“The King Of Hell's Kitchen: Part 1”
Writer: Brian Michael Bendis
Artist: Alex Maleev
Bendis and Maleev return to a title fresh from their five-issue hiatus. Following up on their awesome Hardcore arc last time round, we finally have a chance to see what has happened since Matt confronted Wilson Fisk and took control of Hell's Kitchen.
"Matt Murdock is the new Kingpin and it is officially urban legend..."
Now we are getting to the real meat of where Bendis has been taking Matt Murdock all along. Maybe we've been spoiled by the level of quality on this title in the past, but the "Echo" arc that ran for the last five issues was a huge shift in tone and focus for the book, and one which turned off many regular readers. What it did do, however, was allow Bendis a chance to take a breather, refresh, and launch into what looks to be the second major chapter of his title-transforming epic journey for Matt Murdock.
This issue serves up the beginnings of a new direction for Daredevil, structuring a tightly-woven plot in flashback - a device which has served Bendis so well in the past (reminiscent of the highly effective "underboss" opening arc of this epic story way back in issue #26). Opening with ten exhilarating pages that detail Matt's cleaning up of Hell's kitchen, a sequence where the intelligent writing and gritty art work in perfect tandem, we are eased into a new status quo: Matt is now the protecting overlord of 'the Kitchen', obsessed with keeping his part of the city clean and free of crime. The writing (combined with a couple of excellent double-splashes of Maleev's art) does an excellent job of infusing Matt with a palpable sense of menace, making him and Daredevil a believable threat for the Hell's Kitchen underworld.
Bendis earns kudos for his early establishment of character points and themes that will be returned to many issues later: here, we get to see what happens when Matt follows Luke Cage's advice a few issues ago to the letter - making sure he keeps his own back yard clean. It is a change of direction that a large contingent of super-heroes prove to be quite unhappy about. The sequence in which they confront a bitter, irritable Matt reinforces the title's real-world, logical approach to the central character's plight whilst simultaneously establishing him as part of a larger Marvel Universe from which he is becoming increasingly ostracised - this latter aspect being key in understanding the full repercussions of Matt's actions. The dialogue between the parties follows Matt's actions through to their logical conclusion and realises that there are no easy answers. Even if the scene gives rise to some of the issue's few flaws (a bizarre interpretation of Dr. Strange - and would Peter Parker really let his identity slip so easily?), it's a neat idea that explores exactly why Matt's actions are so shocking without being unnecessarily clunky.
It's a welcome return too for Alex Maleev's art (don't get me wrong, I loved David Mack's painting, but there's something so fitting here about Maleev's style). He gets more than his fair share of splash pages - culminating in a dark, atmospheric double-reveal shot at the end of the issue - but he also gets to deal with more precise, intimate moments too: Ben Urich's meeting with his mysterious acquaintance at the start of the issue is suitably ambiguous, and the constant doubly symbolic depiction of Matt in half-shadow is inspired. It is a compliment to the artwork that, after something so radically different, the title feels pleasingly and comfortably like itself again.
So much is packed into this issue (the FBI surveillance subplot? The proposition to run for Mayor of New York?) that the foreboding cliffhanger seems almost tacked-on, but it certainly gives us another reason to want to read more. However, with writing, characterisation and a plot as strong as this we really don't need one: Bendis and Maleev are breaking down the line between the man and the super-hero with more subtlety and intrigue than even Frank Miller could manage - and that's high praise indeed.
This issue is a knock-out opener for an arc which promises to take the character in a new and exciting direction, also serving as a perfect jumping-on point for anyone who has been curious about this title but has yet to take a look. Bendis lives up to the accolades he has garnered that say he is making the title more interesting than it has been in years - and if the political plot pointers in this issue play out, there could be even more extreme changes to Matt's character to come.
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