Thursday, November 21, 2013

Getting to Know Comics: Entry 2- Daredevil

By Andrew Braid


 Hey everyone, and welcome back to Getting to Know Comics! In each entry I cover a different popular character in the comic book medium, celebrating what’s made them endure in reader’s hearts and offering a selection of reading recommendations to get people started. In other words, this series is for the casual and uninitiated reader just as much as it is for the hardcore fan who just loves comics!
...You didn’t buy that for a second, did you? Well, um... just trust me on this one, okay? Anyway, let’s take a look at The Man Without Fear, Daredevil!
Cover for Daredevil #62, my personal favorite cover for the character. Because brooding's never looked so cool.
Raised by his boxer father “Battlin’ Jack” Murdock in New York (aka where every superhero lives ever), Matt Murdock is blinded by radioactive waste in a road accident when trying to save the life of an old man. While finding that he can no longer see, his other senses have been hugely enhanced by the accident- his hearing , touch, and smell. Through a combination of these senses he also gains a form of “second sight” called a radar sense. When his father is murdered by gangsters after he refuses to throw a match, Matt trains to become both a respected lawyer of the law and the crime-fighting vigilante of Hell’s Kitchen, The Man Without Fear... Daredevil!
Stan Lee created Daredevil in 1964 among his many demands for writing new characters at the time. Lee initially had concerns as to how people would respond to the idea of a blind superhero, worried that he may unintentionally offend anyone. Much to his relief, response from readers and the blind community was very positive, and Daredevil has remained an ongoing title to this day. Initially wearing a mainly yellow costume (akin to an actual stunt daredevil), the costume quickly changed to the all-red suit we know today. In the early days Daredevil fought a more colorful list of rogues akin to other comics at the time, fiends such as the Owl, Stilt-Man and Leap Frog (I really didn’t make up that last one). Around the beginning of the 70s the title had kind of settled into a status of an “also-ran”, one of Marvel’s lower-tier characters who had fans but kind of just stuck around there. Then, around the end of the 70s a young artist making his way through the comics industry was given a shot at Daredevil, initially beginning as just the artist, and soon later the writer as well. His name: Frank Miller.
Okay, cut the angelic choirs, let’s get back to reality. I have many (and I mean MANY) beefs with Frank Miller as a writer. But despite how off-the-rocker he may be, he’s had a huge impact on the comics industry and on Daredevil in particular, singlehandedly skyrocketing the character’s popularity and defining his world and stories for decades to come. Miller infused a series that was once lighthearted and colorful like other Marvel series of the time with his signature noir aesthetic, reinventing Daredevil as a tortured vigilante with a seemingly never-ending spiral of personal troubles. A more Eastern influence pervaded the book, with a focus on the dark and mystical ninja group known as The Hand, who trained the newly introduced character Elektra, a skilled assassin and former college girlfriend of Matt Murdock. Blind mentor Stick was created as a former mentor of Matt who trained him in honing his enhanced senses into fighting ability. Bullseye, a lower-tier character whose main attribute was an uncanny sense of aim, became one of Daredevil’s greatest foes and has haunted old hornhead ever since, having killed not one but two of his major love interests in front of him. But most importantly he took former also-ran Spider-Man villain the Kingpin and turned him into Daredevil’s primary nemesis, the very representation of the overreaching power and calculating evil of the corrupt businessman. Here was a villain who played his hand indirectly, but never from the shadows, rather watching openly from his skyscraper window with a cigar and his best suit. He’s dirty and everybody knows it, but nobody dares touch him. While he and Daredevil have fought each other with their fists more than once, it was usually a battle of wills and wits, a never-ending war between crime and justice that often took place outside the ring.
Now, I’m going to admit: for the longest time, I just didn’t have much interest in Daredevil. In fact, I seemed to keep avoiding it at every opportunity (and no, it wasn’t merely because the 2003 movie with Ben Affleck was a tonally-jumbled, poorly-acted piece of crap). Honestly, I have no good reason why. It could have been I just didn’t think the character was my cup of tea, I hadn’t really developed any taste for the kind of gritty, noir-style crime drama the series was known for and for decades defined by, my instinctual distrust of Frank Miller... many possible reasons*1. But when I heard about all the heaps of praise that the recent Daredevil series by Mark Waid had been getting, I felt compelled to check it out, especially being a fan of his run on Fantastic Four. Seriously, at this rate if Marvel and DC really want new readers, they should get Waid to write as many titles as possible, or at least follow his methods, since he knows exactly how to make a comic accessible. Anyhow, judging from all those heaps of praise you can tell I regret my prior line of thinking. Daredevil is just a fantastic, cool, fascinating character. He may not have as big a fanbase as Batman or Spider-Man, but those fans know in their hearts that Daredevil often gets the best stories.
But why is that? Well, it all comes down to what Marvel does best- flawed, human characters. Here’s a character whose superpowers were a true double-edged sword, permanently disabling him but also granting him amazing abilities far beyond most human beings. So when we see Daredevil leap through the air, swing across New York, or perform all the death-defying stunts he does, we have to know it’s just a man, a flesh-and-blood vulnerable human being under that mask and red outfit. But we don’t see that. What we see instead is larger-than-life, something so much more, someone who can seemingly do anything, someone who always finds a way even with staggering odds against him. We see a hero, and that’s before we even get into who he really is underneath all that. I know this all sounds cheesy, and you could apply that kind of statement to any major comic book superhero. But it’s that extra twist to the standard formula, a man who truly sees no fear, which makes Daredevil’s heroics all the more gripping.
The psyche of the man under that mask, Matt Murdock, is where things really get interesting, and speak to the character’s true appeal. An attorney of law, Matt Murdock is the kind of character who stands for justice both in and out of costume, often devoting as much time to the common man’s troubles as he does making a stand against the violent and dangerous men as Daredevil. His determination and frequent stubbornness play into both of his lives, for better and for worse, never backing down from a fight, but often letting his words do the sparring over his fists. He is a man frequently wrought by inner turmoil and tragedy, yet manages to find hope in the end, even if it’s just a silver lining. It is still enough to keep him going, no matter how rough things get (and believe me, I’m hard-pressed to think of any comic book heroes who have had more rough times than Daredevil). He is flawed like any of us, if not more so, yet strives harder than anyone to do what’s right regardless. Characters like Batman are driven near the edge at many points, but Daredevil is a man who seems to perpetually live on that edge, as every force in his life seems to try and push him over it. He’s had his entire life dismantled and destroyed more than once, rebuilding only for all the pieces to almost inevitably fall apart again. But Matt Murdock turns his vulnerability into strength, more fire to fuel his crusades for justice in and out of costume. That is the kind of idea we as human beings desire more than anything, the will to endure, to walk forward without fear.

