Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Matt, Natasha, Foggy, SHIELD and Hydra

Cover art by Gil Kane

Prior to Frank Miller's gritty retooling of Daredevil in the early 1980s, Matt Murdock was a 2nd-tier character. Because of my personal preferences, I'm not usually a fan of gritty retoolings and never regularly bought Daredevil after his life became horrible and unrelentingly tragic.  Also, he stole Kingpin away from Spider Man's Rogue's Gallery. Phooey!

But, to be fair, Daredevil was of uneven quality through the 1960s and 1970s. He had never developed a truly great Rogue's Gallery of his own and the stories were often a little dull. In fact, now that I think about it, I never did collect the title regularly.

Every once in awhile, though, there would be a gem in the rough. Beginning with Daredevil #120 (April 1975), writer Tony Isabella and artist Bob Brown (who co-plotted the story) brought us a very fun four-part action/adventure tale involving secret organizations, killer robots, giant bats, high-tech weaponry and Shea Stadium.

This was during a time in which Matt Murdock and Natasha Romanoff (The Black Widow) were in a romantic relationship and were struggling to figure out how to combine super-heroics with boyfriend/girlfriend stuff. This is made harder by the fact that the Widow absolutely loathes Matt's best friend Foggy Nelson. Foggy, while he was district attorney a few years early, had prosecuted the Widow for a murder she hadn't committed.

All the same, when Hydra agents led by a villain called El Jaguar attack a New Year's party and try to kidnap Foggy, she joins Matt in trying to stop them. Nick Fury shows up with some SHIELD agents as well. The bad guys are forced to retreat and Foggy is safe.

But why does Hydra want to kidnap Foggy? Because they've learned that Nick Fury is about to offer the chubby lawyer a position on SHIELD's board of directors.

Daredevil #121 gives us yet another attempt to snatch Foggy. This time, it involves a full-scale battle outside a Manhattan courthouse, with a Dreadnaught (a killer robot used by Hydra) making things particularly difficult for the good guys.

When the Black Widow is stunned and about to be killed by the Dreadnaught, Foggy sacrifices himself to save her. The issue ends with him in the hands of Hydra.

It's a really effective combination of action and characterization. The story is very well-paced--action set-pieces keep the story exciting, with exposition and character moments expertly seeded between the battles. Natasha now has to face the fact that a man she held in contempt had risked (and perhaps given) his life to save her. This leaves her pretty much obsessed with finding and rescuing him.

Cover Art by Gil Kane
Beating up scores of Hydra agents in DD #122 finally brings Natasha a clue--Hydra is apparently hiding out in a warehouse in Queens. The clue is probably a trap, but there doesn't seem to be any option other than walk into that trap. Daredevil and the Widow do so, getting into tussles with El Jaguar and another villain named Blackwing, who makes pets out of genetically-engineered giant vampire bats. Everyone needs a hobby.

Once again, the fight scenes are effectively choreographed and exciting, with the added twist in that Daredevil is forced to kill (albeit a giant bat rather than a human being) for the first time in his career. But the fight goes badly and the two heroes end the issue unconscious. We also learn that the current head of SHIELD is former crime-boss Silvermane, who was supposedly dead after drinking a Fountain of Youth formula and regressing into nothing back in Spider Man #75. It turns out he just sort of snapped back to an adult age later on. One can legitimately argue this is weak even according to the dictates of Comic Book Logic, but the rest of the story is entertaining enough to leave me in a forgiving mood.

The story concludes in Daredevil #123 (July 1975), with several successive and truly impressive plot twists. DD and the Widow have been taken to Hydra's real secret base underneath Shea Stadium. (How did Hydra build a secret base under a busy stadium that houses both pro baseball and football teams and therefore has no significant time when its not in use? Tony Isabella literally tells us not to ask.) From here, they watch via cameras as SHIELD raids the warehouse in Queens, with the telepathic villain Mentallo making sure they are real and not Life Model Decoys. The warehouse is blown up, killing Nick Fury and other top SHIELD officers.

Except they were LMDs, equipped with "thought tapes" to fool any mind-reader who might be "listening." Also, Daredevil has a tracker in one of his horns, so SHIELD is soon attacking the Shea Stadium base. Foggy gets yet another Crowning Moment of Awesome when he snatches a rifle away from a guard and blasts the chains off DD and the Widow. How Foggy suddenly became an expert marksman is something else I think were not supposed to ask about.

So we get yet another great fight scene, this one involving Daredevil, Black Widow, Widow's friend Ivan and a number of SHIELD agents going up against several super-powered Hydra agents and an army of mooks.

I appreciate the skill with which Isabella and Brown lay out the action, keeping things moving while giving just about every named good guy character a few moments in the limelight. Dum Dum Dugan and Ivan get to do some butt-kickin' along with Matt and Natasha.

Silvermane gets away, but SHIELD is victorious. And Foggy now has some first-hand experience to help him make his decision about whether to join SHIELD.

 There's another interesting thing about this story. Over the past few years, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has made Hydra a fairly well-known part of pop culture. They are a major and regular threat in that particular universe. But in this 1975 story, Hydra (though presented as a credible threat to humanity) was a relatively small drop in a large fictional bucket. Tony Isabella felt obligated to provide us with several pages of prose (divided between the first two issues of the story arc) to tell readers what Hydra is and review their history. I think its an indicator of just how large and intricate the Marvel Universe had become by the mid-1970s. After a dozen years of regularly introducing super powered heroes and villains, a secret high-tech terrorist organization that has made repeated attempts to destroy civilization was something we needed to be reminded about.

On the one hand, you can argue that this is why comic book universe should be re-booted from time to time--they otherwise become too large for the average reader to keep track of. On the other hand, the script here does an excellent job of bringing readers up to speed. If you didn't know what Hydra was (or even what SHIELD was), you are given the information you need to still follow and enjoy the story.

To re-boot or not to re-boot? It's a question that will be forever debated.

Cover art by Sal Buscema
 Next week, we return to Giant Robots vs. Giant Monsters.

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