Monday, January 13, 2003

Looking To The Stars: Devil In The Darkness (Or Why Brian Michael Bendis REALLY Doesn't Get Daredevil)

SPOILERS WARNING! The following article gives many details about the general history of Daredevil and the runs of Frank Miller, Kevin Smith & Brian Michael Bendis in specific. Read no further if, by some chance, you have not read any of these stories, but plan to after you move out of the cave you’ve been living in.

Most of us have had it happen: our favorite writer or artist announced they needed a change of pace and new management was taking over your favorite book. And the new team set about systematically tearing apart everything you loved about the book.

Maybe the art was now too focused upon cheesecake poses. Maybe all the subplots you had been following for years were now being ignored in favor of whole new subplots. Maybe your favorite character was booted off the team for being “useless” (according to the new creative staff, anyway) and would spend the next five years in comics limbo making occasional appearances in the big crossovers before being killed off in a footnote. I don’t need to name names. You know whom I’m talking about!

My point is that a new writer can completely and totally change the general tone and direction of a book. And few characters have suffered so many drastic changes in the general tone as the soon-to-be, big-screen star… Matt Murdock, also known as Daredevil: The Man Without Fear!

Now I’m going to let all you kids in on a little secret. See, a lot of you… all you know of Daredevil was written in the last three years or so. And all of those were very adult stories for big boys and girls to read. So you know I’m only telling you this because you’re big enough to handle it… ready? Okay…

Back when he was first created by Stan Lee, Daredevil was a silly book. A REALLY silly book. In fact, it was one of the few super hero books being published by Marvel back then that made it look like being a costumed vigilante was kind of fun!

Yes, back in the days of high angst “I’m so hideous I can only be called a Thing! , I can’t get the money to pay for Aunt May’s new hip” stories, a blind-man put on a silly costume and in the first ten issues of his solo adventures, fought against such dread evils as…

· The Owl: a fat mutant with a bad haircut and “gliding powers”

· The Purple Man: a lavender-skinned telepath, who was instantly likable.

· The Matador: a masked robber who confused his enemies with his cape (not a Hypno-cape mind you… an ordinary cape… a freaking ordinary cape)

· The Stilt-Man: ‘Nuff Said

· The Eel, who had a special suit that kept him from being held (ooh… someone has intimacy issues)

In all fairness, he faced down Electro and The Sub Mariner too, but most of the early Daredevil rogues gallery was definite Z-list material and quite quite silly. And things stayed that way for the most part through a succession of writers for a number of years… until an artist turned writer would come along and change the tone of Daredevil to something darker. The man who was “grim-n-gritty” before the term was ever coined: Frank Miller.

Now, Miller has taken a lot of flack in the past for being partly responsible for the beginning of the Dark Age of comics. And it cannot be denied that his work on Daredevil was an influence upon later writers and unlike anything that had come before or since, despite a host of imitators. But say what you will about Miller’s writing… everything he wrote had something at the core. A special something that most of the writers of the Dark Age forgot.


Hope is the central theme of all true superheroic tales. Without the hope that good will win out, that evil will ultimately be punished and that no matter what bad things happen some greater good will come of it, there is no heroism to the tale. A hero must have the hope of triumph. A hero may taste defeat. In fact, it makes their victories all the sweeter later if they do. But the hope that they can win must be there.

Miller understood this and no matter how much blood, tears and tragedy went into a story there was always a hope that somehow Matt Murdock would persevere and come out on top. Consider how in his two stints on Daredevil…

· Matt lost college-sweetheart turned assassin, Elektra, to the hands of costumed sociopath, Bullseye. Evil ninja clan, The Hand, immediately set about bringing Elektra back as their mindless immortal slave.

· Matt wound up dropping Bullseye off the edge of a roof in revenge.

· Matt’s ex-girlfriend Karen Page was revealed to have become a heroin addict and a porn star and sold out his secret identity for a fix.