Recommended Reads:

-Daredevil by Mark Waid

Issues #1-36 (ending in February 2014, pending relaunch)

It’s official: Mark Waid may very well be the greatest comic book writer alive. Sure, he may not be quite as intellectual and daringly trippy as Grant Morrison or Alan Moore, but as pure unabashed superhero comics go, there’s no one doing them better than Waid. His writing reminds you why we love comics in the first place: the escapism, the action, the heroics, the emotion, the drama, the humor (oh God, this book is hilarious). But most important is the fun. Taking away the never-ending gauntlets of utter soul-crushing hell that writers have been putting the character through for decades now, Waid allows Daredevil to actually enjoy having his powers. Yes, even though those powers also make him blind, Matt Murdock and his hornhead alter ego actually get to have fun, even when faced with crazy-ass situations. Joined by some of the best artists working in comics today (Paolo Rivera, Marcos Martin, and Chris Samnee to name a few), Waid stretches his finely-honed talent of making any and every issue wholly accessible to new readers, even if it’s right in the middle of an ongoing storyline (seriously, how does he do it?). Waid’s still-ongoing run (I hope Marvel's new relaunch doesn't really mean the end for his time on the title) got me to start reading Daredevil, and I have no intentions of stopping now.
This. This is why I love comics. (From Daredevil #30)
Also, a while back it won the Eisner Award for Best Continuing Series. Not that awards matter, but in case you don’t know, that means you should REALLY be reading Mark Waid’s Daredevil.

-Daredevil by Brian Michael Bendis and Alex Maleev

Issues #26-50, 56-81, Collected among 3 Ultimate Collection TPB

While Mark Waid’s run got me to start reading Daredevil, it’s Brian Michael Bendis’ award-winning tenure on the title that made me a full-blown fan of ol’ hornhead. Teamed with the outstanding artwork by Alex Maleev, lending the series its rough, gritty yet stunning visual style, Bendis took the series in big new directions, taking chances and telling stories that you’d never see in any other superhero comic. In just a few issues, Matt Murdock’s identity as the Man Without Fear gets leaked to the press, leading to a media blitz that pushes Matt over the edge in all new ways, and that’s not even close to the biggest thing that happens in his life during Bendis’ tenure. Let me reiterate: this wasn’t one of many Marvel “What if?” stories, nor was it swiftly ret-conned like it was for Spider-Man after Civil War. This was a real, in-continuity event that is still haunting the character’s life to this day. Bendis writes the title with a pitch-perfect blend of legal drama, crime noir and hints of humor, resulting in an often gripping action-thriller that makes each story a struggle to put down. And when the villains come out to play, you’d better believe they make the kinds of impressions most writers kill for. Just take a look at this moment from issue 49, where Matt’s newfound love Milla is greeted in the night by his greatest tormentor, Bullseye:

