From the folks at Sequart comes this stellar – and long overdue – collection on sometimes esteemed, sometimes disregarded Marvel comic “Daredevil”. The character is lately enjoying something of a renaissance, televisually at least, thanks to the recent critically and commercially successful Netflix series. Nearly every era of “Daredevil” is under consideration in Ryan K. Lindsay’s “The Devil is in the Details: Examining Matt Murdock and Daredevil”: From Stan Lee/Bill Everett to Wally Wood to Gene Colan, to Bendis/Smith/Brubaker. Yet, not surprisingly perhaps, particular attention is given to Frank Miller’s two classic runs on the book (in 1981-83 and again in 1985-86), and his and John Romita Jr.’s notable “The Man Without Fear” mini-series (1993-1994). And while Linday’s book lacks a chapter on Ann Nocenti’s politically and socially themed run from the late 80s/early 90s (an index, too, would have been helpful), it is a worthwhile and fascinating collection of essays concerning an often overlooked central character of the Marvel Universe.
Long considered a second- or third-tier character, generally left out of various team-ups and crossovers – aside from run-ins with the more non-fantastic and crime-fighting characters such as Spider-Man and Black Widow – “Daredevil” garnered a small yet dedicated following. First appearing in June 1964, written by Stan Lee and drawn by Bill Everett, Daredevil soon underwent a switch in creative staff and a newly-designed costume (credited to then-artist Wally Wood). It took some time before Daredevil found its legs – his rogues gallery is notably unnotable (anyone remember Stilt-Man?) – and this was largely due to a long tenure by artist Gene Colan, followed a brief tenure by John Romita, Sr. The celebrated Colan/Lee era ended after a 31-issue run, after which, as he did with most of his titles in the late 1960s, Lee handed the reins over to Roy Thomas.
The “Daredevil” set-up is classic 60s Marvel: Protagonist Matt Murdock’s is the son of a boxer, “Battling Jack” Murdock. Before his death, Jack instills in Matt the need for education and the pursuit of nonviolence, wanting for his son a better life. Poetically, young Matt is blinded when saving the life of a blind man about to be run over by an oncoming truck, which is – ridiculously, let it be said – carrying a radioactive substance. Exposure to this radiation heightens his senses far beyond normal human ability, giving Matt superhuman strength and dexterity and the ability to sense shapes and objects around him. Yet before Matt can fully understand these physical changes, his father, having to support his newly-disabled son, returns to the ring. Because of his age, the only person willing to put Jack under contract is a sinister gangster named the Fixer. Refusing to throw a fight, Jack is killed by one of the Fixer’s henchmen. Faced with this grave injustice, Matt dons a yellow and black costume made from his father’s boxing robes and attempts to bring the Fixer to justice, unintentionally killing him when the Fixer dies from a heart attack, the result of fear. As Daredevil, Matt continues to fight various evil-doers in and around Hell’s Kitchen, including the Owl, the Gladiator and the Enforcers.
In the early 1970s, writer Gerry Conway took over the comic, and altered its tone considerably, moving Daredevil out of Hell’s Kitchen to San Francisco and introducing Black Widow as a co-star (from 1971 to 1975 the title was changed to “Daredevil and the Black Widow”). Black Widow’s introduction, well-received by fans, essentially saved the series, as Marvel was then considering combining “Iron Man” – also flagging in sales – with “Daredevil”. The unmatchable Steve Gerber took the title over for a short yet dizzyingly experimental period – even sending Daredevil into outer space! – yet the Gerber’s irreverence proved a poor match for the decidedly grounded superhero. For the remainder of the 70s the title switched creative teams repeatedly (including short stints by writers Jim Shooter and Roger Mackenzie and artists Carmine Infantino and Gil Kane) yet was unable to find a sure footing until the introduction – initially as penciller under Mackenzie – of writer/artist Frank Miller.
Miller’s celebrated work on the title, which lasted from 1981 to 1983, was one of a handful of titles that presented decidedly more mature, sophisticated storytelling and artwork, with subject matter and themes that pushed the Comics Code Authority to the breaking point (its contemporary at DC was the Alan Moore, Stephen Bissette and John Totleben-era “Saga of the Swamp Thing”). Among the most prominent changes to the book is Miller’s re-imagining of Jack Murdock as an abusive drunk, entirely refashioning Matt’s reasons for wanting to become a lawyer. Moreover, Miller introduced a rather inconsequential Spider-Man villain, the Kingpin, as Daredevil’s arch-nemesis, and most notably, added a new villain, Elektra, a ninja assassin, one of Matt’s numerous ex-lovers, and an original Miller creation. Murdock, meanwhile, was entirely re-figured as an anti-hero; at one point he plays Russian roulette with a quadriplegic.
