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Daredevil by Frank Miller Omnibus Companion

I’ve always seen Daredevil as a peculiarly Catholic superhero. Don’t ask me why. Maybe it’s the devil imagery. Frank Miller clearly sees the character as an Irish Catholic (he admitted that he believes the character practices) in an interview at the end of the first omnibus. It just seems to fit. There’s just something so human and organic about the character – so vulnerable and flawed – that he seems like some sort of lost soul amidst the pantheon of god-like superheroes. A man torn between heaven and earth. The fact that probably the greatest story told using the character is titled Born Again and his mother is a nun (as close as you can plausibly get to a virgin, I suppose) doesn’t exactly hurt, either.

Daredevil puts a novel twist on flag-burning...

I think that Daredevil might be my favourite mainstream comic book character. Maybe it’s the fact that the character has no less than at least three defining runs, but I think it’s something more fundamental than that. Matt Murdoch is compromised. He’s broken. And not in the “he’s vaguely sociopathic and, thus, edgy” sense, either. He’s a character whose entire life is just one big hypocritical lie. He’s a lawyer who breaks the law at night. He’s a Catholic who dressed up as the devil. He’s the devoted son who can’t honour his dying father’s last wish. These are paradoxes, entirely contradictory statements which perhaps lie at the root of Murdoch’s problems. Although writers love pushing the character until he breaks, he’s never stood on especially solid ground – his entire life is one delicate balance act.

Although Frank Miller infused a sense of tragedy into Daredevil’s superheroics, I think the greatest contribution to the character was the sense of guilt and responsibility, which is driven by some deep-seated internal shame. He blames himself for everything, even those outside his control – indeed, the crux of Born Again is that Matt Murdoch doesn’t even realise he’s under attack until it’s too late. He blames himself for the death of Elektra, even though it had nothing to do with him (in an interesting subversion of the “damsel in distress” narrative comcis are so fond of). He blames himself for these things because he feels guilty for any number of original sins, but can’t relate those to his background – so he ascribes those feelings to his modern troubles, whatever they might be.

Daredevil always feels boxed in...

That’s what makes Daredevil so fascinating. He’s remarkably repressed for a guy who wears a costume like that and jumps across rooftops. As the Kingpin notes as Matt is disbarred, “whatever reactions he has are hidden — even, I suspect, from himself.” He doesn’t even realise on a conscious level how screwed up he is. He’s a character possessed of an Irish Catholic sense of guilt and moral responsibility, lingering in self-pity. One of my favourite (and most perfectly defining) quotes from the character was written by Brian Michael Bendis – not during his Daredevil run but during New Avengers. Captain America attempts to convince Matt to join the team, but Matt refuses. His reasons are based purely on his own ridiculous sense of his own guilt and “bad karma”:

There is no way on God’s green planet I will put you, Peter Parker, Luke Cage and the others in my line of fire. I will not do it. Because even if we saved the world from an alien invasion … saved every life on the planet in a flurry of heroism not seen since the days of mythology … and Jesus himself came back and joined the team …. the next day all of you would be sucked under a bus … just for knowing me. I can’t do it.

That’s an enormous amount of responsibility to take on his shoulders.

Here, Miller turns up Daredevil’s self-destructive vibes. Even when he discovers that his misfortune is being orchestrated by an external force, he can’t narrow it down. It has to be a giant conspiracy. “All of them. Working together. All of them out to get me.” He beats up the owner of a sleazy motel, who he accuses of being a plant, and makes ominous phone calls to his best friend. He has truly made “every man his enemy”, if only to indulge his own declining sense of self-worth and insecurities. Though Born Again amps up the pressure, the Kingpin observes that “even before his ruin, he was nearly mad.”

Daredevil leaps into action...

What we have collected here are what was left out of the Daredevil by Frank Miller & Klaus Janson Omnibus which collected his run on the mainstream Daredevil title. So we have two Spider-Man issues (guest-starring Daredevil) which he pencilled, two issues from his second, much shorter run on the title, and the complete Born Again and The Man Without Fear, Miller’s revised origin of the character.

I said it in my review of the original omnibus, but this collection is – taken on its own merits – a far more consistent and enjoyable read. It’s as though Miller has used his run on the character to redefine him in such a way that he is only now able to tell the stories he wants to tell. The misplaced sense of humour is completely gone, as are the distracting thought bubbles (replaced by a grim and gritty narration). This volume – despite the fact that the stories were written twenty years ago – still feels fresh.

The sky's the limit...

Miller defined a lot of the character in his initial run, but he really brings it to the fore here. The notion that Daredevil may still be mourning the death of the love of his life is articulated and his mental instability is flagged in Warriors even before his life gets turned into a living hell. Miller also wrote Daredevil as an angry character. Maybe not as sociopathic as the Batman we see in The Dark Knight Returns, but there was definitely a sense that putting on the custom and beating up criminals served as a release valve, indulging his baser instincts.

