Welcome to Devil Talk, our column dedicated to The Man Without Fear, Daredevil! For this feature we’ve been clumsily making our way through the fictional history of Matt Murdock, talking about the classic books that have made him such a popular character. This week we’re going to have a look at the Brian Michael Bendis era of the Daredevil comic. But first, a personal note…
For years, I’ve been resisting the idea that Daredevil comics are overwhelmingly dark and gloomy. I think it’s true that Frank Miller’s work with the character in the helped usher in the ‘grim and gritty’ era of superhero comics. This culminated in the nineties when even Spider-Man was having a nervous breakdown and mercilessly battering baddies. I’ve always thought Daredevil had far more shades of light than dark, more so than wilfully violent types like The Punisher or Ghost Rider. Having said that, after re-reading a ton of DD comics for this column, especially the Bendis run, I concede that, yeah, goddamn, Daredevil comics are bleak!
Arguably, the most celebrated Daredevil story of all time is Born Again, the Frank Miller epic that effectively drove Matt Murdock insane. You could argue that all costumed heroes are a little deranged, but Matt Murdock in Born Again is full-on paranoid and delusional. He recovers by the story’s end, but is far more mentally fragile than he once was. On the strength of that one story, it became something of a tradition for DD writers to remind the reader just how delicate Matt Murdock’s mental state is. Since the eighties, Matt Murdock has lost control of his mind – and recovered again – a lot.
Everything about Brian Michael Bendis’s run on the title screams dark. Collaborator Alex Maleev’s excellent artwork is scratchy and shadowy. The art and dialogue don’t have that comic-book feel to them. It feels more like an intimate stage play, or a long-running HBO drama. It’s serious stuff.
The defining action in the Bendis era is that Matt Murdock is publicly outed as being Daredevil. A lifetime of being cavalier about his greatest secret has come back to bite him on his shiny red bumcheeks. How it happens is almost immaterial. One day the general public has no idea who Daredevil is, the next day everyone knows that Matt Murdock is Daredevil.
Last time, we talked about Bendis’s first DD story, Wake Up. Journalist Ben Urich has known for years that Murdock is Daredevil. He could have used the story to further his own career, but he kept Matt’s secret. He did this so everyone in Murdock’s personal life would be safe, and Hell’s Kitchen would still have it’s protector. When the tabloid press get a hold of the rumour, they don’t show the same thoughtfulness. They run with the story, and all hell breaks loose. Everything Urich feared would happen, happens.
This could have been the end of Daredevil, but this is serialised fiction, so the story goes on. In Bendis’s story, only a few of DD’s enemies are dumb enough to turn up at Murdock’s doorstep demanding a fight. The rest of DD’s rogues gallery are too scared to face him. Later in the run, Daredevil manages to defeat The Kingpin (again). This time, though, he seizes the opportunity to take over the criminal underworld. Instead of operating in the shadows, Daredevil puts himself out there as being The Boss of Hell’s Kitchen. This results in utter chaos.
Don’t get me wrong: I loved Bendis’s run. Still, I find it darker and bleaker than any other Daredevil story to date. For a good long time, Matt Murdock is kind of a jerk. His world as Daredevil has become so brutal and violent that he scares people. He flat out denies that he is Daredevil, lying to everybody. With everything going on, Murdock is difficult to be around, not just for the characters in his life, but for the reader too.
Just then, understanding dawns, and it’s Urich who figures it out. It’s obvious that all the turmoil in Murdock’s life has left him a little unhinged, but Urich traces it all to the death of Karen Page, as told in Kevin Smith’s DD run. Since then, we’ve been witnessing another episode of Matt Murdock losing his mind. When he does finally recover, the decisions he made during his episode come into question. This includes his secret marriage to blind social worker Milla Donovan.
Is there any other superhero whose psychological problems are so laid bare for all to see? We can all speculate into Batman’s psychology, but to do so would be to miss the point. When you consider a character like Batman in a realistic way, the whole thing falls apart, because there’s nothing about Batman that is realistic. Here, though, Bendis applies real-world psychology to a man who already dresses in tights and has fist-fights with people like The Jester, and it works.
At least, it works for some people. There’s a love-it-or-hate-it quality to Bendis’s writing, and it can grate for some people. Quite often, trying to make superheroes ‘grounded’ can backfire. I think it works for Daredevil, though, perhaps more than any other hero. There’s a measure of sympathy there. You might want to be Spider-Man or Wonder Woman for a day. Would you want to be Daredevil?
So, yeah, Daredevil comics can be unrelenting and grim. Matt Murdock can be kind of a dick. All of the ‘fridging’ in the comic is downright awful. However, there’s something real about Matt Murdock, beyond the powers and the tights. He’s damaged, vulnerable, human. Usually, when we look at superheroes in a realistic light, it just shows how ridiculous they are. And that’s okay! Superheroes are supposed to be wild and absurd. That’s what’s fun about them. Since Miller, though, Daredevil has become an increasingly complex character, for better or worse.
Have I got this all wrong? Feel free to have your say in the comments!