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Daredevil by Brian Michael Bendis Omnibus, Vol. I

It took me a while to write this. Because it took me a while to figure out what to say. I honestly believe that the combined Bendis/Brubaker run on Daredevil has been perhaps the single most impressive run on mainstream comics in the past decade. It isn’t post-modern or retrospective, it isn’t flashy or innovative. It’s just a collection of good and clever stories, well told. Some of them reflect the state of the superhero in popular culture, some of them explore the role and function of the media as a supreme court of arbitration, but most of them are just good and clever noir stories. If you are looking to pick up a single collection of comic books, I would recommend this. It’s nominally a superhero story, but at its heart it’s a gritty urban thriller. But that’s enough hyperbole, don’t you think?

Better the devil you know?

Bendis wasn’t meant to be a long-term writer for the book. He did a fill-in arc, Wake Up, after David Mack finished writing for the recently relaunched book. The storyline is actually very good. Very good. But, in a story related in an afterword collected here, Bendi explains that it was actually Alex Maleev who suggested that the two be granted stewardship of the title. It’s strange how these things work – Bendis was almost a one-off Daredevil writer.

What is most remarkable about Bendis’ run is just how little Daredevil there actually is in it. He’s a tangential figure in the opening two storylines, Wake Up and Underboss, which is particularly surprising given how the second storyline affects him in such a huge way. Beyond that, Bendis isn’t afraid to put away the silly costume for a more considered look at Matt Murdock and the world around him (take, for example, the fact that he only appears in costume once for the entire Trial of the Century arc). More than that, Bendis is actually willing to devote time to rounding out the universe surrounding Matt Murdock.

Holy Mary...

I saw universe rather than supporting cast because Bendis is more interested in how the system works than who turns the cogs. There are inevitably comparisons between Bendis’ tenure and Frank Miller’s run on the title, and perhaps the greatest contrast between the two is how they treat the evil in Hell’s Kitchen. For Miller, it all flows from the men. Greedy and corruption are human vices and you all work for the Kingpin in his gigantic tower, whether you know it or not. Every move is calculated and there’s always a manipulator behind the scenes.

Bendis adopts a less focused view. The evil of the system doesn’t necessarily flow from men like Wilson Fisk, though it is manipulated by them. There is no one rotten egg which taints the bunch. In Out, Bendis has the Kingpin’s wife, Vanessa, sell Fisk Tower to become a regular part of the New York landscape (bought by Donald Trump, no less). The focal point of corruption is gone, and yet it endures.

They're all gunning for Murdock...

It’s no coincidence that the cause of most of Matt Murdock’s pain in this run can be traced back to two people he never really meets. There’s no indication that he even knows Sam Silke exists, yet it is Silke who sells his identity to the feds, not some age-old adversary and certainly not as part of any grand big plan. And it’s a broke FBI agent who passes that on to the global media and really tears Matt Murdock’s life to shreds by branding him a costumed vigilante. These two characters won’t endure in the readers’ minds half as long as the plot Bendis unspools here, but that’s intentional. The evil and corruption of Hell’s Kitchen doesn’t have a face – not even a bald, chubby one. It just happens.

It is the system which is weighed against Murdock, against Daredevil. No supervillain nor bureaucrat is driving this huge weight down on the hero. It’s just all happening because… that’s the way things happen, I suppose. No conscious machinations drive the plot nor really direct it, if anything it’s the collective subconscious which stares down at Murdock and pronounces judgement. Even Rosenthal, the newspaper publisher who publicly ‘outs’ Matt Murdock as Daredevil, concedes that “I don’t have anything against you personally”, as if to admit that this is just how the system works.

It's good to be the King(pin)...

PopMatters once shrewdly suggested – in a review of Ed Brubaker’s subsequent run on the title – that Daredevil was a character perhaps best seen as exploring the themes of Hemmingway, offering the following quote:

If the Fantastic Four are analogous to Joyce’s Leopold Bloom, adrift in a world they cannot understand, and Iron Man is Fitzgerald’s Gatsby, buying his way into a world every way his inferior, then Daredevil is Hemingway. Old, and hardened, meaner but also cannier, Daredevil intuitively leaps from the pages in the old, familiar line from Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea: ‘The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those it will not break, it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially’.

