Thursday, April 30, 2009

15,000 Comics: Harlan Ellison on Daredevil

Calamity Jon was raised in a home filled with comic books – his parents collected them before he was born, and continued to collect them as he grew up. By way of nickel bins, swap meets, garage sales and being the recipient of other people’s lost interest in their collections, he eventually had a collection of at least 15,000 comics by the time he hit college. Ten years later, and several more thousand comics attached to his collection, he got sick of it and divested himself of all but a handful. In this feature, he tries to catalog every comic he’s ever read from memory …

15,000 Comics to go, starting ... NOW!

Daredevil #208/#209 – I’m not doing myself any favors by jumping into this project a measly two comics at a time, but as Daredevil comics – and, in fact, all comics – go, these two are unique. Arthur Byron Cover provided the story in issue 209, and made an assist (I’m thinking he must have been a continuity guru) on issue 208, with David Mazzuchelli turning in a superb and yet not-quite polished set of pages on the interior. Whooptee shit, but bear with me. The writer of 208 was Harlan Ellison.

I think, at this point, I’m thirteen years old, and there are two things I love; first off, Daredevil. It’s the first comic I ever collected with my own money (I started with #164, Expose, 1979, written by Roger McKenzie and drawn by the Miller/Janson team (Wally Wood assisting on inks, awesome), a flashback to Daredevil’s origin told while DD rests in a hospital bed after a showdown with the Hulk - I hunted that issue down in short order after buying this one - during which he’s visited by a small platoon of Marvel luminaries, including the Thing, Power Man, and Iron Fist, all three of whom had captured my juvenile imagination). The other thing I love is Harlan Ellison. I’m a sci-fi nerd at this point, but I’ve got one foot in the Arthur C.Clarke, Robert Heinlein and Ray Bradbury camp, and another with Harlan Ellison and Michael Moorcock. So on the schoolbus every morning and every afternoon, I’ve got copies of “I Have No Mouth…” and “The Beast That Shouted Love…” or “Deathbird Stories” (my favorite, until Angry Candy) and so on.

So yeah, Harlan Ellison writes an issue of Daredevil, I damn near broke both wrists reaching with rocket-engine speed for the racks.

It’s an intriguing take on the deathtrap motif; Daredevil finds himself lured into a mansion of automated death by a robot disguised to look like a human girl and which has a hydraulic system which simulates the human heartbeat. Unlike most comic book deathtrap stories, we don’t enjoy the courtesy of watching the hero struggle against the danger from the perspective of the mastermind – in fact, by the time DD finds out who’s caused his troubles, the deathtrap’s master architect is long dead and barely even enjoying the revenge offered beyond the grave. It was an evocative, maybe modernist way to tell the story, to wrap the reader in with the hero's dilemmas - nothing that radical, but even today few writers dare to keep the reader in the dark about anything except the most blatant cliffhangers and bog standard twist endings.

Besides the evocative storytelling, Daredevil was more human and vulnerable in these stories than any hundred other so-called “regular people” superheroes. Batman WISHES he were this prone to the threat of death and injury – DD manages to escape every menace, but is battered, bruised and beaten at the end. Every fall takes the wind out of him, every trap has him scrambling to survive. He even begins the story beaten and out of breath from an off-camera interruption into an everyday robbery. At no point was Daredevil overcoming the threats with omnipotent superheroic panache, it was scraped knuckles all the way.

This, combined with Ellison’s use of a casual, hip patois for DD’s internal monologue (Daredevil swinging for the fences with the occasional “baby” and “Sonova(good old comic books, they never finish the cuss)” like his old beatnik alter-ego Mike Murdock or, more likely, kind of like Harlan Ellison actually speaks) had me riveted. What can I say, I'm easy.

The thing I’ve learned as a Daredevil fan is that you often have to wait for the good issues – DD will be a solid, even excellent superhero comic for a year or two, at which point the creative team will change and then you’ll have two, three or even five or six years of bland, unreadable garbage. Ellison’s issue, and the subsequent followup kept me reading until Miller returned a few years later. #208 stands as one of my ten favorite issues from a series which has had a LOT of great stories.

(As an aside, I always kept an eye out for more of Arthur Byron Cover’s work, reasoning that if he’d been a compatriot of Ellison’s that he must be a writer to watch out for – I never came across his name on the shelves, although I see that he did the novelization of the 1980 Flash Gordon movie, and I can’t help but wonder if he was able to capture Brian Blessed’s enormous “GORDON’S ALI-IVE??” with the magnitude it deserved)

Issues covered in this article: 3 (I’m borrowing #164 against the time I decide to do a complete DD rundown)
Issues to go: 14,997 (jeez!)

1 comment:

  1. "a robot disguised to look like a human girl"

    One of the truly oustanding things about comics is that it really is neccesary to specify 'human' here.