GRAPHIC NOVEL and TRADE
PAPERBACK (TPB) REVIEWS

by The Masked Bookwyrm


Daredevil Reviews - Page 6


Elektra Lives! 1992 (HC & SC GN) 82 pages

coverWritten and illustrated by Frank Miller.
Colours: Lynn Varley. Letters: Jim Novak.

Rating: * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Recommended for mature readers

Review posted: Mar. 2016

Elektra Lives! is an odd title for this graphic novel as opposed to Daredevil: Elektra Lives! or something. Maybe it was figured it would be obvious that Daredevil would star since back then Elektra had yet to headline a self-titled series. (And maybe it was seen as making the book seem more sophisticated -- the same way DC released Jack Kirby's climax to his New God saga as The Hunger Dogs -- rather than The New Gods: The Hunger Dogs).

But the point is -- it is fundamentally a Daredevil story.

So Matt Murdock/Daredevil is front and centre the main character, with Elektra more an abstract concept than an actual character.

At this point in the mythos, Daredevil believed Elektra had died after a long run of Daredevil stories published about a decade before -- although readers with long memories would recall that the story arc ended with Elektra having been resurrected, supposedly purified of her darker impulses by Daredevil (though as mentioned, Daredevil was unaware of this). The character had pretty much disappeared from comics. Now Elektra creator Frank Miller was briefly returning to Marvel and Daredevil (his Daredevil origin saga, Daredevil: The Man Without Fear, was in the works) and he had clearly decided to resurrect Elektra, too.

But the result feels a bit confused and unfocused -- not to mention thin for some 82 pages!

Matt/Daredevil is still struggling with regrets and memories about his one time lover/turned bounty hunter/turned ally/turned assassin/turned enemy Elektra, visiting a Catholic confessional and experiencing vivid dreams where Elektra is alive but being hounded by the zombiefied corpses of those she had killed. And, honestly -- that takes up the first half of the book (there're no sub-plots or court cases Matt is engaged in). Not exactly a lot of plot complications or character development. Daredevil (through his dreams) infers that the ninja assassin cult, The Hand, are seeking to create their own uber-killer to go after the might-be-alive-Elektra, and DD wants to stop them.

It all can feel a bit loose in terms of story and logic. It might even meant to be regarded as semi-apocryphal, given some of what transpires.

And as I said, Elektra isn't really a character, per se. I mean, Miller draws her on various pages, fighting zombies and ninjas, and even getting briefly naked (the comic "mature readers") but I can't recall her having any dialogue. I'm not sure what she's supposed to have been doing since her last appearance back in the old DD comics, nor why the Hand are only now looking for her (though we are supposed to see this occurring only shortly after those old issues -- there's a scene where Matt calls ex-girlfriend Karen Page, indicating this is a retro story set before Miller himself returned Karen to the monthly comic). Nor is it clear what the point is: after all, when Elektra was resurrected, there was a clear indication she was supposed to have been purged of her darker side and was now a fighter for the light -- but that's not really clear here.

But the biggest problem is just that this is an 82 page graphic novel that has little real plot, nominal characterization, and is all tied together by sketchy -- perhaps deliberately dream-like -- logic. Matt really is the only character in the story (Foggy appears, briefly in a couple of panels, Elektra has no lines, and there aren't really any other characters). It's basically a first half reiterating Matt feeling morose over Elektra's death, mixing dream sequences with talking head panels; then a second half mostly skewing to long fight scenes. Not exactly an "epic."

Miller's art has had different phases, and this is an interesting period. There's the exaggeration and caricature one can associate with Miller. Yet there's also a much more careful attention to line work and detail, including backgrounds, than I sometimes associate with Miller who often seemed to regard backgrounds as just something to be loosely sketched in (I'd half wonder if he had an uncredited assistant). It's fairly compelling work -- though strangely for Miller, the action fight scenes aren't his best. I mean Miller practically defined the idea of long, page consuming fights, detailing every little blocked punch and Martial Arts-inspired kick. Composition and choreography that made his sometimes protracted fights at least visually interesting. But I didn't find that as evident here. The action scenes are long -- but not necessarily that interesting, nor clearly choreographed.

Maybe the most striking thing about the visuals is Lynn Varley's colours. Miller's long time colourist (and real life wife) Varley arguably excels herself here, with moody and richly textured hues.