Don’t let the fact the line’s actually from A Fairwell to Arms put you off – it’s still accurate.

Bendis likes to bash Matt against those rocks over and over again. He isn’t the first writer to do so and he won’t be the last – in fact, he seems to point to the death of Karen Page during Kevin Smith’s tenure as the true catalyst for Matt’s nervous breakdown (it’s suggested Matt is having “anger management issues” even before things really go off the deep end) – but he certainly does so thoroughly. It’s common for comic books to tread water, to reinforce the status quo. Same bad guys and same good guys locked in never-ending battle, like some sort of sick equilibrium.

The women in Daredevil's life may as well have a bullseye painted on them...

Brian Michael Bendis throws these notions out the window. The Kingpin’s knowledge of Matt Murdock’s secret identity, only effectively used during Frank Miller’s Born Again storyline two decades ago, sets off an explosive chain reaction. Well aware that such huge game-changing decisions are the subject of comic book retcons (dead characters always come back, for example), Bendis teases us with the notion of a reset. Be it the potential settlement with the Daily Globe that would lead to a retraction of the publication of his identity at the finale of Out or the re-emergence of the Kingpin in an attempt to restore his original position in Hardcore, both moments ultimately move the story even further out of the comfort zone.

In many ways, this is a story of how we treat our heroes or our icons. The need we have to tear them down (indeed, this notion even goes as far back as the Wake Up arc, written before Bendis started his run proper). Modern society is arguably far more interested in fallen and broken idols than in heroes or legends – as if our mouths water at the prospect of tearing them to shreds. Trial of the Century may not literally serve as the public trial of Matt Murdock as Daredevil, serving instead as an exploration of the trial of a superhero arrested for the murder of a police officer, but it articulates the real reason that superheroes may fear going public. It isn’t supervillains like Mister Hyde they need to fear (indeed, no supervillains make any serious attempt on Matt’s life after the revelation), but the general public. And, even though we know that the White Tiger – the accused hero in this case – did not kill that officer, Bendis makes it perfectly clear that the genie cannot go back in the bottle. What has been done cannot be undone. In fact, Bendis openly mocks the idea that some Marvel shapeshifter will pop by and make things okay again in an interview collected at the end of the book – and he’s right to. Comic books are far too fond of easy fixes and retcons and snap backs. This will not be fixed so easily. It may not even be fixed at all.

It's been one of those runs...

Bendis plays some interesting tricks with his method of storytelling. He casts the saga in any number of ways. Would-be Kingpin Sammy Silke clearly sees himself in a gangster movie – he jokes about his life being made into a “Scorcese and DeNiro” movie, and plays by the rules of the old mobster movies, with backstabbing and straight-forward assassination being the tools of the trade. Though his undoing is unveiled in a style calling to mind the Godfather, it’s hard not to get the sense that he is undone by failure to fully understand he’s not a character in a mob epic, but a superhero story. Killing the Kingpin is impossible because of the nature of the medium – as is killing Daredevil – and he was a fool to attempt it. They will not die in some gangster crossfire that seems to suit their lifestyle – one imagines they won’t ever die at all. Similarly, various sources refer to the death of Richard Fisk as “Shakespearean”, which is just a more sophisticated way of saying “tragic”. Bendis shrewdly plays with the reader’s expectations of the genre, but never forgets that he is writing a comic book. That he can draw from such a vast frame of reference only speaks to his strengths as a writer.

Daredevil has a pretty weak selection of villains (“I feel saddled with the most pathetic rogue’s gallery,” he confesses in Wake Up, “it’s embarassing”), a fact that Bendis acknowledges. Aside from the Kingpin, he reserves pretty much cameo appearances for the vintage Daredevil bad guys. Bullseye appears fleetingly in the superb silent issue in Underboss and pops in for a chapter of Hardcore, the joke character Stiltman has an appearance at the start of Lowlife (which does feature a large supporting role for The Owl) and there are small appearances from Typhoid Mary and Elektra. The true enemy of Daredevil is himself.

The people who make the news...

