Undervalued Spotlight #83

Daredevil #168, Marvel Comics, January 1981.

The superhero genre was born with Action Comics #1 (June/38). All costumed heroes since owe pretty much everything to the success of Superman.

So is where we are today all because of Action Comics #1? Well obviously yes and surprisingly no.

Superhero comics stalled heavily in the late 1940s, it was akin to the Permian-Triassic extinction event of about 250 million years ago where something like 80% of all species disappeared from the earth. The “great dying” of superheroes after World War II was almost as dramatic. It took vertebrates 30 million years to recover from the P-T event but luckily our superheroes needed only about a decade.

Much has been written about DC’s re-population of their superhero line but I feel that historically this would not have been enough to see them through. Superheroes were still being written the same way they were 20 years before, read that a generation prior. The times were changing fast and superhero comics were not. Eventually the whole genre would have again run out of steam. My guess would have been a more robust presence of magazine format material in the 1960s. Remember how popular Mad Magazine was at this time and remember that Mad switched format from comic to magazine at issue #24 (7/55) to escape the stifling restrictions the Comics Code would bring. Weak, uninspired options in comic books would have driven more 1960s kids to publishers like Warren, who in turn would have more than likely added titles.

So what reinvigorated comics?

Fantastic Four #1 (Nov/61) and all the Marvels that came after did. Where Action #1 invented the super hero, Fantastic Four #1 began reinventing the superhero, bringing the hero down to mere mortal levels, allowing us to personally relate to them. This comic ushered in a new way of telling the superhero story and the comics it spawned were for that time hip and edgy, a perfect fit for the 1960s counterculture movement.

The industry rode the Marvel revolution right through to the late 1970s, a generations worth of comics.

By the end of the 1970s the industry was creatively stalled and superhero comics sucked. Unfortunately for me this was the time when I was a teenage and heavily reading comics. Sure there was some good stuff here and there (I’m saving a particular X-Men issue for a future Undervalued Spotlight) but your staple titles like Hulk, Superman, Daredevil, Captain America and Thor were almost unreadable.

What comics needed was another game changer, a comic that would again reinvigorate the medium, another Fantastic Four #1.

In January 1981 about 20 years after Fantastic Four #1, read that a generation later, Marvel published Daredevil #168.

OK now please back off! I am not saying DD #168 is Fantastic Four #1 but what I am arguing is that this is a book that represented a shift, a book that had a hand in bringing on a new era of superhero storytelling. Frank Miller’s success with the Daredevil title really was the beginning of something new, something that would grow into another comic book revolution. Again, I am not saying the book had the immediate impact that Action #1 and Fantastic Four #1 had, nowhere near, but Daredevil #168 did signal a change, it was a turning point.

Frank Miller joined the Daredevil title with issue #158. The title was failing; Marvel had it on a bi-monthly schedule and fan favorite Gene Colan was off the title. Miller instantly infused a noir mood to the art which he felt fit well with the character. Miller has been quoted as saying it was his intend to tell superhero stories in a noir crime style.

Of course we all know that Daredevil #168 introduced Elektra Natchios, Matt Murdoch’s (a.k.a. Daredevil) former college girlfriend who just happened to be a ninja assassin. Miller’s run of #168 – 182 is the stuff of legend. The storytelling was off the charts, yes melodramatic but also intense and complex. I could not wait for each new issue, it was the first time I’d ever felt so strongly about comic books and my heart was ripped out when Miller did the unthinkable and killed off Elektra in issue #181.

Comic fans were numb after Elektra’s death. This was no death of Captain Marvel which comic fans like me read with interest but little emotion. This was devastating stuff. Reading the Daredevil letters column a few issues later was like therapy for me because I was consoled by the fact that others were having just as hard a time dealing with her death. It was a special galvanizing moment for the comic book reading community.

Frank Miller had pulled it off. He had redefined the Daredevil character for a new generation and he had redefined superhero storytelling for a new generation.

