The years steam past, the comics pile up, and the canon for any single moment of time soon collapses to a ridiculously over-simplified, back-of-a-Trivial-Pursuit-card answer. The facts of the Marvel Revolution of the Sixties have long-since contracted, for all but the historically minded, to a MCQ answer of Lee, Kirby, and – perhaps, for extra points – Ditko. Few recall the regrettably brief months when the Pop-Holy Trinity became a Quartet, when Wally Wood took charge of the plotting and the art for Daredevil for 5 successive issues in 1964-5.
Yet Wood’s short High Sixties tenure at Marvel produced some of the most quietly remarkable superhero comics of the period. It’s both fascinating and a touch melancholic to dwell for a moment on the unique qualities which Wood brought to the company just at the moment at which Marvel was first beginning to slip almost imperceptibly from revolt into style, from energetic iconoclasts to peddlers of more-of-almost-the-same. What might have happened if Wood’s style and sensibility had become enmeshed in Marvel’s creative DNA to the degree that Jack Kirby and Steve Lee’s did? Perhaps Wood’s influence would have become another occasionally-manifesting ghost in the machine, just as Steve Ditko’s became, the spirit of an innovator too quirky and forcefully individual to anchor a corporate storytelling approach. But perhaps Wood’s graceful, comics-realistic, meticulously clear approach might have served to moderate Marvel’s slow decline into bombastic facsimiles of what had once been a genuinely radical, constantly-innovating enterprise.
Of the few stories which Wood fleshed out from Stan Lee’s bare-bones plot-points, it’s Daredevil #7 which is best remembered, and quite rightly so. Any collection of the finest dozen Marvel stories from the company’s half-century and more of trash and diamonds which fails to contain In Mortal Combat With … Sub-Mariner! simply isn’t doing its job. Not only is it an exquisitely told super-brawl, as we’ll come to in a moment, it’s also the very finest tale ever told of the superhero who cannot possibly win, and who doesn’t. As if he were Jacob wrestling with the Angel, Daredevil refuses to abandon his pursuit of the effortlessly more powerful Namor, rolling with the Prince’s contemptuous blows until he inevitably collapses into “complete exhaustion”, pleading as he does to the Sub-Mariner to show mercy to “the others — ! They’re innocent – - mustn’t be harmed – - mustn’t –!” Though Murdock fails even to maintain the contest as Jacob did, he’s similarly blessed for his skill and courage. Rather than continuing to swat the soldiers sent against him from one end of Manhattan to another, the Sub-Mariner’s inspired to peacefully return to Atlantis in recognition of Daredevil’s apparently-futile sacrifice. His practically inconsequential opponent is, Namor declares, both the “most vulnerable” and the most “courageous” of all the super-people he’s ever fought. It’s a character-defining moment, establishing Daredevil as the superhero whose worth counter-intuitively lies in his lack of physical power matched with his excess of bravery. Just like his father Battlin’ Jack Murdock, Daredevil’s ultimately defined not by who he defeats so much as by his stubborn refusal to bow down to the most overwhelmingly fearsome of opponents. Most of the very best of the character’s adventures ever since have reflected that, including the McKenzie/Miller tale from Daredevil #163, which effectively re-ran Wood and Lee’s classic tale with the Hulk standing in for the Sub-Mariner.
Marvel Comics had shown heroes nobly failing before, of course, but rarely like this, and never so movingly. This wasn’t a defeat placed in the context of an ultimately hard-won victory, or a noble sacrifice for the team which set up a rousingly forceful final achievement. It wasn’t a defeat such as that suffered by Peter Parker’s being flattened by a cold before he took on Dr Octopus, or the beating taken by Thor from the Absorbing Man because All-Father Odin has taken away half of his son’s power. It was nothing other than an unconditional defeat, and Namor’s final retreat from New York City is one which he chooses to make entirely of his own free will. Wood’s art takes the beats of Lee’s tale and wrings every bit of emotion out of the situation without ever sacrificing the fundamental restraint which so often characterised his art. There’s no relying on excessive blood or the most purple of physically-expressed sentiment in Wood’s work here; Daredevil falls and we never see his expression, Namor watches but never crows. In truth, Wood’s Daredevil is often astonishingly helpless, constantly improvising the most inventive of strategies despite knowing their chances of success are depressingly low. This is storytelling which isn’t marked by the muscular, kinetic exaggerations demanded by Stan Lee’s editorial dictums, but by the focused precision of a master craftsman who believed that economy could accentuate effect every bit as much as embellishment. It was never a better approach than that of the school of Jack Kirby, and indeed Wood and Kirby had worked exceptionally effectively together on Sky Masters and Challengers Of The Unknown, but it was a very different one, and one which added a considerable measure of variety to Marvel’s range of comics.
