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Jun 16

Daredevil Villains #27: Phoenix

Posted on Sunday, June 16, 2024 by Paul in Daredevil

DAREDEVIL #68 (September 1970)
“Phoenix and the Fighter!”
Writer: Roy Thomas
Artist: Gene Colan
Inker: Syd Shores
Letterer: Artie Simek
Colourist: not credited
Editor: Stan Lee

No, not that Phoenix.

After four issues in Hollywood, Daredevil is back in New York, but without Karen Page in tow. She’ll be back, but she’s out of the picture for the moment. In the meantime, Daredevil moves on to something else entirely.

Daredevil arrives at the DA’s office to find Foggy in a shouting match with three guys from an extremist group called Phoenix. The only one who gets a name is called Kragg. The Phoenix members wear brightly coloured tunics with logos on the chest – Kragg’s costume has a phoenix head, and the others have a sort of stylised flame thing. They generally look like they’ve wandered out of a Buck Rogers story and left their ray guns at home.

Kragg is trying to get Foggy to stop “hounding” his group. After Daredevil shoos the extremists away, we learn that Foggy is investigating them because they’ve mysteriously bought the contract of middleweight boxing contender Kid Gawaine. The Kid has an upcoming title match at Madison Square Garden, and his trainer, Pop Fenton, once trained Battlin’ Jack Murdock. For obvious reasons, a story of boxing corruption piques Daredevil’s interest, and he decides to look into Phoenix himself.

Rather than show up as Daredevil, Matt drops in at Kid Gawaine’s training camp in order to catch up with Pop Fenton. The Phoenix thugs spot Matt immediately, but if they just threw him out then there wouldn’t be a plot. So they just shrug their shoulders and decide that he looks harmless. Kid Gawaine himself turns out to be a well-meaning but naive moron, who thinks that Kragg and his cronies seem like perfectly nice guys. Pop is deeply suspicious about them, but the Kid thinks he’s just being paranoid.

Even so, Kragg is worried that Matt might shake the Kid’s faith in him. So Kragg decides on an excellent way to alleviate those concerns. He barges in, punches Pop in the face, and then starts beating up a blind man right in front of the Kid. Amazingly, even the Kid can see that this looks a bit dodgy, and he decides to take on the whole Phoenix group singlehandedly in order that Matt can escape. Then he announces that he’s going to quit after his next fight.

As it turns out, Kragg wants Kid Gawaine to take a dive, so that Phoenix can raise money for their cause by betting on the match. So far, so straightforward. We’re re-enacting the fate of Matt’s father, but this time Matt can make sure that the honest boxer who stands his ground comes out on top. In theory, that’s a perfectly good Daredevil story. In practice, this is where it all gets rather silly.

Matt learns that Kragg has found a secret way to fix the fight even without the Kid co-operating. And at the arena, Matt overhears two Phoenix members talking about a “neural-whatchamacallit gizmo”. So Matt settles on a characteristically insane plan: he sneaks into the Kid’s dressing room, knocks him out with a nerve pinch, and then uses make-up to take the Kid’s place. How does Matt know whether he’s dyed his hair the right colour? Don’t ask me! But Matt is convinced that he can pull this off, and because we’re still in the Silver Age, he’s right. Even the opponent, who is in on the scam, can’t tell the difference.

Up in the rafters, Kragg has a giant ray gun pointed at the ring – which they apparently got past security by claiming it was a TV camera. Wouldn’t you just know it, the plan is to zap Kid Gawaine with a ray that temporarily blinds him! Of course, Matt is completely unaffected and easily wins the fight. Gawaine and Daredevil beat up Kragg, and Pop works out that Daredevil was the man in the ring, but doesn’t figure out who he really is, thanks to Daredevil’s hitherto unmentioned disguise skills. Everyone agrees that Kid Gawaine is a lovely man. The end.

This is all too ridiculous for the story to work as a callback to Daredevil’s origin. Phoenix are just a bunch of guys in weird costumes who have a fairly conventional money-making scheme, which they pursue with no subtlety whatsoever, culminating in the inexplicably unveiling of a giant blinding ray, their one piece of high-tech equipment. It’s a botched melodrama. If anything, it’s not a Daredevil story, but a Human Target story – though that character didn’t get a series until 1972.

You might be wondering what sort of extremist beliefs Phoenix actually hold. Are they anarchists? Communists? Racists? Fascists? Libertarians? Religious fundamentalists? Well, the story is completely uninterested in going anywhere near that question. When Foggy’s arguing with them, he just says “I don’t care if you call yourselves the new left, the far right or the cherry centre!” Kragg has long hair, but none of the others do. Nothing about their appearance really fits with anything in particular, nor does their cause figure into the story. There’s nothing to suggest that their cause is just a pretext, but all the plot really cares about is that Kragg wants to raise some money for it. How much was he going to get by betting on the reigning champion, anyway? Maybe he would have been better off selling the blinding ray for parts.