From Daredevil #49
Yeah, Daredevil saves her the very next page, but even so that one page alone minus buildup is intense as all hell, and I don’t think any moment has ever made me really hate Bullseye as much as this one. And that includes the moments where he really DID kill Matt’s girlfriends.
There are many reasons why Bendis’ Daredevil is one of my favorite comic book runs of all time (maybe even my #1 choice), but perhaps the biggest reason why is how it makes you reconsider exactly what mainstream superhero comics are capable of. To avoid spoilers I won’t say much more, aside from this: if you want a liberal helping of crime noir mixed with your superheroes, then Bendis does it best.
*As a bonus note, check out the recently released Daredevil: End of Days, written by Bendis along with fellow Daredevil writer/artist David Mack. It basically acts as a gritty, flashforward coda/ending to the character, pulling heavily from the character's long history. Considering that it's particularly heavy on references to Bendis' own run (and Mack's), I'd recommend it for more hardcore fans once they're better caught up on the character's history. Expect a post in full about the book sometime later down the line.

-Daredevil by Ed Brubaker and Michael Lark

Issues #82-119, 500, Collected among 3 Ultimate Collection TPB

Note: I’ve neglected to show any scenes from Brubaker’s run, since it’s pretty much impossible to find any showcase pages that wouldn’t provide major plot spoilers, both for Brubaker’s run and for Bendis’ run which preceded it. Seriously, there’s so much s*** that goes down.
And I mean a LOT of s***. (Cover for Daredevil #87)
After Bendis’ brilliant, redefining run on the title and the way his run ended, the writer who was put in the unfortunate position of having to follow that up undeniably had their work cut out for them. There was literally zero chance of topping that, and honestly it wasn’t topped. But when you’re Ed Brubaker, a writer who lives and breathes crime and conspiracy fiction, you can give it a damn good try, and the result is a gripping, excellent run in its own right. I can’t risk going into details (again, tons of spoilers), but lets’ just leave it at this: if you read Bendis’ run, definitely follow it up with this one.

-Daredevil: Yellow by Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale

This 6-issue miniseries reteams award-winning writer/artist duo Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale (Batman: The Long Halloween, Superman: For All Seasons) in a telling of Daredevil’s origins and early days, namely inspired by the earliest 60s Stan Lee comics, when the character had his original yellow costume. If you’re looking for a telling of Matt Murdock’s origins, Frank Miller’s The Man Without Fear is also a great choice, and probably more relevant to the character in his more recent stories, but I personally find Daredevil: Yellow is a more entertaining, more powerful story. The biggest reason why is, well, it isn’t really an origin story. Instead, it’s a love story remembered, a look into Matt Murdock’s soul as he remembers the good old days with arguably the greatest love of his life, Karen Page. Sure, it isn’t quite the most cohesive story per se (it’s more a series of thinly-connected chapters and vignettes than it is a fully flowing narrative), but in this case it’s not the plot that matters, but the characters and (more importantly) the emotions. We get a real sense of just how important Karen was to Matt, the impact she made on his life, and how painful her eventual death must have been to him. If Daredevil: Yellow were just a series of early Daredevil adventures re-imagined through Tim Sale’s gorgeous artwork, that would be enough to make it worth reading, and if that’s all you really want then you’ll get your money’s worth, as we get to see ol’ hornhead do daring battle with Electro, the Owl and the Purple Man. But it’s the element that ties it all together, the ever-fascinating emotion of love, that makes this take on Daredevil’s origins something truly special.
Tim Sale: An artist so good he even makes the old yellow costume look cool.

