After a technological dark age, Team Lex finally throws the billy club at Frank Miller's Daredevil--and leaves no assassin unstabbed!
Right. First off, Team Lex is happy to say that we're back after an interminable period of technological inaccessibility. Profuse apologies, and now that we're here? It's hammer time...
Like Byrne’s Fantastic Four and Claremont’s X-Men—I’d throw the Avengers in here but for the life of me I have no idea who was writing the Avengers in the 80s, though I sense it smacked of Force Works—Frank Miller’s Daredevil established, or reestablished perhaps, a place for the Man Without Fear in the Marvel Universe. In the Colan days our friend Matt Murdock was a fairly well-adjusted guy. Sure his dad was dead, mom nonexistent (not to mention dubiously Catholic), social and romantic life were more or less on the keel, or at least unacknowledged in any way beyond a cursory “gosh look, it’s Karen Page” way.
So not a lot of anxiety in our friendly neighborhood lawyer friend. Go google ‘Gene Colan Daredevil’ or even ‘John Romita Daredevil’. A real swashbuckler this guy. Smile on his face, gleam in his eyes, song in his heart. Maybe. (to his credit, Romita the Elder did his best to inject some grime into the page.) So Matt was different in the 60s, from the petty-fight-ridden Fantastic Four and the woebegone hallways of Peter Parker’s high school. And until 1980, there Matt Murdock stayed. Under Miller the book found a comfortable footing in the MU, moreso perhaps than it had in the tricky and uneven last years of the 1970s. As well, much of what we know and/or commonly associate with the present day Man Without Fear—comes from Miller and Janson’s initial run.
Stick, Elektra, Eric Slaughter, Wesley, Nuke, The Hand, the White, Another Boring Melvin Potter Story, Nick Manolis, and the ever-faithful and oft-replicated image of Bullseye stabbing Elektra. And my personal favorite: Karen Page becoming a coked-out whore. At the same time we have Miller building up or repurposing the roles of the ersatz bodies in Hell’s Kitchen: Bullseye’s vengeful upgrade to serious villainy, becoming the right hand of His Lardship, Wilson Fisk; the importance of the Black Widow; the role of Frank Castle as a crimefighting counterpoint to Murdock.
And greater besides. So without wasting any more of your precious time, Constant Reader, here we go. Frank Miller’s Daredevil. Good, bad, and ugly.
The Very Good:
* Born Again: “Next: ARMAGEDDON!”
* #191. Just read the thing.
* ‘Child’s Play’ (nos. 182-184): Matt versus the Punisher—with a social message worth reading.
* Lest we forget, 'twas beauty killed the beast--and 'twas Miller turned Bullseye into the Complete Monster he is today. Thanks, Frank! Speaking of…
* #181. From cover to end, this is one story that deserves a place in whatever Hall of Fame Marvel chooses to make. Worth every cent, every page full of action—and no deed too monstrous for Bullseye, who shows just how crazy, how awesome, and how crazy awesome he really is.
* Wilson Fisk: a serious upgrade here from Spider-Man also-ran to DD only-ran. In Miller’s run—most excellently shown during the ‘Gang War’ storyline that featured everyone from Eric Slaughter to Bullseye—old Fiskie became the Dr Doom to Murdock’s Richards, the Magneto to his Patrick Stewart. The Ronnie to his Nancie. Ringo to his rest of the Beatles! The rivalry takes on an all-new, all-awesome personal note. It lurked in Man Without Fear, and blew up (or was nuked, rather) in Born Again.
* The nature of the book under Miller & Janson. It was a trailblazer, and it worked because it wasn’t really intended to be one—contrast with other books like DC’s anthology book from a few years back, Solo, which tried its best and fizzled out miserably. Miller was doing things with Murdock and Hell’s Kitchen that hadn’t been done before. The introductions of the Hand, Kirigi, Elektra—later still, Stick and Elektra’s resurrection. Heady, mystical stuff, this! Usually the kind of fare reserved for Heroes for Hire or your average Dr Strange miniseries. That Miller did it, and with such aplomb—the banner reading ‘At Last! Monthly!’ let’s say proves the salubrious appeal of Miller’s work. DD under Miller takes on a street-level, sure, but moreover an indie flair, dare I say; leaving some of the fanciful aspects of comics out to dry and throwing some pulp sensibilities into the medium, especially in Born Again. Imagine a kid, yourself perhaps, in a Manhattan shop in the Eighties, picking up #181 and telling your friends about it. “Read this book, man, stuff gets real.” Boy does it ever. None of this Avengers save the day business—no Kang slipping away shouting “next time, Avengers!” Noperoonies, neighboreenos. Shit happens in Hell’s Kitchen. The endings aren’t always happy (try #182 for instance—“She’s Alive!”—and knowing exactly who Miller means), and the results are usually sloppy. If that doesn’t get you turning pages, go find an Archie digest.
