Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Daredevil gets old school, Superman gets furious: my last look at 1964.

Silver Age Marvel gets a lot of credit for telling stories that were more contemporary than old-fashioned DC. “Contemporary” is not how I’d describe Daredevil #5, in which he battles “The Mysterious Masked Matador.”

The Matador, we learn on the splash page is “the greatest threat to law and order in years.” Sure, the Big Apple’s got the Green Goblin, Doc Ock, and DD’s previous adversary, the mind-controlling Purple Man — but what are their powers compared to a man who used to fight bulls for a living?

Daredevil, of course, sets out to stop the Matador but fails miserably. DD confronts his foe in a crowd of people, which overwhelms his super-senses (a detail I do find a nice, logical touch). Then the Matador’s cape covers his head, muffling them even worse. The Masked Matador — triumphant!

The villain was old-fashioned and silly to start with, but comics use a lot of those; DC would pit Batman against the Hooded Hangman, a pro wrestler, just a couple of years later. But the reaction to the Masked Matador’s victory is curiously old-fashioned: the villain’s bad not just for laughing at the law but inspiring children to admire him as a total badass!

Not long after Hornhead’s crushing defeat, Matt and Karen see a couple of kids playing Daredevil vs. Masked Matador. To Matt’s dismay, the children think the Matador is the cool one, DD is the loser. Holy crap — if he doesn’t defeat the Matador soon, the villain will become an idol to millions more kids! What will that do to America’s moral fiber?

Now DD’s mission is even more urgent. The Masked Matador must be stopped, for the sake of the children! All the story needs is some wide-eyed tyke staring up at DD and crying out “They say you turned yellow, Daredevil! Say it ain’t so!”

This kind of old-school schmaltz is something Lee and Kirby could do very effectively (I’ll have an example soon) but it’s not effective here. Maybe because the new DD team of Wallace Wood and Lee didn’t work together so well (I’ve read they locked horns a lot) or because they had so little to work with (Daredevil fighting a matador isn’t exactly the Galactus Trilogy). Like most of the early Daredevil, it’s incredibly meh.

Oh, you’re wondering how it turned out? Not to worry, the story ends with everything set to rights. Daredevil hunts down and defeats the Matador and all the moppets throw away their matador costumes. I sleep better knowing the kids learned supervillains are not cool.

“Batman, Son of Krypton,” in World’s Finest #146, is a much better story (courtesy of Curt Swan and Edmond Hamilton). Like the Hamilton story I blogged about last month, it has more interesting characterization than Superman or Batman usually got in this era.

We open with Superman and Batman collaborating on a project, only to have Superman suddenly stop. It’s the anniversary of Krypton’s destruction and all surviving Kryptonians mark the moment with five minutes of silent mourning. Watching images of Krypton appearing on a Fortress of Solitude monitor, Batman finds they stir up details of life on Krypton. But Superman’s never told him any of these details (like the proverb “even the smallest diamond thinks it outshines the Jewel Mountains”); a check in on Kandor confirms they didn’t tell Batman any of this stuff either. Jax-Ur admits that much as the Phantom Zoners love seeing Superman puzzled, it’s not their work either.

Yet the memories are there, as are dim recollections of flying as a super-baby. Baffled, Bruce visits Dr. Ellison, his parents’ former neighbor and the only living person who might remember Bruce’s early years. Entering Ellison’s home, Bruce immediately recognizes it as the place where he remembers flying. He also overhears Ellison marking Krypton’s anniversary … by apologizing for having destroyed it. Then he finds a piece of gold kryptonite in Ellison’s study — is it possible he was adopted, like Clark, only to lose his power to gold kryptonite?

Well, no, but we knew that. It turns out that Ellison’s experimental super-telescope enabled him to monitor Krypton, learn the language and become familiar with their culture. When Bruce dropped in from his parents’ summer house next door, Ellison showed him this strange, wonderful world, and told Bruce if he were Kryptonian, he’d have amazing powers here on Earth. That got Bruce so excited, Ellison rigged up the room for pretend flying and gave the tyke a fake steel bar to bend.

Unfortunately, when Krypton became unstable, Ellison decided to help. He beamed a ray at the planet’s core to calm it — and almost instantly, it exploded. Instead of helping, he doomed an entire world.

And that’s when things get really interesting. When Superman learns about Ellison, he’s furious; this Earthman’s recklessness destroyed Superman’s family, his world, millions of people and he’s going to pay! Between Hamilton’s script and Swan’s mastery of facial expressions, I bought that Superman’s primed to hurt Ellison physically; giving Superman an “edge” isn’t easy or usually a good idea but here it works. Batman’s also scared about what his buddy might do, so he does his best to hide Ellison from the enraged Man of Might.

Hiding doesn’t work for long, but it works for long enough. By the time Superman catches up, he’s no longer thinking of inflicting grievous bodily harm on Ellison because he has a better punishment in mind. Using a time-space viewer he’s going to force Ellison to watch Jor-El and Lara in the minutes before Ellison murdered them. For the doctor, it’s almost worse than death.

But of course, everything turns out okay. Jor-El’s equipment detects Ellison’s ray but it’s having no effect on the core at all — the destabilization is too far along. In the seconds before their death, Jor-El tells Lara that he’s grateful to whoever tried to save them, even though it didn’t work. Ellison is free from his burden of guilt and Superman apologizes.

It’s a heck of a story to wrap up rereading 1964 on. 1965 ahead!

#SFWApro. Covers by Jack Kirby, Carmine Infantino and Curt Swan


  1. Le Messor

    “even the smallest diamond thinks it outshines the Jewel Mountains”

    That’s cool! I get so tired of people trying to make things sound exotic / alien by adding weird adjectives to existing proverbs (‘He’s got eyes like a Tarkalian hawk’) or doing word substitutions (‘Give it the whole nine fleerkins’). I like the rare times creators make up their own proverbs like this.

    When you say DD and the Matador locked horns, it makes me wonder if that inspired this story – the idea that DD has horns, like a bull, so he faces a bullfighter.

    And that Superman / Batman story sounds great and way ahead of its time.

  2. Jeff Nettleton

    Hamilton was a more experienced writer than a lot of what passed for comic book writing. As the creator of the very successful Captain Future pulp series, he had a ton of stories under his belt, plus other stories and novels. Similarly Otto Binder and Alfred bester, who wrote some Green Lantern comics. They tended to deliver more sophisticated pieces, even when they kept the story relatively simple.

    1. Hamilton was better than he’s usually given credit for being. I’m a big fan of Captain Future, as well as his other work.
      There’s a Strange Adventures story where a thinly disguised Hamilton staves off an alien invasion just by standing near their telepathic probe and thinking about some of his writing, leading to the aliens giving up on invasion (“You fools, you said all they had were nuclear weapons — the probe shows they have the technology for anti-matter bombs, solar neutralizers, we’d be doomed if we faced them.”).

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