which did make the list). However a fine list.

Robert said...

Hi, Tupiaz

I refer you to my answer to Oliver above...


Anonymous said...

good to see youre still chucking along.
Kveto from prague

Robert said...

Hey, Kveto, long time no hear... Glad to see you check in!