There was now an open road to the great comic works of the mid 1980s including Miller’s own Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (Feb/86), Alan Moore’s Watchmen (Sept/86) and Miller’s Daredevil: Born Again (Feb/86) which by the way is my pick for best superhero story of that era. I will argue anyone who does not connect Daredevil #168 to these great comic book works.

The evolution of superhero storytelling continued. Gritty and intense storytelling of the superheroes had arrived and it would be one of the more successful templates used in superhero comics for the next 20 years, read that, comics were safe for at least one more generation.

The cover features pencils by Frank Miller with inks by Klaus Janson. The 22 page story is written and has pencil breakdowns by Frank Miller, finished art and inks are by Klaus Janson.

The 40th edition of the Overstreet Price Guide shows $73/$129/$185 as the splits at the 8.0/9.0/9.2 grades.

Strengths that make this comic book a good long-term investment are:

  • Heralds a new approach to superhero story telling
  • 1st appearance of Elektra the ninja assassin
  • Frank Millers 1st issue as writer and artist (he began as artist on #158)
  • Seen primarily as an Elektra comic but should be noted as a game changer

Walter Durajlija Written by:

Walter Durajlija is an Overstreet Advisor and Shuster Award winner. He owns Big B Comics in Hamilton Ontario.

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  1. Why add three pages from Daredevil #181 to a post about #168?

    This comic loses some of its significance since Miller brought Elektra back from the dead.

    It’s worth noting the spelling mistake of her name on the cover.

    • Not sure why I put the death scene in. I got a bit nostalgic when writing about the event so I thought I’d throw the sequence in.

      Everyone comes back from the dead in comics but when #181 was published it was quite the event, fans were very emotional.

      #168 and #181 are connected but since my post was to highlight that #168 was the beginning of something special perhaps I should have left the death sequence out.

  2. Charlie
    April 26

    Wow Walter, what a treat! Not only am I a product of the ’80s, not only am I a big Miller fan, but this particular book is personal to me. It was the first DD book I ever bought and along with Byrnes X-run, it peaked my interest in art which lead me on a path to the local art school. Mind you I failed miserably as an artist but who can ever forget their beginnings.
    I read your comments several times over the weekend… but there is so much to say about this book, the talent, and the era… not to mention the books investment potential… where does one begin?
    It’s also very tempting to wax nostalgic here so I’ll try and refrain over glorifying this era but I think it’s important to frame this book in case any new readers wanna check it out.
    30 years ago the publishing biz was actually booming. Comics were written for kids and unlike the long empty story arcs you read today, most stories started and ended with one issue. As such, the dialogue was written to help the narrative. The context is important because re-reading this book was a bit like watching the 20th anniversary re-release of Star Wars. There’s been a lot of progress since but none of us who experienced it first hand can ever forget the dazzling movie spectacle that Star Wars was… which pretty much changed the way all movies are produce and marketed today.
    On DD#168
    For me it was an early example of a story that felt literary. The inner turmoil, the personal motivations, a love not realized… it’s all there as a concept which was unusual for a kids comic. The story starts off in the middle of some conflict, then sets us up for the main story… then links back to the beginning. If this sounds familiar, it should because many movies, including the recent Start Trek and Bond films use this formula… If this was novel, no big deal but to find such literary techniques in a comic, and told in a way that a dumb kid like me could understand was a big step.
    On Miller
    It’s hard to say how deliberate any of this was. We all aspire to do great things but greatness is not something you can calculate which is why most businesses rely on formulas. They need to maintain the bottom line in order to keep it going thus Hollywood is what it is today. But wether you think Miller was ahead of his time or not, it’s hard to dismiss his efforts. He may have stumbled on to DD by accident, only to fall ass backwards into DKR… and he’s been pretty much coasting since. But, how many other creative’s have such a range and a desire to explore. If I’ve learned one thing in life, it’s to keep moving… Success is often proportional to the number of attempts which is how I rationalize playing my 6 lucky numbers every week… Come on baby, big money!
    On investing
    Most key collectors equate this book with the first appearance of Elektra. In 2004, a 9.8 graded book sold for $3,305… but it’s been a steady decline since. What’s interesting to me is that the decline appears to be be independent of any economic influence. Today, 9.8s seems to have stabilize at around $600 so it’s gonna take some time for this book recoup it’s former glory, if ever. As I mentioned before, I have mixed feelings about GPA so you gotta take it for what it is. The census shows 1703 graded books, with 65 in the 9.8 range. Not exactly rare, so the short of it is, this book is not something to bank on. The lower grades are less volatile but greater the risk, the greater the reward.
    Final thoughts
    With on and off talks of a second DD movie and for anyone who follows the market closely, there is room to maneuver here but you can apply the same energy elsewhere and do much better. So why should anyone pick up this book? Duh! As Walter spells it out… to own a piece of comic history! The value here is not monetary… it’s historic. If you love comics, it’s hard not to feel passionate about a book such as this, especially if you were touched by it’s poetry and felt it’s eloquence.
    I’m currently trying to build a 9.8 run myself… I’ve got the back half of Millers run but it’s the front half that’s tough to get. Some day I’ll be buried with these books and my hedge stone will be a big CGC slab with 9.8 in bold type. Who says you can’t take it with you…


