Monday , April 22 2024
A look at the source for this season's big superhero pic. . .

“Here Comes Daredevil”

Another big-budget Hollywood adaptation of comic book superheroics looming, and you can hardly blame the company that spawned the character for wanting to cash in on as many high-end reprints as possible. It occurred last year w./ Spider-Man; it’s happening once more around Marvel’s Daredevil. Not a bad way for those of us who haven’t been following the guy to catch up on the last few years, actually.
Over the past six months, Marvel has put out three hardbound collections devoted to the “Man Without Fear.” Alongside two Marvel Masterworks collections still available (reprinting the character’s first two years of comic book adventures) plus three Marvel Visionaries books collecting writer/artist Frank Miller’s first run on the title, you have a decent crash course in the lives & times of blind lawyer Matt Murdock.
As a comic book lead, Daredevil’s career has been irrefutably spotty: took years for Marvel’s creative staff to figure out how to handle him, and, even then, the results have been variable. Read the first two years repped in the Masterworks books, and the main thing you recall is the art, produced by old pros like Joe Orlando, Bill Everett & Wally Wood, then that master of shadowy pulpishness Gene Colan – definitely not the stories. Scripter Stan Lee floundered between soggy romance comics cliches (“If only I dare tell Karen how much I care for her – but how could she love a blind man?”) or fight scenes that strived for the Root for the Underdog feeling of classic Spider-Man but merely came across as desperate. The blind lawyer/superhero wouldn’t rise out of third tier status ’til Miller put his stamp on the character.
What he added wasn’t a lot, but it was enough to elevate the character into something interesting. The basic set-up remained the same: Matt Murdock has both been blinded and enhanced by accidental exposure to radioactive materials – the rest of his senses have heightened tremendously, but outside of a Bruce Wayne-like regimen of physical training, he lacks the mega-strength of his peers in the superhero universe. Alongside his college chum, fat romantic fall guy Foggy Nelson (you can tell Fog’s doomed to forever be a chump just by that first name), and blond nice-girl secretary Karen Page, our hero is a lawyer by day/red-suited vigilante by night. The Nelson-Murdock law firm provided ground for plots (one of the silliest in the early days involved underwater superhero/villain Submariner suing surface dwellers for control of the Earth), but where Miller made his mark was by more clearly New York-ing the characters.
No longer was Daredevil just a city-based superhero: he was Hell’s Kitchen’s superhero. Upping the ante on pulpy urban grit, Miller turned the title into a fannish must-have for the first time in its history. He killed Karen, then made it appear as if Murdock’s first love, Elektra, was also dead. In so doing, Miller both toughened & further isolated his blind hero. For better or worse, this darker version has informed the character ever since.
Marvel’s newest hardcover Miller reprint has been definitely designed to hook movie-come-latelies: Daredevil/Elektra: Love & War has a cover displaying both characters blended into the same scene, though in reality it collects two stories featuring the duo in separate adventures. Both tales are from the eighties, scripted by Miller to water-color imagery by Bill Sienkiewicz. First is a short graphic novel starring the Man Without Fear & longstanding nemesis Kingpin (white in the comics; black in the movie – physically imposing in both versions); second is an eight-part mini-series featuring hard-assed assassin Elektra. The latter is the book’s showpiece: a bravura showcase for Sienkiewicz’s blend of Impressionism & Ralph Steadman cartoonery that is incomprehensible story-wise (Miller cavalierly utilizes the phrase “ninja tricks” whenever the bewildering events become too much) but still fun to read if you don’t try to think too much or get worked up over the writer’s progressively self-conscious attempts at harshness. Don’t know what a new reader, coming to this book after seeing Jennifer Garner’s movie ninja babe, is gonna make of it all, though.
Marvel’s second recent Daredevil collection should be easier to digest. Inexplicably labeled Volume Two (no Volume One has been released), this reprints the character’s more recent run (#26-37) on the so-called Marvel Knights line. The Knights books are one of Marvel’s attempts at revitalizing characters that’ve otherwise lost commercial steam in the comics shoppe marketplace (other attempts include the creation of an “adult” comics line called MAX, which has reworked other longstanding Marvel characters like Nick Fury and Rawhide Kid, plus the Ultimates series, which retooled classic Marvel figures for the CGI generation). Of all the books to come out of the MK imprint, the most arguably successful has been Daredevil. The strip’s current run, scripted by Brian Michael Bendis & rendered with heavily darkened ink-&-computer-generated-water-color by Alex Maleev & Matt Hollingsworth, may lack the gonzo energy of Miller’s groundbreaking series, but it’s more tightly constructed.
