Every week in a new installment of “Leading Questions”, the young, lantern jawed Publisher of Comics Bulletin Mark Stack will ask Co-Managing Editor Chase Magnett a question he must answer. Except for these next few weeks. The tables have turned onto the other foot as Chase prepares for his impending nuptials, and it falls to him to question and Mark to answer. Chase doesn’t plan on taking it easy on Mark. In fact, he might just ask him about things he knows nothing about just to watch him squirm.
Why does a B-lister like Daredevil have way more GREAT comics than icons like Superman, Wonder Woman, & Spidey?
I could argue that this question is starting from a false premise, but I’ve fed you lots of questions starting with wack premises from the start so fair is fair. You’ve proposed three characters who have fewer great stories than Daredevil, so let’s tackle them before we get to hornhead.
There’s a genre of comics criticism dedicated to telling readers why Superman is capital-i Important. A lot of us, myself included, have an essay in our portfolio where we talk about how All-Star Superman made us cry and why the character matters to us. But what are the great Superman stories? Not just good or fun, but great. For my money, there’s Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? and… that’s it. That’s a melancholy story that takes the Superman of the Silver Age and sends him off to a cozy retirement after more perpetual heartbreak than he could bear. It utilizes the Silver Ages trappings, takes them to their logical extreme, and then provides an ending for that iteration of the character. It’s a statement, not just a mostly fun over-intellectualization of old trappings drawn by Frank Quitely.
Superman has solidified in the comics hive-mind. People may disagree on some particulars, but the idea of Superman as a kindhearted dude who just wants to do the right thing hasn’t changed. Nearly every big Superman story ends up being heavily concerned with the idea of Superman. And Superman: Secret Identity by Kurt Busiek and Stuart Immonen is better than all of those comics because it gets to be about the idea of Superman without having to contend with the character. That character can trip a lot of creators up.
DC Comics’ core characters function largely as icons. You have the basic gist of who they are; origin, secret identity, powers, etc. Some characters don’t even necessarily come with personalities that people are aware of. For a DC character, story comes less from character and more from the context they’re placed in. Which brings us to Wonder Woman.
I’ll level with you, I haven’t read very many Wonder Woman stories. The Azzarello/Chiang run was pretty dope while I was reading it, but Wonder Woman was somewhat of a cipher. It’s not the character’s fault, though. It’s the fault of the creators who have handled her over the years. Wonder Woman has the incredible misfortune of being made to stand-in for all of womanhood in a way that Superman and other male characters don’t have to for manhood. It’s an unfair double-standard that is perpetuated by a systemic failure to elevate other female superheroes to her level; Wonder Woman would be in much better shape if she didn’t have to be the woman and that’s a fact. So you end up with a lot of creators being given control of the book and deciding to reinvent her so as to share their idea of what womanhood is instead of advancing the character. Sometimes you get Grant Morrison writing a graphic novel that insists that the kink inherent in her creation/early stories really needs to make a comeback without the benefit of being drawn by Frank Quitely. There doesn’t seem to be a historical consensus on who or what Wonder Woman is. Creators developing Wonder Woman’s feminism as our society’s understanding of it changes would be great, but that’s not what I’ve seen in practice. I haven’t read a great Wonder Woman story.
Spider-Man’s got a whole other web of issues associated with him. Everyone knows his story. The kid starts off as a selfish jerk who learns to become a more responsible person through personal loss. He’s even got an established personality; call him funny, absent-minded, or morose and you’re not wrong. Spider-Man first great story, Amazing Spider-Man #33 brings you to the culmination of his initial arc. The kid finally becomes a man when he throws all those heavy machines off his battered body. It’s a great story that Spider-Man then spends the next 50 years repeating as he learns to be responsible in different ways. That’s the problem, though; Spider-Man is stuck replaying the hits because his story is so well-established. Everyone is riffing on the power and responsibility line.
So why does Daredevil have more great stories than these other characters? He’s not an icon. There’s no nebulous idea of who Daredevil is for writers and fans to argue about. Daredevil has a well-defined personality, but he doesn’t have a story. Daredevil debuts in 1964 as a pale imitation of Spider-Man with a bad costume that gets ditched in seven issues for the familiar red and an additional gimmick in the form of his blindness. Things keep changing from there. Daredevil moves to San Francisco, he dates Black Widow, he gains a new arch-nemesis in the Kingpin, Frank Miller makes him Catholic and introduces the Hand, and he gets an official clinical depression diagnosis from Mark Waid. Matt Murdock has been deepened and developed to the logical conclusions since his creation and then kept going.
Born Again follows the rapid dismantling of Matt Murdock’s life and redefines what it means for him to the be a man without fear. More importantly, it leaves him in a new place by the end of it. He remains fundamentally the same character, but he is allowed to grow within various runs. Things don’t revert to the blue skies of before. Creators have taken that ball and run with it, telling the best stories with Daredevil that they can without fear that they may have left him in an untenable position for the next team. This century alone has been stellar for Daredevil. Bendis and Maleev told a story about the downfall of a man at war with himself as his hypocrisy can no longer be allowed to continue unchecked. Brubaker and Lark immediately followed that up by doubling down with a descent into utter damnation. And then Diggle, well, he drove the car into a ditch, but that was then followed by roundly celebrated the Waid/Martin/Rivera/Samnee run. Superman, Wonder Woman, and Spider-Man sure weren’t having such acclaimed back-to-back runs during that time.
The greatest Daredevil story isn’t as good as the best Superman story, but there sure are more great Daredevil stories to pick from. There’s creative freedom and a legacy of excellence that makes Daredevil a hot ticket for creators to leap at. His name isn’t on the marquee but he turns creators into marquee names. Giving creators a solid character and letting them go nuts? Yeah, that’s how you end up with great stories.