    A great write up Walter, I look forward to reading about your X-Men selection… Is it #94… maybe too obvious? I’m on pins and needles…

    • Thanks for adding insights with your comments Charlie.

      Two things were propping up comics 30 years ago. The first was the rise in specialty comic book shops which were beginning to foster subscribers and the second was the rise of the collecting community that didn’t like to miss issues and that even bought multiple issues. The creative decline would have eventually did in comics, small pockets of collectors would have been the only thing left.

      I was 16 when I picked up DD #168 and it was a defining moment, I began to look at comics differently, I dared to hope for more out of them. So many great comic works were build on the foundation of books like DD #168.

      I envy the kid that got to put Are You Experienced on the turntable back in 1967 because he did so with a clean palate. Nothing he was listening to at the time could prepare him for the sounds he was about to hear. He was in uncharted territory.

      Kids today listening to Jimi for the first time or reading Daredevil #168 for the first time have been enlightened by all that these pioneering works have inspired. Their awe and wonder cannot be the same as ours was in 1981 and 1967.

      Comic collecting has always been influenced by new facts, by movements that propel books to new highs and new lows. Who’s to say DD #168’s stature will not slowly grow as time itself exposes the books contribution to the medium!! Who knows, maybe the guy with $3,305 into his copy will make it all back and then some :) 

  3. Charlie
    April 27

    I never actually thought of this book as a “game changer”… I usually give this credit to the talent, but the more I think about it I guess it was. I can’t think of any other book, in and around that time, which had this kind of depth and sophistication.

    The FF was Marvels response to DCs JLA… but where DCs characters had secret identities and lived in mythical cities like Metropolis and Gotham, the FF lived in the real world and dealt with real issues based on the premise of “what if people had powers”. I believe this was also what made Spidey a success… the fact readers could relate to Parkers teenage angst. So I think your comparison is fair and valid…

    The books are generations apart but they both introduce a new level of realism to a fantastic notion, thus making it somewhat relatable. So you see all you up and coming creators… enough with the “dark”! It was never about being “dark” for the sake of being “dark”. The darkness has to have meaning for it to work… The is so much “dark” these day that it’s become “noir”. Holy crap Batman!

    Despite the fact that comics seem to increase every year according to Overstreet… to me the decline makes sense considering every other market has pulled back during the recession… so why not comics? Also, I think that CGC is maturing. As some of the hype dies down and the soaring prices come back to Earth (super keys excluded of course)… I feel perfectly comfortable picking up a 9.8 in the $500 to $600 range. I’m not convinced it will reach new highs anytime soon but as the economy strengthens I can this book going up in value again over time…

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