Theatrical mysteries and a second-rate superhero: books read

RUDDY GORE: A Phryne Fisher Mystery by Kerry Greenwood has the Honourable Miss Fisher (“honourable” is a courtesy title for children of aristocrats) attending a performance of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Ruddigore when two cast members drop dead; how can a self-respecting Aristocrat Detective look away? This feels like a deliberate throwback to the Golden Age of mystery fiction, but with a more liberated female lead (sexually liberated too) and better roles for people of color; despite those assets, it didn’t engage me. I might catch the Miss Fisher TV series sometime though.In SMOKE AND MIRRORS: A Magic Men Mystery by Ellyn Griffiths, the theater is a British Christmas pantomime in 1951 which brings magician Max Mephisto to Brighton as part of the cast. This reunites him with a local detective inspector he knows from WW II (the “magic men” unit — based on alleged exploits by stage conjurer David Maskelyne during the war) just in time to help investigate the brutal murder of two local kids. Does it have anything to do with the murder at another pantomime years earlier? Is there a fairytale MO to the killing or is that just coincidence? I picked this up because there’s a long tradition of magician detectives (DC’s Mysto, the Great Merlini and others) but this  one didn’t work for me either. Griffiths does, however, do an excellent job on the period setting, from sexism to homophobia to the insecure life of performers to England slowly crawling out from a decade of rationing.

DAREDEVIL: The Man Without Fear by Stan Lee and multiple artists collects the first twenty issues of Hornhead’s comic. It’s one of the weaker books of the 1964-1966 though it’s mand ch superior to earlier weakest links such as Ant-Man’s series.

Marvel publisher Martin Goodman was all about duplicating what worked (a common view among many comics professionals); Daredevil, acrobatic and inspired by tragedy (his father Battling Jack Murdock, was killed by the Fixer for refusing to throw a fight) was modeled on Spider-Man while either the X-Men or the Avengers were supposed to be the next Fantastic Four. Bill Everett, however, had major problems meeting deadline on Daredevil #1. Instead Marvel rushed out either X-Men or Avengers to fill the slot instead. The “or” is because while it’s been widely argued that Avengers #1 was whipped up at the last minute, I’ve seen counter-arguments they were in the works well ahead of time.

There was more backstage drama after DD debuted: Wally Wood, a legend at EC Comics, did some or all of the plotting, as was standard at Marvel. When he didn’t get credit for it, he walked.

All this is more interesting, at least to a comic-book nerd such as myself, than Daredevil itself. While it boasts are and plotting by multiple talented artists — Gene Colan, Wally Wood, John Romita — it’s still a mediocre book. We have the standard disability cliches where Matt Murdock figures his pretty secretary could never love a blind man (it has to be pity!) and Matt apparently knows no other blind people in New York. A largely uninspired Rogue’s Gallery including the Organizer (as names go, that one really, really needs to go), the Masked Matador and the Plunderer.

Stan Lee’s dialog makes me think this wasn’t a book he cared about the way he did Fantastic Four and Spider-Man. Matt’s heightened senses often turn into some kind of magic, where he can sense evil or unrest. The dialog is never as sharp as Peter Parker’s. Plot elements get dropped abruptly, such as Matt leaving the firm so Foggy can move into a smaller, more affordable office. There’s also a ridiculous plot in which Foggy tries to impress Karen by pretending he’s Daredevil; it’s laughable though not as bad as when Matt pretended to be his own brother. I’m not sure which of the creator’s gets the blame, but there’s more than enough to go around.

That said, there are some great stories such as DD’s battle with Sub-Mariner, and some that are fun (I’m fonder of Stiltman than he deserves).

#SFWApro. Covers by Wally Wood, all rights remain with current holders.

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