Matt Murdock is a man trying to be good. In a flashback in Warriors, Stick suggests that Murdock is living his life to the service of higher authorities, unable or unwilling to accept that he himself has authority over the decisions he makes. Caught between promises to his father, obligations to his partner and even his own disability, it would seem that Murdock is trapped. In a shocking moment, he breaks into his own law offices and questions his entire career. It’s either a sign of a meltdown or a moment of brutal honesty, either way a suggestion that he should try to make his life his own.

Group hug!

Of course, Born Again – possibly the arc when it comes to Daredevil stories – takes these concepts and runs with them. After his arch foe, the Kingpin, discovers his identity, Matt Murdock finds his life being trampled into the ground. Once again he’s powerless. At the start, the only way he can think of retaking control of his life is to engage in a rash physical confrontation, where he finds himself out-matched. He’s just a man – and men can be destroyed.

There’s no shortage of biblical imagery here – from Daredevil walking through the flames, through to Miller’s presentation of the Avengers as gods (mirroring Alan Moore’s portrayal of the Justice League in Swamp Thing), through to Nuke’s reign of destruction over Hell’s Kitchen. Key scenes take place in a mission – an abandoned church that is filled with patrons as the apocalypse draws near. The chapter headings – Apocalypse, Purgatory – all draw from biblical concepts.

Matt Murdoch was always sharp...

It’s about redemption, faith and hope. Finding what you need to continue on. Enduring. Unfortunately, it’s not necessarily about winning – like in all great noir tales the deck is too heavily rigged in the house’s favour to every allow the hero a legitimate shot at victory. Karen Page, lost and lonely and stuck in her own private hell, is also walking that slow path to redemption with Matt.

Here we see the idea of the city as a corrupt entity out to grind our hero into the dirt. Like most Miller tales, the hero’s environment is a hellhole, built not on human suffering – but our casual indifference to human suffering. The definings characteristic of New York, according to Miller, is the way that everyone tries to “keep moving.” Just endure whatever can be thrown at you, no matter what. Pedestrians ignore a brutal mugging, walking right on by. A car doesn’t bother to stop to check on the person it hit, driving on as if nothing happened.

Matt Murdock's live just exploded...

Although there’s something truly heroic about Matt’s dogged ability to endure whatever is thrown his way, the romantic imagery will only carry the character so far. Even hit by a car, and half dead, he’ll still try to stop two guys mugging a Santa Claus. “Take it off,” he warns them, even though he can barely stand. However, his heroism is pointless – he’s stabbed and left for dead. It’s only when Matt and Karen stop, and get a chance to rekindle their romance, that things fall into place and that stability returns to Murdock’s life.

Perhaps it’s the idealism in the story that I find most surreal. Miller is traditionally regarded as a cynical writer – and, to an extent, that’s true. Good always seems like only a brief challenge to the suffocating corruption and decay which surrounds it. However, there are moments here where Miller seems to be suggesting that good isn’t quite as powerless as it might seem – without indulging in the sociopathic shades of grey of which the writer is so fond (as with any Sin City character or Batman). Jameson describes the press as “the most powerful weapon in the world”, and it is vindicated as such. Matt gets his groove back, by returning to his roots.

Note: Not actually hyperbole...

Even his portrayal of Captain America is almost romanticised. Though the Kingpin attempts to dismiss him as a hero who has “faced simpler times” but is now outdated, Miller proves him anything but. Not withstanding the famous and iconic “a voice that could command a god” line, it is Captain America who really helps Matt overcome his demons and the trials facing him. As his superior appeals to his patriotism to cover up a military scandal, Steve Rogers outlines his beautifully simple and optimistic ideals. “I’m loyal to nothing, General — except the dream.”

There’s a reason the story is famous – and why Miller’s work on the character is universally praised. He single-handedly defined the genre of urban superheroes in this tale. His take on Batman in The Dark Knight Returns and Year One may have popularised the notion that noir could work in four-colour panels, but here he demonstrated that it could also work within the on-going narrative on in-continuity tales. Though the final chapter maybe veers a little bit too far off into Miller’s political viewpoints (with the character Nuke tattooed in the American flag and an appearance from Captain America), the story is solid and complex and rich and fascinating. It’s no wonder it kick-started the “darker and edgier” trends we’ve seen emerge in the past few decades.

Ever dance with the devil in the pale moonlight?

Also thrown in is Miller’s stand-alone graphic novel Love and War. Basically a follow-up to certain threads hinted at and developed in his earlier run, it’s a fascinating look at the Kingpin’s character – suggesting that Miller isn’t simply heaping the tragedy one half of the series’ hero/villain relationship. The novel throws together various aspects that defined Miller’s tenure – including the rambling narration of a psychotic by the name of Victor – it’s really elevated to the status of classic by the artwork from Bill Sienkiewicz, who literally manages to illustrate the Kingpin as if he is an anthropomorphic construct embodying his characteristics. He is oppressive and obtrusive – he dominates the comic physically. The art is amazing, complimenting Miller’s script perfectly.

The Man Without Fear is Frank Miller’s attempt to retell the Daredevil origin. On its most bsic level, I’m not sure it’s entirely necessary (as he covered a lot of this in his own run), but it’s nice to include. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the comic is that it represents the last of Miller’s work on the character to date (despite being an origin), so it provides an interesting way to compare the writer as he developed over the years (much as one can compare and contrast The Dark Knight Returns and The Dark Knight Strikes Again).

