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Daredevil by Brian Michael Bendis Omnibus, Vol. II

I still stand by my assessment of Daredevil as the most consistently well-written comic book of the past decade. Sure, there have arguably been smaller runs that have been more experimental (Grant Morrison’s New X-Men), slightly more easily accessible (Mark Millar’s Ultimates), or more important for the medium as a whole (Geoff Johns’ Green Lantern is perhaps most responsible for general trends in the medium), but none is as consistently satisfying as the relaunched Daredevil title, in particular the two runs by Bendis and Brubaker. Here we have the second half of Bendis’ iconic run collected (along with some Daredevil-related miscellany). It’s a great collection that might not be as breathtakingly incredible as the first half of his run, but it certainly delivers on what was promised.

He's also The Man Without Shirts...

An interview with Bendis collected at the end of the first volume suggested that he was only able to convince editor Joe Quesada to allow him to publicly unmask Matt Murdock as the vigilante Daredevil by agreeing to spend a few years on the title afterwards – it would have seemed unfair to just throw an idea like that out there and leave it as a mess for another writer to pick up. It’s more than likely a lot would have been lost in translation. So Bendis put his money where his mouth is. He stayed with the book to fully explore the ramifications of his shocking twist. That has to be admired. As a medium published month-on-month, it’s easy to see comic books pushed by the next big reveal, the next big shock – there’s really very little opportunity to explore the consequences of certain events.

As such, it’s reasonable that the backend of Bendis’ run would not be as event-heavy as the opening few chapters. In the first half of his run, he dethroned the Kingpin, unmasked Matt Murdock, killed a C-list hero The White Tiger, had Matt Murdock declare himself Kingpin of Hell’s Kitchen, had Matt Murdock marry (and then had his wife leave) and had the Yakuza show up to wage war for the control of Hell’s Kitchen. That’s a lot of action. In this section of his run, Bendis noticeably slows things down a notch and allows us to properly digest it all. He explores the impact that all of these factors have had on Matt. That isn’t to suggest this section of the run is any less solid than what came before, merely that the focus is different.

The Kingpin is always bad news...

Bendis does this a number of ways. Having a protagonist just sit there and reflect on how their circumstances have changed doesn’t necessarily make for the most compelling reading. The action in this volume is not driven by Murdock (and never really demands too much from him), but instead is centred around him. He is in many ways a supporting player rather than a lead character in these stories. The Widow centres around the Black Widow (shockingly enough) and her attempt to hide in plain sight… with Matt, while he reflects on how screwed up his life is. Golden Age focuses on William Bont, Kingpin of Hell’s Kitchen once upon a time (“the past” as Bendis ambiguously flags it) and focuses on his relationship with Matt – while also focusing on Agent Del Toro, the new White Tiger. Decalogue is a story centred on how Matt affected the lives of others, rather than on himself. With the exception of the 40th Anniversary Special (The Universe) and the final arc, The Murdock Papers, the title character is mostly a supporting character.

Which is great, because it allows his life to remain static enough for Bendis to examine it. Indeed, there’s a lot of reflection here – from the way that The Universe is structured as a collection of smaller one-on-one interactions stemming from big moments in the first half of the run through to the central focus of Decalogue as a window to explore Matt’s “missing year” as the Kingpin. There’s a lot of good stuff here. It’s interesting to hear Matt remark of a villain that “he self-destructed. They all do.” In a way, so has Matt.

Devil may actually care...

Bendis seems to suggest that it’s in Matt Murdock’s nature to self-destruct. At the climax of The Murdock Papers we’re presented with a fantasy where Matt elopes to Paris with Milla, only for the cycle of violence to continue, for her to die at the hands of Bullseye and for Matt to kill him in a crowded French street. In What if Karen Page Had Lived? (in a way an epilogue to the epic), Bendis also suggests that Murdock is screwed no matter what by undoing the death of Karen Page (identified by both Bendis and Brubaker as the central cause of the character’s mental breakdown). In a world where Bullseye failed to kill Karen, Murdock also eventually ended up where he ended up at the conclusion of this run. It’s oddly appropriate for Bendis to approach the subject from the perspective of a fatalist – Matt is and always has been a Catholic, so the philosophy is a perfect fit. It’s also philosophy which explains how everything has ended up so monumentally screwed up, despite his constant best efforts.

How much of this is determined by Matt’s personality – the stubborn refusal to simply give up being Daredevil, for example – or due to some intangible fate is left open for question. Bendis had a character in his first steady arc, Underboss, describe the murder of Wilson Fisk’s son Richard by his mother Vanessa as “Shakespearean” and had Sammy Silke allude to the play Julius Caesar in his botched power play. It’s hard not to think of the play’s famous observation that “the fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves”. How much of the fault lies with Matthew Murdock?

With his early yellow-and-red costume design, I'm surprised it took his enemies so long to work out that he was blind...

But why the mask? Why the funny costume? This question echoes through this half of Bendis’ run. Why dress up in red tights and run around? It’s a hard question for any writer to truly answer, beyond the conventional “to protect my identity” schtick, and it’s worth noting Bendis’ typical avoidance of the wacky costumed rogues amid Daredevil’s rogues gallery. The Gladiator and the Jester play supporting roles here, and even Bullseye is stripped of his blue all-in-one. The main villains wear suits, not costumes – a fact that only stresses the question of why the red tights in the grim and almost realistic depiction of Hell’s Kitchen that this book offers. As ever, there’s no easy answer – it’s a question that characters wrestle with in universe as well, as evidenced by the Daredevil support group and Agent Del Toro’s questioning. Matt himself offers a simplistic suggestion that the “costume’s a symbol.” Wilson Fisk offers a less flattering suggestion, discussing the cowardice of the other great Spider-Man adversary.“He couldn’t look himself in the mirror,” he observes of Norman Osborn, glibly, “Guess that’s why he wore a mask.” Maybe it’s a symbol. Maybe it’s to hide something (and not just his face, as one character alludes). Maybe it’s a personal thing that we’ll never truly understand.

