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Apr 21

Daredevil Villains #21: Death’s-Head

Posted on Sunday, April 21, 2024 by Paul in Daredevil

DAREDEVIL #56-57 (September & October 1969)
“…And Death Came Riding!” / “In the Midst of Life…!”
Writer: Roy Thomas
Penciller: Gene Colan
Inker: Syd Shores
Letterer: Artie Simek
Colourist: not credited
Editor: Stan Lee

With the Starr Saxon storyline that he inherited from Stan Lee out of the way, Roy Thomas moves on to his own stories. Thomas often liked to dust off forgotten characters from earlier issues, but apparently he didn’t find Daredevil’s rogue’s gallery all that inspiring. Instead, he bombards the book with new villains during his run. First up is Death’s-Head, not to be confused with the more popular Transformers-adjacent character.

In our previous instalment, Daredevil faked Matt Murdock’s death in order to thwart Starr Saxon’s blackmail scheme. Karen Page was  distraught about that, and Daredevil made matters even worse by stealing his cane back from her. But never mind, because Starr Saxon is now dead, and Daredevil can break the good news to her that Matt is alive. So our story opens with Daredevil swinging merrily across town to see her, showing absolutely no signs of concern about the distress that he’s put her through. The man is a psychopath.

But when Matt arrives at Foggy’s office, Karen isn’t there. She’s decided to go home and see her family. We learn that Karen is the daughter of Dr Paxton Page – “the man who perfected the cobalt bomb.” A cobalt bomb was a type of nuclear bomb designed to make the target area especially uninhabitable, which seems like overkill in the event of World War III, but there you go. It was supposed to be a thought experiment to support the argument that nuclear weapons were too dangerous to exist. Roy Thomas was particularly keen on the threat of cobalt bombs; he had created the Cobalt Man for X-Men in 1967.

For some reason Dr Page actually created a cobalt bomb, but he refused to hand the secret over to the US government, and was branded a traitor. We’re never told directly why he did this, but the clear implication is that he was a government scientist who had a fit of conscience, and that we’re meant to approve. At any rate, Dr Page retired to the family estate in Fagan Corners, Vermont, and so that’s where Karen is headed. (The town name is reference to Tom Fagan, a well-known fan whose superhero-themed Hallowe’en parade in Vermont was referenced from time to time in 1970s comics.)

Now, Stan Lee absolutely could not write women. Early Jean Grey was a completely generic girl. The Invisible Girl was… well, exactly that. And Karen Page was at the core of Daredevil‘s romantic triangle, without having any personality. Gene Colan livened her up when he started drawing her, but Stan Lee was never clear why Matt or Foggy were so smitten by Karen, beyond the fact that she was pretty and she was nearby. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to Stan that anything more might be required of a love interest.

Understandably, then, Roy Thomas saw room for improvement in the female characters he’d inherited. When he took over X-Men, Jean Grey didn’t exactly become well rounded, but she did at least get a lot more proactive, and started getting her own subplots. And although Roy’s first few issues of Daredevil keep tormenting poor Karen, this story aims to shore her up. Suddenly, she has a background and a family. She has a mystery of her own to investigate. She’s showing some backbone and competence – and Matt is listing them among her attractive qualities. In short, it’s the Karen Page Emergency Rehabilitation Arc.

On arriving at the Page estate, Karen is cornered in the woods by Death’s-Head. He’s a sort of spectral mummy with a death mask who rides a skeletal horse and throws fireballs. He warns her to go away, and then vanishes. Although she’s taken aback by this, she recognises him from a recurring childhood nightmare of hers. Then she pulls herself together, dismisses the encounter as “some sort of plot”, and strides on undeterred to the family home. Is this the same Karen Page? She hasn’t screamed once.

In the gloomy old mansion, we meet Karen’s mother (who never gets a first name, but the Official Handbook calls her Penelope). We also meet Garth, the absurdly suspicious family butler. It turns out that Dr Page has vanished, and that Death’s-Head has demanded the family flee the estate without reporting it. Mrs Page is still dithering about how to deal with this, and so she hasn’t told anyone about it for now.

Daredevil shows up to help, and he and Karen both encounter with the skeletal horseman. Thomas struggles to make these set pieces work. The idea is meant to be that Death’s-Head is using technology to simulate magical powers; that much is clear. But you have to wonder whether Gene Colan understood that when he equipped the guy with a glowing skeleton horse. Apparently it’s “a real stallion, treated so that its flesh was transparent, and only the bones could be seen!” But of course! The horse vanishes halfway through the story, by the way. We’re told that he dies off panel as a result of whatever was done to him.

Garth is set up as the all-too-obvious candidate to be Death’s-Head. Of course, he’s a red herring – he turns out to be a spy sent to keep an eye on Dr Page. And so Death’s-Head turns out to be the only other candidate: Dr Page himself. He’s had some sort of mental breakdown and has completely forgotten his own identity. Eventually he dimly recognises Karen through his mental haze, and sacrifices his life in order to save her from being killed by a vat of chemicals.

