The Essential DAREDEVIL: 50 Years of the Man Without Fear…

Daredevil #188

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of The Man Without Fear, and with a new series begun earlier this year, the Burning Blogger looks at Daredevil’s defining moments and what makes Daredevil one of Marvel’s enduring greats.

Having recently begun reading Marvel’s NOW’s new Daredevil series (the new Daredevil #1 was released in March), I suspect the series may go on to do interesting things with Matt Murdoch and hopefully will add to Daredevil’s already rich fictional canon.

And now, as the character celebrates a remarkable 50th year in print, would be a good point to look back at what have been some of Daredevil’s best-loved moments of the past and also at what makes DD one of Marvel’s cornerstones.

One of Marvel’s most idiosyncratic characters and creations, Daredevil has had a fairly consistent continuity and history on the printed page from Frank Miller onwards. Whereas a lot of comic-book characters, especially some of Marvel’s most famous characters, have had highly inconsistent levels of quality and changeful natures over the years and decades, Daredevil has been possibly the standard-bearer for continuity, possibly in the same way Batman has been for DC.

Unlike a number of major Marvel characters, the integrity of the Daredevil character and title has never been overly compromised, nor over-mined by other mediums (though with the Netflix series coming soon, that might change).

Although, like many Marvel superheroes, Daredevil had a rocky start, conceived amid the usual Stan Lee birthing process with Bill Everett art and an unspecified degree of Jack Kirby input in 1964, it was in later years that the Daredevil we know today took form.

What has always set Daredevil apart, other than the continuity itself, has been the darkness; the suffering of the character, the continuous moodiness of the stories and themes even when they weren’t made in a deliberately ‘noire’ tone. Matt Murdoch has always been the martyr bearing his cross, the almost reluctant hero who is so often questioning his own worth.

Whether it’s because of the Frank Miller connection or not, there is often a comparison made between Daredevil and Batman, which may or may not have merit. While the Matt Murdock character is nothing like as famous as DC’s Dark Knight, eclipsed in mainstream popularity by Marvel’s more colorful, wise-cracking poster-boys, DD probably has more in common with Batman than with any other solo Marvel character.

The Daredevil we’re familiar with now is fairly divorced in style and substance from his initial origins and is more the legacy of Frank Miller’s work on the title.

The Daredevil comic book was essentially a failing enterprise when Miller emerged to rescue it from disappearing into oblivion; some even credit Miller’s reinvention of the Daredevil title with having played a significant role in rescuing the very medium of comic-books itself at a time when the industry was thought to be in a decline.

While the importance of Frank Miller’s influence on Batman is something comic-book aficionados can debate, the importance of his work on Daredevil is beyond question. As both writer/artist on the title, Miller gave Daredevil the noir atmosphere that has become the title’s trademark. It was Frank Miller that essentially made Daredevil important and Miller that set the tone and standard for Daredevil thereafter, and also introduced key elements that have since come to be most readily associated with the Daredevil world; the introduction of the assassin Elektra and the villain Bullseye chief among them.

 Daredevil #181 

That initial arc, regarded as one of the greatest, most groundbreaking stories in comic-book history, culminated in the classic Daredevil #181, with its unforgettable cover text, “Bullseye vs. Elektra One Wins. One Dies.”, rightly hailed one of the greatest single comic-book issues of that and any other era.

Daredevil (Volume 1) #168, 174-182, 187-190, known as “The Elektra Saga”, raised the bar in comic books and set a new standard for Marvel in particular.

In the aforementioned Daredevil #181, Bullseye escapes prison and fights Elektra, eventually executing her with an ace-of-spades to the throat and a sai through her chest (a scene somewhat reconstructed in the 2003 movie, but not to the same effect). Daredevil, of course, has his revenge.

The 1979 Daredevil Omnibus (comprised of #158-191) covers all of this run and is a must-read for anyone new to Daredevil comics; and actually a should-read for anyone new to comics in general, as it comprehensively demonstrates both Frank Miller’s brilliance and the process of how a mythology is formed and takes shape. Across the 840 pages of this Daredevil Omnibus you get to track Miller’s stage-by-stage shaping of the most iconic elements of the Daredevil legend.

