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Friday in the Kingdom of the Blind

by  in Comic News Comment
Friday in the Kingdom of the Blind

Someone was asking me the other day what my favorite fight scene of all time is.

Now, of course, this is something that comics fans go back and forth about all the time. Most of us who grew up on Marvel comics of the ’60s and ’70s have an idea of superhero comics as being action movies on paper, so that means fight scenes are very near and dear to our hearts.

The thing is, my favorite fight isn’t from a comic, though I like to think of it being sort of a comic adapted for television. It’s from what I’ve always thought of as Daredevil’s first TV appearance.

No, I don’t mean that horrible Rex Smith version from the “Trial of the Incredible Hulk” movie.

This came earlier, in 1971. It was a detective show about a blind investigator who used his remaining senses to pick up on stuff other people would miss, who often made his blindness an asset rather than a handicap, and who was mentored in the martial arts by a tough-talking streetwise Zen master.

The older folks among you, or those who occasionally patronize convention video bootleggers, are probably already on board by now. I’m talking about Longstreet.

Longstreet was a show that ran for one season on ABC in 1971, starring James Franciscus as the blind detective, with Marlyn Mason as his friend and companion Nikki Bell and Peter Richman (in a rare non-villain role) as his boss Duke Paige. Mike Longstreet was a brilliant insurance investigator whose wife was killed by a bomb, and he himself was blinded in the same explosion. But rather than retiring, Longstreet sets out to find those responsible for the bombing. By the end of the pilot, Mike has caught the killers and proved to himself and to others that despite his blindness he’s still got what it takes.

Doesn’t that sound a little familiar to all you Daredevil readers out there? Especially since, as one fan site notes, “In many of the episodes, someone makes the mistake of underestimating Mike and assuming that he is somehow harmless because of his disability. Nothing makes Mike angrier than being taken for granted, however, and many a bad guy would rue the day that he underestimated Longstreet. The investigative work tends to focus on Mike’s remaining four senses, as Mike notices sounds, textures, scents, and tastes that others have overlooked.” Emphasis mine.

On top of all that, James Franciscus as Mike Longstreet bears an amazing visual resemblance to Matt Murdock, especially as Murdock was depicted on the comics page during the Gene Colan years.

Seriously. Here’s Matt and his crew…

…and here’s Mike Longstreet and his posse.

And again, side-by-side —

One more time just for the hell of it.

The funny thing is, I am certain that screenwriter and producer Stirling Silliphant had no clue who Daredevil or Matt Murdock were when he created the show. No, he had a completely different template in mind.

Sightless investigator Duncan MacLain was the creation of pulp writer Baynard Kendrick, back in the 1930s. Blinded in World War I, wealthy, dashing Captain Duncan MacLain sets up a detective agency upon his return to New York. He’s aided by his wartime buddy and now partner Spud Savage, and Spud’s wife Rena, who serves as their secretary.

There’s also Duncan’s two specially-trained German Shepherds, Schnuke and Driest.

It sounds a little cutesy, but it works. The stories are good old-fashioned hard-boiled private-eye stuff, and Kendrick could write a good stick. He was a founding member, and the first president, of the Mystery Writers of America, in fact, and was eventually voted a Grand Master.

There were even a series of Duncan MacLain movies made in the forties, starring Eddy Arnold as the blind private eye.

The movies are pretty lame, but the books are great fun, and worth picking up if you should happen across one used somewhere — sadly, they’re currently out of print. You probably could find a relatively cheap 70s paperback edition or two if you went looking, but the 1940s hardcovers are highly-sought-after rarities today.

Anyway, Stirling Silliphant apparently felt his Mike Longstreet owed enough to Duncan MacLain that a credit ran on Longstreet, “Based on characters created by Baynard Kendrick.”

Now, here’s the fun part. In his book, Son of Origins of Marvel Comics, Stan Lee also cites Duncan MacLain, as an inspiration for Daredevil.

“I was trying to think of a hero who would start out with a disability,” Stan says in his introduction to Daredevil’s origin. “And then it hit me. I remembered some books I had read years ago, mystery stories about a blind detective named Duncan MacLain. If a man without sight could be a successful detective, think what a triumph it would be to make a blind man a comicbook superhero.”

So if the one didn’t actually spring from the other, well, Matt Murdock and Mike Longstreet share the same ancestry, at least.

