Nathan Kiehn is a blogger at Keenlinks, a contributor at Geeks Under Grace, and the author of "The Gray Guard" ebook trilogy on Amazon.
The Man Without Fear
The Fantastic Four get bombarded with cosmic rays and turn into empowered superhumans. Peter Parker is bitten by a radioactive spider and can suddenly crawl up walls. Dr. Stephen Strange loses the use of his hands in an accident and seeks out a new, mystical way of helping others.
Several of Stan Lee’s original creations encounter some sort of life-altering incident that both blesses and curses them. The Thing may have incredible strength, but he’s a shambling orange ogre. Tony Stark may have invented his incredible Iron Man suit but only to save his life from the shrapnel inching towards his heart. Lee’s origins are very give and take.
Matt Murdock is no different . . . yet unique all the same.
With Daredevil, Lee stumbled upon a new idea for a hero: Daredevil would suffer from a physical disability, blindness, something which hadn’t been done for a superhero at that point. In this inaugural issue, Lee and artist Bill Everett (creator of Namor the Sub-Mariner) chronicle the creation of their handicapped hero, espousing their hope that DD will become a example for their readers as someone who can overcome their disabilities . . . and to show that, even with his blindness, Matt Murdock is just as human as any of us.
"The Origin of Daredevil" Credits
The Boy Without Friends
Every well-told Stan Lee origin story, generally, has three components: A relatable protagonist, a tragedy, and a rise to herodom. Lee’s best stories enable the reader to sympathize with his main character even before they receive their extraordinary abilities—Peter Parker, for example, is the high school wallflower without friends who can’t even get a girl to come with him to a science exhibit; within the first few pages, you feel for his plight and recognize his social awkwardness as something to empathize with.
Again, Matt Murdock is no different.
Lee and Everett introduce us to a young, hard-working boy who labors intensely at his studies. His father, boxer Battlin’ Jack Murdock, encourages Matt to hit the books as hard as Jack hits his opponents. Matt obeys his father, even at the cost of friendships and freedom. Some may consider Jack’s methods a bit too confining, but Lee presents Matt’s situation through a less demeaning lens: yes, Jack may be a tad overbearing, but underneath the boxer’s more stern demeanor is a genuinely loving father.
Yet, if all Lee gave us was scenes of Matt pouring over books, the boy’s character would grow quickly stagnant. Who’s interested in a superhero who reads books just because his dad tells him to? Lee quickly offers additional insight into Matt’s character when the young boy saves an older, blind man from a speeding truck.
His body honed from years of physical training as well as mental, Matt pushes the man aside, getting doused in radiation as a result. It’s an unbelievable tragedy, that this young man who’s been studying and training so hard, who’s tried to live up to his father’s wishes, loses his sight after courageously and selflessly rescuing another human being.
This isn’t like Spider-Man, who faced the devastating consequences of his own selfishness when a crook he let get away later murdered his Uncle Ben. Matt’s actions are completely sacrificial, and yet he still winds up facing a tragic loss.
Fascinatingly, Lee uses this issue to balance Matt’s life with his father’s. While Matt pushes against the boundaries of his handicap, his father struggles in the ring to overcome his advancing age. He makes shady deals with shady people and, eventually, ends up paying a steep price for his compromises.
Thus, Lee sets up a unique parallel between Matt and Jack—the man who pushed Matt to work faithfully and honorably loses his own honor to a bunch of criminals, and when he tries regaining that honor, he’s killed. Meanwhile, Matt, who has done nothing but strive to live up to his father's desires, suffers a horrible tragedy . . . and yet is only more determined to become the man his father wants him to be.
The Devil Gets His Due
Jack’s murder leads Matt to take up the Daredevil identity—with a costume sewn from pieces of fabric and adopting the nickname kids derided him with, Matt assumes this new superhero identity to track down his father’s murderers. Thrilling as this section of the issue is, and as fun as Lee incorporates DD’s radar sense into various conflicts, a question lingers at the issue’s end which Lee is unable to answer: why does Matt retain his Daredevil identity?
He’s not like Spider-Man, who swore to use his powers more responsibly after his uncle’s tragic death; he’s not even like Batman, who took an oath to combat injustice of all kinds following the murder of his parents. Matt’s decision, in this issue, is to hunt down his father’s killers, which he does. Lee doesn’t leave readers with much promise that Matt’s costumed career will continue, other than a plea to fans to pick up the second issue. For all the wonderful character work Lee injects into this issue, he fails to offer Daredevil any overarching sense of purpose.
Interwoven in this issue is the introduction of Daredevil’s principal cast, primarily his coworkers, partner Franklin “Foggy” Nelson, and personal assistant Karen Page. Lee makes it very clear very quickly that Karen will serve as the principal love interest . . . but for Matt or Foggy? Though Karen establishes an immediate connection with Matt, Lee throws in some hints that Foggy may be interested in her as well.
Lee was notorious for his relationship subplots in his stories—whether it was Jean Grey and Scott Summers’ ongoing “will they/won’t they” conflict or Peter Parker’s hapless attempts at securing a date—so it’s no surprise that he plays with such themes in this issue. Sadly, both Karen and Foggy are relegated to the background, which I suppose makes sense: Lee is focused on Matt’s story, not theirs, so getting his origin on the page is the order of the day. Karen and Foggy will simply need to wait their turn for better characterization.
For the most part, Lee’s stellar origin story for DD still holds up over fifty years later. Perhaps minor details have been altered over time—Joe Quesada would revisit the origin and change it a little in a 21st-century limited series—but the crux of Murdock’s origin remains much the same. Frank Miller would famously return to the story in the early '80s, retelling the tale with writer Roger McKenzie. That version merely updates the narrative for the '80s, keeping the same general premise and story beats. The accident, the death of Matt’s father, Daredevil’s revenge.
Like I said, Lee’s best origin stories have strong, story-driven elements that end up standing the test of time. DD’s origin allows readers to empathize and relate to Matt, see his struggles and successes, watch him overcome adversity and tragedy to shape a life for himself. The road is not easy, especially for a man who can’t see where he’s going, but Lee assures us that Matt has the character and dedication to keep walking the path before him, as a lawyer, as a superhero, and as a man.
The Devil in the Details
© 2021 Nathan Kiehn