Chris Claremont is regarded, quite accurately, as the man who saved the X-Men from obscurity in the mid-1970s and his near twenty year run on Marvel’s merry mutants has been unparalleled across the entire superhero genre. However, Claremont didn’t hit the ground running with Giant-Size X-Men #1 with the rest being history; his journey to the series that would make him a legend started behind the scenes at Marvel as an editorial assistant while still in university.
I considered writing this article about Avengers #102 or The Incredible Hulk #148, two issues Claremont assisted with on plotting but it made most sense to start with his first full scripted superhero comic, 1973’s Daredevil and the Black Widow #102. This issue features pencils by Syd Shores, with inks by Frank Giacola. Artie Simek is credited as the colourist for this issue with no letterer credited and Simek is better known as a letterer rather than a colourist, so I’m not quite sure what happened there but I feel like it’s a rabbit hole that I could get lost in but would take up too much of my time to set straight.
At the time, Steve Gerber was the main writer for Daredevil, so Claremont’s one issue here is a fill-in that does a decent job of carrying on from the previous issue without getting in the way of what comes next. However, there are some flaws within Claremont’s official comics debut that will go on to define the man’s legendary career for good or ill and it’s a really interesting microcosm of everything we love and everything we find frustrating about his own unique style.
The basic gist of this issue is that after breaking up an attempted arms deal, Daredevil and Black Widow learn that Wilbur Day aka Stilt-Man is in San Francisco. In tracking him down, they discover he has kidnapped his former boss, William Klaxton and his daughter Barbara, to fix his molecular condenser weapon — a shrink ray — which he plans to use to hold the city to ransom. As you might expect, he’s ultimately defeated by being pushed slightly off balance and falling through a window because while I love him, he is Stilt-Man.
The biggest flaw with this issue, and I don’t think anyone who knows anything about Chris Claremont would be surprised, is the rigid adherence to continuity. I was reading this completely cold with no frame of reference for what had been going on in Daredevil at the time and the very first thing the character does is scream the name of the villain he’d just finished fighting in the previous issue, Angar. It’s not a massive problem and I’m sure if I was reading this as a run, I’d be more favourable towards Claremont linking the stories, but I must mention that it does stick out like a sore thumb here.
The bigger problem with this issue isn’t that it assumes we read Daredevil #101, it’s that it assumes we read Daredevil #8, Stilt-Man’s first appearance. In that early issue, Wilbur Day hires Matt Murdock to sue his former boss for attempting to steal the rights to the hydraulic lifts he invented. While working with Murdock while the sun is up, Day becomes Stilt-Man at night to commit crimes and clashes with Daredevil several times. Ultimately, Daredevil learns that his client is also his enemy and that Day wanted to steal the shrink ray that Kaxton invented.
Claremont sums up the events of Daredevil #8 in two panels but it just doesn’t feel like a story that needed revisiting. Stilt-Man’s a great character and one I’m a big fan of, but Kaxton and his daughter don’t feel like characters that ever needed to come back and it muddies up the overall plot of the story. Additionally, Stilt-Man’s motivations feel completely overblown and while I find him to be a fun character I always enjoy seeing show up, there’s just something unintentionally funny about Stilt-Man of all villains declaring his intentions to rule the world and become a god.
However, the parts of this issue I enjoyed won’t come as any surprise either, as Matt’s relationship and dynamic with his crime-fighting partner and love interest the Black Widow is way more interesting and intriguing than any of the superhero action in the pages. When they split up to track down Klaxton and Stilt-Man individually, Matt tells Widow to be careful but quitely scolds himself when he realises she’s taken his warning as a lack of faith in her ability rather than a piece of advice coming from a place of affection and concern. What really surprised me about this small moment is that Natasha isn’t presented as overreacting unreasonably to a well-intentioned warning; Matt is in the wrong for not considering how his words sound.
The art in the issue, I must say, feels a bit stilted. Even when Daredevil and Black Widow are swinging around San Francisco, there’s no sense of movement to them and they appear to be hovering in mid-air rather than propelling themselves forward through the city. The fight scenes are a big better with some of the action reminiscent of the best artist to ever draw a punch being thrown; Sal Buscema. That said, the one expository panel of ‘The Stilt-Man!” early in the issue is one of my favourite depictions of the character and I was already aware of it before this issue, so I was thrilled to learn where it came from.
As a debut issue, I think the biggest success of this comic is that it feels like a Chris Claremont comic. Dr. Peter Corbeau is even name-dropped in it, so you know it’s a Claremont comic. While it does suffer from a slavish dedication to continuity it does also highlight the interpersonal drama of its leads in ways that Claremont is going to become synonymous with and overall I think it’s worth visiting if you want to get a better understanding of him as a writer.