The initial several issues compiled in this anthology waver a tad in quality, with Miller working with several other writers’ scripts, but the series then explodes into the more classic epics that form the basis of the Daredevil mythology, The Death of Elektra opus among them.

The last of those entries, Daredevil #191 “Roulette”, the final installment of Frank Miller’s famed initial run, is fittingly one of the great moments in Daredevil history. In it, Daredevil plays Russian Roulette with a paralyzed Bullseye as the hero tries to ponder his own value in society and whether his own actions and status as a hero are worth anything in that society. “Am I fighting violence — or teaching it?” he ponders, struggling to come to terms with himself.

 Daredevil: The Man Without Fear 

Much later, the Daredevil: The Man Without Fear #1-5 origin series imparted what would become a trademark maturity in storytelling, both in terms of substance and style, the issues becoming more like screenplays than comic books. It also made the Daredevil/Elektra romance something much maturer, much more interesting, than comic-book ‘romance’ stories tend to be.

In essence this was a doomed, tortured connection between two people somehow able to find comfort in one another for a brief moment in time; a comfort that would haunt them thereafter as they spend the rest of their lives trying to recapture it.

It’s this essential character to their relationship that wasn’t really captured by the 2003 Daredevil movie and one of the reasons that movie failed.

But all of that said, when we think of Daredevil what many of us immediately think of is Miller’s iconic Born Again storyline (pictured at the top of the page as the feature-image) with all the suffering hero motif and its related Christ imagery; Daredevil #226-233. With its memorable art and incredibly stylistic storytelling, this is the definitive Daredevil epic as Matt Murdock’s former lover sells out Murdoch’s secret identity for a drug fix, while that royal arsehole the Kingpin puts Daredevil through the wringer, determined to bring him as low as he can be brought.

And boy can that guy be brought low. I mean, Peter Parker doesn’t know the meaning of the term ‘hard times’, not compared to this guy.

 Daredevil: Born Again 

“And I have shown him… that a man without hope is a man without fear.”

Beyond Miller, Brian Michael Bendis and Alex Maleev’s work on Daredevil was more like a drawn-out biography and not just a sequence of multi-issue storylines. This Daredevil was less about big moments or events or monthly buzzes to shift copies, and more about a long-term portrait – and given that it’s Matt Murdoch, long-term suffering obviously.

It’s stories like these that highlight Daredevil’s potential not just as a comic but as something that could potentially be captured by other mediums; I always feel Daredevil, unlike most comic-book titles, could really work well even just as a plain (non-graphic) novel adaptation.

Elsewhere, Kevin Smith, Joe Quesada and Jimmy Palmiotti drew Daredevil back to the front line of comic books when Daredevil was relaunched in its second volume. Daredevil (Volume 2) #1-8 “Guardian Devil” is rightly considered a modern classic. The Spiderman nemesis Mysterio is suffering a fatal illness and chooses Daredevil to be his new and final arch-enemy, formulating a series of trials for his new adversary; but the whole, elaborate enterprise is really about the villain’s own death-wish and desire for a “grand way to end his final show”. Can Daredevil still emerge as the hero by the end of it? Including guest spots from Black Widow, Doctor Strange and even Mephisto, this is a great epitomisation of just how good comic-books can be.

Daredevil remains one of the finest front-line characters of Marvel’s universe.

The above-mentioned chapters in his long history are just scratching the surface of that canon (#368-370, for example, and other terrific stories over the years that showcased the Daredevil/Black Widow association), though they are the ultimate representation of what the character is essentially about.

Like most classic comic titles, Daredevil has probably already had his hey-day.

But I like the first two issues of Marvel NOW’s reboot, which are refreshingly uncomplicated, making for an easy read, an easy point of re-entry into the Daredevil mythology.

While seemingly less moody in tone and visual style, one suspects this is merely the early quiet before the storm.

I have high hopes for the current series and hope it will do interesting new things with the legacy it inherits.

S. Awan

Independent journalist. Pariah. Believer in human rights, human dignity and liberty. Musician. Substandard Jedi. All-round failure. And future ghost.

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