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Words and Pictures: Daredevil, Then and Now

Any period of superhero comic addiction, such as I briefly enjoyed in my youth, leaves you with one or two favourite characters.  It’s kind of the point: these characters are immortal, corporately-owned properties, their value to their owners largely measured by the persistence and financial implications of the attachment they instil in readers.

For me, there were plenty of favoured characters back in the day, but there was only one true favourite: Daredevil.

So here comes a look at three different takes on Daredevil: one from the 1980s, one from the 2000s and one from right now.  I don’t let my nostalgic inner fanboy out to play in these columns very often, so just this once I thought I’d give him some air.

I could offer the further justification that it’s a simple little case study in the extended life of corporate superheroes, and the effect story-telling trends and gifted writers have on them.  It kind of is, but honestly I’m just a bit of a DD groupie.

written by Frank Miller, illustrated by David Mazzucchelli

First, the basics.  Daredevil is Matt Murdock, blind lawyer.  Thanks to a childhood encounter with radioactive material (remember those happy days when radiation gave you super-powers, rather than cancer?) he’s also a blind vigilante with hyped-up other senses and a handy radar-like ability.  That’s part of why I fell for the character: an unusual power set that’s modest enough to make him a vulnerable underdog.  Plus he’s got a wonderful costumed look: simple, striking, iconic.

Frank Miller’s Daredevil stories of the 1980s were so good that much of the character’s subsequent history is either development of or reaction to them.  Although not solely responsible for introducing a dark tone to the series, Miller clarified and cemented darkish aspects of the character that would stick for decades, such as Murdock’s psychological vulnerability, his fraught and often catastrophic relationships with women, his links to the world of ninjas and warrior monks.

Probably the finest work he did with the character was Born Again.  It’s not just probably the best Daredevil story ever told, it’s one of the best superhero stories ever told.  In fact, it – like most of Miller’s Daredevil output – is that rare superhero story that’s good enough to speak even to those who don’t normally include this stuff in their diet.

Born Again is a more or less stand-alone tale in which Daredevil’s life and mind are systematically dismantled by his nemesis, the Kingpin, only for him to resurrect himself as a still more determined hero.  He is also, of course, dismantled and re-assembled by Frank Miller, the writer; a literal version of the deconstructionist trend then taking hold in superhero comics.

It’s epic, absorbing and stirring, brought to life by one of the finest artists then (and arguably ever) working in superhero comics, David Mazzucchelli.   Frank Miller illustrated many of his own Daredevil scripts quite brilliantly, but for Born Again, Mazzuchelli brings a wonderful, fairly mimetic precision and an outrageous gift for figure drawing and visual story-telling.

If you’re ever going to read any single Daredevil story, Born Again is the one to go for.  Superhero comics have seldom felt so much like the considered, ambitious, structured story-telling you expect from prose.

written by Brian Michael Bendis, illustrated by Alex Maleev (mostly)

Flash forward to the 21st century, and Daredevil received a by then much-needed shot in the arm with the arrival as writer of Brian Michael Bendis.  He brought a style of decompressed (i.e. plot-slooooow) storytelling that became quite widespread in post-2000 comics.

Around then, it was just starting to become clear that TV was the new home for slick, sophisticated drama.  It may not be entirely coincidental that in pacing, structure, dialogue and visuals (the last mostly by Alex Maleev), this Daredevil reads more like a noirish TV series committed to paper than a superhero comic.  It’s the most distinctive and coherent take on Daredevil since the character’s 1980s heyday, but it still relies on all the tonal and psychological architecture Miller erected back then.

Bendis uses a neat (though not exactly original) hook for his extended run as writer: the press outs Matt Murdock as Daredevil.  His efforts to deflect that truth underpin succeeding storylines as he battles gangsters, street-level supervillains and his own self-destructive mind.  There’s a dark, slow energy in both writing and art that gives the whole thing a pervasive mood of imminent disintegration.

These stories absolutely nail a convincingly contemporary version of the dark-toned Daredevil: urban vigilante, struggling with his own disabling demons, living his life in literal and psychological darkness.  It’s pretty compelling stuff, well done.

written by Mark Waid, illustrated by Paolo Rivera, Marcos Martin and others

So to the current Daredevil series.  The first in a long time to successfully play a different tune with the character.

Daredevil had become so dark and troubled that he was kind of depressing to read about, and a spent force as a generator of stories.  The character was exhausted, as many characters stuck on the ongoing series treadmill are liable to periodically become.

Cue Mark Waid, some spectacularly gifted artists, and a Daredevil series which feels fresh.  That’s the thing about corporately owned superhero characters: they can’t change so much as to be unrecognisable, but they can be re-invigorated by new visual and story-telling approaches.

This Daredevil is fairly straightforward, nostalgic superheroics of a swashbuckling sort.  There are hints at the darkness that has gone before, but it’s mostly about the adventures that are here for the having right now.

The whole thing, if viewed with a mercilessly objective eye, is – like many of the traditional superhero comics it evokes – a bit creaky and implausible.  But if you can leave your disbelief at the door (not as easy as it once was, I confess) you’re rewarded with heaps of entertaining details.

Apart from anything else, this is an aspirational Daredevil.   The first in a long time whose life looks appealing.  The superhero genre has important roots in wish-fulfilment and aspirational appeal, and the degree to which it’s moved away from them is, maybe, one symptom of what I tend to think of as a wider decadence in the form.  Understandable, perhaps inevitable, but not necessarily healthy for the genre as a whole.

Waid’s Daredevil is a dashing hero exulting in his extraordinary abilities, both physical and sensory.  Effortlessly acrobating his way through a vivid cityscape.   Waid sprinkles the whole thing with smart dialogue and a nice balance of humour and drama, violence and romance.

The art is just gorgeous, and 50%+ of the reason this new series succeeds.  Mostly it’s by Paolo Rivera and Marcos Martin.  Quite aside from the clear, stylish lines (and wonderful colours that dispel the darkness the character has so often moved in), there are inventive depictions of a world experienced without sight, but with exquisitely sensitive other senses and radar.

Both writing and art are loaded with endearing vim and vigour, and neatly combine an old-school vibe with a modern, forward-looking lightness of touch.  For the lapsed superhero reader, this title amounts to a showcase for what straightforward but good superhero comics look and read like nowadays.  It’s also admirably new reader friendly, so you can jump on in with negligible background knowledge about the character.

But here’s a prediction: one day, the dark Daredevil will return.  It might be years hence, but I bet someone does it eventually.   Certain iterations of these perennial characters exert a gravitational pull on writers and readers, as if they’re the only truly stable forms. It’s both a defining strength and a profound creative limitation of the publishing model. Other versions can succeed for a time, but the most resonant and potent expression of the character is always waiting in the wings to reassert itself.  In the case of Daredevil, that expression is Frank Miller’s.

2 Comments on Words and Pictures: Daredevil, Then and Now

  1. No comments about the movie? 🙂

  2. Oh, don’t get me started on the movie, you big stirrer. A miscast misfire with a few faint flickers of the true potential lurking in the original material would be about my kindest comment.

    Although I’m reliably informed that the director’s cut, which I’ve not seen, is something of a revelation and is – shock, horror – actually rather good. Not all that common for a director’s cut to really subtantially improve a movie in my experience, but evidently this is one case where it does. Should really get around to watching it one day …

    The movie rights to Daredevil have now, I believe, reverted to Marvel, so I’d guess we’ll see a reboot somewhere around … I don’t know, 2017, 2018? And I’d be willing to bet a modest sum it’ll be jolly good when it does show up …

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