Imagine the best man you know. Not just an average man, but the man who has it all: a great job, the respect of his peers, money, influence, lots of friends. Then imagine all of the building blocks of the man, every little shred of his decency and ego and every little thing that made him into a great man; imagine all those things simply disappearing. What would become of such a man? How would he survive the blow? How could any ego handle it when every little shred of the man’s life, every iota of pleasure he once received from life, slowly and inexorably disappears?
That’s the idea behind Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s classic “Born Again” storyline, a tale that surely rates as one of the finest Marvel comics of its era. The first chapter of that saga, “Apocalypse” from Daredevil #227, finished 11th in the list of 100 Greatest Marvels of All Time that was compiled in 2001.
In that epochal storyline, Miller and Mazzucchelli presented a story of destruction and redemption, of ego lost and new ego found, of how a man who has lost everything but the smallest kernel of personality at his core can use that kernel to become a better man than he ever imagined himself being. It’s the story of how the metaphorical best man you know becomes even better by giving up every inessential part of his being, how Matt Murdock changes from being a good man to a truly great man.
What makes the journey even more powerful is that Murdock’s fall was orchestrated by his worst enemy. The Kingpin systematically manipulates the system by pulling everything important to Matt Murdock away from him. But Matt wins in the most thoroughly satisfying way possible: not in battle, not in court, but by using the experience to become a truly great man, a super hero not in the costumed sense but in the sense of a man who is not only aware of all of his weaknesses but so aware of them that the weaknesses become strengths to him. What more satisfying revenge can any man have?
Yeah, that was SPOILERS above, and sorry about that, but if you haven’t read the book I’m not spoiling too much. This series is so dense and intelligent and thoughtfully done that you still have a ton of great reading ahead of you.
But all great stories begin with a great first chapter, and “Apocalypse” is a brilliant first chapter, a spellbinding and memorable series of shots across the bow.
The story opens in a desperately hot place (Mexico, we later discover, though it’s not really important). We discover that Matt Murdock’s former girlfriend Karen Page has fallen on hard times. “I’m sure I’ve seen one of your flicks. You’re big at stag parties,” the flat, slobby drug pusher tells Karen, the notorious word “flick” running together providing a subliminal underlining of Karen’s profession. Desperate for any money to feed her habit, Karen sells the one thing she has left to give: the truth of Matt Murdock’s secret identity.
Mazzucchelli draws the scene in deep and sultry shadow, the heat of Mexico seeming to radiate through the window blinds (blinds – also a clever symbolic choice) as Karen makes her metaphorical deal with the devil.
Word gets to the Kingpin, who is vacationing on his yacht. In contrast to the piercing golden heat of Mexico, we see the Kingpin at sunset, with the man silhouetted against gorgeous shades of red and pink. Christie Scheele’s colors on this book are especially gorgeous and provide an excellent counterpart to Mazzucchelli’s thoughtful line work.
The Kingpin knows his information is golden: “Turn the yacht back to New York. Locate everyone who has touched this envelope – or spoken to anyone who has – and await the kill order. In the meantime… I shall test this information.”
Six months pass.
(Was that an ominous enough moment, there? Do you feel the dramatic tension?)
Cut to Matt Murdock, asleep in his very rumpled bed as the sun rises. The writing informs us, “Matt Murdock is blind – so he misses the prettiest morning of the year. All he gets is hissing pipes and an East Coast chill that goes straight through to the bones. Matt Murdock is also Daredevil. That’s why his life is about to fall apart.”
Matt awakes, and rises nude, symbolically a new man on this morning, naked to the world but also seemingly at the mercy of the events that will happen to him. Naked, he has no defenses against the horrors the day will bring him. It’s another wonderfully symbolic moment.
As Murdock wanders around the house, we get a kind of running interior monologue from our hero, as he reflects on the radiation that gave him his great powers and ruminates on the job offers he expects will come his way. We find that Murdock is at an odd point in his life, out of work and sore from the previous night’s battle. He’s already taken some punches, but has no idea what kind of punches he’ll soon be taking.
“Draft’s from the mail chute. Heard the mail slip through it and hit the floor. That’s what woke me up. That’s why I got out of bed. It’s about time for the job offers to start coming in.” With optimism, Matt picks up his mail and finds no job offers but plenty of bad news: “No, no offers. Three bills, something from the March of Dimes – the plastic rectangle of a cassette from my girlfriend – can’t be good, since she lives in town – letter from my bank, saying they haven’t received my last two mortgage payments – trust them to screw up every chance they get – and a letter from Internal Revenue that my tax files are being audited and that every penny I have is frozen until the audit is complete. All this before coffee.”
The Kingpin is a powerful man who knows how to pull many strings. It’s a powerful extension of Stan Lee’s vision of the Kingpin to imagine the man’s great power extending to the sort of politics and manipulation necessary to get the IRS to freeze a man’s accounts. But it’s also striking that Matt has also brought some of this upon himself. The Kingpin didn’t do anything to get his girlfriend Glori to break up with him; Matt has done that to himself. She says on the tape, “I’m out of patience, Matt. The way ye treat me… I’d appreciate ye not making this all any more difficult. I… I’d rather ye’d not call me.”
The notorious Murdock way with women strikes again. No matter who he takes up with, Daredevil always gets between Matt Murdock and his lady love. It happened with Elektra and with the Black Widow, with Heather Glenn and Glorianna O’Breen, who sent the cassette, with Milla Donovan in current continuity and Karen Page in the Silver Age. Those red tights may be a turn-on, but they’re also the reason that Matt can never find true happiness in the arms of a woman.