· Crime-boss Wilson Fisk (The Kingpin) found out said secret identity and set about ruining Matt’s life by framing him for corruption in his job as a lawyer, costing him his law license, beating him senseless in a one-on-one fight and then arranging a gruesome death and a frame for murder.

Pretty mature stuff, eh? And yet despite all this death, all the bad things that happened…

· Matt somehow managed to bring Elektra back from the dead and purified her tainted soul through pure blind hope and faith.

· Daredevil visited an in-traction Bullseye in the hospital and proved, through a game of Russian Roulette, that he would not kill Bullseye and sink to his level.

· Karen cleaned herself up and patched things up with Matt.

· Matt was able to escape from the Kingpin’s deathtrap and after a few weeks of hiding and running warfare, he was able to expose Wilson Fisk’s illegal activities. Although The Kingpin escaped a prison sentence, Matt did cripple Fisk’s businesses and ruined his false image of a legitimate businessman. Matt also eventually regained everything he had lost.

For the most part, this tone held out through the rest of the First Series of Daredevil. Some writers leaned more towards the more carefree tone of the early books but most opted for darker stories that involved serial killers or drug dealers. Of course Frank Miller had dealt with these subjects before but very few of these stories approached the higher standard he set.

And then in the late 90’s, as Daredevil was started over in a Second Series, someone came closer than ever to stealing the throne. Kevin Smith, an independent film director, cut his teeth on comics for the first with an eight-part story called “Guardian Devil”. And what a story!

Smith built upon the characters and mythology created by Miller and kicked the darkness up a notch. In a scant eight issues, readers were treated to a nursery full of mysteriously killed babies, a church full of dead nuns, the possibility that Matt might have gotten AIDS, babies thrown off roofs (years before Michael Jackson’s attempts), Matt Murdock contemplating suicide and Daredevil savagely turning on Black Widow and breaking her wrist. And we can’t forget the death of Karen Page and the suicide of Mysterio, can we?

And yet despite this story- an even mix of Miller plotting and Dark Age style, Smith got it: a superhero story must have hope at the core. In fact, I have to credit Smith with phrasing my point in this little writing exercise perfectly. In the final issue, a depressed Daredevil pours his heart out to Spider-Man as they two discuss the deaths of everyone close to them because of their lives as heroes… and Daredevil asks for one good thing that had come of the entire mess. And Spider-Man says, quite simply “You SAVED that baby girl’s life, Matt. Think about it.”

Matt does think about it and in the rest of the story he looks for what he has to be thankful for. He loses a girlfriend but regains his independent law practice, thanks to her generous life insurance policy. He finds his long-lost mother and makes peace with her as a result of what has happened. And he finds a peace and new resolve to keep going forward in life despite all the bad things that have happened.

What concerns me, though, is that Brian Michael Bendis does not seem to understand this need. Now, don’t get me wrong. I’ve enjoyed Bendis’ work on Daredevil very much. But what he is writing, in my estimation, are “Law and Order” and “The Sopranos” episodes that occasionally feature a superhero. Why not paraphrase the very helpful summary that precedes each Daredevil issue now? (And much thanks to whoever brought back the “Previously Page”)…

Mr. Silke was a new member of the Kingpin’s crew. When his coup attempt against the Kingpin failed, he turned himself into the FBI. His wife, Vanessa Fisk, hunted down and killed his attempted assassins and set about dismantling his criminal empire. When the FBI refuse Silke’s request for protection he gives them the one piece of information the Kingpin had that he thinks will save him: That Matt Murdock is Daredevil.

The FBI decide not to follow up on the lead, but an agent with marital and financial troubles leaks the story in exchange for a hefty fee. On the next day, the cover of tabloid The Globe screams “Blind Attorney is Daredevil!” With his secret out, Matt files a 400 million dollar lawsuit against the Globe. Mr. Rosenthal, the owner of the paper, vows to go the distance because he knows the story to be true.

You could change Daredevil to almost any other nasty secret and this story could still work. (Blind Lawyer is Shoe-Fetishist!) In fact, a quarter of the issues Bendis has written (from 26 to the present 40) do not have Matt Murdock in costume at any point in the story and another quarter only have him in costume briefly (5 pages or less). And while I have to admit this saga has held my interest, it’s just not a superhero story!

