“Decalogue – part one”
Writer: Brian Michael Bendis
Artists: Alex Maleev, Dave Stewart (colours)
Publisher: Marvel Comics
The original issues that introduced Daredevil’s intense war on Hell’s Kitchen which followed Matt’s declaration of guardianship of the area were printed by Marvel well over a year ago. Those issues dealt with the subject in a swift, thrilling, efficient manner, and the result was an intangible yet palpable sense that much had changed for Daredevil and his status quo, enhancing the character’s mythical properties for both the inhabitants of Hell’s Kitchen and the Daredevil readership. Revisiting the period with “Decalogue” was a bold move for Bendis and Maleev, and doing so suggests a confidence in their ability to top the excitement created in those opening pages of Daredevil #56 and add to the mythos of Daredevil’s yearlong battle with crime in Hell’s Kitchen, instead of taking away from the stark simplicity of the original telling of what was a run-defining moment for the creative team. Unfortunately, this ability is not evident in this new arc; at least, not yet.
Bendis structures the entire issue as a flashback to a flashback: more specifically, a step back in time to the period immediately after Daredevil’s assumption of the title of Kingpin, where a group of people are meeting in a church to discuss how the ever bolder actions of the crimson-clad hero have affected their lives. It’s a canny move to show the public perception of Daredevil from such a street-level perspective, and the tale spun by the rehabilitated gangster’s moll this issue manages to be interesting enough on its own terms to sustain the reader for quite some time before the hero inevitably appears in full force. Avoiding tired cliché, Bendis tells the story of a small-time drugs gang who plan to take over the spot vacated by Wilson Fisk, and of how their plotting (which includes the cameo appearance of yet another C-grade marvel universe villain – a Bendis speciality) was ultimately foiled by the blind hero. Attaching this relatively run-of-the-mill story to a fairly insignificant character is a neat way to show how Daredevil’s grandstanding gesture and subsequent clean-up of Hell’s Kitchen has filtered down to street-level, affecting not only crimelords and gangsters, but the population of the region as a whole. It’s a convincing demonstration of exactly how Matt’s grand plan was put into practice, but you have to question whether the idea is going to be able to sustain a five-issue arc.
It would be remiss in any review of Daredevil not to mention the great art of Alex Maleev, which gains a softer, looser, more sketchy feel this time around, evoking a haziness of memory which suits the flashback structure quite well. It’s been a pleasure to see him continue to mature as an artist, and some of the more abstract images on display here (enhanced by the bold single-shade colouring, especially during the fight sequence) really sell a sense of movement and activity that the artist would have struggled to capture a year ago. However, the true standout is that radically redesigned, stylised cover image, which leaps out from the comic book racks and demands attention – especially with the provocatively-worded tagline which is splashed across it in oversize letters. Whilst it’s exactly the right way to go about making an impact with the cover image, I was pleased to see that the interior writing didn’t try to emulate such a sensationalist way of making its point, with the first of the “ten commandment” vignettes which will form the basis of "Decalogue" actually relating to the first commandment in a fairly subtle and metaphorical way.
This issue is a difficult one to rate for me, because if it had been a stand-alone insight into DD’s world, I would have raved about it and thought it something quite special; indeed, it works very well as a short story – something which is becoming rarer in superhero comic books these days. As the opening of a full-length arc, however, it just doesn’t grab my attention in the same way. The cliffhanger – such as it is – doesn’t give any clue as to how the “support group” angle is going to play out or evolve next issue, and only seems to serve to try and weave a series of decent one-shots into a more coherent arc for trade collection. It seems a shame to give a harsher critique of the issue because of the way the arc has been marketed as a whole rather than a series of short stories, but if Marvel is going to insist that a larger storyline hangs together than this first issue suggests, then that’s the way I’ll have to treat the book.
I like the issue, but there’s a nagging feeling that the forward momentum that was built up so well for the character in the last couple of years is stalling: there’s a slightly unsettling sense that the team may have passed their peak on this title, and are having to resort to constantly mining the same seam over and over to get any real drama out of their central character. To put it bluntly, Bendis skipped over this particular period in Matt Murdock’s life for valid storytelling reasons the first time round. Unless he can put a different, more interesting spin on the "lost year" next issue, he’s in danger of undermining some of the team’s finest work on the title so far.
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