“Duel with Daredevil”
Editor: Stan Lee Writer: Stan Lee Artist: Steve Ditko
If you’re a comic-book enthusiast, sometimes you don’t want a ponderous, multi-issue cosmic saga. Or a life-and-death adventure against an arch-foe. Or even an intense emotional drama. Sometimes, all you want is a story that is just plain fun. The kind where you just sit back and enjoy the ride.
The Silver-Age fan didn’t get too many of that kind from DC. DC stories were mostly drama, super-hero versus super-villain, with the fate of the world or the universe sometimes tossed in for good measure. Oh, there was the occasional whimsical tale and some that were outright silly. But DC never seemed to go for the lightweight escapade-type of tale.
On the other hand, that was something that Marvel Comics did very well. Especially in the early days.
I mentioned once, ‘way back a few dozen Deck Log entries ago, that I came to Marvel Comics late, around 1965. By then, its stories had started to get a good polish, both in scripting and in art. They still had a good deal of raw energy, but overall, they were sleeker productions than the early-‘60’s material.
For me to discover this, I had to go back and pick up what back issues of Marvel comics I could. I lived in Elyria, Ohio, then, and there was a used-book store on Broad Street, a few shops down from the Lake Theater. Along one wall, underneath the display shelves, the store had old comics for sale. There would be about fifteen stacks, each about a foot thick in comics, and they sold for a nickel apiece. That was for the regular-sized comics. The giant annuals cost a dime.
Whenever I had fifty cents or a dollar left over at the end of the month, after buying my usual stack of current issues from Koplin’s Drug Store, I’d make the long walk to that used-book store to see what treasures I could discover. Sometimes, I could persuade my dad to drive me there, but that took some slick talking because he knew he would be sitting in the car for god-knows-how-long while I tried to make up my mind about which old comics to buy.
It was those times that I picked up most of my old Marvels. And I really can’t blame my father for getting irritated over having to wait so long for me. When it came to Marvel comics, I didn’t have a whole lot of reference to make decisions. I was most familiar with the Avengers and Captain America, so any issues with them that I didn’t already have were an easy choice. But anything else was just hit or miss.
Like any comic-book fan though, I was canny enough to know that certain kinds of stories gave you more bang for your buck---or in that case, your nickel. For example, any story that involved more than one super-hero. A magazine that featured a super-team, like the Fantastic Four or the X-Men, or one where a super-hero guest-starred in another hero’s title.
It was on the strength of that unassailable logic that I picked up Spider-Man # 16. I mean, what kid could ignore a blurb on the cover like “Spidey Battles Daredevil!”
I have to confess that I’ve never been a big Spider-Man fan. I had read some of his stories and never got into the whole “teen-ager with problems” schtick. And I had run across Daredevil once or twice---enough to know his angle: blind guy with his remaining senses super-enhanced. The cover of Spider-Man # 16 threw me, though, because I thought DD wore a red outfit---I didn’t know then that his first costume had been a set of yellow long-johns.
The notion that Marvel super-heroes typically fight each other the first time they meet is a cliché now, something the fans chuckle over. But I have to admit, Stan Lee was on to something. I wouldn’t have bought that issue if it had been just plain Spider-Man or Daredevil. But the prospect of seeing two heroes go at each other was certainly worth paying for.
There’s nothing intricate or layered about “Duel with Daredevil”. It’s a simple, straight-forward adventure, pretty much a twenty-two-page slug-fest, really. But simple doesn’t always mean “bad” or “mediocre”. Not in the hands of the right author.
For all of his bombast in promoting the Marvel line, Stan Lee, in his story writing, had a very human touch. He knew how to take normal personal situations and then give them a sharp, but natural, twist. The first few panels of “Duel with Daredevil” deal with one of Lee’s more famous spins---Peter Parker’s on-going efforts to dodge a proposed blind date with the daughter of Aunt May’s best friend, Anna Watson. You can’t blame Pete. After all, we all know how blind dates work out, right? (“She’s a wonderful dancer. She’s shy and doesn’t go out a lot,” means “Run, boy! Run like the wind!”) Well, we all know what Stan eventually did with that convention.