But I mentioned a streetwise martial arts mentor, didn’t I? We all know Daredevil was taught how to use his other enhanced senses by the blind ninja master, Stick.

Well, Mike Longstreet’s mentor was even cooler — Longstreet studied under Bruce Lee.

See, in 1971, Stirling Silliphant happened to be training with Lee in jeet kune do (translated as, “way of the intercepting fist”) and he decided to write that into his show. Silliphant created the character of Lee Tsung, antique dealer and kung fu badass, and of course he cast his martial arts teacher, sometime actor Bruce Lee, in the role.

The episode, “The Way of the Intercepting Fist,” goes like this. Tsung rescues Longstreet one night from three guys who are beating the crap out of him in an alley, trying to scare him off the case he’s working on down at the docks. Longstreet is badly shaken by the incident — his inability, as a recently-blind man, to defend himself physically is a bitter pill to swallow. So Mike begs Lee Tsung to show him how to fight.

Tsung reluctantly takes on Longstreet as a student, all the while cautioning him that it’s not about fighting, it’s about flowing, about mind and body being one.

Meanwhile, Mike has managed, with Tsung’s help, to identify one of the thugs that attacked him as a dockworker named Bolt. In the hope of rattling the guy enough to get him to run to his boss, Longstreet goes down to Bolt’s favorite watering hole and announces to Bolt and everyone else in the bar that he knows Bolt’s one of the guys that attacked him… and in one week Mike will meet Bolt down at the docks for a rematch.

Everyone thinks Mike is crazy, even Lee Tsung, who’s ready to quit training him over this lunatic challenge. Mike’s gal pal Nikki is distraught, and the cops think Mike must have some kind of death wish. But Longstreet’s determined. He’s got to do this. It’s about …not being helpless, even if he is blind. It’s about being a man, damn it.

So, it’s ON, baby.

The day arrives at last; Mike is nervous, Lee Tsung says Mike’s not ready, Nikki and Duke and all Mike’s other friends are terrified…

And that confrontation between Mike Longstreet and the brutish dockworker Bolt is probably my favorite fight scene of all time.

I thought it might be on YouTube, and here it is. Enjoy. I’ll wait.

*

Sadly, Longstreet is not available on DVD (except in Japan) though the Bruce Lee angle makes it a convention bootleggers’ evergreen.

Bruce Lee came back to the show for a couple of other episodes — I think he was on hand to help Mike four times in all. Longstreet was as much or more a character drama as it was an action show, and I don’t think Mike ever used his jeet kune do moves again. I suppose Longstreet‘s really not that close to Daredevil, but that was the connection I made instantly the first time I saw the show, when I was eleven, and I never really let go of it.

Because Mike Longstreet looks like Matt Murdock, dammit.

Longstreet himself did appear in a comic, though. Once.

In MAD Magazine, immortalized by Jacobs and Drucker as “Longshot.” Which is better than nothing.

*

Not much else to add to that. Except that the great fun of that Longstreet dock fight, and of all my favorite fictional fights for that matter, was the terrific buildup. The thing that makes that scene so awesome is that everything in the whole episode is aimed at that moment. There are zillions of fights that are better-choreographed, sure, but there aren’t very many that pack that kind of cathartic release.

I’m hard-pressed to think of one that satisfying from comics. Maybe the one between Batman and the Mutant leader in Dark Knight Triumphant… which, interestingly, is the other superhero comic Frank Miller made his rep on besides Daredevil.

Come to think of it, that story is structured more or less the same way as the Longstreet episode — relentless beatdown of the hero, followed by hammering out a new strategy during recovery and finishing with a conclusive, redemptive asskicking of the villain.

I have to own up here. I love fight scenes in movies, I can appreciate them just for the physical choreography and the sheer athletic talent on display to pull it off.

But more and more, in movies and TV and, especially, in my adventure comics, I want the fights to be about something. The hero beating the villain just because he’s the hero and the villain’s a bad guy who’s got it coming…. well, even when I was a kid those weren’t very satisfying, I could always tell when Spider-Man was breaking up a mugging just because it was required to get some action in there. But when he was going after the Green Goblin because Gwen Stacy’s life was at stake… now that was a fight scene.

When comics fans talk about cool fight scenes, though, you almost never hear them talk about the emotional component, which seems weird to me. Because those are the fight scenes that we all remember the best. It’s always better when you can get the audience emotionally invested in the fight.

Even a blind man could see that.

See you next week.

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