Daredevil #26-81 Written by Brian Michael Bendis and Drawn by Alex Maleev. Marvel, 2001-2006. Collected in multiple hardcover or softcover volumes.
I don’t have many superhero books on my shelves, but one that’s been there a long time is Miller and Mazzuchelli’s Daredevil: Born Again. That series always impressed as showing a very human superhero character, one who was more than just a guy in a suit beating up weird evil doers. The ending in particular struck me as just right. It felt like an ending, and though I knew the series continued after that (with other writers), I left it there.
But, The Comics Journal (#271) went and ran a long piece on Brian Michael Bendis (albeit not a very positive one), and I’ve heard hype about his run on Daredevil on the internet. He’d done a bunch of noirish comics previously and the noir aspect was something I’d always appreciated in Miller’s work. So, I decided to give Bendis’ run on Daredevil a try. I quickly devoured the whole run as soon as I could get it. Beginning to end it’s a solid piece of genre work, more noir than conventional superhero.
Bendis is clearly taking a cue from Miller’s work. Born Again dealt with the effects of Matt Murdock’s secret that he is Daredevil becoming known to his arch-enemy the Kingpin (of crime). The Kingpin naturally does some damage to him but never lets it out to the public at large. Bendis picks up from here, having the secret get out to the Kingpin’s henchmen and then to the FBI and a newspaper. This public airing of the secret identity is what drives the story.
Summarizing the story would take a lot of time, but basically Murdock denies his existence as Daredevil to the public and thus begins a lot of confrontations with former enemies trying to kill him, reporters snooping around, FBI agents following him, and all kinds of problems involving the control of the criminal underworld. But what the story really focuses on is Murdock and his psychology. Why he does what he does, how he deals with traumatic elements of his past (the deaths of his father and two girlfriends). In the process Bendis expands the motivations behind the origin story in small but effective ways.
Through it all we basically see his life falling apart in almost every way, mostly because of his own actions. This is one of the elements borrowed from film noir, the steady downslide of the protagonist as the web around him goes tighter. In noir this often ends in death (Tourneur’s Out of the Past would be a great comparison here) but Bendis can’t exactly kill off one of Marvel’s hot properties. Instead he closes the story at the other inevitable end, reversing the happy ending of Miller’s Born Again, by leaving Daredevil sitting in a jail cell (though, he is there pending trial, leaving some leeway for follow-up writer Ed Brubaker).
Another film noir theme is the character who strives above all else for some thing (the great whatsit of Kiss Me Deadly, the paradisal Kentucky farm in Asphalt Jungle, or, more often than not, money). Forsaking all else for some goal, crossing any line to get it, these characters generally die in the process. We see this over and over again throughout Bendis’ storyline, characters who go past any reasonable limit to reach their goal and go down painfully in the process. Murdoch’s attempts to bring order and peace to his city, and the struggle to wipe out all “evil” is the central example, but we can see it in many of the supporting characters from the Kingpin to all the crooks that try to set up shop in his wake. When all is said and done, there is no one who isn’t left in disarray at the end of the storyline. In this way the noir influence is much truer here than in Miller’s work (often touted for its noir influence). (On a tangential note, I think Bendis’ work is much more true to its noir influence in general than even Miller’s noir-ish Sin City, which is far more gratuitous and blatant than film noir.)
One thing I really appreciated about the run of issues is the lack of emphasis on costumed fighting. Most of the “bad guys” are not dressed up in funny costumes and the story often goes on quite awhile without some kind of fight. While there are a few extended fight scenes, most don’t go on too long (thankfully as Maleev’s style does not have the fluidity to make for interesting action scenes).
Besides drawing on Miller’s story, Bendis seems to use a panoply of “classic” Daredevil characters (I gather this from various online sources about the comic), often bringing in former costumed foes as uncostumed characters. He works in elements of the character’s continuity, but in most cases everything one needs to know and understand for the story is written in. One place this does not work relates to the murder of Murdoch’s previous girlfriend, Karen Page, who was murdered at some point in the past. A good bit of the psychology comes from that event, yet we never see it happen, not even in a decent flashback. It is explained that she was killed and who killed her, but it is done without an emotion. At one point, Bendis even has an opening to retell the story as Murdoch’s friend tells Murdoch’s new wife about it, but instead Bendis cuts away from the scene, leaving us without an kind of emotional weight to an event that has so much weight for the protagonist. While this reliance on continuity is not unexpected in a long-running superhero comic, an event such as this would have benefitted from a retelling.
Maleev’s art is skilled and attractive. It is angular and uses black well. He adds a lot of interesting texture with computer effects. His panel compositions are excellent as is the sense of pacing and page layouts (how much of that is Bendis’ script I can’t say). His art does rely heavily on photo reference and computer effects, which, in many cases, leaves the characters looking very stiff, like looking at a book of film stills. This stiffness is particularly obvious in the action scenes, where the characters seem too posed, like watching a fight in slow motion.
Probably the most noticeable part of the art is the pacing of the panels. Bendis and Maleev take the time to have scenes linger for awhile. It is rather filmic in the way the “camera” lingers on subjects, zooms in on characters while they are talking, cuts back and forth between two characters in a conversation, or even circles around the scene. This slow pacing often transfers to the action scenes, to their detriment. It’s almost as if Bendis wants to keep the actions scenes more minimal but also feels the need to have them be more superhero-y than the rest of the comic (particularly when one considers the real minimal action in the first year and how it ramped up over the rest of the years).
One thing I found very bothersome in reading was the frequent use of strips that go across a two page spread. I’m sure this works fine in a pamphlet where one easily and naturally opens the book all the way, but in collected form (particularly perfect bound paperbacks) one can’t open the book that far. If the panels cross over from one page to the next but not very far onto the next page, it’s easy to miss that and skip down to the next strip on the first page rather than continue across to the top of the second page. Numerous times I found myself reading panels out of order for this reason. It’s a quibble but it happened enough times (even on my second read through) that I got annoyed. This happens most in talking heads scenes which makes it even harder (a whole page of two characters heads is harder to visual parse like that than a more dynamic scene.
The majority of the supporting characters are well used (and Daredevil does have a good cast of developed supporting characters), though I think Murdoch’s friend and partner Foggy Nelson is under-used. He ends up always sounding like the mother hen. His voice of reason is not well balanced against Murdoch’s less-reasoned actions (which would have been interesting).
All in all an interesting and enjoyable story, perhaps mostly through the noir superhero mixing. The slow pacing and tightly connected plots kept me reading and allowed me to see the work as a whole rather than a collection of short stories (as many superhero comics seem to be). It even got me to buy the current issues of Ed Brubaker and Michael Lark’s follow-up stint on the series, which starts off right where Bendis left off, in jail.