Lee applied the same sort of thing to his super-hero scripts. Granted, he relied a bit much on convenient coïncidences, but he got away with it because of his flair for dialogue and genuine humour. Stan had a keen sense of wit (matched only, in my opinion, by Arnold Drake) that inveigled the reader into chuckling right past the more implausible parts of the tale.
The plot proper of “Duel with Daredevil” kicks off with a healthy dose of coïncidence. While swinging across the rooftops on patrol, Spider-Man comes across a mugging about to occur. Now, any cop will tell you the odds of chancing across a crime just as it’s about to go down are very long, indeed. But we’ll give Spidey a pass on this one, since he’s alerted to it by his tingling “spider-sense”.
Coïncidence Number Two: the imminent victim of the mugging just happens to be Matt Murdock, the blind lawyer who is secretly Daredevil, the Man Without Fear.
As quick as “whap!” “thonk!” “pow!”, the web-slinger takes out the trio of no-goodniks. He accepts Murdock’s thanks, adding a mild rebuke that the man shouldn’t be walking through lonely neighbourhoods at night. “To someone like me,” Matt points out, “night and day are the same!” (Ouch! Didn’t notice the smoked glasses and the cane, Spidey?)
After a page of exposition introducing non-Daredevil readers to who he is and what he can do, Matt reports back to the offices of Nelson and Murdock, Attorneys-at-Law. He finds his partner, Franklin “Foggy” Nelson, and their secretary, Karen Page, still at work. (Apparently, they burn the mid-night oil at Nelson and Murdock. No doubt they have to, to pick up the slack for all the times that Matt is out of office swashbuckling as Daredevil.) Foggy announces that the circus is in town and to-morrow, he and Karen are going to play hooky. He invites Matt to join them.
Matt begs off, claiming he has a lot of unfinished work to catch up on. (“About time, you slacker!”, Foggy probably thinks.) It’s an opportunity to insert a thought balloon outlining the whole I-love-Karen-but-my-best-buddy-is-dating-her-and-besides-she-could-only-feel-pity-for-a-blind-man set-up to further entice readers to check out DD’s own mag. But when you think about it, it’s kind of obtuse for Foggy to invite the sightless Murdock to a circus. It makes about as much sense as featuring a ventriloquist on a radio programme.
Speaking of the circus, the scene shifts to rehearsals under the big top. Here we find out that this is no ordinary three-ring extravaganza. Instead of Barnum and Bailey, it’s the Ringmaster and his Circus of Crime. In subsequent outings, the Ringmaster tended to be just a gimmicky villain with circus folk as his gang, but here, in only his second appearance, we see the wily crook applying his original modus operandi---he and his troupe provide a genuine circus show, but once the crowd of customers is relaxed, he puts them into a trance with the mesmeriser device in his top hat. Then they rob the senseless spectators of their valuables. Not exactly the Brink's Armored Car Robbery, but it keeps them in beer money.
To ensure that they have a packed house to plunder, the Ringmaster distributes posters announcing that Spider-Man will perform, with all proceeds going to charity. This is where Lee’s style of providing natural twists kicks in, like billiard balls reacting to the break.
Peter Parker spots one of the posters and decides, what the heck, he really will appear at the circus as Spider-Man, to show the public that he’s not the menace that J. Jonah Jameson keeps saying he is.
The next morning, Foggy reads in the paper that Spidey will perform at the circus, which raises Murdock’s curiosity. Matt decides to accept his buddy’s invite, after all. (“Just great!” was likely Foggy’s reaction. “There goes my chance of canoodling with Karen under the bleachers!”)
That evening, a full house attends the performance. Parker slips away, changes to Spider-Man, and makes a grand entrance. He puts on a dazzling display of acrobatics to a cheering crowd. The Ringmaster is taken by surprise, but comes up with a plan to deal with the web-slinger. He motions for Spider-Man to come down and take a bow, and when he does, the villain uses his gimmicked topper to put Spidey under a spell.
