"Last Hand: Daredevil #181"A column article, Classic Comics Cavalcade by: Jason Sacks
By now you've heard the story a million times: how an obscure creator from Vermont named Frank Miller took the helms of a dying series called Daredevil and rescued both the series and the comics medium itself from its death throes by introducing a mysterious Greek ninja named Elektra to the series. The passion of Daredevil, Elektra and the third corner of their triangle, Bullseye, instantly boosted the comic into a series that could not be missed from month to month. Finally the whole arc wrapped up with the double-sized DD #181, with its lurid but appropriate cover blurb, "Bullseye vs. Elektra One Wins. One Dies.", one of the greatest single comics of its era.
The thing is, the above paragraph all sounds like a legend but every word of it is true.
Frank Miller was a fan from Vermont who had a dream in common with many fans: he always wanted to work in comics. Miller had done art for his high school newspaper for such long-forgotten fanzines as The Fan's Zine, and for the classic APA-5, in which he shared space with such notables as Paul Chadwick. Comics were Miller's passion, and he longed to create great comics.
Miller also developed a deep set of passions that have informed all of his professonal work. Miller's strongest artistic influence is the late, great Will Eisner, and his greatest creative influences are the pitch-black noir stories of Raymond Chandler and other authors. Miller obviously has always adored Chandler's stories, which are, in Chandler's words, "tough and fast and full of mayhem and murder."
Miller entered the comics field much as most fans did in that era, working for various companies and drawing a series of one-shot and full-in stories. He finally got his big break when he took over the art on Daredevil from the great Gene Colan with issue 158. At that time the big news wasn't the ascent of Miller to art chores but rather the fact that Gene Colan was about to leave Marvel as part of a dispute with editor-in-chief Jim Shooter.
But soon after Miller took over the art on Daredevil, there immediately arose a sense that the comic had a new sense of momentum with its new artist. Miller's unique and thoughtful storytelling skills were getting ever widening acclaim, quickly attracting more and more readers to the previously moribund title. In those days the number of comics released per month was so small that a buzz could be built quickly for an interesting title. The retelling of Daredevil's origin in issue #164, though written by Roger McKenzie, was a tour de force for Miller's dynamic panel layouts and storytelling sense. There was a sense in the world of comics fandom that something special was finally happening with Daredevil, and that Miller was the force that was creating that special atmosphere.
The buzz met an early crescendo with Daredevil #168, in which Miller was first given permission to both write and draw the story. He delivered with a classic story, "Elektra," which brought readers the tragic love story between Daredevil's alter ego, Matt Murdock, and the woman who loved and left him, Elektra Natchios. Though cribbed quite liberally from Will Eisner's classic Spirit stories featuring Sand Saref, Miller delivered a powerhouse comic that brought a uniquely powerful female character into both the Marvel Universe and Daredevil's orbit.
Not only could Frank Miller draw, but he could write some great comics as well.
From that point forward, Miller both wrote and drew the comic, with the able assistance of co-artist Klaus Janson. Janson was a bit more than an inker on the comics; he essentially was a finisher who complemented Miller's layouts. The subsequent dozen issues were a dazzling whirl of stories featuring ever-shifting alliances between Daredevil, Elektra, the Kingpin and Bullseye and involving the ninja Hand. Miller's storytelling got more and more interesting as he assimilated his lessons from Eisner and channeled them using Chandler's streetwise intensity to create the sort of intensely streetwise comics that had never been seen in mainstream comics to that point.
Though the story arc involved ninjas and men in tights, Miller's work always had a certain kind of integrity and intensity that made it stand uniquely alone. Actions had consequences in Miller's Daredevil, battles would leave both physical and emotional scars, and both heroes and villains lived in morally compromised worlds that couldn't help but affect them deeply.