-Daredevil: Born Again by Frank Miller and David Mazzuchelli

I know, this is redundant by now, but I just feel like getting it out of my system. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I am not a fan of Frank Miller. Let me be clear: I was a fan of Frank Miller. He has done some works that have redefined the medium and are undeniably great (Batman: Year One, The Dark Knight Returns, Sin City). But anything he’s done since Sin City after the late 1990s has been, how do I say it...
Oh yeah: awful.
And I don’t just mean the usual kind of awful, the one that you can just shrug off and forget about. I mean the kind of awful that continuously ruins a man’s reputation, enough over time to make readers like me reflexively want to upchuck whenever his name is attached to anything. All that amazing goodwill he’d earned and impact he had on the comics industry? Nope, now it’s just “Goddamn Batman”, numbingly repetitive “noir” dialogue, questionable politics, and a now overwhelmingly obvious inability to write female characters who aren’t prostitutes (heck, this trope’s omnipresent even in his good books).
Okay, I think I’m good. Sorry about all that. Moving on.
Thankfully, while he has done unforgivably awful things to Batman in recent years, Miller hasn’t been allowed to write on Daredevil again for over 20 years now, meaning he hasn’t gotten a chance to undo all the great, character-defining stuff he did on the book which made him an industry name in the first place. And while not perfect, Daredevil: Born Again is his defining Daredevil tale, the one that set the standard for how to push Daredevil through living hell, and more importantly how he gets back up again. Reintroducing former flame Karen Page as a heroin junkie prostitute (gee, big surprise, Frank), the Kingpin learns that Daredevil is Matt Murdock, and relishes in destroying his nemesis thoroughly and completely. The part that really pushes the book over the top and a big reason why it still holds up is the fantastic artwork of Miller’s Batman: Year One collaborator David Mazzuchelli. His detailed, noir-flavored visual flair synchs perfectly with the material, and features many panels that are just flat-out iconic. This is still seen by several fans as the defining Daredevil story, and while I’ve liked other hornhead stories better, it’s easy to see why Born Again has such a strong reputation.
Also, this page. Just... just this page.
Also Check Out: Frank Miller (#158-161, 163-191), Daredevil: Guardian Devil (by Kevin Smith and Joe Quesada), Daredevil: The Man Without Fear (by Frank Miller and John Romita Jr.)

What to Avoid:

-Daredevil: Shadowland

You don’t even have to have read Shadowland or any of the other titles wrapped up in this recent and best-left forgotten event series to know it’s bad. This series screwed over Daredevil so bad that it necessitated Mark Waid’s current, more lighthearted re-launch if the character were to recover his credibility. It only takes a one-sentence summary of the basic plotline to understand why fans tend to hate this story, and why Marvel gladly did their best to pretend it never happened. Here goes:
Daredevil gets possessed by a demon.
 No, really, Daredevil gets possessed by a demon.
I don't care how many ninjas you add behind him, it's still a dumb idea.
That’s literally the plot of this entire event series. That and he kills a bunch of people, including Bullseye. Because that's what you do when you need to push a purposely street-level hero character "over the edge" for the sake of having him go on murderous rampage (also not a good direction for most hero characters, as Hal Jordan fans can attest)- you involve freakin' demonic possession. I mean, it's not like there are plenty of other non-supernatural ways to drive Daredevil over the edge for the sake of a big story. It's not like he already straddles the whole "over the edge" thing constantly as it is. I dunno, but really, do you even need to bother reading the actual story to know it’s a dumb, ill-conceived idea for a Daredevil story, let alone a major multi-title spanning event series?

-Daredevil: Season One

I know, I know, broken record and all that jazz, but in this case, it’s not just that the Season One line so far is pretty lacking in inspiration or new twists to these old origin stories (though I like what I see of Hulk: Season One and Doctor Strange: S1, and Avengers: S1 is pretty solid). No, in this case the book’s major crime is just not being good. This more than any of the other books in the line so far feels redundant, particularly since the previously featured Daredevil: Yellow is literally the SAME FREAKIN’ STORY. I swear, multiple scenes play out in far too similar fashion, with multiple lines repeated nearly verbatim. They do the scene of Daredevil getting vengeance on his father’s killers, they do the fight with Electro, they even copy the scene where Daredevil saves a kidnapped Karen from the Owl, and the plot beats play out with virtually no difference! This would be forgivable if the book didn’t come off as so boring, joined by competent yet fairly dull artwork that’s completely steamrolled by Tim Sale’s beautiful panels for Yellow. And once again, this Season One book comes with the first issue of the current ongoing run, in this case Mark Waid’s Daredevil. Because nothing makes a weaksauce book worse than having it come packaged with a tease of the far better (and cheaper) book you could have bought instead.
I'm already yawning just looking at this.
Thanks again for tuning into Getting to Know Comics! Next time we take a look at the one, the only, the Dark Knight himself: Batman!

*1: But mostly that last one.