Wood’s Daredevil is in no way anyone more impressive than a wonderfully able but typically human costumed acrobat, lacking anything of the distinguishing strength and hewn-from-a-mountain stature of a typical Kirby figure, carrying none of the idiosyncratic strangeness of a Ditko lead. In fact, his take on Daredevil is profoundly unlike a Marvel hero of the period. Kirby’s lead characters subsume the panels they appear in, Ditko’s twist and sweep across his pages, but Wood’s are by contrast relatively small and still. They exist as actors playing out their roles within sets of Wood’s making, whereas elsewhere the superhero could be the be-all and end-all of a scene. Daredevil’s regularly placed over towards one edge of the frame or the other, with the focus of our gaze often being the space into which he might move rather than Mr Murdock himself. In that, Wood’s work is in many ways more slow-moving, more redolent of the films of a slightly more sedate era, and there’s a sense of understatement in his art which suggests a form of realism which stresses how improbable Daredevil’s feats really are. At times, it means that there’s a risk that Matt Murdock’s super-feats appears absurd, because it’s made obvious that no-one who seems so typical can be so ridiculously able, and yet there’s also a heart-warming conviction projected that Daredevil is one of us rather than just another superhero. His movements are those of a trained and careful P.E. teacher teaching gymnastics, a highly practical approach to what can be remarkable and yet at least tangentially conceivable feats. In that, Wood’s Daredevil is all balance and concentration and carefully directed effort, his actions those of a man constantly struggling against the elements and the environment from which he has to somehow generate the momentum he needs to fight on. He leaps from building to traffic light to the landing gear of an Army spotter aircraft in flight, and it looks such an effort that we’re not just impressed, but constantly worried for him. Who wouldn’t be in the least slightly concerned for a man who’s focusing so hard on surviving that he’s no time at all to be fearful?
The untypical reserve in Wood’s artwork was appropriate for Matt Murdock’s life every bit as much as Daredevil’s. The lawyerly world of Nelson and Murdock was by far the most adult of the backdrops allocated to any of Marvel’s superheroes of the period, even if it was rarely played for anything other regulation Lee-esque melodrama and angst. Murdock’s private and professional lives were essentially those of a grown man, and no matter how adolescent his concerns tended to be, Wood’s artwork captured a sense of life beyond the parental home and the classroom, of everyday affairs that weren’t either absurdly super-heroic or essentially juvenile. Though other Marvel alter-ego’s occupied professional roles too, they tended to share the responsibilities of everyday life with the privileges available to those who can access fantastic worlds. Donald Blake, for example, was a doctor and a surgeon, but he was eventually far more likely to be striding across the Rainbow Bridge to Asgard than acting in a medical context. Similarly, Tony Stark certainly existed in the broader adult society of the Marvel Universe, but his life was one characterised by incredible, implausible hi-tech and the kind of financial and sexual opportunities which few of us ever experience. Matt Murdock may have often been a far less immediately striking figure in a far less immediately impressive world, but that was perfectly in keeping with the everyman appeal of his costumed identity. While Murdock is mostly the focal point of the scenes Wood set in his office and in the court-room, he doesn’t dominate those spaces in the way that so many other secret identities do. Even poor persecuted Peter Parker served as the unwilling centre of events in the scenes set in his High School, but Wood’s Mr Murdock is often nothing more than another typical, if highly competent, adult, a strong but soberly self-contained blind man in a sighted world. In the purposeful modesty of Wood’s work, in his tendency to shy away from hyperbole, in his focus on the moment before or after an event occurs rather than upon the violence of an act for its own sake, lies an expression of both Daredevil and Matt Murdock’s under-dog appeal. Wood was showing us the little-league of the Marvel Universe, and that established how impossibly challenging it was for Daredevil everytime he had to step up for an innings in the majors. Sexing up Murdock’s private affairs would be as useless a gesture as cloaking Daredevil in super-scientific armour, or having him join the Avengers; both would only undermine the very reason for the character’s appeal. Wood firmly established his Daredevil as a character of the periphery if not always the shadows, as a street-fighter, as a Minuteman rather than a regular soldier. In that, it’s telling that Wood’s redesign of Daredevil’s costume involved the removal of a considerable mass of eye-catching yellow fabric, leaving him a less rather than a more immediately conspicuous character.
The qualities which Wally Wood might have inculcated into Marvel’s house-style had he stayed longer on the company’s pay-roll is of course the stuff of an entirely speculative counter-factual. That Wood could have long swallowed Lee’s tendency to take the lion’s share of the credit for the work he produced with his collaborators is something which it’s hard to imagine. Trying to conjure up a way by which that problem might have been avoided is as futile a business as constructing an alternative timeline in which Ditko, and ultimately Kirby too, managed to suppress their dissatisfaction with Lee’s regime. Yet, even given how impossible a scenario it is, Marvel’s house style might well have embraced a greater measure of artistic diversity had Wood stayed, and thereby perhaps have avoided some measure of the repeated collapses into relative uniformity and conceptual regurgitation which would dog the company from then onwards. A Marvel Comics which had lastingly embraced Wood’s work would also have been more likely to retain a far more significant measure of Ditko’s influence, given how compatible the latter’s style was with the former’s. (We’d expect nothing less, given that Ditko had not only grown up a fan of Wood’s work, but spent time working in his studio as well.) The result surely wouldn’t have been a Marvel without the bedrock foundation of Kirby’s influence, let alone Lee’s big-top skills as a writer and publicist; the absence of either would have undoubtedly been a catastrophe. But it may well have been a Marvel informed by the fundamental strengths of Wood’s precision and subtlety as much as by Kirby’s Aeschylean energy and insight. Even as an obviously indulgent flight of fantasy, the idea of what the influence of that Pop-Holy Quartet might have been on what Marvel become is a beguiling one.