It’s Matt’s arrogance that really makes things worse. It’s his inability to lie low or to give up. Foggy makes the best suggestion of the run, observing that the public branding of Matt as the vigilante is a clear indication that his time has come. Give it up. Stop. Surrender. Walk away while you can. But Matt can’t. It’s his arrogance which leads the Daily Globe to refuse to settle and retract. It’s his refusal to accept the assistance of the other heroes that leads him further along his downward spiral. Keep going, keep pushing yourself. It’s his aggressive defense, his use of libel law, that drives his friends away. The irony of a vigilante, so used to moving outside the law to enforce it, using libel laws to disguise the truth, is not lost on Bendis – it’s a sign of the hypocrisy of the secret identity. “I cannot tell a lie,” Superman informed Lois during the 1978 Richard Donner movie – then what is Clark Kent? Bendis implies that Matt is trying to stay ahead of his own past, his own failures – he allows them to catch up with Matt in the end, perhaps hinting that something good will come of it.

Or perhaps not.

There is more than a nod to Frank Miller in these pages. Indeed, in an afterward collected in the following volume, Bendis concedes that – when they collected the Eisner – Miller himself joked that it belonged to him. Bendis acknowledges that Wake Up is “a significant valentine” to Miller, with its gritty noir narration from erstwhile reporter Ben Ulrich (it even comes with a flashback to Miller’s similarly-Ulrich-narrated-and-driven story Spiked) and the ultimate fate of the ridiculous villain Leap Frog (set tumbling into a garbage truck) calls to mind a similar episode with Daredevil in The Kingpin Must Die. However, Bendis moves beyond that. He is clearly influenced by that most definitive of stints, but he refuses to be boxed in by it – against all odds, he finds a new direction to take and a new story to tell. Miller’s run pretty much codified what the book should and could be, but it’s exhilirating to see it move beyond that. To see it evolve and change and grow. That’s something special.

Because it just wouldn't be Daredevil without some crazy ninja stuff...

Marvel have done the business collecting the last decade of the character’s run in Omnibus format. Brian Michael Bendis’ run has been collected in two giant hardcovers, as has the first half of Brubaker’s tenure (the second half is due later this summer). It’s a fantastic way to read the run, as – despite breaking it down into chapters like Underboss or Out or Lowlife – it is one long and epic story. This is the kind of release which puts DC to shame – you almost wish the could collect some iconic runs in this format. Anyway, there’s a healthy selection of extras included (more than in the successive volumes, to be frank).

The artwork is astounding. David Mack, who previously wrote for the title, proves himself a better artist than author. Wake Up looks absolutely stunning, from start to finish, drawn on watercolours and offering an abstract view of the world, perhaps representative of the way the child at the centre of the story must see things. It’s interesting to note that Mack clearly used celebrities as models for his work – Peter Parker looks surprisingly like Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Murdock looks more than a bit like Ryan Phillippe.

Daredevil's world comes crashing down...

Alex Maleev is the artist for most of the run (Terry Dobson does take over for the Trial of the Century arc). His grim and blackened art, heavy with ink, is a perfect fit for the noir-tinged world that Bendis has constructed for the title character. His art is never messy or unclear, but none-the-less stylised. It’s rare to find a stylistic fusion between artist and author, but we have a perfect partnership here (and the team that would succeed them also shared that bond). In fact, seeing the death of Karen Page filtered through the grime of Maleev’s artwork makes it even clearer that Quesada’s bright colours (beautiful though they may have been) were a poor fit for the character over the first fifteen issues of the series.

The run is already classic. It’s one of the best put-together superhero epics ever written. I’m narrowly fonder of Brubaker’s take on the character (which immediately follows), but Bendis does the impossible. He has removed Matt Murdock from the shadow of Frank Miller. And that’s no small accomplishment. It really is worth a look, if you’re interested in picking up a superhero book that isn’t really about superheroes. It’s a crime saga, but one with a unique twist. It’s the personal tragedy of a man just happens to put on a devil costume and swing around Hell’s Kitchen. It’s a good story, well told.

Who could ask for more?

I have reviews of Brian Michael Bendis’ entire run on Daredevil:

If this is of interest, I also have reviews of Ed Brubaker’s entire run on Daredevil, which directly followed Bendis’ run:

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