Miller’s dark, noir-ish take on the title earned him many accolades, and sales on the book increased substantially. Following his departure in 1983, Miller returned to the book briefly for the “Born Again” storyline (1985-86). This storyline concerns the reappearance of Matt’s ex-lover and ex-drug addict Karen Page, and the Kingpin’s attempt to destroy Murdock’s life after discovering, via page, Murdock’s secret identity. “Born Again” was, notably, a collaboration with the title’s new artist David Mazzuchelli, who later collaborated with Miller on the equally impressive “Batman: Year One” (1986) for DC. Following Miller’s departure, the title once again entered a brief fallow period, as Denny O’Neill heroically attempted to match the heights reached by Miller. It was not until Ann Nocenti’s politically-charged era on the title (1986-1991) – collaborating with the impressive pencil-inker team of John Romita Jr. and Al Williamson – that “Daredevil” once again achieved narrative coherence. Nocenti’s stories explored such controversial topics as drug abuse, nuclear proliferation, feminism, and animal rights. Murdock is disbarred, opens up a clinic with Page, a relationship threatened by the appearance of the Nocenti-created Typhoid Mary, a schizophrenic arch-nemesis in the employ of – who else? – the Kingpin. Romita’s kinetic artwork, which, together with Williamson’s expressionist finishes, never looked so good. (That Romita later collaborated with Miller on the mini-series “The Man Without Fear” is testament to the popularity of Romita’s work on “Daredevil”.)
Following this well-received run, “Daredevil” again entered a somewhat unexceptional period, helmed by then-novice D.G. Chichester. Murdock attempts to win back Karen Page and regain his license to practice law. Chichester’s tenure on the title is marked by an increased focus on New York City, specifically Hell’s Kitchen, and Daredevil’s interactions with its denizens. Some of the more fantastical elements of the later part of the Nocenti era (some of which were imposed tie-ins) are removed. The introduction of the Miller-influenced artist Scott McDaniel – whose artwork during this period closely approximates Miller’s work on “Sin City” – and the reintroduction of Elektra, long ago presumed dead – in the “Fall From Grace” storyline (1993-94) achieved mixed results, and seemed like an unfortunate cash-grab on the part of Marvel, and a less-than satisfactory attempt to instill new energy into what was becoming a quickly-declining title, with regards to both sales and critical estimation. A brief, more postmodern run by Karl Kesel failed to reignite interest in the title. The original run was ended in 1998 with issue #380, and rebooted under Marvel’s dark imprint Marvel Knights, written by filmmaker Kevin Smith and drawn by Joe Quesada. Smith’s “Daredevil,” wherein he gave Page AIDS and later had her killed by frequent Daredevil villain Bullseye, divided fans. A third volume of the series was launched in 2011, but was not well-received and was cancelled after only 36 issues.
With this tumultuous publication history in mind, and with the title’s many highs and lows, a collection of essays on “Daredevil” certainly promises to be an enticing read and, for the most part, in “The Devil is in the Details: Examining Matt Murdock and Daredevil”, Lindsay and company delivers. Will Murray’s essay “Different Daredevil” is a fairly straightforward historical accounts of the comic which open the book, an account of the origin and development of Daredevil and a competent study of early 60s Marvel. Timothy Callahan’s “Grabbing the Devil by the Horns,” meanwhile, is an amusing study of Daredevil’s rogues gallery which again follows a fairly linear, historical narrative, although Callahan does use this opportunity to probe the psyche of this earliest Daredevil incarnation, in particular the creation of his identity, which is underscored by adversity, including an hilarious unpacking of Murdock’s short-lived imagined alter-ego “Mike Murdock,” for Callahan a symbol of Murdock’s schizoid split between lawyer and vigilante.
“Daredevil and the Two Missing Fathers: Why Fathers Matter in Super-Hero Origins” by Forrest C. Helvie is a thought-provoking exploration of “Daredevil”’s variation on the father theme; specifically, revenge for a dead father as a catalyst for donning a costume and delivering justice. The character of Batman provides Helvie with an opportunity for comparative examination. (Helvie argues that Superman, whose father’s death occurs during the death of his planet and is actually incidental to the Superman mythos in that it does not provide Superman with a catalyst for adopting his alter-ego of Clark Kent, is not a good comparison with Daredevil, though Superman still possesses a father complex in that his need to save Earth is a sublimation of his inability to save Krypton and, by extension, his father.) Helvie notably overlooks Spider-Man; Uncle Ben may be an uncle, but he is most certainly a father-figure to Peter Parker and a cross-examination between the two, particularly given their copious interaction, is one of this book’s few missed opportunities.
