Welcome to Devil Talk, an ongoing perusal into the life and times of everyone’s favourite superhero with pointy bits on his mask, Daredevil! And since this is a Daredevil column, it’s about time we talked about Frank Miller. Miller’s run on the title as a writer and artist had an incredible impact on the series, and elements from his stories are still being felt decades later. The ill-fated 2003 movie was heavily based on Miller’s work, and it seems reasonable to assume that any future media will follow suit. Let’s have another look at Frank Miller’s time with Daredevil, to see why his run proved to be so influential.
Initially, Frank Miller was only hired as an artist, starting with issue 158 in 1979 and working with writer Roger McKenzie. In the preceding years, the title had never really escaped Spider-Man’s shadow, and although sales had been consistent enough that it had never been cancelled, things weren’t looking good for our hero in red. Miller’s art was a hit with fans, though, and was soon hired to write the series as well as draw it. Miller shook things up considerably with his first scripted issue (#168, in 1981) featuring the introduction of Elektra.
It was a bold move. Elektra herself was a classic femme fatale, and fans loved her. Significantly, though, Miller demonstrated that he was more than willing to mess with Matt Murdock’s history, by revealing that Matt had met Elektra while they were both at college, and that she was his first love. That’s quite an audacious revelation, considering we’d never heard of this Elektra character before now. It worked, though, because Elektra was such a cool addition to the book. It wouldn’t be the first time Miller would delve into Murdock’s past.
After that, Miller continued to give new shape to Daredevil’s world. For one thing, the violence was ramped up considerably. Goons caught up in gangland wars were killing each other in cold blood. Elektra was a bounty hunter, but also an assassin. Miller didn’t create Bullseye, one of DD’s most dangerous foes, but under his pen Bullseye became truly psychotic, murdering civilians on a whim. Daredevil himself would often give into violent rages, and even be tempted to kill. Miller’s vision for the title was like early Martin Scorsese crossed with shlocky martial arts flicks. It all felt a world away from the carefree Daredevil of the sixties. At his best Miller was adept at running several storylines at once, allowing the plot to slowly reach boiling point. Daredevil, Elektra, the Kingpin, Daily Bugle reporter Ben Urich… all the characters in DD’s world, becoming ever more entangled, the danger growing with each issue.
Miller continued to tamper with Daredevil’s origins. He introduced the character of Stick, a crotchety old man who also happens to be a powerful ninja, with all of Daredevil’s powerful radar senses. It is revealed to us that Stick helped young Matt Murdock control his newfound powers after being hit by the radioactive canister that took his sight. To fiddle with the origin Stan Lee invented for Daredevil took a lot of guts, but Miller is just adding to the origin story, not changing it completely. Comics retell the origins of their heroes all the time, but Miller gave Daredevil’s origin a shade of psychological depth it didn’t have before. Young Matt’s anger at being pressured by his father into studying, while at the same time being bullied for being a bookworm, was there in the very first issue in 1964. Miller took things a step further, by telling us Matt actually gave into his anger and fought the bullies, and it felt great. Later, when Matt tells his father what happened, his father is furious that Matt disobeyed him, and hits him. His father feels guilty immediately, but Matt flees, and realises his dad can be wrong too. If his dad can be wrong, anyone can.
Marvel Comics have always had plenty of melodrama and hand-wringing, with characters dropping to their knees and yelling, “Curse you, God, for making me this way!” at any given moment. Deep psychological insight, though, was pretty rare. It’s no ones fault, really; back in the sixties and early seventies superhero comics were geared exclusively towards kids, maybe some college students. By the eighties, though, the Marvel Age of comics was growing up. Miller’s Daredevil pre-dates the likes of Watchmen and Miller’s own Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. Both books were a kind of watershed moment, when comics started to be taken seriously. In the same year as DKR, Miller also returned to Daredevil, for possibly his finest DD tale, Born Again.
Miller’s previous Daredevil stories were grim and gritty, but they also had cool ninjas. Born Again was a different beast altogether. The story sees Karen Page, Matt Murdock’s old girlfriend, returning after a long absence. She tried to make it as an actress in LA, but has hit rock bottom, addicted to heroin and known only for her ‘stag films.’ Desperate, she sells the only thing she has of value: Daredevil’s true identity. The information makes it’s way to the Kingpin himself, who uses it to destroy Matt Murdock’s life, and eventually his sanity.
When Miller killed off Elektra in his previous run, at the height of her popularity, he portrayed Matt as being tormented by her death, even going so far as to exhume her body in the crazed belief she wasn’t really dead. The title’s supporting cast, like Foggy Nelson, would remark that Matt had changed, had become unhinged. In Born Again, Murdock is pushed to breaking point. Seriously, even if you hate Frank Miller, read Born Again. There’s far too much going on in it to discuss fully here. It’s the culmination of everything Miller did for the title, and it’s impact is still felt today.
In a way, this is Frank Miller’s real legacy on the book. Matt Murdock would never be the carefree swashbuckler he was in the early days. He would always be someone frighteningly close to the edge of sanity. Even in his lighter moments, it always seems like it’s just the calm in the storm, and that he could lose himself again at any moment. After Miller, Daredevil’s world was a much darker place.
What do you think of Frank Miller’s run on Daredevil? What do you think about Miller’s other work too? Comments always appreciated!