It’s now Week 5 of my stint in the Johns Hopkins University Center for Talented Youth summer program. While my second set of students work through the middle week of their session, here?s my official unofficial researcher John Wells, with a look at a classic Golden Age character.
Who was the original Daredevil? The one in the Red and Blue costume.
– David G (email@example.com)
That would be Bart Hill. While Marvel Comics’ version of Daredevil could see no evil, Bart could speak none — at least not in the beginning. Created by the Jack Binder studio for SILVER STREAK COMICS #6 (September, 1940), Bart had endured a horrible tragedy as a child, having been tortured by the same hoods who murdered his father. The trauma of it all left Bart mute and, in the tradition of Batman and other pulp heroes, he vowed to get even by launching his own personal war on crime. As Daredevil, he dressed himself head-to-toe in a striking costume that was red on his right and blue on his left (with the color scheme reversed on his tights for contrast). It was topped off a spiked belt that must have been painful if he bent over too far. And, finally, there was Daredevil’s weapon of choice — a boomerang, inspired by the shape of the brand that his childhood attackers had burned onto his chest.
Costume aside, Daredevil would almost certainly have faded quickly into limbo had it not been for the efforts of SILVER STREAK‘s editor, one Jack Cole — the man destined to create Plastic Man less than a year later. Cole was already contributing several features to the book, most notably the ghastly Oriental menace known as the Claw who’d appeared in his own strip the first two issues and disappeared. After teasing readers with his return on the covers of #s 5 and 6, Cole brought him back in a big way in #7. And guess who his opponent was?
The SILVER STREAK logo was shrunken and shoved to the top of the cover, making it appear that the name of the comic was “Daredevil Battles the Claw.” Coming on the heels of MARVEL MYSTERY COMICS‘ Human Torch-Sub-Mariner slug-fest, the epic confrontation ran over the course of five issues though Cole himself bowed out after the fourth (#10) and moved to Quality Comics. Beyond elevating Daredevil to a headliner, Cole had changed the character in other ways. Apparently deeming DD’s inability to speak as both pointless and awkward from a storytelling standpoint, Cole simply ignored the fact that he was supposed to be mute. And Tonia Saunders joined the series in #7, as well, established as Bart’s girl friend.
But how do follow up something like “Daredevil Battles the Claw?” How about mid-1941’s DAREDEVIL BATTLES HITLER? Published more than six months before the U.S. entered World War Two, DD and his SILVER STREAK co-stars faced off against the fuehrer and the Claw himself over the course of the entire issue. The series — now titled simply DAREDEVIL COMICS — continued from there on out. DD bowed out of SILVER STREAK with #17, though, and the book died a quick death without him.
The Claw appeared in DAREDEVIL as a companion series but he and his arch-nemesis somehow managed to avoid crossing paths ever again. 1945’s DD #31, proclaimed its cover, would feature “The End of the Claw” and, sure enough, he was cut down by an electrical death-ray in the concluding installment of the strip.
Another feature in DAREDEVIL (appearing in #s 2-8) was a super-hero called Nightro, a character whose presence was enormously ironic in light of what Marvel Comics would do with the Daredevil. You see, like Doctor Mid-Nite before him, Nightro was essentially blind, capable of seeing only thanks to specialized goggles.
Daredevil’s adventures were now written and drawn by Charles Biro, a triple threat editor-writer-artist who’d exert a powerful influence on the Comic House/Lev Gleason line. Biro eventually abandoned the vengeance-filled back-story from SILVER STREAK and conceived a new origin for Bart Hill in DAREDEVIL COMICS #18 (August, 1943). This time around he was an orphan raised by Aborigines in the Australian Outback. Through them he developed his boomerang skills and acquired his costume before going back to the U.S. to confront the uncle who’d conspired to kill his parents.
For the most part, Bart Hill was pretty inconsequential in the series and spent the bulk of his time in costume. A brief run of stories later in the series involved DD being unmasked and exposed by a reporter named Kilroy, leading to Bart’s short-lived stint as an idealistic newspaper publisher. He tired of that quickly and returned to his red and blue tights [1947’s DAREDEVIL #s 42-44].
The early DD issues were notable mostly for their introduction of Sniffer and the Deadly Dozen in #5, where they tried to kill our hero. At the end of the story, DD declared, “The Deadly Dozen is broken, and some of them may be back! Which one of the 12 would you like to see me tangle with again?” In #8’s installment, the man with the amazing sense of smell returned, setting up a humorous spin-off series for Sniffer in #9.
