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Daredevil by Ed Brubaker Omnibus, Vol. I

It’s pretty tough taking over a beloved cult title from a run which certainly measures among its best. Daredevil has long been a testing ground for many an iconic comic book writer, but Brian Michael Bendis left the book seeming to have done the impossible. Depending on who you asked, he had either come extremely close to matching the seminal run by Frank Miller, or had simply left it in the dust behind him. So taking over from Bendis would be no easy task. Thankfully, Ed Brubaker is more than up to the task.

Brubaker dives headfirst into his run...

There are generally three options on taking over a property in any medium which has just been massively (and successfully) redefined by a creator. The first is to effectively undermine the last writer by taking the material ‘back to its roots’, effectively going back to the way things were before; the second is to attempt to follow the trajectory set by your successor, to pick up where they left off and essentially attempt to offer more of their approach; the third way is to eschew both of the options and to do your own damn thing. Somehow, Brubaker manages to do all three.

Brubaker inherited the comic with the lead, erstwhile vigilante Matt Murdock, locked behind bars. The cops had figured out that he was Daredevil, and he was awaiting trail for various obstruction of justice charges. It was a hell of a cliffhanger to leave on, but it was also something of a fitting ending, as well. I constantly observe that what superhero comic books generally lack (if I may speak so broadly) is closure, but Bendis offered a hint of finality to his run. You could never pick up another Daredevil book and you’d have read a perfectly self-contained epic. You could just imaging Matt Murdock rotting away in prison, a broken man, effectively crushed by the system (admittedly helped by his own arrogance and a nervous breakdown). Bendis even used a subsequent What If? issue to suggest that prison was always going to be Murdock’s ultimate fate. But we all know that the comic didn’t end there. A new issue was published the following month, with Ed Brubaker as the writer.

The quality of the run really floored me...

And the writer was left to pick up the pieces. These sorts of cliffhangers and dramatic changes to the status quo now seem to a defining feature of creative team transitions on Daredevil – Brubaker himself even jokingly refers to it as “the Daredevil challenge”. So, Brubaker’s opening arc – The Devil Inside and Out – follows Murdock inside prison as things somehow manage to get progressively worse. There was a lot of pressure riding on this, but I think it’s fair to say that Brubaker hit it out of the park. Personally, I’d argue that The Devil in Cell Block Dis the best arc ever written for the character (yes, even better than Born Again). Despite the high concept (a superhero in prison with all those guys he locked away) and the snazzy execution (it is very well put together), it’s the beauty of the character work which recommends the arc.

Daredevil’s appeal has always been that he doesn’t necessarily always make the best choices in his life, and that those decisions inevitably come back to haunt him. The contrast between the character’s black-and-white, right-and-wrong Catholic upbringing and the grim moral compromises he inevitably finds himself making are the fodder of great drama and here Brubaker brings the character right to the edge. Although he did passively and unconsciously aid the Kingpin’s plan against him in Miller’s Born Again arc, here Brubaker underlines the character’s capacity to destroy himself – there’s a strong temptation running through here for Murdock to just “give in” and become an animal, to take a side (or a life) or make horrible compromises. When the chips are down and there’s no safety net left to catch you, what the hell can you hold on to in the dark?

Foggy always liked a close shave...

Brubaker “gets” Matt Murdock almost perfectly. The opening monologue has Matt reflecting on how Hell’s Kitchen is falling apart – “and all of this, this rapid fall from grace… it’s all my fault,” he narrates. Even though he sits inside a prison cell, he still feels a deep-rooted responsibility for events outside his own control. That driving Catholic guilt which defines Murdock, the willingness to hold himself responsible for events outside his own control, even if he doesn’t understand it. As he confronts a series of increasingly violent crimes he can’t explain at the start of Without Fear, he blames himself. “This is my fault,” he explains, “Though I don’t know why…” It’s that sense of responsibility which makes Matt simultaneously so noble and yet so deeply flawed.

I realise I’m in a very tiny minority here, but I think Brubaker’s run on Daredevil is superior even to Bendis and Miller. Bendis himself pens the introduction to this volume and observes that “when they close the history books, Ed Brubaker will be to Captain America what Frank Miller was to Daredevil”. To me, his work here is even better than his run on Captain America. I think a large part of it is how carefully Brubaker manages to walk that tightrope – he’s got to deal with a huge legacy of iconic creators on the title, but he’s also got to figure out his own style. He does all this, without ever missing a step.

Matt's life enters freefall...

In fairness, his run only really starts with the second arc, The Devil Takes a Ride. His initial arc was essentially mandated by the conclusion of his predecessor’s run (not that it isn’t one of the best Daredevil stories ever written). Here we get a true taste of his attitude to the mythos. He takes Daredevil out of his comfort zone (literally flying him to Europe), but still there’s something intangible following – somehow it “smells familiar”, followed with an explanation that “it’s impossible to explain what scent means to someone like me”, as if to translate that familiarity into something more abstract. Even thousands of kilometres away, he’s still followed by the scent of Karen Page. Even in Europe, there’s an assassin who has a strange and inexplicable familiarity about him. Even in surroundings so different, it’s arguably fundamentally the same.

Brubaker gently pokes and prods the past. His run arguably can’t be read as independently as those who came before, but he ensures that it’s accessible. Still, there are subtle references made to the old school (Matt using the alias Mike Murdock, or allusions to Wilson Fisk’s time in Japan) as well as more direct references to the start of Bendis’ run (the murder of Richard Fisk). Bendis has pushed the boundaries of what can be done with the character – he destroyed the sanctity of the superhero’s secret identity and placed Matt as “the Kingpin of Crime” (even if Matt omitted those last two words). Brubaker seems to like the idea of fully exploring the vast new narrative possibilities, free from the necessity to push the envelope further and further.