Then he turns his mesmeriser on the throng of spectators. You have to hand to the guy, he knows his stuff. “. . . Within split-seconds, the most incredible feat of mass hallucination ever recorded takes place, as the entire audience falls in a hypnotic trance!”
. . . Except for Matt Murdock, who cannot see the swirling rings of the Ringmaster’s hat.
While the Ringmaster’s band begins robbing the customers, Murdock ducks out of sight and becomes Daredevil. As he charges into the centre ring to save the day, the quick-thinking crook orders the entranced Spider-Man to stop the Man Without Fear.
For three full pages, the two heroes duke it out, though few blows are actually traded. It’s more of a ballet of ducking and dodging. The match is well balanced. Both Spider-Man and Daredevil are top-flight acrobats in peak physical condition. DD’s hyper-senses counterpoise Spidey’s superior strength and speed, so neither one has a distinct advantage.
The tide of their battle swings one way then the other, with neither gaining the upper hand. Then, the Ringmaster’s hold on Spider-Man lapses for a moment. In a blinding move, Daredevil uses his billy club to relieve the villain of his top hat. DD grabs it and uses it to break the spell on Spidey.
His mind restored, Ol’ Web-Head stands shoulder-to-shoulder with Ol’ Horn-Head while the Ringmaster calls his entire troupe of criminal performers down on them. That’s when the fun really begins.
Clowns, acrobats, strong man, human cannonball, roustabouts---none of them are a match for Our Heroes. Stan Lee’s best dialogue always seems to sprout in scenes like this and the reader is treated to a glorious romp.
When it gets down to the dregs, Daredevil slips out and returns to his seat as Matt Murdock, leaving Spidey to do the mop-up. When only the Ringmaster is left standing, Spider-Man closes his eyes to avoid being re-hypnotised, and lets his spider-sense lead him on. One final punch puts paid to the threat of the Circus of Crime.
Then Spider-Man releases the audience from the Ringmaster’s thrall. The spectators awaken, unaware of the pitched battle that has just taken place. Instead, they believe that have just witnessed a spectacular circus show.
“Did you enjoy it, Matt?” Karen asks Murdock.
“Well, I did manage to stay awake,” he says.
That was it. No earth-shattering menaces or even a serious threat to the life of the hero. Just a simple crime that Spider-Man and Daredevil inadvertently got drawn into. It reminds one of the salad days when a super-hero’s time was primarily spent foiling bank robberies. But for all its simplicity, the sense of fun about it made it entertaining. The reader gets carried along by the confidence of Spidey and DD. Spider-Man is scarcely more concerned about taking on the entire Circus of Crime than he was about stopping those thugs who tried to mug Matt Murdock. In the last panel he reflects, “The most fun I had all day was fighting for my life!”
That was the hook to Stan Lee’s writing---he made the readers feel what the characters were feeling. It helped that this was a story remarkably free of the usual Spider-Man woes. No suggestion of money problems or Aunt May’s precarious health. Spidey was even cheered by the audience when he performed under the big top. There was one panel, when Betty Brant got all weepy-eyed thinking that Peter was taking another girl to the circus, but not much was made of that. It was probably the most carefree Spider-Man story up to this point.
Artist Steve Ditko made no less a contribution to this tale turning out to be a little gem. While he may not have been at the peak of his talent in drawing this issue, he was at the peak of his effectiveness. The strength of highly stylised artists like Ditko---and Jack Kirby and Gene Colan, to mention a couple more---is their ability to convey action, motion, fluidity. Everything, even emotion, displays movement. In terms of this, Ditko was at the top of his game here. “Duel with Daredevil” was practically all action, and the acrobatics of Spidey and Daredevil seemed to glide across the panels. It’s no wonder that for many, including myself, Steve Ditko is the Spider-Man artist.
This was Daredevil’s first encounter with a character outside his own series, and no doubt his guest-appearance in Spider-Man # 16 was meant to drum up interest in the Daredevil title, which was only on its third issue by then. The shill worked even better than Stan Lee intended---it got me to buy an issue of Spider-Man.