“The Murdock Papers” (Part 1of 6)
Writer: Brian Michael Bendis
Artist: Alex Maleev
Publisher: Marvel Comics
Matt Murdock’s nightmare may be over. His actions as Daredevil have made him the most popular superhero in New York. And Milla Donovan, the woman he married, has returned. So naturally something terrible happens. Wilson Fisk, former Kingpin of crime, makes a deal with the FBI in exchange for his freedom: he will prove Murdock is Daredevil.
At this point, you either like Alex Maleev’s art style or you don’t. I think it fits the dark, gritty, urban mood of the stories. Big props to colorist Dave Stewart; His use of light goes a long way in affecting the mood and feel of a scene.
Bendis builds his stories slowly over time. We won’t know what’s really happening for another issue or two. This is just the set-up. This is also the conclusion to a story that’s been told through issue #26. The final pages mimic the ending of issue #33. Urich thinks back on the times he’s almost been killed. Bendis is acknowledging the long and shared history of these characters.
So where will he go from here? Based on his work in the past, I think we’re in for some big changes on Daredevil. Will Murdock be charged with crimes stemming from his double life as Daredevil? Will Milla Donovan be yet another lover to die? Could the Kingpin actually go free? I honestly don’t know. Bendis has pulled off some big surprises in the past, and I bet he’s got something special planned for his departure from Daredevil.
Normally, I wouldn't go near this; the last chronological issue of Daredevil I read was one of the Mack issues, #16 I think. But as Marvel’s storytelling has become more fragmented and haphazard, the recap pages in their comics have become more and more comprehensive (oh, Porno Grip Ultron is called “Danger” now, is she? Would have been nice to have said that in the story perhaps...) so that it should be easy enough to keep up.
The core of the issue is Ben Urich’s meeting with Wilson Fisk, and the creative team do a suitably evocative job of it; it’s supposed to feel like Urich is making a deal with the Devil (ha!) and that comes across very well, through dark moody art and fiery lighting effects from Dave Stewart. Fisk must find it difficult to read his book under that orange light, but it makes for some effective visuals. Bendis and Maleev give Fisk a chilling air, partly by ripping off Hannibal Lecter, and partly through the Kingpin’s sheer, almost psychopathic, calmness even as his prison is attacked by an unknown paramilitary force. All in all, it makes for a very strong and effective focus for the issue as a whole.
The rest of the issue doesn’t work nearly as well for me; the brief sequence between Matt Murdock and Foggy Nelson works as a brief introduction and reminder of their relationship, but otherwise feels rather flat and bland, and the other key scene, a battle between Daredevil and some robbers, doesn’t really work very well at all. The sequence achieves what it sets out to do, by showing us a Daredevil working out in broad daylight as a hero of the people; it’s an unusual role for this most noirish of Marvel heroes, and it’s clear that Bendis is showing us how high Daredevil has risen, in preparation, presumably, for a punishing fall due to the machinations of Fisk. But this is undermined, ironically just as the Kingpin scene is strengthened, by the art. Maleev’s style, with all its thick messy lines and rough edges, works well for scenes bathed in shadow, but it looks almost amateurish for this bright, daylit sequence. I’m also not convinced by the way he’s portrayed Daredevil’s body shape. I’ve long held the belief that certain characters do not benefit from the pumped-up superhero physique; one only has to compare the ridiculous Bodybuilder Cyclops from the 90’s X-Men comics to the redesigned Frank Quitely version to see this. Spider-Man and Daredevil also look best drawn “small,” but here Maleev has given Daredevil a body shape that goes beyond small to utterly normal in appearance, and that doesn’t work for me. I understand that part of this title’s appeal is its realistic approach, but Daredevil, like it or not, is a superhero and portraying a superhero in such an overly realistic fashion strays dangerously close to making him look absurd. That said, the panel showing Daredevil leaping out of the sky at the thieves is absolutely spot on.
Obviously, I’m just not the right audience for this comic; the Kingpin scene aside, there are so many stylistic choices that, while not ill-advised by any means, just do not work for me as a reader, even if Bendis is reining in his usual excesses. While I do recognise that this is an effective bit of storytelling, it’s just not for me.
Plot: As Ben Urich beards a lion in his den, someone important returns to
Comments: This is a prime exemplar of a Bendis talking heads story, and it’s deadly dull. The tone of super-realism steeped in cinematic references just isn’t exciting enough to raise this issue to a higher plane. The swipes are too derivative, too obvious. Maleev’s murky blacks bleed over every page, obscuring despite all the details, shrouding everything in a gloom that looks grubby, but never gothic or grand. Bendis’s Matt is a deadly serious fellow, and as such, he’s no fun. The stakes are always too high. A brief moment of public approbation (as DD foils a robbery) isn’t enough to shock the issue out of its funk.
