So the first issue of Shadowland is in stores this week, and I am excited.
I mean, I’m excited because I work at Marvel and also have already read the issue plus know a bit of what’s ahead, so I know it’s going to be a fun ride, but that aside, as a fan, this kind of “street level heroes event” is an idea I know I’ve kicked around with my buddies for years and wager similar discussions have taken place in other comics-reading circles, so it’s neat that it’s happening. It’s also under the capable guidance of three stellar in editors in Steve Wacker, Tom Brennan and Alejandro Arbona, so the pedigree on this baby is solid.
With the story making Daredevil a central figure in a world he’s typically on the fringe of, I thought this might be a good time to give DD some love with my favorite tales of The Man Without Fear. Truth be told, I’ve come close to pulling the trigger on this particular Definitives a few times but backed down since I kinda figure everybody has the same handful of classics in mind when it comes to Daredevil; but giving it some thought, maybe that’s not the case as I’ve come to discover there’s far more great material on the character than I once believed—much of which I likely won’t even cover here—and even if there’s some overlap, so what, good comics is good comics.
And these are good comics.
My favorite standalone stand alone story—and quite possibly my favorite story period—in Daredevil’s history doesn’t have Matt Murdock putting on the costume at all or even speaking a single word. The premise is pretty short, sweet and simple: the first part of the story sets up a corrupt hellhole of a town in New Jersey, the rest is a blind man riding in and cleaning things up. It’s not unlike a vintage Western flick, except it really taps into the essence of Daredevil and is a nice primer if you don’t know the character and just want the bare bone essentials that run beneath even the red suit and bill clubs. No surprise it’s written by Frank Miller, the guy who essentially made Daredevil relevant (and his own career in the process). The art comes from one of my all-time favorites, John Buscema, and captures the feel of despair as well as hard-won triumph as only he could.
While I by no means didn’t enjoy the aforementioned Mr. Miller’s first run on Daredevil, I’m certainly not as into it as many other folks; I’m more impressed by the elements he lays out that have since become so coded into the character’s DNA and the rapid evolution of his work, but to me it does read like work by a guy just hitting his stride as opposed to a more seasoned pro. Probably for those reasons, I’m a much bigger fan of Miller’s return engagement on the book a few years later with “Born Again.” Nowadays, the whole systematic deconstruction of a hero’s life in order to build him back up later stronger and more resolved is far more commonplace in general and also seems to happen to Daredevil pretty much yearly, but Miller did it first and in my opinion still did it best. For me it’s not the ninja stuff or Catholic overtones that finally separated Daredevil once and for all from being the second rate Spider-Man he started out as, but that ability to walk the line of utter despair partly into insanity then emerge from the other end as an even bigger bad ass the likes of which Spidey could never hope to be. This story absolutely made The Kingpin as it’s pretty scary how handily he dismantles Matt’s existence, plus we get that amazing sequence with the Avengers and Nuke that clearly demonstrates why Daredevil can hang with the A-list of Marvel. Also, it should probably go without saying, but David Mazzucchelli’s art is tremendous.
Daredevil: The Man Without Fear
The third and final Frank Miller entry on my little list and what I think most people consider to be the definitive telling of Daredevil’s origin. In many cases when creators go back and try to flesh out a Silver Age origin told in 15 pages to a five-issue saga, it falls flat because often time the original telling was elegant in its simplicity and there’s really nothing more that needs to be said. However, in this case Miller had already basically taken the Matt Murdock that Stan Lee had built and reinvented him from the ground up in stories set years after his genesis; this was just grounding all those cosmetic changes a bit more solidly and making the transfer of ownership more or less official. The early stuff with Matt and his dad is pivotal, but the series really hits its stride when Elektra is introduced. This was the story that finally after many years helped me get the appeal of the Elektra-Daredevil romance, in that it was not the stuff of fairytales as comic book relationships often are, but instead a case of two people stuck on horribly violent paths able to find solace in one another for a fleeting moment that they’re going to spend the rest of their lives attempting to regain. This was also the work that converted me to being a John Romita Jr. fan after not getting him at all on Uncanny X-Men; his cartoonishly imperfect figures and tremendous depth of linework suited the tone of the story so perfectly and made me both re-evaluate all his stuff I’d written off before as well as eat up everything he’s done since.
This is a “greatest hits” story done right by Kevin Smith and Joe Quesada. It’s got pretty much every character and element—except for Elektra and I guess Typhoid Mary—who has played an important role in Daredevil’s life up to the point it was written (Kingpin, Bullseye, Karen Page, Black Widow, Mephisto and Foggy Nelson all put in appearances), but they are all used to advance a completely new and dynamic story, not just to show up, get beat up/made out with and then not mentioned again. I just re-read this very recently and despite knowing how it all ends was just really impressed with Smith’s capabilities as a mystery-weaver in addition to his skills writing comedy and action, not to mention those heady religious and personal issues DD and his cast must contend with. Quesada totally found his sweet spot drawing Daredevil as the shadows and acrobatics alone really allowed him to open up and play the way he likes to as well as turn in some of his best stuff. I don’t want to dwell too much on many more details as this is a story I think deserves a look from those who may have skipped straight from Miller to Bendis and so much of the good stuff is in the slow unraveling of the plot, but it’s really high quality stuff with incredible human drama.
In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve never actually read the original Silver Age run of Daredevil, but it’s not something I’m in any great rush to dive into as obviously there was a need for pretty drastic reinvention by the 80’s and also because the character’s earliest appearance in old Spider-Man comics I did check out recently didn’t exactly blow my mind. However, I did think Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s brief visit to Matt Murdock’s early days as part of their “color” series was a neat perspective on a different kind of Marvel character. As with Spider-Man: Blue and Hulk: Grey, Daredevil: Yellow focuses on the hero of the piece and a lost love from more innocent days, which in this case is Karen Page. But while the romance element is fine and dandy, I think Loeb’s greatest accomplishment in this series is providing a bridge of sorts between the Lee and Miller takes on Daredevil, showing Matt’s attempts to be a more lighthearted swashbuckler but how in private he’s such a different and worn out kind of hero from the start and the pronounced strain that façade puts on him. Sale is at his finest here and it’s cool that they went with the barely-used original yellow costume both because it gives him more avenues to explore and also he really makes it his own.
Daredevil by Brian Michael Bendis & Alex Maleev
There’s no one story from Brian Bendis and Alex Maleev’s five-year run on Daredevil that stands out as being the most important of the bunch for me, and I think that’s a testament to their work, as they really did create an epic that spanned nearly 60 issues and pretty much avoided the valleys in favor of if not constant peaks that at the very least consistent high quality. Bendis redefined the character of Matt Murdock almost as powerfully as Miller did, but in far more subtle ways from his language to his more primal way of dealing with adversity. In a medium where the bulk of the protagonists fly or swing above humanity, Bendis really grounded Daredevil as a hero of the people, one as capable of terrible violence as he is of great empathy. For his part, Maleev has absolutely created the modern template for how Daredevil is supposed to look with his grainer, darker more realistic and painterly style; a DD who looked too far askew from the way Alex Maleev drew him in this day and age just would not feel right. Bendis and Maleev were very bold with Daredevil, recognizing the great potential that the character has always had to be a proving ground for creators on the rise and not resting on the laurels of the work Miller and his contemporaries did, instead forging their own way; the reverberations of their work is still being felt today and likely will continue to be for some time to come.
“Daredevil” The Movie
It was awesome.