Even while he’s listening to the cassette, the bad news keeps coming for Matt. Over the phone, his accountant Syd accuses Murdock of lying to him. In another beautifully composed scene, Matt is sitting alone
on a stool in the middle of his kitchen. He’s on an island on his stool, alone and stooped as the bad news keeps coming. Then a “nok nok” comes to the door. “It’s a subpoena, demanding my presence at a Grand Jury hearing. Not as a witness.”
The dominos are falling. Murdock’s world is crumbling. The good man is seeing his building blocks ground to dust. It’s hard to know if the loss of money hurts Murdock more than the loss of Syd’s respect. Matt tries to confront the police about the Grand Jury summons, which is for allegedly bribing a juror, but Matt is summarily dismissed by his friends on the police force.
Cut to a short interlude, Matt’s girlfriend Glori has had her apartment ransacked and is found in her apartment by Matt’s best friend and former law partner Foggy. Though not created by the Kingpin, this is another step along the path of Matt’s collapse.
We then visit the Daily Bugle and see reporter Ben Urich at work. Urich is shocked by the news that comes over the wire. “It’s disguised as an Associated Press wire – that says that Matt Murdock faces a host of criminal charges, including bribery, perjury and misconduct. Matt Murdock is the most honest man I know.” Urich calls up his dear friend Matt, and in a series of gorgeously laid-out panels, we see Matt’s friendship with Urich simply evaporate. “Matt – I’m your friend, remember,” Urich says into the phone. Urich’s narrative continues, “He laughs. The line goes dead. The laugh seems to echo through the office. I try to match it with the man who saved my life. I worry – not about his honesty…”
Back to Matt. The bank won’t give up on their foreclosure, and the stress is overwhelming. So Matt puts on his red suit for a jaunt over the rooftops. He’s a gorgeous scarlet figure silhouetted against the snowy blue-tinted sky – another nice bit of coloring by Scheele – as he goes to confront the man who’s accused him of bribing a juror, Lt. Nick Manolis. The confrontation between Daredevil and Manolis goes very badly, with bottles broken and tables smashed, and Daredevil leaves the apartment, only overhearing Nick on the phone.
And here we finally see the first flaw in the Kingpin’s plan, the first sign that it wasn’t as airtight as he’d thought it was. “I’ve learned this much – somebody is out to get Matt Murdock. Somebody who knows the right buttons to push with the right people. But who? And why?” Finally Matt knows there’s a force behind his destruction. It’s not just random fate or bad luck or bad life choices. The cause of his downfall lies with another man.
Going home, though, Matt literally finds cold comfort: “It isn’t until I try to fix dinner that I realize the power’s off. I try Con Edison’s emergency number. My phone’s been disconnected. It’s been a day.”
Morning comes eventually, and Murdock calls Glori’s house. Foggy, who slept on the couch, answers the phone. His friend answering his girlfriend’s phone at 8 a.m.? Another building block drops away.
I love the next page, as the Kingpin watches Murdock from a distance, savoring his enemy’s destruction as a cat savors their killing of a mouse. “The next few weeks go poorly for Matthew Murdock. He writhes like a fly in a spider’s web. My web, thinks the Kingpin. So carefully woven, so neatly placed.”
Murdock is slowly going crazy, spending days mounting his defense and nights desperately beating up stoolies who he hopes against hope have knowledge that can help him, “a warrior whose fists are no help against the corrosive gap that fills his life.” The Kingpin smiles, thoroughly amused. “Daredevil is Matthew Murdock – and more – there is a rift inside him – a wedge – slowly weakening his reason – steadily driving him insane.”
Finally Murdock gets a sliver of good news. He won’t go to jail on the Kingpin’s frame-up, but will lose his beloved license to practice law. “He faces poverty and public shame. He will be hounded by doctored tax files, deprived of his very income, deprived of his hope. Survival will become his only concern.” The Kingpin brags, and provides readers a foreshadowing of the rest of “Born Again.” But the Kingpin underestimates his opponent. The setbacks will only make Murdock stronger in the end. That, and his reaction to this issue’s astounding climax.
Matt wanders back to his apartment. Snow coats the streets of New York like frost chilling everything it confronts. Matt is lost in his thoughts, pondering all the horrors he’s faced. The ground starts trembling: “legs are shaky. Must be nervous. No – it’s the pavement – that rumble-”
Cut to a large image. Matt’s brownstone has been exploded. We see the fire burning, reflected in Matt’s glasses. Matt drops to his knees in the flames. He grasps his Daredevil costume, now in rags, as tears flow down his face. “So you know. So that’s why. I never would have connected it to you. Nothing about it said gangster – until this. It was a nice piece of work, Kingpin. You shouldn’t have signed it.”
I still remember the first time I read this comic, brand new off the stands in 1986, and the intense feeling of excitement and satisfaction I felt on reading this book. Our man had gone through having his life destroyed in the most systematic and personal way. Nearly every aspect of his life had fallen apart. He literally had almost nothing. Nothing but hate. Nothing but the knowledge of the man who had nearly destroyed him. And nothing but that amazing inner strength that showed that the real hero wasn’t the red tights, but the man inside them.
It’s a brilliant comic, too, because Miller takes readers inside the head of Matt Murdock as his whole world falls apart. We see his confusion and loss, sense the intensity of his emotions, and feel like we’re experiencing them along with him. Mazzucchelli delivers a star-making performance with his supple and complementary art here as well. It was a long journey from Daredevil to Asterios Polyp for Mazzucchelli, but you can see the intelligence and thoughtfulness of the latter book in this wonderful story. And Christine Scheele’s colors are an underrated masterpiece.
This comic brilliantly shows a great man facing his own destruction, only in the end to bring him the most precious of all human commodities, home. From that hope our hero would be born again.