The Daredevil You Don't Know: The Original

J. C. Maçek III

To Be Continued...” explores aspects of Graphic Literature and Comic Art to connect the none-too-obvious links and histories found in comics. This week we focus on the superhero named Daredevil... but it's not the Marvel Comics hero you know.

Happy Comic Book Day, True Believers. You all know about Daredevil right? He's the superhero with a disability who uses his special skills and handheld weapon to fly above the city and punish criminals. He's the one who started out in a largely yellow costume in his first appearance, but soon shifted the mostly red look that he's most recognized for.

Yeah, you know Daredevil. And if you're a true comicbook fan you know that his secret identity is... Bart Hill.

What's that? You thought I was going to say Matt Murdock? No, no, no, you're thinking of that other guy with the disability who became a superhero in a yellow costume that changed to red and threw a special weapon at criminals. I'm talking about the ORIGINAL Daredevil, Bart Hill, who debuted a generation before Marvel's blind lawyer.

The story begins at a publishing house that originated in the Golden Age of comics. In 1939, the same year Batman hit the stands, Leverett Gleason founded a company named for himself, Lev Gleason Publications and they immediately began producing hit comics for kids. Unlike most houses, however, Gleason was notable for creating comics aimed specifically at adults (one of the first firms to do so). Among Gleason's superhero offerings was a character named “Silver Streak”, a frequent adversary of the hideous villain “The Claw”.

In Silver Streak #6 (September 1940), a backup feature showcased a new superhero in a story called “The Daredevil: Master of Courage”. Hitting the gridded page in his duo-toned spandex 24 years before “Daredevil: The Man without Fear”, this Daredevil was created by comicbook veteran and erstwhile Stan Lee collaborator Jack Binder. But Bart Hill shared more of a connection with Bruce Wayne than his latter-day namesake.

Witnessing his parent's murder as a young man, Hill began his career with the oath “I swear to devote my time on Earth to make crime pay for the death of my mother and father.” The previous year's oath by a pre-Batman Bruce Wayne is remarkably similar: “And I swear by the spirits of my mother and father to avenge their deaths by spending the rest of life warring on all criminals.” The main difference between Daredevil and Batman, aside from their choice of costuming, is that Bart Hill's family trauma left him completely mute, making Marvel's Daredevil not even the first hero of that name to capitalize on a physical infirmary.

While the original DD's first story ran for only 8 pages, the very next issue of Silver Streak was the start of a five issue storyarc that pitted Daredevil against the Claw himself. This saga also revised the origin of Daredevil to eliminate the “mute” angle (he got better) and showed Hill in his newly reddened tights. This revision by Jack Cole (who would go on to create Plastic Man) was an immediate hit with readers and made Daredevil into a bankable lead character. This resulted in the launch of his own title, Daredevil Comics, which launched in July of 1941. The first issue features Daredevil, Silver Streak and other Lev Gleason heroes hitting a terrified Adolph on the same jaw that Captain America punched on the cover of his own first issue, five months before.

Daredevil Battles Hitler was written and partially drawn by the man who would drive the story and art of Daredevil for the next sixteen years, Charles Biro. Under Biro, Daredevil's supporting “kid gang” the Little Wise Guys debuted to cash in on the kid sidekick boom and the expanded concept found in DC's Newsboy Legion. Also under Biro, Daredevil's origin was revised once again, this time to include a foster family of Aborigines raising Bart after his parent's death (thus explaining the boomerang choice).

What happened between Lev Gleason's Daredevil's glory days and his eventual decline and the usurping of the Daredevil name by Merry Marvel's Matt Murdock is a story for next week. Still, while the latter day 'Devil is much better remembered today, the original remains a remarkably influential character, from Biro's dynamic cover art to the character's impact on the silver age. Part of this is due to the very proliferation of this character. According to Fantaco Enterprises' 1982 oneshot The Daredevil Chronicles, Lev Gleason's hero had one thing that Marvel's follower could never dream of, a peak circulation of Six Million copies... every month. Now that's daring.

With such a heavy impact and a readership that even the biggest titles of today would envy just a percentage of, why is Lev Gleason's Daredevil largely unknown and supplanted today? To Be Continued... covers this and more NEXT WEEK when we reveal the defeat of the Death Defying 'Devil and his legacy and (semi-)resurrection. Do not miss it!

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