Comics twenty-five years ago were a very different place. Wackiness was more than welcome – it was encouraged. Deus Ex Machina endings were so common it was a wonder that they ever put the god back into the machine in the first place. The thought bubble hadn’t quite faded from use. But – most importantly – the colours were all bright and cheerful and the phrase “grim and gritty” hadn’t yet entered mainstream vocabulary.
Enter Frank Miller.
Admittedly with less of a bang than I expected. There’s a lot said about his run of Daredevil, spanning the bones of forty-issues. Genre-defining. Revolutionary. Iconic. I’m not sure what I expected from the collection – probably to find carefully refined gold dust on every page.
Don’t get me wrong – it is all of those big, important-sounding words I mentioned above and more. But Frank Miller isn’t an alchemist. He can’t make gold instantaneously from air. Daredevil – when he joined the title – was in a bad state, even by the wacky standards of the tail end of the Silver Age. In fact, he only got so much freedom to rewrite the character because the title was on the verge of cancellation. And, under his stewardship, it actually became a monthly title.
Part of the issue here is that the Omnibus includes issues where he wasn’t necessarily the writer. In fact, he originally joined as an artist. Gradually his involvement ballooned (in fact, you see him sharing “story” credits) and then he fully took over. Perhaps the clearest indication of how far he brought the comic can be gauged by the fact that the first story here featured a talking gorilla (a member of “The Unholy Three”), while the final involves a quiet conversation with a crippled foe over a game of Russian roulette.
Including the earlier issues not written by Miller help to give the reader a basis for the run – I don’t think I would have appreciated how daring his run was had I not been given a frame of reference – but this means that the proper Miller action in this collection doesn’t really begin until nearly 250 pages in. And those 250 pages aren’t always the easiest read. Still, it is an Omnibus, and I suppose the idea is to included everything. So we can’t really fault them for that.
Miller’s run on Daredevil firmly hits the ground running with the introduction of Elektra, just one of the many elements which Miller introduces that have remained with the character since his time. Almost immediately, we see Miller get down to business as a writer. He pretty much reduces Daredevil’s rogues gallery down to Bullseye and imports over The Kingpin from Spider-Man. Though he would write a story featuring Stilt-Man (yes, his supervillain status was defined by the fact he had stilts), it was purely to mock the ridiculous nature of the concept. He’d also introduce slightly-less-crazy villains into Daredevil’s rogues gallery with the conglomerate of ninja assassins, The Hand.
This is a smart choice for the character – who had, at this stage, a horrendous selection of villains (Shotgun – a man with a gun; Ammo – a man with guns; and so on) – but it’s also perhaps the first time that we’ve seen a superhero migrate away from supervillains as traditional foes. Despite the presence of ninjas (lots of ninjas!), Miller keeps his character relatively grounded, spending as much time tussling with common thugs as freaks in costume. Unfortunately the series never quite deals with the full implications of this move towards a more grounded noir atmosphere – with Daredevil strolling into a bar and drinking a bottle of milk while scouring the underworld as if there’s nothing unusual about a man in red tights strolling into a rough bar and drinking through a straw - it is certainly an interesting change of direction for the character.
In fairness, there are a lot of elements that don’t come together. Some of the ‘comedy’ with Turk doesn’t work and it’s amazing how quickly an appearance from Turk trying to get back at the hero can undermine a story. Be it stealing a jet pack and flying it into a noir storyline about gangland warfare, or wearing stilts in order to kidnap a DA, these little interludes severely hamper the more complex and interesting ideas that Miller proposes in his run. And the less said about Guts, where bumbling idiot Foggy Nelson outwits The Kingpin while imitating James Cagney, the better. In his commentary, Miller justifies these interludes as helping ground the drama, serving as a contrast. I don’t think that’s quite the case – in fact, the success of darker comics since then have taught us it’s not the case. Aspects like this are an indication that Miller wasn’t able to completely throw out all the conventions of the genre even as he redefined it.
To be honest, it’s the thought bubbles that are the most distracting. I don’t know why. In theory they are the same sort of storytelling device that we see nowadays in little blue boxes dotted around the panel – a technique ironically pioneered by Miller on The Dark Knight Returns a few years after this. Thought bubbles are exactly the same idea in principle, so they shouldn’t be any more distracting. But, for some reason, they are. They just seem “primitive”, for lack of a better word. It’s particularly jarring when some chapters have them and others don’t – noticeably those narrated by supporting characters (like Ben Ulrich narrating Spiked or Bullseye narrating Last Hand).
Not withstanding those issues, Miller has pieced together a fascinating collection of noir stories. Though the highpoint of this run is probably the return of The Kingpin in the Gangwar arc and the culmination of Miller’s Elektra storyline in Last Hand, the oneshots are also of interest – in particular Devils, a chapter where a brain tumour causes Bullseye to start seeing everyone around him as Daredevil, or Lady Killer where Melvin Potter seems to be haunted by his split personality. Miller is a talented writer and both of these stories play into large themes developed throughout his run (Daredevil’s decision to save Bullseye has consequences later on, for example). Indeed, from the point where Miller takes over as writer, the series reads like a giant novel broken down into chapters – a richly-layoured crime saga.