But up until recently, the story still had the core of hope in it that things would ultimately work out. No more, I am sad to say, is this true with the conclusion of the untitled three-part story arc that ran from Daredevil 38-40.

In a bit of a side-track from Matt’s legal woes, we find out that long-retired, street-level vigilante The White Tiger was arrested on charges of murder. He was found clutching a TV and standing over the body of a dead officer, who had radioed for back-up as he was trying to stop a pawn shop robbery and was shot with his own gun.

Matt is reluctant to take the case, thinking that his involvement in anything involving superheroes at this point would taint the case and make his own lawsuit against The Globe more difficult. Still, after some heavy prodding from Luke Cage, he agrees.

The case against White Tiger is mostly circumstantial. There is no physical evidence that he fired the murder weapon and nothing that contradicts his own story that he arrived after the officer had been shot by two gang members. But the DA has his eyes on the Mayor’s office and is looking to ride the anti-vigilante feeling in the public there with a win on this case.

So the prosecution’s entire case hinges his painting a portrait of the White Tiger as a failure as a husband and provider, who turned to crime and murder in a desperate attempt to keep his wife from leaving. Matt, in turn, has to focus his efforts on keeping her from leaving him in the middle of the trial (he had promised her that he would give up heroism) and on emphasizing the lack of physical evidence like the lack of powder burns on a pure-white costume.

What we get in issue 39 is a look at how a murder trial might actually work in a world where guns can be fired telekinetically and where an expert on magical artifacts would not only be taken seriously but routinely consulted by the police. And in a treat for cameo fans everywhere, Reed Ricards, Dr. Strange, Luke Cage and Danny Rand and others take the stand as (respectively) an expert on superhero psychology, an expert on magical amulets and character witnesses.

Still things go badly when the White Tiger loses control on the stand under the DA’s brutal questioning and as issue 40 begins, we find Matt listening in on the jury deliberations. He finds that most of the jury is ignoring the evidence. He concludes that some of them are convicting The White Tiger to get at him, who should have been brought down in disgrace because of the scandal with The Globe.

It goes even worse at the sentencing when after being found guilty a panicked White Tiger fights the bailiffs, grabs a gun and flees the scene. He is gunned down on the courthouse steps, just as it appears he was about to drop the gun and give up. But in the commotion, Matt notices a hooded young man sitting in the courtroom who is not running away.

Following him, and appearing as Daredevil, Matt’s hunch proves correct: the young man is one of the two robbers but not the one who fired the gun. The two fled to Chicago, at the bullying instance of the killer, who later died of a drug overdose. The second robber returned, planning to clear White Tiger but turning chicken when he got to the courthouse. The issue ends with the young man turning himself in.

There is no justice here, no silver lining to the cloud. An obviously corrupt district attorney unjustly prosecutes a good man, who’s only crime was being in the wrong place at the wrong time. He dies needlessly, his true killer escaping true justice through his own death. And the only person left for justice to be served on is a scared teenager who didn’t kill anyone, didn’t want to kill anyone and who’s only real crime was wanting to steal a copy of Grand Theft Auto 3. (Oh, the irony!)

The only possible bright side to any of this, is that we are informed through a news broadcast that many now doubt Matt Murdock is Daredevil because of his taking this case. The logic here being that if Matt were Daredevil, he wouldn’t be associating with superheroes and risking raising such suspicions.

If that’s the case, and this entire three-issue digression was just to put Matt in a better position for the coming legal battle with The Globe, then all I can say is that this is very sad. To kill off a character for so weak an advantage as this, even a long-forgotten never-was like the White Tiger is just plain wrong. And Brian Michael Bendis should know better. Because while the hope may still be there for Matt Murdock, Hector Ayala has none left… and never really did when this story first started.

But that is where things stand now. I hope, in the next issue, that there is something more that may yet turn the tragedy of The White Tiger into a triumph.

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