Smoke and mirrors...

I’m not quite sure what to make of The Man Without Fear. Initially intended for the big screen, it at least works as a fitting coda to the collection. Matt Murdock’s origin as envisaged by Miller. Of course, we’ve seen flashes and hints in earlier volumes – and there’s more than enough there, to be honest – but it does at least demonstrate Miller’s firm grasp of the central character.

There are hints of excess present both in Miller’s prioritising of aspects the character’s identity – for example, an overlong focus on Elektra (she’s a core part of the character now, but I’m not sure she deserved so much space) – or in his storytelling style – the fact that he’s first pitted against the Kingpin in breaking up a child prostitution ring just seems a little too much like it’s being edgy for the sake of being edgy. Still, it does what it needs to, setting up a firm foundation for Miller’s conception of the character – a retroactive incorporation of the themes suggested during his run. Sure, it’s unnecessary, but it’s probably as good as it could have been and – let’s be honest – hasn’t the writer done enough on the character to deserve a little lee-way.

Stick with it...

And it’s a far more cynical perspective than even Born Again. Elektra, the love of Matt’s life, is presented here not as some strangely tragic figure who can never be happy – but a certifiable nut job who responds to “the voices” in her head. This is in line with Miller’s portrayal of Elektra following his iconic Daredevil run, but it still feels slightly strange. I have no doubt that she’s still supposed to seem a tragic love interest, but the fact that she is completely insane damages the portrayal of the love between the two. Murdock was undoubtedly a damaged and troubled soul, and Elektra reflected that – perhaps it’s what drew the two together. However, her psychosis ends up in an entirely different league to his, which distorts the wonderful symmetry that the couple originally had. He might be damaged, but she’s completely broken.

I’m not entirely convinced about Miller’s attempts to portray the Kingpin as the ultimate product of evil in the city. I think there’s an interesting debate to be had over whether the Kingpin shapes the city, or whether the city produced the Kingpin – did he manipulate the underworld so that it might come to need him, or was he simply the right man for the job? Miller paints him as the next evolutionary step in organised crime, a man far removed from the romanticism of all those mobster films. When Don Carleone refused to sell drugs in The Godfather, even though it was an act motivated by self-preservation, it marked him out as something of a decent man. Here, the mob is confronted with similar choices, with drugs and child slavery. “We may be criminals, but we are not monsters!” one mobster declares, only to find himself replaced by the Kingpin, who can roll with the times.

Blades of glory...

I’m a little uncomfortable with the casual portrayal of child slavery to make the Kingpin seem “extra evil”. This isn’t an aspect that Miller has emphasised before, so it seems as if it’s just casually being inserted in order to make sure that we can’t romanticise or relate to the villain of the piece – which is a shame. I like the idea that the Kingpin is a vaguely relatable villain (as opposed to any number of mutants or freaks) and one who is just as doomed and tragic as Murdock. The two deserve one another. However, tying him to child slavery just seems a lazy way to make sure we know he’s the bad guy. It also distinguishes this tale as somewhat darker than a lot of what came before.

On the other hand, Miller still gets Matt’s character. Everything flows from one central paradox: “Dad was wrong.” If the one absolute truth in a child’s universe is proven to be false, it fractures all perception. A Catholic can dress as the devil. A lwayer can become a vigilante. Miller enjoys working on the father-son relationship, and seems to imply a lot of his lead’s issues can be traced back to those early years. There’s a lovely moment, which foreshadows much, as Matt’s father comments, “It’s time I showed him his dad may be a loser — but he’s no quitter.” Daredevil’s defining characteristic is that he simply won’t quit.

Return of the King...

I am not, however, so convinced that we needed the addition of an almost “original sin” aspect. Matt’s early escapades result in the death of a stripper. This haunts him, as he constantly replays “the last time he lost control.” It’s a good idea in theory, but it doesn’t work in the context of this tale. Matt has already learned discipline at this stage of the story, so it’s redundant in that regard, but Daredevil also seems to be somewhat indifferent when it comes to killing off henchmen later on (death by giant piano comes to mind). Maybe this is an interesting way of demonstrating Matt’s ability to believe one thing and do another, but it just feels awkward.

The art in the entire collection is generally impressive (though I found sections of The Man Without Fear a little too cartoonish for the seedier aspects of the story). In particular Miller’s work with David Mazzucchelli on Born Again looks amazing. Perhaps even better than his work with Janson, though it’s hard to perfect perfection.

Raising the roof...

It’s a fantastically solid collection of Miller’s work on the character. It’s perhaps the best example of the effect he was attempting to achieve during the run covered in the Daredevil by Frank Miller & Klaus Janson Omnibus. Gone are the awkward thought bubbles or the buffoonery of Turk, giving the book a refreshingly modern feel (even though it’s actually quite old at this stage). If you want to sample his most impressive work on the character (if not necessarily his most influential), this is the collection to pick up.

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