I've said before that my relationship with Miller's work has fluctuated over the years -- being a big fan when I was kid, practically hating some of his stuff as an adult, but not entirely sure how much that's because of his changing/evolving style (both in art and writing) and how much just my changing/evolving temperament. I have re-read early Miller that didn't impress me as much as I expected it to. But despite kind of looking forward to Miller returning, as a writer/artist, to the character(s) that essentially made him famous, and delivering a lavish graphic novel, I just found there wasn't enough to sustain it, as either an emotional/character drama, or as an action-thriller plot. And, perhaps appropriate given the emphasis on Matt's dreams, it's a bit like the whole thing is meant to be read as just an extended dream (scenes at a police station morgue seeming surreal). Almost as if Miller himself woke up from a disorienting dream involving the characters and immediately called up the Marvel editors and said, "Hey, it's Frank -- I just had a wild idea for a Daredevil graphic novel..."

Cover price: __


Essential Daredevil, vol. 2 2004 (SC TPB) 560 pages

cover by ColanWritten by Stan Lee. Pencils by Gene Colan, with Jack Kirby. Inks by John Tartaglione, with Frank Giacoia, Vince Colletta, George Klein, others.
Black & White. Letters: various

Reprints: Daredevil (1st series) #26-48, Daredevil Special #1, The Fantastic Four #73 (1967-1969)

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 2

When I first read Essential Daredevil, vol. 2 (collecting more than twenty consecutive issues of Daredevil in economical black & white) I had enjoyed it, but gave it only a mild "thumbs up" review. For one thing, the tone of this era of DD stories seemed a bit uncertain read back-to-back, the (minor) sub-plots involving the romantic tension between Daredevil's alter ego of Matt Murdock and his secretary Karen Page (and fifth wheel Foggy Nelson) seemed a bit erratically developed, as if writer Stan Lee was having trouble remembering from issue to issue where they stood. Some issues had them pining for each other, but unwilling to voice their emotions...others had them calling each other darling. As well, given the increasingly dark and tragic tone Daredevil stories later went in (and continue to this day) the frequently light-hearted tone and the wisecracking, devil-may-care persona of Daredevil seemed a bit odd.

Still, there was nonetheless a readability to these run of issues, a page turning aplomb. Just not quite on the same level as some other Essential volumes I'd read.

Yet then something happened.

I kind of found myself gravitating back to this volume from time to time, particularly when I was feeling down or melancholy. I found myself re-reading stories, or story arcs, just 'cause I wanted to read 'em again. And I began to realize that I may have unintentionally sold this collection short. In my desire to write a "thoughtful" review, I maybe over-analyzed this era of issues. Disregarding continuity for a minute, and how well one story segues into the next, or whether the romantic tension is maintained consistently from issue to issue...reading the issues, or story arcs, independently just for themselves, there's quite a lot to enjoy.

A number of the multi-parters are quite entertaining, full of interesting ideas and unexpected quirks and twists -- unlike some modern multi-part sagas where a simple premise is stretched out over multiple issues. A three-parter where DD must battle Mr. Hyde and the Cobra after losing his super-senses -- so he really is blind -- is effective. The middle issue of this trilogy features as its key action scene, not a fight, not a brawl, but simply DD trying to walk across a street-spanning tightrope, pretending he can see, when he can't! And though it's ridiculous and implausible -- it's also edge-of-the-seat suspenseful. Other effective multi-parters include Dr. Doom switching bodies with DD, or a three parter where villain the Jester frames DD for the murder of...the Jester. Even a two-parter wherein DD tackles the Beetle is a well told, well-paced adventure. A lot of the one-shot issues are more just breezy action pieces, but can still be entertaining. And sometimes, the stand outs aren't what you'd expect. The well-regarded "Brother, Take My Hand", in which DD aides a blind Vietnam vet, actually turns out to be fairly bland...while the atypical (for DD) story wherein DD thwarts an alien invasion at an up-State college is actually quite entertaining.

Nowadays DD is thought of as a grim, urban adventurer, battling mobsters and other "real world" crooks, and this era has that...but it also a lot of sci-fi and super villains (the Stilt-Man appears at least three times!).