Death’s-Head is an extremely confused character, to put it mildly. There are far too many different ideas fighting for space in his story. He’s a scientist whose career was ruined by an act of conscience, who… several years later, went mad and decided to dress as one of his daughter’s recurring nightmares? And made a see-through stallion? None of this really fits together. He doesn’t have any coherent motivations or agenda beyond a bit of handwaving about him having lost his mind.

Still, he serves his purpose, just about. This story isn’t ultimately about him; it’s a vehicle for rebuilding Karen Page, and he does provide a hook for that. This story leads to a major status quo change for the book: it ends with Daredevil unmasking to Karen. That sticks, and so their relationship is finally moved forward. With that achieved, Death’s-Head had done his job. Keeping him around as a recurring villain would probably have been a drag on a civilian character like Karen, even if the concept had been stronger to start with. Killing him off as the climax of his one story was for the best.

Bring on the comments

  1. Luis Dantas says:

    Death’s-Head may not have a clear motivation or concept, and the skeletal horse sure made no sense… but one has to give Gene Colan credit for making it a striking, disorienting vision. He probably thought so as well, since it returns in #138’s cover.

  2. Michael says:

    Death’s Head is later impersonated by Death Stalker.
    Roy doesn’t completely abandon Matt’s older villaains- Cobra, Mr. Hyde and Jester appear in issue 61 and Gladiator appears in issue 63. And Stilt-Man appears in issue 67.

  3. M says:

    Transparent flesh. So, to Daredevil the horse “looked” like a horse.

  4. James Moar says:

    “not to be confused with the more popular Transformers-adjacent character” should read “not to be confused with the more popular Transformers-adjacent character, yes?”

  5. Zoomy says:

    Transformers are Death’s Head-adjacent, yes?

  6. Skippy says:

    Someone should have dusted off Penelope Page in the decades following Miller. You have to figure she’d have had some reaction to later events involving her daughter. Probably a bit late to do it now, though.

    Matt should have to have conversations with the families of all of his exes, actually.

  7. Mix says:

    Was Matt the first marvel hero to reveal his secret identity to his love interest?

  8. Michael says:

    No, Thor revealed his identity to Jane Foster before this. Although Odin eventually wound up erasing her memory. (And she later got her memory back.)

  9. Omar Karindu says:

    @Luis Dantas: Yes this arc is an early Marvel showcase of Colan’s talent for Gothic horror, which was later put to good use in Tomb of Dracula.

    When Death-Stalker later impersonates this version of Death’s Head, I wonder if part of the idea was to play this visual off of Ghost Rider’s, since that arc was a GR/DD crossover.

    I’m a bit surprised no one’s contrived a way to bring back the character design since then.

  10. Nu-D says:

    It’s interesting to see the stylistic progression of the covers Paul has included on these Daredevil posts. I’m assuming Gene Colan did the covers for the issues he drew. There’s a marked shift from #16 in 1967, to #56 in 1969. The 1967 cover and the ones before look very 2D, and really have that 1960’s Kirby style. The figures are kind of blocky, and don’t always have a clear spatial relationship to other objects in the frame.

    But this 1969 cover is the first one that to me looks like the Marvel house style that dominated through the ‘70’s and ‘80’s. Part of it is that the inking has more depth. The figures are more lithe and smoother, and the space within the frame is more cohesive.

  11. Chris V says:

    Colan didn’t start as penciler/cover artist until Daredevil #21.

    I do really love for these covers: DD #56 and 57. Part of it may be finding a battered copy of DD #57 in a thrift store for a quarter about 23 years ago. At that point, I had only bothered to seek Miller/O’Neil/Nocenti issues of the series (I wasn’t a reader of the book as a kid), so it was like discovering something new delving into the earlier adventures of DD. I picked up the first Essential volumn not too long after. Still, there is something very appealing about these two covers.

  12. Omar Karindu says:

    @Chris V: I’m with you. These two may be my favorite covers of the Colan era. Striking angles, dynamic figures, and loaded with atmosphere. The relatively minimal cover copy on #56 helps a lot, too.

    Oddly, I don’t recall that many really great Frank Miller covers. Issue #172 stands out in his era, as do #175, #183, and #189. But otherwise, they often feel like blown-up story panels, or they rely on cover copy or on centering awkwardly posed figures.

    But then, Miller at his peak is a superb sequential artist, but not typically a strong “single image” or “poster” artist. The Dark Knight Returns is the big exception, and it helps that he makes extensive use of silhouette and aims for much more stylized figures there.

    Now, David Mazzucchelli, on the other hand…those are some amazing covers!

  13. Jim says:

    Haven’t we all had a bad day and turned out favourite horse transparent?

  14. Chris says:

    Transparent glowing glue


    Has Daredevil encountered a freelancing peacekeeping agent since?

    Confusing, yes?

  15. For this year’s Draw Death’s Head Day I swiped this cover, thinking I was being clever, but Richard Starkings had done it a previous year. Curses.

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