Did you see the news? Marvel released an image yesterday giving us our first glimpse of Daredevil in the upcoming Netflix show (you can see it here). It shows Matt Murdock in disguise, with a scrap of cloth covering the top half of his face. It isn’t really his traditional red spandex, which makes us assume that this isn’t his ‘final’ look. During the NYCC panel yesterday, one Daredevil comic in particular was mentioned a few times: Frank Miller and John Romita Jr’s The Man Without Fear, a miniseries published in 1993 and 1994. The Man Without Fear retells Daredevil’s origins, in a far more realistic and somber way than the sixties Stan Lee stories. It looks like the Daredevil Netflix series will take The Man Without Fear as it’s main source of inspiration, so this seems like a good opportunity to talk about it.
The Man Without Fear was a big deal for Marvel, back in the early nineties. It saw the return of the man who made the biggest mark on the character since the sixties, Frank Miller, who was a bona-fide superstar by that point. It was a ‘prestige’ series, complete with shiny cardboard covers, and drawn by John Romita Jr, who was something of a star himself. On a personal note, these issues were the first Daredevil comics I ever owned, bought in a bundle a few years after they were published. My opinion on the story has changed over the years, though, and I now see it as being an interesting book, but somewhat problematic.
The Man Without Fear is a very Miller-esque retelling of Murdock’s early years, from the childhood accident that blinded him and the murder of his father, through to his college education and the path to becoming a costumed vigilante. Everything in the Stan Lee origin is there, but Miller was always one to tamper with the accepted story, and The Man Without Fear integrates many of the characters that Miller introduced in his initial run. Murdock’s mentor Stick is seen early on, even before young Matt endures the accident that will take his sight. Elektra appears as Matt’s college girlfriend, as told in her own origin stories. It’s notable, though, just how much more Miller adds to the origin this time around, and how he even deviates from his own stories.
We’ve already discussed Daredevil’s origins before, and talked about Miller’s additions to Murdock’s past. One thing that stuck out to me upon re-reading these issues is just how early Stick appears, right before the accident. The captions say that Stick is waiting for “the day the boy will meet his destiny.” Stick then begins to train Murdock in the use of his newfound senses, which leads to one of the comics most striking images. John Romita Jr. was on fire with this story.
When Matt’s father is killed by the Fixer’s mob, Matt hunts down everyone who was involved, brutally beating them down. As in the Stan Lee origin, Matt pursues the Fixer into the subway, when the Fixer suffers a heart attack and dies. Matt then tracks down the last of the fixer’s lieutenants in a high-class brothel, and in the confusion, Matt accidentally knocks a girl out a window, killing her. The death would haunt Matt, pushing him onto the path of law and justice. Stick decides to leave the boy alone, thinking him reckless and undisciplined. Stick’s partner, Stone (get it?) claims that only two adepts have been born this generation, and Matt is one of them. This mystical element to the story was examined in Miller’s run on the regular title, but it’s interesting how integral Miller makes it out to be here, like Matt’s accident was preordained, or he would become powerful even without his enhanced senses. It’s an aspect of Daredevil’s world that rarely comes up in later comics, but it’s one Miller seemed to be fixated on.
The other adept was, of course, Elektra. Elektra makes her first appearance when Matt is at college, studying law. However, there is something odd about Elektra’s personality in this retelling. Before, Elektra was a coddled diplomat’s daughter, who sought revenge when her father was killed, only to be corrupted by The Hand. Here, though, Elektra seems to be deeply disturbed from the start. She talks of ‘voices’ in her head that tell her to kill innocents. At one point she lures a gang of thugs to attack her, so she can callously kill them. The scene is full of sexual overtones amidst the violence, to the point where it’s not an easy read. Later, after her father’s murder, she tells Matt that the ‘voices’ were responsible. “They had to show me what I am.” She leaves Matt, as she does not want him to be touched by the same kind of darkness. “I will go to hell alone.” Elektra has always been a complicated character, but this psychological component seems out of place with her original appearances. It’s hard to know what Miller was going for here, but it’s clear that Elektra’s demons are actually attractive to Matt, probably subconsciously. Matt isn’t without his own demons.
The last big change in The Man Without Fear is The Kingpin’s absorption into the origin story. The two never meet in the series, but Matt Murdock is shown as being a thorn in the Kingpin’s side long before Matt knows about it. The Kingpin is still a rising power in the underworld, and it’s his behind-the-scenes machinations that push Matt into becoming a vigilante full-time. When Matt returns to New York, he befriends a young girl who calls herself Micky. Micky is later kidnapped by junkies under the employ of a ‘filmmaker,’ who in turn is under the employ of the Kingpin. Matt traces Micky to a warehouse full of underage kids. He dons the mask once again to rescue Micky and break up the criminal operation. The Kingpin is incensed, and Murdock’s career as Daredevil is defined. Micky is never seen again, as far as I know.
Which leads me to my big problem with The Man Without Fear: it’s too dark. Miller is known as helping to bring grit and realism to comics, and I certainly would never want him to compromise his vision in any way, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it either. Here, Matt has to accidentally kill a hooker in order to solidify his sense of justice, Elektra is given even more weird psychological issues to deal with, and the Kingpin is a child-pornographer. I’m no old maid, but man. It’s too much.
There’s plenty to recommend about The Man Without Fear: Miller’s plotting and pacing is as on point here as ever, and there are a lot of great moments. See the rooftop ballet with Stick, and the great moment above when Matt overhears Micky’s parents, and decides to bring hell down on her kidnappers. This is peak John Romita Jr too; his art has rarely looked better.
I’m not surprised the makers of the Netflix show are enamoured with The Man Without Fear, and I can understand why people think it’s a classic. My hope, though, is that the Netflix series can find a fair balance between humour and darkness that this comic struggles with. Not that comics can’t be dark and unflinching, but when it comes to superheroes, a little escapism isn’t a bad thing.