The book opens w./ a mob plot, an internecine attempt to assassinate New York mob boss, The Kingpin, (who has, apparently, recently been blinded – perhaps we’ll get to see this in Volume One?), then builds around that unsuccessful act. Daredevil nemesis Wilson Fisk is too established an adversary to kill off, so we know soon as it’s initiated that the whole thing is doomed to fail. What drives the story are the aftershocks of this failed coup.
Fisk’s estranged wife Vanessa returns to the city to take over the mob and wreak vengeance on those responsible (including – we’re predating Shakespeare and headin’ into Greek tragedy now – her own son). Only one to escape her wrath is the guy who planned this attack, a midwestern thug named Silke. Seeking asylum with the feds, Silke gives up the one piece of info that is common but unspoken knowledge, among the Kingpin’s minions: Daredevil’s semi-secret identity. (At one point, speaking to reporter Ben Urich, who uncovered Daredevil’s i.d. in the Miller Era, our hero asks, “You think something knows who I am?” Urich’s cynical reply: “You mean someone else? Other than me? Oh – and the Kingpin? Foggy? Karen? Spider-Man? Elektra? And every girl you’ve ever made goo-goo eyes at. . .”) This information manages to leak out to the press, and soon lawyer Matt has to cope w./ an army of tabloid reporters camped outside his brownstone – not to mention: the odd rampaging supervillain eager to get a piece of DD. (As the press witnesses this attack, one reporter asks who the baddie is. “Wait,” a cameraman sez, “They always tell you their name.”)
Blown secret identities plus the fear of same have long been a superhero plot standby. What makes Bendis’ take so entertaining is the way we’re shown how Murdock has personal, financial & professional stake in keeping his hero i.d. secret. (He faces, for instance, potential disbarment for defrauding the court.) Every major cast member in the Daredevil stock company gets to weigh in on this event, and while some of the allusions may be unclear to readers who haven’t been obsessively following this book since 1964, my guess is that most readers’ll be able to pick this book up and read it without wishing they’d been provided an annotated edition.
As a writer, Bendis favors long scenes of dialog – particularly sharp in the book’s early scenes where Silke is shown gathering allies for his attempted coup of the New York underworld – though once the Murdock news story breaks, some of the face-to-face talks get a bit squishier. (Law partner Foggy spends a lot of time bemoaning Matt’s superhero alter ego: understandable, but still pretty soggy.) Perhaps an artist less serious than Maleev could’ve better pulled off these moments, but all the solemn-faced characters on these black-bordered pages occasionally come across pretty soapy. Perhaps that’s unavoidable when you’ve got a series lead who walks around w./ a cane.
Marvel’s third hardcover originally came out in 2002, and has just been released in trade paperback format as part of the book blitz. Daredevil: Yellow is writer Jeph Loeb & artist Tim Sale’s look back to the character’s early days: when our hero was wearing an ugly yellow-&-black costume. (It only lasted six issues, ’til artist Wallace Wood took over the title: I guessing the redesign was his idea.) Long-running comics titles often resort to this ploy – rewriting story history that was first created on the fly gives the writers a chance to act as if the first flubs never happened. As reboots go, this ‘un is successful.
Loeb starts w./ the origin, natch, but where he tweaks the tale is in focusing on the nascent romance between our hero and doomed secretary Karen Page. The whole story is presented in flashback – spurred by a series of letters that Murdock is writing to his departed lover at Foggy’s suggestion (ever get the sense that Matt’s partner would be more satisfied as a therapist than a lawyer?) – rendered more brightly by Sale & colorist Hollingsworth. Sale’s art lies somewhere between Sienkiewicz caricature and Maleev’s shadowy realism, which suits this nostalgic flashback. Not much here that’ll surprise those who know the character, but at least Loeb eliminated some of the more outre plotlines. This may be bad news for lovers of oddball comics, but, hey, I’ve read somewhere that comic books aren’t for kids anymore, so that’s probably no big loss, right?
The highlights in the book are the triangle scenes ‘tween Matt, Karen & Foggy, which the creative team treats like an old movie romance. The approach is smoother than the original Yellow Period stories, though at some point you’ve gotta wonder whether this reliance on slick Hollywood script moves isn’t a reductive spiral: comics feeding movies feeding comics and so on. . .
