Entertainment Geekly is a weekly column that examines pop culture through a geek lens and simultaneously examines contemporary geek culture through a pop lens. So many lenses! Sometimes we’ll look back at an essential part of the last few decades of geek history. Today: Three very different, equally fantastic takes on Daredevil.
Blind man, blind lawyer, blind superhero. Lives on the baddest best side of the best bad city. Hates bad people; fights them in court and fights them on the street. Wears red. Has a best friend: tubby, lovable, concerned. Has a girlfriend; probably has another. Has a secret identity; it’s never too secret, unfortunately. Drives himself too hard, definitely. Crazy, maybe. Raised in his city, loves his city, watches his city take everything away from him, over and over again. That’s Daredevil. That’s the formula. That’s how you get three of the greatest superhero stories ever told.
I don’t believe in canons, but they’re useful. We all have a rough idea of the greatest superhero stories–or anyhow, the conventional-wisdom-dictated most important superhero stories. Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns, “The Dark Phoenix Saga” and “The Night Gwen Stacy Died.” I’m talking comic books here–released in individual issues, monthly or thereabouts. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that when it comes to the great superhero comic book stories, there are three basic species:
1. The story arc: A two-, three-, seven-, twelve-, [insert number here]-part narrative. Could be a miniseries, could be a sequence of issues in an ongoing book.
2. The serialized drama: An ongoing years-long saga that plays out across several volumes, which may feature tangents or individual story arcs, but which is ultimately unified into one recognizable narrative.
3. The one-off: A single issue, the equivalent of a short story or an episode of television, which tells a complete story within the context of a superhero’s ongoing life.
You could try to pick out which superhero is the best at each type of story. Batman has so many great 1s; the Fantastic Four have so many great 3s; whenever Grant Morrison takes over a title, he figures out a way to make an epic 2. Or you could just look at Daredevil. Look at Frank Miller’s and David Mazzucchelli’s “Born Again.” Look at Brian Michael Bendis’ and Alex Maleev’s four-year super-noir epic. Or look at Mark Waid’s three-year run on Daredevil, with a rotating crew of artists helping to send the hero off on some of the most colorful, pure-fun comic book adventures since the ’60s. Is one better than the other? Isn’t it better to wonder how one superhero could inspire three such radically different and just generally radical stories?
You could begin, chronologically, with “Born Again.” A completist should read all of Frank Miller’s work on “Daredevil”; it’s available in several collected editions, and it’s an opportunity to see a month-by-month portrait of the evolution of one of the medium’s great writer-artists. Miller was three years off Daredevil when he returned to write “Born Again.” He wrote, and David Mazzucchelli drew. 1986 was a big year for Miller: “Born Again” was hitting stands concurrent with The Dark Knight Returns. They helped define a new kind of superhero comic—”darker” and “grittier,” if you want to simplify it.
Dark Knight Returns got all the press and still gets more glory. “Born Again” is better. It’s the story of the unthinkable happening: A superhero’s worst enemy learns the superhero’s secret identity. (And the worst enemy got this information from the superhero’s girlfriend; you can see how, in the ’80s, it felt like Miller was tackling basic foundations of superherodom, bringing down the whole structure one twisted trope at a time.)
“Gritty” isn’t accurate, not at all. Blind lawyer Matt Murdock loses everything; the IRS comes at him, with some help from uber-nemesis the Kingpin. David Mazzucchelli draws New York the way Scorsese shoots New York: Dirty but also glamorous. Miller gives every issue a title from Deep Catholicism: “Apocalypse,” “Purgatory,” “Armageddon.” (Matt Murdock meets his mom; of course, she’s a nun.) There are glorious action sequences, but they’re assemble less like fight scenes than like mood pieces: You imagine electronic music on the soundtrack. If you’ve seen Drive, imagine someone coming up with the comic book version of that 25 years early.
Brian Michael Bendis and Alex Maleev took over Daredevil in the middle of volume two. It was 15 years after “Born Again.” But “Born Again” was a certain kind of superhero story. Every hero has a mythology, and that mythology has a basic outline: Hero, Villain, Powers, Girl, City, Parents Who Are Usually Dead. “Born Again” is a compression. Bendis and Maleev decompressed. The story begins in the same place, almost: Daredevil’s secret identity gets out. Except that this time, everybody knows.