Bendis plays with time. Not just here, but in his early volume as well. Witness the non-linear narrative of Underboss, for example, flashing backwards and forwards to add texture to the run. Time in comic books is flexible and Bendis plays with this notion – notice the ambiguous headings for the time shifts in Golden Age, for example. On the other hand, Bendis commits what would seem to be a big no-no. He crafts a timeline for his run on the comic. He carves and sets dates and periods in stone. We know that Matt’s private hell lasts about fourteen months, with Matt spending a year as the Kingpin of Hell’s Kitchen. In Out, Bendis goes even further. He identifies Matt’s time in college as “Twelve Years Ago” in a flashback with Elecktra. Those figures make relative amounts of sense (though I’m not sure how they fit with Golden Age, where it would seem Daredevil locked Bont up more than twelve years ago), but it’s a little cheeky to see Bendis tie things down so firmly. In a way, it’s great – it shades and colours his run very subtly. It underscores his key observations about the nature of Matt’s life, mostly the nature of the perpetual vicious cycle.

Shall we put this secret identity matter to bed?

At the climax of Decalogue, Matt observes to a meeting of frightened citizens that he has been listening to “your stories that are just like mine.” Indeed, even as Bendis reaches the end of his run, the cycle begins anew – we began with Ben Ulrick narrating in Wake Up and we end up with him narrating for The Murdock Papers. There are scenes in The Murdock Papers which echo back to the very beginning (including Daredevil admonishing someone for “firing a gun in public”). Again, before Bendis throws on last wrench in the machine, he alludes to the possibility of tying everything in a nice little bow. A happy ending, almost. Milla returns. The media have died down. Matt even suggests he may have “weathered the storm”. There are promises of “a clean slate”, which would seem a fair way to hand over the reigns to Bendis’ successor.

Of course, nothing is so easy. The finale of Bendis’ run is shocking and breathtaking and amazing, all in one go. I know it has probably been spoiled for anybody reading this article, but I’ll deal with it when I come back to review Brubaker’s run (which I’ll be doing when I get the second omnibus). Part of me thinks that Bendis’ run, as a whole, may stand as the definitive Daredevil epic. Don’t get me wrong, Frank Miller’s run made modern comics possible by pushing the boat out, but it seemed that most subsequent writers took that to mark a new boundary for the character. Bendis’ run set the general principle that the boat can always be pushed further – that Miller’s service to the character was not merely drawing a larger boundary for other writers to work in, but to demonstrate that there is no boundary. If that makes sense.

Clock is ticking...

At this point I will concede that I have the narrowest preference for Brubaker’s run. I can’t explain it. It’s borderline inexplicable. But I do prefer it ever so slightly to Bendis’ tenure. That isn’t a disservice to Bendis, who is by far the more ambitious writer of the pair, but an observation. And both runs are fantastic, truly fantastic. They manage to remove the character from the shadow of his definitive writer while never seeming disrespectful or cheeky. And they are both just fantastically written noir epics.

The extras in this collection can’t really hold a candle to those in the last volume. Or maybe they are just of a different type. There are no interviews or commentaries or documentation. The only input from Bendis himself is a reprinting of an afterward from the last hardback collection of his work which is sweet and moving and demonstrates all the right reasons for moving on from the character. There are a collection of sketches and artwork that look pretty, but am I wrong for wanting a little more? I don’t know.

Even on its last legs, the run is fantastic...

The other “extras” are essentially companion comic book stories. As mentioned above What If Karen Page Had Lived? serves as a fantastic epilogue to the run, offering an alternative to the way things played out – much as Brubaker’s House of M tie-in issue does for his Captain America run. It’s a nice little story, well told – and it only further illustrates what I observed in my review of the last collection: either of the later artists on the title would have been far better suited to illustrate Kevin Smith’s Guardian Devil, capturing the attack on Karen Page (the event which apparently kicked everything into overdrive) in a style arguably better suited to the book than Joe Quesada’s impressively cartoonish work. But perhaps, as Bendis suggests, it’s pointless to speculate on what might have happened. It’s a somewhat fitting transition between the creative teams, featuring a script from Bendis but artwork from Michael Lark, who would become the artist for the title during Brubaker’s time writing.

The artwork here continues to be fantastic. Maleev is astounding and his stylised work suits the title down to the ground. I’m not so sure about the guest artist work on The Universe, but it was arguably a more suitable experiment for these artists than giving them a single panel in the 50th issue. I don’t know. The key point is that the run wouldn’t have been the same without Maleev’s fantastically moody artwork. To say nothing of his practically iconic covers. Seriously fantastic work here.

His night job can be quite punishing at times...

It’s also nice to see Bill Sienkiewicz back on Daredevil, having worked with Frank Miller on Love and War. He provides the art for the accompanying Ultimate Marvel Team-Up issues, which collect some of Bendis’ work on the alternate version of Matt Murdock, and offer another version of Murdock’s first encounter with the Punisher. The story is reasonably effective, altering the origins of the Punisher to arguably make him even more tragic, but Sienkiewicz’s borderline expressionist art style is the real beauty here.

As mentioned above, Bendis’ run is a classic. I’m going to say that it’s arguably an even better run than Miller’s iconic tenure (though Born Again is still Born Again). It’s a solidly entertaining read, a stunning character portrait and a fascinating exploration of the superhero genre, all wrapped up in an epic noir saga about men trying to be good in a world that simply won’t let them.

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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