And part of the appeal of these stories is precisely what maybe threw me when I first read it. The humour -- the light-hearted, wisecracking Daredevil. I seem to recall seeing an interview where Lee claimed writing for Daredevil was one of his favourite gigs, and one can maybe see why. Far removed from the grim Daredevil of later periods, one can well imagine Lee enjoying it precisely because he saw it as a lark

Fans of the later era of DD stories might say, hey, this isn't DD -- but, in a sense, maybe it's more true to DD than the later issues. After all: Lee created the darn character. And when you consider his name (Daredevil) and his background (forbidden to fight by his father, the DD persona becomes a kind of cathartic release for Matt) the idea of the wisecracking DD seems a logical character. Even the wacky -- and much maligned -- notion that during part of this era, Matt adopted yet another identity, that of his twin brother "Mike" (whom he told Karen and Foggy was really Daredevil) is kind of entertaining. In fact, Lee spends so much time writing Matt as Daredevil and/or Mike, one suspects he actually preferred that persona to button down Matt.

The idea of Matt fabricating yet another identity, and one that, like DD, can say and do things he wouldn't as Matt, would've been a great idea to explore from a psychological perspective (I mean, must this guy hate who he is or what?). But it's a mark of the overall breezy tone that one rarely gets the impression that Lee sees it as anything more incisive than an added plot complication. At the same time, it is that, and you can admire the sheer storytelling chutzpah that went into it.

What's interesting is to realize that though the wisecracking character was obviously a comfortable one for Lee, echoing Spider-Man, and the FF, it's not fair to dismiss it as a carbon of Spider-Man. In a way, DD is even more outrageously sarcastic and flippant than Spidey (in a couple of issues where Spidey appears...Spidey is the more restrained). And, in a sense, DD is supposed to be kind of obnoxious in this persona -- Foggy hates him, and the bickering between them is amusing.

Despite the lighter tone, in other ways, Lee's characters can actually seem more grounded than later writers made them. Foggy would come to personify the guiless bumpkin, even comic relief -- yet here, Foggy is a somewhat tougher, flintier character, and more believable as one half of a successful law firm. And he becomes an interesting portrait of "everyman" heroism, such as in a couple of sequences where he must come to DD's aid even though, as mentioned, he can't stand the guy!

Gene Colan, who maintained an unusually consistent run on Daredevil, draws almost every issue here (save an issue of the Fantastic Four, included as part of a crossover story, drawn by Jack Kirby). As I get older, Colan emerges as one of my favourite artists, for his artistic use of angles and composition, his lifelike knack for rumpled suits and human faces, and his dynamic, if anatomically inconsistent, action scenes. But he's been better. I don't know if the fault is Colan himself or whether it's a fault of a poor choice of inker to finish his (admittedly) difficult pencils. Certainly the lion's share of these issues are inked by John Tartiglione, an inker I've not seen tackle Colan before. But the work is often rough. The stuff with real people -- Matt and Foggy and Karen sitting around their office -- is still good, even if the ink lines are a bit unsympathetic to Colan's soft, organic style. But the super heroic stuff is more uneven, with either Colan, or his inker, showing little grasp of anatomy or musculature, with lines that don't always seem to correspond to real muscles. The best art is when Dan Adkins inks Colan -- and then you can really see Colan at his best. Unfortunately, Adkins only inks two issues (he's only credited with one, but I'm sure he inked #44 as well). The art is still above average, but given that I picked this up, in part, for Colan's art, it's not as strong as his work that's represented in say Essential Tomb of Dracula, or Essential Captain America, vol. 2.

An interesting sidebar is that I (and others) have complained how modern comics seem to exclude the casual reader by not bothering to explain things for non-fans. Yet reading these decades old issues, it's curious how many issues can trundle by without an explanation that DD is really blind with heightened sense! Which might make it confusing in spots for a casual reader.

Anyhoo...

Also of note in these issues are appearances by Thor, Captain America and Spider-Man and the FF (as mentioned). There's an amusing short filler (included as part of the reprinting of Daredevil King-Size Special #1) which jokingly looks behind the scenes at Stan Lee and Gene Colan coming up with a story. The gag is that Lee is portrayed as a self-centred egotist and Colan as really coming up with the stories, which some saw as telling on the nature of Lee's creative input. But, at the same time, it is a joke piece, so how much you can take it to heart is debatable (for example, jokes are made about Lee smoking...but I thought I read somewhere that Lee didn't actually smoke, he just liked to use them as props for photographs)!