In short, we are not to concern ourselves with what Phoenix actually stand for. They’re just extremists. Isn’t that enough? I’m all for a bit of woolly centrism, but you could knit a jumper with this story. It doesn’t work at all. And it’s no surprise that Phoenix never appeared again: you can hardly have a recurring group of villainous extremists without ever addressing what it is they believe in.

Given how evasive this story is about Phoenix’s agenda, the real surprise is that this turns out to be the first of three sstories in a row that involve political radicals of one sort or another. The other two stories will throw themselves into the politics with much more commitment, which makes this story’s timidity all the more baffling.

Bring on the comments

  1. JD says:

    Maybe Roy was testing the waters of what he could get away with ?

    “No, not that Phoenix” is a hilarious footnote.

  2. Skippy says:

    I must object to the description of Matt’s disguise skills as “hitherto unmentioned”. Have we so quickly forgotten Matt dressed as Mike dressed as Daredevil dressed as Thor? This is absolutely Matt’s wheelhouse.

    I love any story where Matt puts on a ludicrous disguise for flimsy reasons, and this is no exception. However, Phoenix certainly are undercooked. Just use mobsters, Roy.

  3. Michael says:

    You mean it’s not Baron Zero? 🙂

  4. James Moar says:

    “You mean it’s not Baron Zero?”

    It’s not a crossover with one of Osamu Tezuka’s major works either.

  5. Omar Karindu says:

    It does seem as if Roy Thomas wanted to do stories about corruption and organized crime, but couldn’t step away from Silver Age gimmick storytelling devices to achieve the proper tone.

    It’s also what undermined the Crime-Wave arc.

  6. Thom H. says:

    I like this new logo. And it’s not smashed up against the corner box anymore, so that’s progress.

    I’m actually surprised Phoenix didn’t appear again. They seem like the perfect blank canvas for someone else to write a back story for.

  7. Chris V says:

    “What do you believe in?”
    “We don’t support anything in particular. We only support extreme things.”
    “Sign me up.”

    Kragg looks like a pirate. What type of extremist politics might a pirate who names his group after a mythological bird from Greek mythology while dressing up like time travellers from the future hold?

    Fun fact: Harlan Ellison published a short story titled “Phoenix” in 1969. Roy Thomas may have come across this story, but the story bears no resemblance to this comic. I’m sure Thomas didn’t need Ellison’s story to name this group. I’m also positive that Ellison would not want up be associated with this mishmash.

  8. Tobias C. says:

    Kind of surprising that a writer (okay, specifically Al Ewing) hasn’t already retconned Phoenix (the dodgy radical organization) into a cult that takes its worship of Phoenix (the cosmic force) to some weird places.

  9. Luis Dantas says:

    Give Jason Aaron time and he will.

  10. Mark Coale says:

    I can believe writers in late Silver/early Bronze Age were still not allowed to be too indepth about organized crime and especially potentially glorifying it.

  11. Omar Karindu says:

    @Mark Coale: I wonder how much of that was the CCA and how much was the supposed Mafia control of magazine distribution.

    As I think was mentioned regarding a previous issue, Stan Lee, John Romita Sr., and Gil Kane had managed to bring in the corrupt politician Sam Bullit over in Amazing Spider-Man by this point.

    And before that, we’d had Richard Raleigh in both Spectacular Spider-Man (magazine) #1 and Daredevil v.1 #42, not to mention the Organizer well before that in the DD book.

    This story, in contrast, is just muddled. Who ever heard of a political extremist group of any stripe deciding to rig a boxing match?

  12. CalvinPitt says:

    Omar, it’s all about undermining public confidence in venerable institutions.

    If the notoriously honest sport of boxing can be corrupted (he said, extremely sarcastically), what hope is there for any branch of the government?

    Either that or they had a lot of bets placed on the fixed outcome and the money was going to help fund political campaigns or buy weapons or something. I dunno, take your pick.

  13. Paul says:

    That is indeed the plot. They’re raising money for their unspecified extremist activities by betting on a boxing match (which they’re publicly connected with).

  14. Luis Dantas says:

    Very silver age, that plot element.

    The criminal or criminal group that somehow has access to unique, hitherto unknown tech and uses it in order to obtain money in ways that make you wonder if it is even worth the cost.

  15. Tim XP says:

    The “hero disguises himself as another character by slightly altering his hair and clothes” plot is one of the more charming comic book tropes that have fallen by the wayside. It’s not that the artist can only draw two or three different faces; it’s canonical that people in this universe only *have* two or three different faces!

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