Infinitely more significant was the debut of a kid gang called the Little Wise Guys (Pee Wee, Scarecrow, Meatball and Jock) in #13 (October, 1942). The quartet immediately became co-stars in the strip and, in #15’s pivotal episode, nearly took over entirely. After Pee Wee was seized by a gang called the Steamrollers, Meatball set out on a desperate mission to rescue him, trudging through falling snow and hiding in frigid waters before he succeeded. Unfortunately, he did so at the cost of his life. Heartsick that Meatball died of pneumonia because of him, Curly of the Steamrollers helped bring his old gang to justice and became one of the Wise Guys from that point onward.
Charles Biro was, as some have noted, the Stan Lee of his era and the Lev Gleason Publications have many of the hallmarks of the Silver Age Marvels, from the intense, humanized characterization of the stories to the immodest twin taglines that sandwiched the Daredevil logo throughout most of the 1940s (“The Comic Magazine That Dared To Be Different” and “The Greatest Name In Comics”) to the personal dialogue Biro had with readers in his letter columns.
Norman Maurer, only fourteen when he began working for the Biro/Wood studio, recalled some of his excursions with Biro in an interview in THE COMICS BUYER’S GUIDE #575 (1984). “We’d drive around, see a bunch of kids playing stickball (he would pull over, he loved kids, especially boys — I don’t mean that way — ’cause Charlie was quite a ladies man), and we would pull up and stop the game and say, “I’m Charles Biro and I do DAREDEVIL, and he would sit there for hours talking with those kids. And I think that’s why (strictly speculation on my part), he switched DAREDEVIL to a kid’s story with kid characters.
“As I say, it’s strictly speculation. I think it was a first love. He wanted to do something about kids so he gave DAREDEVIL a bunch of kids and finally the kids took over the story. I can tell you there’ve been maybe 50 occasions, where I’ve been with Charlie, when he would pull over, stop the car and get out and start talking to a bunch of kids. They just loved it, they ate it up and he ate it up, too!”
Whatever the reason the Wise Guys took over, the public’s appetite for costumed heroes was clearly on the wane. During 1947, the kids had pretty much replaced DD on the covers of the book and, three years later, he exited the series altogether. In issue #69 (December, 1950), he left the U.S. to play bodyguard for a ruler in Eastern nation of Tarkabia. He returns to visit the Wise Guys in #s 79 and 80 during 1951, revealing that “the Air Force is going to call me any day, and I wanted to see you guys before I left.”
And that was it for DD. The Little Wise Guys continued in the book bearing his name until #134 (September, 1956). It was, ironically, the same month that DC launched the modern version of the Flash in SHOWCASE #4 and ignited a new wave of popularity for costumed heroes. Poor Bart Hill not only didn’t get to share in the revival but also lost the rights to his name when Marvel rolled out blind attorney Matt Murdock as their version of Daredevil in 1964.
Pete Morisi, who’d done work for Lev Gleason in the 1940s, reported in COMIC BOOK ARTIST #9 (2000) that he’d actually attempted to buy the rights to Daredevil in the early 1960s. Gleason gave him his okay but Biro balked, requesting a percentage of future profits. Morisi said no and went on to create a hero of his own for Charlton in a scaled-down version of DD’s red and blue costume – Peter Cannon … Thunderbolt.
Daredevil the elder finally returned in Bill Black’s AC Comics universe during the 1980s. He had to call himself RedDevil now but everything else remained the same. Still young thanks to decades in suspended animation, Reddy found that his Bart Hill Industries had become a hugely successful business under the watchful eye of the one-time Wise Guy named Jock. The rest of the kids emerged from suspended animation themselves in 1991’s AC ANNUAL #2 and RedDevil even appeared in his own one-shot. Periodic reprints from the Golden Age series continue to appear to this day in the AC line.
It’s a far cry from the days when he was “The Greatest Name In Comics” but at least the original Daredevil hasn’t been forgotten.
Thanks for another great job of research, John. Next week, it’s a look at the times when secret identities became less secret. Meantime, check out my daily Anything Goes Trivia at http://www.worldfamouscomics.com/trivia. You don’t have to be a Daredevil to try to win!