Essential Daredevil Volume 1, written by Stan Lee, illustrated by Bill Everett, Joe Orlando, Wally Wood, Gene Colan, John Romita Sr. and others (1964-66): Of all the heroes created during the early years of Marvel Comics in the 1960’s — Iron Man, the Fantastic Four, Spider-man, Doctor Strange, Thor, the Hulk and many others — Daredevil had the distinction of having the worst costume, and perhaps one of the worst costumes ever visited upon a hero carrying his own book. This was primarily because of the yellow/red colour scheme, though a later, very brief addition of a hood and a backpack just made things worse. Thankfully, veteran comic-book artist Wally Wood would redesign the costume about a year into Daredevil’s existence, giving us the all-red, streamlined version that persists to this day with only minor modifications.
Bad costume design perhaps made sense within the book — Daredevil is, after all, blind, relying on super-senses to “see” the world around him, senses so acute that at times his blindness seems irrelevant. Radiation both blinded Matt Murdock as a child and gave him his heightened senses; the tragic death of his boxer father at the hands of mobsters caused him to become Daredevil when he wasn’t defence attorney Matt Murdock.
Daredevil burned through artists at an unprecedented rate early on — even Wood would only stay on the book for a handful of issues — before settling on Gene Colan for much of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. The unsettled art situation actually makes this first volume sort of charming, as it goes hand-in-hand with what seems like an unsettled editorial stance on what sort of book Daredevil should be. Early Spider-man-type heroics give way to an increasingly loopy set of villains (The Matador, anyone? Stilt-Man? The Purple Man? How about The Organizer? Tri-Man?) and world-threatening scenarios that would seem to be more suited to The Avengers or The Fantastic Four, including the near-destruction of all life on Earth by a Doctor Doom knock-off and his really big Cobalt Bomb.
The overall effect of this volume reminds me most of the Flaming Carrot: this isn’t a parody of super-heroes, but it is a super-hero book served up with a lot of dead-serious absurdity. The grim-and-gritty Frank Miller Daredevil, he of Elektra and the Kingpin, is still fifteen years away. Recommended.
Uncle Sam and the Freedom Fighters: Brave New World, written by Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti, illustrated by Renato Arlem (2008): Uncle Sam and the Freedom Fighters are one of those great C-List superhero teams with a pedigree dating back to the 1940’s, when most of them fought evil for Quality Comics long before they were acquired by DC Comics. They had their moments individually in the 1940’s, as they were mostly handled by the Eisner studio, but since then they’ve mostly sucked, even as supporting characters. Indeed, their most memorable moment probably came in 2005-2006’s Infinite Crisis crossover, when they were almost all killed by Bizarro Superman. When your roster has included the living embodiment of America, a guy who commands trained bees, and a man the size of an action figure, maybe you’re always going to lack a certain amount of respect.
Writers Gray and Palmiotti revived the (mostly) new Freedom Fighters in a miniseries after Infinite Crisis, breaking the trend by having these heroes appear in something that didn’t suck. That miniseries was probably the greatest Grant Morrison comic book ever not written by Grant Morrison, with the writers putting the heroes through various super-scientific threats, including giant aliens on the Moon and an evil robotic President.
Here, the team fights amongst itself and against outside threats, including corrupted member Red Bee, who’s been turned into a dangerous human-insect hybrid by alien super-insects. Meanwhile, a city of doll-sized men in the basement of the Pentagon takes the Vice-President hostage, and a bunch of other crazy stuff happens. Highly recommended.
Tom Strong Volume 2, written by Alan Moore, illustrated by Chris Sprouse, Al Gordon, Paul Chadwick, Gary Gianni, Hilary Barta, Russ Heath and others (2000): Tom Strong, Alan Moore’s homage to Doc Savage, pulp adventure and whatever else he feels like paying tribute to from issue to issue, is about as jolly a metafictional romp through comics and pulps as one could want. One adventure may play out like a Tintin pastiche; the next may be written and drawn like an old Mad magazine parody by Wally Wood; the third may be a two-parter harking back to the first Justice League/Justice Society crossovers of the 1960’s.
Whatever the case, the series seemed to be the lighter, sunnier side of the metafictional polyglot that is Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s League of Extraordinary Gentleman. I’m not sure how much fun this enterprise would be if you don’t have much background in the comics and pulps Moore, Sprouse and company play around with in every issue, but I think it’s pretty darned witty and fun. Especially the Captain Marvel Family homage, perfectly apt and ridiculously specific in its riffs on one particular Captain Marvel Family adventure from the Golden Age of Comics. Highly recommended.