* Born Again. If you haven’t read it already, take our word for it and go buy it. Now. Stop reading this and go buy it and don’t feel bad about it. There are precious few comic stories that beg to be read and studied, fewer still that actually deserve it. Born Again is one to be treasured, and rightly lauded. And if you have read it, it’s time to read it again.
* The Man Without Fear. It starts with mischief. And gets better.
* Elektra sparing Foggy’s life in #181. More on that below, though.
* Melvin Potter. There I said it. Time was the character had merit, and so did stories dealing with his issues—going to the Gladiator persona and then coming back from it. However, this is less a problem with Miller’s take on the issue—which indeed produces a bit of a sunshiney ending in #166—and more with the later treatment of the character. One story about Melvin’s fall from grace is enough. Must we have suffered through Alexander Bont and Mister Fear’s manipulations of Melvin as well? Probably the character could have been left in a relatively stable place at the end of #166. But let’s hazard a guess and say that Bendis and Brubaker brought him back to show how supple and stupid he can be in the hands of a master manipulator. Or Alexander Bont. At any rate, we can still hate Melvin. His story in #173 also ends on a stable, if not too high, note. But rather like your average episode of ‘House, MD’, we can’t have too much happiness here. It is Hell’s Kitchen after all.
* Daredevil: Love and War. But again, this is mostly because Bill Sienkiewicz is beyond me. Mea Luddite culpa.
* #219. DD out of the Kitchen is rarely done well, and here it’s not so great. For a more favorable treatment of DD abroad, see Brubaker’s second story, ‘The Devil Takes a Ride’.
* His Lardship’s obese assassin nurse in Born Again. Seriously creepy…
And Now for Someone Completely Different (AKA why Elektra’s not so bad):
She’s not as depraved as she likes to think she is—Miller’s notes in the back of The Man Without Fear TPB notwithstanding. Either this, or she’s mellowed out considerably. To be sure, she was fairly wacked-out in Man Without Fear, and by the time she’s mur-diddly-urdered she’s a tad more settled. So much so that by the time of her resurrection, she’s at peace—and we can infer this, ‘cause, hey she’s wearing white and that’s what good guys wear!
Elsewhy: in #181 she spares Foggy’s life because he recognizes her from college (again, read Man Without Fear) and her little grinchly heart decides to give this poor fat idiot a pass. Sure she probably paid for that clemency with her life, but that’s the distinction.
It separated her from Bullseye. Recall that for the past few issues Miller had been building her up as His Lardship’s front-runner in assassinly matters. Matter of fact, it’s why Bullseye killed her—no pation like usurpation, one guesses. Lester killing her makes sense and here’s why. He’s got no heart. It was purged long ago, probably self-inflicted. Elektra does.
Hers is buried though. Under years and layers of guilt and training and programming. Hand mysticism and duty, her feelings for her father. And her feelings for Matt.
All in all it reminds us of one of the newspapers that came out after the death of Princess Diana in 1997: ‘Show Us There’s a Heart in the House of Windsor’. There’s a heart left in Elektra. Matt brought it out once in college, and Foggy unwittingly conjured it—sparing his own life without even knowing. And the result?
Elektra, the Kingpin's prized assassin, the heartless soldier from beyond the dark side who beat out Bullseye himself for the coveted top spot...couldn't do the deed.
Yeah. Heady stuff, indeed. The kinds of things and subject matter that, as with other things we here at Team Lex have written about, traditional comics don’t or can’t deal with adequately.
What is the verdict then? Frank Miller gave us a grimy pandemonium in which one man, set upon by graft and crime, keeps buggering on. Despite himself, despite the death, the pain. Despite everything. Ah, but there’s a spot of light poking through Eric Slaughter’s cigar smoke, through Bullseye’s mad glint. Through the amorous advances of the Black Widow and the martial flair of Elektra, the Kingpin’s luxury yacht and Nuke’s raging fires.
Superman, eat your heart out.
Frank Miller made a superhero festivus for the rest of us. Put another way?
“My name is Matt Murdock. I was blinded by radiation. My remaining senses function with superhuman sharpness. I live in Hell's Kitchen and do my best to keep it clean. That's all you need to know.”
Next Week: A Defence of Norman Osborn's Dark Reign. Or 'The Dark Knight'. You decide!