Apocalypse ho hum: Nope, the concerns here are all about the Kingpin, living in relative comfort in maximum security, and Maleev drenches us in Brando references for this extended war of words. Kingpin is the brooding bad daddy, still flexing his tendrils that extend beyond his jail cell. It’s all very macho and “mad king” and Ragnarok, but I always prefer Brando when he’s singing, looking Asian or up to sexual hijinks in Paris. Maleev’s version of photorealism illustrates a TV show I’d never watch. The color palette by Dave Stewart is also excessively grim and drab.
The ongoing plot: Something about all this matters to Matt’s struggle to stay a lawyer now that everyone knows he’s Daredevil. “The Decalogue” showed us one reason that should happen (illegal though it is): the common people DD protects need him. I expect this arc to offer another argument. But the problem for me is it’s the answer to a question I never would have asked. Where does Matt get off donning a red suit and busting up criminals? The answer’s beyond simple: he’s got powers, and he’s a hero. That used to be all it took.
Some people have criticised Brian Michael Bendis of late for getting sloppy on Daredevil; for spreading himself too thinly with his many writing projects with Marvel, and failing to maintain the high standards which defined his and Alex Maleev’ s earlier work on the title. I’ll admit to being slightly underwhelmed by the last couple of arcs in comparison to what has gone before it, but therein lies the essence of the problem: Bendis and Maleev have such high standards to live up to, that even a merely good arc from them can seem mediocre in relation to their creative highs on the title. Nevertheless, they continue to produce work on the title which always has something new to say about the core character, and always looks fantastic thanks to the stylised noir artwork of Alex Maleev.
This final arc gives the creative team a chance to encapsulate everything which has defined their run in one final storyline, and it certainly looks like Bendis has reserved a knockout idea for his swansong on the title. Wilson Fisk – incarcerated ever since Matt ousted him as “Kingpin” in issue #50 - decides to make his play for freedom, and to do so he uses all the skills of manipulation which have made him such a formidable opponent in the past. This time around, he decides to harness the power of the press via Ben Urich, (a character who I ’m thrilled to see return, as Bendis writes him and his interior monologue so well) and invites the nervous reporter to a personal one-on-one meeting with him to discuss the deal he wants to make with the feds which will allow him to walk away from his imprisonment. The scenes with him and Urich in Fisk’s dark, lavishly decorated prison cell drip with atmosphere, as Alex Maleev’s visuals apply an unsettling, darkly-lit tone to the huge, menacing form of Wilson Fisk. The character reeks of restrained power, towering over Urich and dominating the room, with his every slight movement a moment of high drama: when the Kingpin merely reaches over to touch Urich’s chest, the tension is palpable, but Maleev always resists the temptation to make Fisk a larger-than-life cartoonish presence, staying just on the right side of believable to make the scene work. A lot is said about the character through sheer visuals alone, and it’s to Maleev’s credit that he captures the essence of Fisk’s villainous appeal so well.
Elsewhere, Matt enjoys a modicum of success and public adoration in his role as Daredevil, and he’s beginning to think that he may have weathered the storm of his public out-ing. A fun scene with Foggy Nelson – another of Bendis’ pitch-perfect supporting characters – suggests that the two should just get out and have some fun, but when an old flame walks back into Matt’s life to rock the boat all over again two minutes later, his love life is once again thrown into turmoil. Whilst this might seem like ostentatious writing on Bendis’s part, anyone who has been reading this title for long will relish the fun that the writer is obviously having with constantly keeping Matt on his toes. It seems certain that this moment of respite is only going to serve to underline the gravity of the dire situation which Matt finds himself in as this arc progresses, and it’ll be a lot of sadistic fun finding out exactly what that situation is.
The final pages of this issue provide a fantastic show-stopping moment which reinforces the fact that the Kingpin is back to meddle in Matt Murdock’s life, and also hearkens back to one of Bendis and Maleev’s earlier great cliffhangers on Daredevil. Whilst such self-referential auto-cannibalistic writing might seem indulgent to some, in the context of the larger run of these two creators it serves a greater purpose of binding this final arc into everything which has gone before it, and unifying the entire arc which has been running since issue #26 into a final punchy storyline. Bendis also cannily toys with the readers’ expectations here, as a second glance at the headline of Ben Urich’s article reveals that it actually confirms nothing about its contents – we’ll have to wait at least a month before we find out exactly what Wilson Fisk wants the world to think. If anything, Urich comes off as the hero here – he’s the moral force who never lets up, finding himself in a situation way over his head but always retaining his moral core, even with no super-powers to fall back on. He’s responsible in a way that a costumed hero never could be, and his loyalty to Daredevil has always been one of the series’ most enduring friendships. As such, I’m really looking forward to where this arc takes the two characters’ relationship, and the status quo of the book as a whole. On the strength of this issue, Bendis looks to be setting the stage for a final arc which cements his position at the pinnacle of Daredevil creators and ties in all the disparate strands of his arc into a whole. Let’s hope he makes the most of it.
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