Helvie’s essay is followed by “There Will Be Blood” by Henry Northmore, an intricate unpacking of the use of violence in “Daredevil” comics; as with Helvie, Northmore’s study primarily deals with issues of psychology, in this case Murdock’s alter-ego as a cathartic unleashing of repressed violence. While Northmore regrettably overlooks the sociocultural contexts for such amped-up violence – how “Daredevil” has changed with the times, with its seemingly ongoing anteing up of urban violence, and the increasingly uncertain and brutal post-9/11 society of rampant terrorism, both foreign and domestic, and of torture – Northmore does convincingly argue that this increased violence is, while on the surface the somewhat pragmatism of the need to sell comics, actually representative of Matt Murdock’s conflicted ethics: On one hand, Murdock is a lawyer, enforcing the law, and obeying its rules and limitations; on the other, as Daredevil, Murdock is at times a sadistic enforcer of vigilante justice where he acts as judge, jury, and executioner. Northmore and Helvie’s essays are wisely paired as both argue that death and vengeance are the primary motivations for many superheroes. The symbiotic nature of violence between aggressor and victim, as in the case of Daredevil and Bullseye, is a tit-for-tat of violence that escalates with every encounter, culminating in Bullseye’s murder of Elektra. “This constant exposure to violence,” argues Northmore, “has chipped away at [Murdock’s] humanity.”
Julian Darius’s “What Fall From Grace?,” a re-evaluation of the post-Nocenti D.G. Chichester years, is deeply fascinating (though I am a sucker for re-evaluations). Darius makes the convincing argument that in fact there is much to recommend from Chichester’s work, though, admittedly, it is not without its problems, which are thoroughly presented. The essay “Science Fact!” by Stéphane Guéret, Marie-Laure Saulnier, Manuella Hyvard, and Nicolas Labbare, is on the other hand a rather dull and uninteresting essay looking at the physics of Daredevil, though I am decidedly not a reader much interested in this subgenre comparing the physics of fantastical fiction with the real world. M.S. Wilson’s essay “Daredevil and Punisher: Polar Opposites” on the other hand, in looking at the various team-ups and crossovers with other superheroes and supervillains, is interesting; here, Wilson effectively argues that Daredevil fits better with more realistic, grounded stories set in the real world – Hell’s Kitchen in particular, which, as Wilson points out, is practically a character in the book. Wilson looks at various team-ups throughout the years: Those that worked – like Spider-Man – and those that didn’t, such as Gerber’s wild and offbeat run that had Daredevil traveling in space and meeting with otherworldly creatures. The same can be said for Daredevil’s encounters with Mephisto and Ultron during Nocenti’s run. It’s safe to say that Daredevil, one of the few Marvel characters left out of the “Secret Wars” and “Infinity Gauntlet” crossovers, will not likely be making the transition from the laptop to the silver screen any time in the near future, particularly given the abysmal 2003 theatrical adaptation, itself addressed in Geoff Klock’s essay “Daredevil”: Intermediate Super-Hero Filmmaking.” Here, Klock makes the unconvincing argument that the film represents a not-insignificant advance in the then-infant medium of superhero adaptations. I disagree.
In the essay “Daredevil: Not Ready for Primetime?” pointedly placed at the center of the book, essayist M.S. Wilson, in his second contribution to this volume, neatly summarizes the overarching thesis of this worthwhile volume:
Daredevil has carved out a niche for himself in the Marvel Universe – one where he stays grounded. The reason Daredevil never seems quite comfortable in outer space or other dimensions is because he needs to stay on Earth in order to be at his most human. In fact, the best “Daredevil” series are those that are set in New York City, specifically the ones set in Hell’s Kitchen. This is where Matt Murdock grew up, where he faced the trials and tribulations that helped mold him into the man he is today, and where he learned the basic lessons of humanity that have served him well over his long career as both a lawyer and superhero.
Daredevil, though he wears a costume and, technically at least, has superpowers is, since the days of Frank Miller, a vigilante alter-ego for a lawyer frustrated by the limitations and of the law and who reacts by exacting vengeance upon evildoers, a sublimation of Murdock’s struggles as a boy. As a result, Daredevil remains one of the more psychologically complex, and therefore interesting, superheroes in the Marvel Universe, and one that is decidedly out-of-step with the rank and file superhero mold of the more popular superhero characters.
Originally edited by Ryan K. Lindsay
“Sequart”, 2013, 236 pp, $15.99