What follows is hard to describe. Bendis doesn’t shy from the outré corners of Daredevil’s history. Far from it: Black Widow occasionally swings by, as Matt Murdock’s russian superspy ex-girlfriend-with-benefits; Spider-Man and Dr. Strange and Captain America try to have a heart-to-heart chat with Matt about how crazy he’s been acting; there is more than one character with the codename White Tiger. But the evocative mood–wry humor mixed with stark nihilism–doesn’t lift, not once. Many of the best moments are weirdly static: Long dialogue scenes, written with a keen ear by Bendis and drawn as a series of scuzzy portraits by Maleev.
Sometimes, there’s a sense that superheroes get asphyxiated by their own history: That the sheer too-muchness of a superhero’s mythology weighs down an individual story. But Bendis and Maleev take in all of Daredevil history–the mobsters hiring ninjas, the girlfriend parade, the paradoxical way that Matt Murdock is simultaneously older-wiser than most superheroes and yet also prone to making ruinous life decisions–and weaves it into a serialized story that holds together impeccably. All this, in the context of a monthly book: The saga starts in issue #26 and ends with issue #81, and you’re always aware that somebody new will take over on issue #82. Still, you could read just the Bendis/Maleev run and pretend it’s the first Daredevil story, and the last one.
But why miss out one of the great soft reboots in comic book history? In 2011, Mark Waid took on a new Daredevil monthly series. That series lasted three years, and featured artists like Paolo Rivera, Marcos Martin, Khoi Pham, Chris Samnee, and more. They all shared a certain style–call it retro, although it looks more modern by the second. Waid’s pitch on the character was simple: Take a character who has been written almost exclusively as dark and brooding for three decades, and let the sunshine in. His Daredevil is a chipper adventurer; he fights characters like Spot and Stilt-Man and Klaw, and he hangs out with Dr. Doom and the Silver Surfer and at one point some kind of Frankenstein.
You could say it’s the polar opposite of Miller, of Bendis, but it feels more like a variation. What is it about Daredevil? Maybe it’s because he’s more grown-up than other heroes: A lawyer with a love life. (All three stories pay vastly more attention to Matt Murdock than Daredevil.) Maybe it’s because Daredevil’s New York has a certain mood: Dark but aspirational. Maybe it’s because his superpowers are at once simple and endlessly fascinating. Blessed with super-senses, Daredevil offers a smart young writer a million clever ways to get out of a jam. Daredevil’s entire persona is based on an obstruction–he can’t see–and the idea that that one obstruction makes him more powerful. Sometimes in art it’s the same way: The obstructions are what lead the creative mind to overachieving. Maybe writers of a certain age–slightly older, slightly more world-weary—gravitate to Daredevil, whose tragic experiences feel like a metaphor for the minor tragedies of your twenties, whose ability to keep on going feels like a metaphor for just learning to deal with it. Maybe it’s because Daredevil has never really been an A-list superhero–never an X-Man, never a character with multiple books, never so popular that Marvel becomes unwilling to reboot him downwards or upwards.
There are superheroes with more stories, but I’m not sure any hero has the batting average of Daredevil. Three great stories across three decades; three runs by creative teams that could stand aside or ahead of any of the great stories of their era; three stories that defy any easy comic-book-history definition, romance mixing with grit, “realism” mixing with sensibility that vibe epic or even cosmic. All of them sad, all of them addictive. You watch Daredevil get his heart broken; you watch Daredevil ride the Silver Surfer’s surfboard.
You could go deeper, too: To David Mack’s “Parts of a Whole,” a dreamy riff on the Daredevil/Kingpin clash that invents a fascinating new love interest/antihero character out of thin air. You could stick to Miller’s Elektra saga, which set the stage for Miller’s entire post-80s career. Some people stump for the Ed Brubaker run that came after Bendis/Maleev. Waid and Samnee are still working on the new Daredevil series. (He’s in San Francisco now.) If you’re any kind of person who wants to read comic books–if you’re any kind of person who wants to see what a superhero story can be–pick up “Born Again,” pick up the first Maleev/Bendis volume, or just pick up any of Waid’s issues. They’ll draw you in; they’ll make you a believer. Is Daredevil the best superhero? I didn’t think so when I was a kid. Now I’m older, and I find weird truths of being older on every page of every great Daredevil story. Maybe that’s the secret. Maybe Daredevil is the superhero for people who don’t believe in superheroes anymore.
Epilogue: I just moved out to Los Angeles, and I had to give away all but the bare essentials, and this is my bookshelf right now.