What about the actual comic mags, you ask?
At this writing, Daredevil is presently appearing in two putative monthly titles: the Bendis/Maleev book plus a Marvel Knights mini-series written by movieman/comics fan Kevin Smith and illustrated by Glenn Fabry entitled Daredevil: The Target. (Smith has had his hand on the character before; an earlier mini-series is available in as a Marvel Visionaries trade.) Fabry has a knack for making all of his characters look constipated – which seems appropriate for a “monthly” title that’s only seen one issue since its November debut.
I generally enjoy Smith’s movie & comic scriptwork – it’s energetic and unique, even at its most strenuously didactic (e.g., Dogma, which, in retrospect, plays like a live-action Vertigo comic). The man’s not the most organic dialog writer, but he uses his position as celebrity to get away with things in comics that less empowered writers wouldn’t even consider trying. Too bad so many of his ideas are half-baked.
While it may not be totally kosher to parse a writer’s themes on the basis of just one chapter, I still find myself doing so with ish #1 of Smith’s mini-series. Rendered by Glenn Fabry in dogged big-knuckled style, “The Target” opens w./ our hero Daredevil reflecting on events that we’re told took place a year ago: 9-11 (real time in superhero comics – now that’s unusual!) He links this with an event we’re told occurred three years earlier, the death of Karen Page at the hands of professional assassin Bullseye. DD rages against this more than he does the assault on the World Trade Center, but you just know he’ll get his shot at avenging both by series end.
Cut to a building elsewhere in the city, where two Middle Eastern terrorists are meeting to arrange an assassination: through an intermediary, Bullseye is brought in, though initially Smith plays coy with revealing his identity (c’mon, Kev, the front cover tells us he’s gonna be the adversary!) Soon as we see him playing with a toothpick, we know it’ll be put to murderous use. But first we get several pages of B-movie Ay-rab dialog and a few slurring statements from good ol’ American Bullseye. When the intermediary lets the assassin into the room, even he makes a comment about how the two Middle Easterners reek. But the bulk of the insults come from our psycho baddie, who nonchalantly calls the unnamed terrorists “Balki” or “Akbar.” “You people are cartoons,” he sez at one point, reacting to the awkward dialog Smith has given ’em.
One year after 9-11, I’m not surprised to read this kind of overblown stereotyping in mainstream comics. But I’ve gotta admit, I wasn’t expecting Smith to so thoroughly immerse himself in it. You also have to wonder when two murderous Yankee mercenaries are given the upper hand, dialogue-wise, over foreign true believer types. It’s a fairly standard pulp ploy, but it’s a pandering one. And are we to believe that the type of morals-free capitalism repped by Bullseye is somehow superior to the bigotries of the religio-types?
To be fair, ol’ Frank Miller has his dubious political moments, too (chief villain in “Elektra: Assassin,” for instance, is a phony liberal named Ken Wind who’s depicted as a none-too-subtle symbol of bankrupt sixties idealism), though his broader cartooniness somehow makes all this nonsense more palatable. Smith’s take is something else again, though it remains to be seen how seriously we’re meant to read it.
As for Bendis & Maleev’s most recent run on the prime title, we’re still picking up from events in Volume Two. A recent trial storyline, for example, showed lawyer Murdock struggling to separate himself from the “costumed vigilante” label as he defended a hapless, forgotten Marvel superhero from a murder charge, while also in the background is a lawsuit that’s been filed by our hero against the newspaper that blew his cover. It’s clear this creative team’ll be reaping from their plotline for some time to come. As longtime DD readers know, there’ve been periods in the character’s career when his story possibilities looked much more fallow. . .
So which is the best route for a moviegoer who’s just been piqued into checking out the character? The Bendis/Maleev hardcover is probably the place to begin (there are also two trade pbs that reprint part of this extended run), while Loeb & Sale’s Yellow provides a nice encapsulation of the character’s early years. The Daredevil/Elektra collection makes for a decent intro to a version that fans like actor Ben Affleck recall when they remember the character in interviews, though some readers may be taken aback by its writing excesses. And on the basis of its single issue, I’m not sure that the Kevin Smith mini-series is for anyone who wants to experience the current graphic incarnation of the “Man Without Fear.”

About Bill Sherman

Bill Sherman is a Books editor for Blogcritics. With his lovely wife Rebecca Fox, he has co-authored a light-hearted fat acceptance romance entitled Measure By Measure.

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