It all came to a head with Daredevil #181 (April 1982). By that point Bullseye had been thrown in jail at Riker's Island, but only after Daredevil had saved him from being killed by an oncoming subway train. Far from making Bullseye happy, Daredevil saving his live has only embittered Bullseye:
I hate you. You've hurt me. You've ruined my reputation, but that's not the worst of it. Not nearly. While I sit and stew and wait to be sprung, one thought sits in my gut, and burns, and burns… You saved my life. It wasn't enough, to beat me and let me die, there in the subway. You had to pull me off the tracks so I could hear every snicker, every jibe. They think I'm a has-been. They're wrong. Soon, I'm gonna pay you back and be on top again.
In the crazy mind of Bullseye, Daredevil paid him no mercy by saving his life. We see the man brood in his prison cell and while working out in his own special prison gym. This obviously took place before Marvel came up with the idea of a special prison for super-villains, but it also fits the streetwise world of Miller's Daredevil. Of course Bullseye wouldn't be put into a separate prison because that wouldn't fit Miller's vision.
It's striking how wonderful Miller's storytelling is in these early scenes. There's a wonderful page on which Bullseye is brooding about his fate, cleverly told by Miller with flashback panels that are just slightly offset from the panels that take place in the current day.
Bullseye manages to escape from prison in a way that only he could do, using a pill as a deadly projectile before stealing a gun. Again, Miller unleashes some clever storytelling, most notably in the way that he uses prison bars as an interesting counterpoint to panel borders. And look at this gorgeous scene of Bullseye climbing onto and then escaping on a helicopter. It's wonderful use of forced perspective, silhouette and a panoramic view all on the same page. It's clear that Miller has truly embraced the ideas expressed by his idol Eisner.
Cut to Matt Murdock getting the news of Bullseye's escape, followed by the scene of Bullseye visiting a bar and learning about what Elektra is up to. Ironically Elektra is on a mission to kill Murdock's partner Foggy Nelson, who she also knew from college. Just like in the best noir, the net is tight and always threatens to get tighter. I love the next page, too, especially since it retroactively comments on recent issues of Daredevil. Look at that clever storytelling – nice how the laughter provides the central design element of the page while Bullseye's stuff appears on one side of the man and images of Murdock and Foggy Nelson appear on the other. You almost don't have to read the words on the page to figure out what's going on with them because the storytelling is so strong.
Now the story really starts to get moving. Having not found Bullseye overnight, Murdock ends up in court the next day on a standard court case. But the main figures of the issue are also there. Bullseye pats Foggy Nelson on the back at the end of the case, making readers feel a touch of impending doom. Foggy jumps into a taxi, which we soon discover is actually driven by Elektra. Bullseye jumps into the taxi behind Elektra and Foggy. Matt's friend and ex-lover arrive at the place in which Elektra had planned to kill Foggy, but Foggy, always the innocent, recognizes Elektra and forces her to confront her morality.
And then comes the confrontation. The pair engages in one of the most intense battles ever seen in Marvel Comics. This isn't just a battle, it's a struggle for survival between two vicious and unforgiving people who kill for a living. There's no dialogue, no wasted energy, precious few captions. Blood flows, but finally only one can survive: Bullseye. As he boasts, "Put up… pretty good fight, toots… you're pretty good… but me… I'm magic." And then Bullseye stabs Elektra through the heart with her own sai, in one of the most famous panels in Marvel history.
Finally, blood flowing out of her onto the cold and indifferent streets of New York, Elektra crawls to the doorstep of her beloved Matt Murdock. She dies on his stoop, and on the next page her dead body lays on the cold steel of the coroner's table.
Killer though he is, Bullseye is no idiot. He manages to get into the room in which Elektra is being examined, and manages to determine without a doubt that Matt Murdock actually is Daredevil.
Then it happens. Murdock jumps like a stuck pig – just when he hears me speak. Like he recognizes my voice. Suddenly that crazy idea I got about you being him doesn't seem so crazy. Murdock turns back to the stiff. Tries to pretend he doesn't know I'm here. Maybe I'm wrong – maybe he just heard my voice on TV and he's scared of me like everyone else is. Maybe. No harm in finding out." Bullseye then throws a knife that Murdock stops with his cane. "Then I'm running out of there before you can track me – before you can make excuses to protect your secret identity. Got news for you, Mattie boy. It's blown.