It’s unfortunate that the climax of the collection, Resurrection, doesn’t quite come together (even if I didn’t know the behind-the-scenes story I could probably tell that Miller didn’t want to resurrect his ninja assassin from the way he tells the story), but the final story, Roulette, more than makes up for this – an intimate conversation between Daredevil and Bullseye which harks back (or forward – since it was published first) to Alan Moore’s opening Batman/Joker conversation in The Killing Joke. These two will likely kill each other at some point – except that Marvel don’t want to risk a sales drop by killing popular characters.
It’s redundant to remark on just how effective transitioning away from Daredevil’s costumed rogues to the Kingpin (and maybe Bullseye) was. In a world overpopulated with costumed Marvel characters (including the far more popular Spider-Man), Miller found a way to set the character apart. The success of this approach is proven by the fact that Daredevil’s gallery has never really expanded back out – in fact, most of the work has gone into making his existing rogues grim and gritty enough to stand alongside The Kingpin.
The Kingpin – once a novelty Spider-Man villain – is perfectly suited to Miller’s take on New York, and Miller’s distrust of authority as inevitably corrupt – a theme which has run throughout his work. Miller cleverly allows the character to win – from time to time – and he also sets Daredevil and Kingpin on a parallel trajectory, rather than a collision course. Both men lose their loves in this collection and – as Kingpin himself observes – they are more alike than they like to think.
The “grim and gritty” tone works well, even if it leads to a little dissonance at times (compare the comic relief of Turk to a reasonably graphic scene of The Kingpin smashing an employee’s head open, for example). Sure, the social commentary can seem a little heavy-handed at times – take the Punisher’s war on drugs in Child’s Play as an example – but this was an era where the genre was still finding its feet.
It’s interesting to note some of Miller’s pet themes showing up in embryonic form here. It’s no coincidence, for example, that Bullseye escapes during a media interview in the same way that The Joker escaped during The Dark Knight Returns. Or that the Kingpin’s corruption of New York mirrors Gotham’s state of decay in Year One. There’s an underground society with echoes of his mutants in The Damned.
You can even pick up some of Miller’s trademark perks – his dislike for intellectual talking heads (the two nerds in the cinema during Devils) or his passion for gun-wielding superheros (check out the cover for Good Guys Wear Red). There’s nothing here quite as forceful as his later work, but it’s relatively easy to discern Miller’s unique style behind here, amidst the out-of-place humour and the bright colours.
The artwork from Klaus Janson (originally pencilled by Miller) is fantastic and probably worth a look by itself (even in the tedious earlier chapters). The pair would reunite on The Dark Knight Returns, but I think that this might actually be superior to their later collaboration. The artwork is fluid and the visual style is impressive. The bright colours are an interesting contrast to the increasingly dark tone of the work, and the stylistic choices work well – for example, Daredevil’s costume alternates between panels as red with black or black with red, a small visual nod to the shadows creeping into the medium. Even in the series’ goofier moments (a robo-suited Turk, Daredevil drinking milk at Josie’s), it still looks great.
Of the extras in the collection – alternative covers and artwork – the best is undoubtedly an interview from back in 1981 with Janson and Miller. They discuss collaboration and how they write for the character – as well as explaining certain decisions taken during the run. It’s interesting to hear Miller discuss his view of New York, and it’s also insightful to see him discuss his vision of the characters inhabiting it.
There’s a strong case to be made that Daredevil by Frank Miller Omnibus Companion is a stronger read – and it certainly is much more consistent. But it builds upon everything contained within this collection and removes most of the problems. It’s nice to have the entire run collected here in a mammoth 800 page giant. While I’ve stating I think Miller’s influence on Batman may be overrated, I don’t think it’s possible to overstate his involvement with Daredevil. Virtually every writer following him – particularly modern runs with Kevin Smith, Brian Michael Bendis and Ed Brubaker – all hark heavily back to the work contained within this collection.
All-in-all, the collection is a tough one to recommend. It arguably works best as an example of the evolution of Frank Miller’s work rather than an example of his work itself. Still, for those with an open mind or an interest in the evolution of one of the younger storytelling mediums, this is a fantastic collection. You can literally see many of the tricks and tropes which would come to define the genre develop over the course of the run. Something suddenly, sometimes subtly, but there’s always a sense that things are changing and growing.
It might not hold up quite as well as the other seminal mainstream run of the early eighties – Alan Moore’s stewardship on Swamp Thing – but it’s a really fascinating insight into the growth of comic book storytelling as a whole and an interesting look at early Miller. The fact that many of its devices are a little outdated may alienate casual readers, but there’s a treasure trove here for anyone fascinated in a little history.
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