Ultimately, this run of DD issues may not be as obviously strong as some of the other Lee-era Essential volumes I've read (Spider-Man, Captain America). But there's a kind of subtle effectiveness to it. As mentioned, I've actually dragged this off the shelf for re-reading more often than some of those other collections! And having, therefore, read and, in many cases, re-read the issues herein, I've got to bump it up in my estimation and say, this is an enjoyable collection to chase away the blues.

Cover price: $27.25 CDN./ $16.99 USA


Essential Daredevil, vol. 4 2007 (SC TPB) 596 pages

cover by Rich BucklerWritten by Gerry Conway, with Steve Gerber, and others. Pencils by Gene Colan, and others. Inks by Tom Palmer, Syd Shores, Jack Abel, Ernie Chua, others.
black and white. Letters: various. Editors: Stan Lee/Roy Thomas.

Reprinting: Daredevil (1st series) #75-101, The Avengers #111 (1971-1973) - with covers

Rating: * * * 1/2 (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

In some of my other reviews of Marvel's "Essential" volumes I've commented that it can be hard to assess these books -- that, by the very vastness of the material, you can find yourself enjoying it even if the issue-by-issue quality isn't that remarkable. Collected together, no one issue really has to carry the book.

This Daredevil volume starts a few issues into writer Gerry Conway's tenure on the series, with the majority of the issues drawn by the great Gene Colan with various inkers embellishing his distinctive pencils. Though often thought of as a gritty series set in the mean streets of New York, different Daredevil eras have emphasized different elements. The Stan Lee-scripted stories in Essential Daredevil volume 2 played up DD as a wisecracking, well, daredevil. Here, there's a decided super hero feel to the comic, eschewing much of the grittiness for more fantasy-tinged tales with some monsters and robots thrown in. Though there are also more "rooted" adversaries, like a martial arts assassin, or old foe The Owl cropping up.

This was fairly early in Conway's professional comics writing, and so it's interesting to detect an evolving of his style. In the earliest issues, he goes over board with heavy handed pretension and overwritten introspection as Daredevil spirals into melancholic rumination at the drop of a feather. It's not wholly successful...but you can kind of admire Conway's desire to make the comics seem as though they have deeper meaning, his style evocative of (or anticipating) contemporaries like Don McGregor, Steve Gerber and others. But after a few issues, Conway reins it in, realizing there's a fine line between profound...and pompous, and his style becomes cleaner and less pretentious.

Daredevil has always been a tricky character to depict. Being blind but with "radar" senses, writers have had trouble knowing how "blind" to make him. But there are some interesting bits here where Colan depicts scenes from DD's perspective, and where Conway incorporates the idea that DD is, at least nominally, blind.

The story threads bubbling beneath the issue-by-issue action can seem a bit like Conway is dragging out ideas with no clear direction. DD has been dumped by girlfriend Karen Page -- fuelling plenty of teeth gnashing brooding for our horned hero -- but Karen continues to flitter through the pages as Conway repetitiously pushes them back together, then pulls them apart, then pushes them together. Likewise, a story arc where a mysterious Mr. Kline manipulates villainy from behind the scenes seems a bit vague as to what Kline is up to or why. It doesn't help that when the solution occurs, allusions are made to events in other comics (The Sub-Mariner, Iron Man) so you aren't really sure if you're getting the full story anyway (likewise, there's an issue where DD meets Spider-Man and the Sub-Mariner...which just leads into some Spidey/Sub-Mariner story in some other comic not included here!)

Yet on an issue-by-issue basis, there can be -- moderate -- enjoyment. There's some off beat plotting, such as a two-parter that begins this collection with DD getting embroiled in a South American revolution (if you can forgive the corny idea of revolutionaries dressed in ponchos and sombreros like something out of an old Western movie!) or a two-parter involving a mad scientist attempting some experiments. Plus there are appearances by familiar foes like the Owl, the Scorpion, and Mr. Hyde.

Along the way, this first introduces the Black Widow into DD's world. In fact, part way through this collection, the cover title changes to Daredevil & The Black Widow (a marketing trend at the time, with Green Lantern & Green Arrow, and Captain America & The Falcon also on the stands).