It's a wonderful scene in part because it's savage simplicity. The story unfolds in a way that seems inevitable. The noose tightens because the noose has to tighten in a noir story.
So Bullseye brings the news to his patron, the Kingpin. But ever the pragmatist businessman, the Kingpin does not believe Bullseye. "Bring me the body," he says. And Bullseye swears to do just that. So the villain goes stalking around Murdock's apartment, but Murdock has outfoxed him and unleashes the first savage blow in a vicious fight.
What follows is a fight no less intense than the fight that Elektra and Bullseye had just fought, with the pair battling on elevated train tracks, echoing their previous fight with a subtle twist. Previously the train had been underground, and a man destined for Hell was saved. In this scene they find themselves fighting on elevated tracks, which provides an interesting sort of tension that sets up the ending that seems inevitable. Bullseye fights Daredevil with Elektra's sais, dramatically using his lover's weapons against him.
Falling off the train tracks, the men stride power lines, literally walking on a high wire to stay alive. Tension builds and builds over two gorgeously composed pages, until…
"You'll kill no one… ever again." Simple words, and the perfect counterpoint to the moment that caused Bullseye such anger. The intense drama, building for 14 issues, has played out in the most satisfying possible way.
We then get three epilogues. First, the Kingpin. He's received the news that Bullseye has dead, so, sitting alone in a dark room, the Kingpin lights his cigar and burns Bullseye's photo.
Next we get Matt Murdock, mourning at the grave of his former lover and enemy. Though Miller would later subvert this scene with the first of many revivals of Elektra, this ending has a tremendous impact in this issue.
Finally we see Bullseye in his hospital bed, bandaged head to toe and taking blood through an IV. His words are the final words of the issue, and how could they feel more like words from a Raymond Chandler novel?
You just got lucky. I could've beat you. I almost did. Next time I'll… Oh sure. I know what you're thinking. You're thinking there won't be a next time. You're wrong, Daredevil. Dead wrong. Prison couldn't stop me and neither can this prison you've made of my body. My spine is shattered. I can't feel my arms and legs. I can't even talk. But man can I hate. I hate you more than ever. And that'll be enough. No matter how many months and years, I'm gonna put myself back together. And then I'll come for you again. Just wait...
It's hard to believe that Miller had only been writing and drawing Daredevil for a mere 16 months at the time this issue was released, because the work was so sure-handed and intelligently planned. Storylines begun with his first issue received elegant payoffs in this issue, and elements introduced along the way also received their due. Add Miller's thrilling storytelling and brilliant melding of film noir and Marvel super-hero action and you end up with one of the most fully realized super-hero stories that has ever been released by the House of Ideas.
This issue is satisfying on nearly every level. Viscerally, we get both the devastating death of Elektra – it's hard to imagine a more devastating moment than her crawling on hands and knees to the home of her lover – and the maiming of Bullseye. The hero wins, but it's a much compromised win because his lifestyle has imperiled his best friend, killed his former girlfriend, and caused him to sacrifice the values that he holds dear. In that way, Miller is even setting up Matt Murdock for the transformations that he will go through in Miller's great "Born Again" storyline.
Miller also uses all the tools of comic art and writing perfectly. He knows when to be verbose and when to be terse, when to use long vertical and horizontal panels, cutaways and silhouettes, and chooses each technique with an unerring eye for maximizing the moment depicted. It's a bravura performance, and it's hard to think of another cartoonist who exploded on the comics scene with such a fully-realized vision.
Miller's legacy is somewhat mixed these days, but there's no underestimating the great comics that he produced in his youth. Daredevil #181 is still one of the greatest single comics that Marvel has ever released.