Colan's art is a big appeal of these issues (Colan having had a remarkably long association with DD) His weirdly fluid style, mixing dramatic angles, shadows, almost photo-realist faces with stylishly contorted bodies, doesn't always take to every inker, but the pairings are mainly successful, with Tom Palmer inking a number of issues. Even Jack Abel, a heavy embellisher who would seem a poor choice for Colan, works better than I might've thought. In black and while, you realize how much Abel's inking style is about shadow and black/white contrast.

Still, the first part of this collection is a mixed bag of seeming unfocused sub-plots and uncertain character development, but with a passable entertainment value to the adventures themselves.

Then Conway abruptly drops Karen (as well as long serving supporting character Foggy Nelson) and moves DD and the Black Widow to San Francisco.

I'm usually the first to decry when creators start changing things just for the sake of change. But in this case, the move seems to breathe life into characters and creators alike.

The San Francisco setting allows for a fresh visual look (as Colan beautifully evokes the hilly city scapes and street cars) and allows DD (and the Widow) to be the only heroes in town, and Conway starts to add a supporting cast.

And the move begets the Project Four story arc, which is the highlight of this collection. Running from #87-94, it's neatly self-contained, beginning and ending in these pages, and would make a decent TPB collection in itself!

I've often complained about how modern "story arcs" just seem like thin stories stretched out to pad a TPB collection. Here, there's no padding. The Project Four idea (a secret mission from the Widow's past) is threaded through the issues as a sub-plot, while front and centre adventures occupy our hero (battling Electro, Mr. Fear and Killgrave) making it all pretty jam packed. Along the way there's delving into the Widow's history/origin, her relationship with her gruff chauffeur, Ivan, DD's settling into 'Frisco and the ups and downs of DD and the Widow's romance (this being a 1970s comic, they share the same house, but not the same bed). Even the front and centre super hero battles can be cleverly plotted, as DD battles Electro and Killgrave in separate issues, then together in a third issue -- so even those stories can build on each other to create multi-issue arcs (both villains DD hadn't encountered since his earliest adventures!).

Years later, Brian Michael Bendis would write a six issue arc detailing DD dealing with his secret identity being outted by the press -- here, Conway covers the same ground...in just eight pages! Sure, Conway's handling of the concept is kind of goofy and implausible...but it's no worse than Bendis' was.

(Though, seriously, man: DD has got to be the sloppiest super hero when it comes to protecting his secret identity -- a guy who tries to cover his secret by fabricating a twin brother or, in these issues, publicly hangs out with the Black Widow as both DD and Matt Murdock!)

The Project Four saga is a nicely enjoyable run and, as mentioned, is all tidily contained within its eight issues, not referencing too much continuity, or with dangling plot threads to carry you into the next arc. All attractively rendered by Colan & Palmer.

But afterward, Conway starts to run out of gas again. The next two-parter brings back a foe from earlier in this collection, for minor effect (and curiously, basically has DD kill the guy in the end...but comics seem to work under the premise that if a body isn't recovered, it's not murder!) Conway then provides the plotting for the next two-parter, which isn't bad, with Steve Gerber now on board as scripter. Gerber's first full-credit story is an inane filler issue as DD and fellow super hero Hawkeye duke it out over the Widow. But as it's basically just meant to segue into The Avengers #111, maybe there wasn't much Gerber could do with it. The Avengers issue, which is included, is okay but, likewise, pretty dismissable.

The final two DD issues are still rough in execution, but seem to show Gerber getting a better grasp of the gig. Unfortunately, though a two-parter that is complete in this collection, it still ends with a lot dangling. A new sub-plot/arc had begun a few issues before, once again with a shadowy foe behind various seeming unrelated villainies.

As mentioned at the beginning of this review, these "Essential" compendiums are hard to assess, the very quantity of material, and a price tag that comes out to less than a dollar an issue, means it's not hard to say you get your money's worth.

This maybe isn't an essential Essential collection, but I quite enjoyed the Project Four arc, just as a collection within the collection (and if Marvel had published it on its own, in colour, it would probably cost more than this Essential volume). And though there aren't many obvious stand out issues in this TPB, and certainly some goofy plot turns and corny dialogue, nonetheless most of the issues keep you turning the pages.

Cover price: $__ CDN./$16.99 USA.

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