Don't worry about being locked out by continuity...

It’s no coincidence that the two one-shots which punctuate his first two arcs (similar to the format he used in Captain America) – The Secret Life of Foggy Nelson and Our Love Story – are essentially nostalgic looks at the character’s past through the eyes of the two closest to him – a way to piece together the complicated cloth of the character’s rich history into a single tapestry. Bendis redefined Daredevil for a new decade, but Brubaker’s approach is to reconcile him.

Bendis and Brubaker seem to differ on the cause of Murdock’s suffering. During the previous run it was, to quote Milla, “petty politicians and bureaucrats”, the unconscious and anonymous will of the city itself grinding him to dirt. Brubaker, on the other hand, isn’t afraid to acknowledge that the danger can also come from conscious and aware sources – Daredevil is a superhero, and he does have enemies. The threats are no longer the mindless functioning of the system, but the clear and targeted ambitions of his adversaries (“it’s personal,” Ben Ulrich assures us). Indeed, the final two arcs – To The Devil His Due and Without Fear – essentially find Murdock again a microscopic cog in a grand plan to tear his life apart. That’s not to imply that the character is reduced to the clichéd tedium of regular costumed heroics – the run features more than its fair share of excellent ideas and continues the deconstruction of Matt, particularly looking at the implications of the fact that he inevitably picks himself back up, no matter what he loses (“He’s a survivor,” an adversary observes at one point, “That’s his curse, really…”).

Matt wrestles with himself...

I’ve argued time and again that what has really set this era of the character apart (and what makes it such great reading) is that fact that the easy path is so rarely taken to everything that has happened. By the end of the run already passed, Matt has been outed in the press as Daredevil, assumed criminal control of Hell’s Kitchen and been sent to prison. It would be easy to shrug off stuff like that – particularly for a new writer. I mean, when Marvel got tired of Spider-Man’s marriage, they had the devil wipe it out of existence – it’s just the way the medium works. You take a toy out of the box and play with these grand notions which fundamentally alter the character, but you ultimately have to restore the status quo.

Here Brubaker teases us with the idea that he may actually attempt to put the genie back in the bottle – the suggestion that proof would be offered to the world that Daredevil isn’t Matt Murdock. However, he uses the plot device of a second Daredevil operating in Hell’s Kitchen as a device to generate enough legal doubt, but not to completely remove the shadow from Matt’s head (even afterwards he concedes that “a lot of people will probably always thing I’m Daredevil… but at least there’s some doubt now”). However, there isn’t really. Matt Murdock as Daredevil becomes an open secret. After Daredevil goes rogue, the cops flock to Murdock’s house; if they want to talk to Daredevil, they address Murdock.

Writers are always wrecking Matt Murdock's life...

You thought you could just have it all back… They expose you in the papers, throw you in prison… take away everything that matters to you. And you think you can just act like none of it ever happened? I mean, do you even realise how arrogant that is?

– Mr. Fear

Indeed, Brubaker recognises the desire to essentially revert, to go back, to pretend that none of the stuff that happened actually happened – both as a writer and through the character of Matt. It’s hard enough to craft your own version of a fifty-year-old character without also having to tie in to what came before. A clean slate is desirable and – being honest – we probably wouldn’t blame him too much for taking it. Still, it represents the easy way out. Instead, Brubaker decides to deal with all that stuff, while still telling his own particular story with the character. And that’s really something.

They were dead right for each other...

One of the better aspects about the Daredevil runs over the last few years have been how remote they’ve seemed in the wider context of the Marvel Universe. Living in the era of event comics, with one event rolling into the next (and then the next), where it’s impossible to read flagship books associated with upcoming film projects (like Brubaker’s Captain America or Matt Fraction’s The Invincible Iron Man) without being knee-deep in whatever the big event is at the moment. Instead, you can just pick up Daredevil and not worry about Civil War or Secret Invasion or any of that nonsense. Brubaker does throw in a few references to the wider Marvel Universe (the presence of the Hood, an Avengers adversary, in Hell’s Kitchen or a few references here-and-there to Civil War), but there’s no sense the reader is missing anything vital. The story functions of itself – which is really nice.

Michael Lark worked with Ed Brubaker before, on Gotham Central over at DC Comics, and it makes sense that they work together here, given the similarity in tone. Lark’s work is great – it’s all dark and murky, just as one would expect given the tone of the material. I would observe that on my omnibus there were some ink stains caused by the black ink on the opposite page (it looks like the ink wasn’t entirely set when the book was bound). It doesn’t obscure any dialogue, but it can get a little distracting. Other than that, the art work is fabulous. I should also stress the wonderful covers done by artists like Lee Bermejo and particularly Marko Djurdjevic. The art in this set is just perfect for the material.

Did Milla know what she was letting herself in for when she promised "Till Death Do Us Part"?

You might make the case that it was a tad unnecessary for Marvel to split the material over two omnibus editions (particularly when the second omnibus will be relatively tinsy), especially when one supersized volume could have held both (think Grant Morrison’s New X-Men run, for example). I’m not sure either way, to be honest. It does seem more than a bit cynical and greedy (but hey, it’s what these companies do… we can’t really fault them do it), but Morrison’s gigantic New X-Men is a very difficult book to transport and read – it’s also a lot of effort to move it anywhere. These are somewhat easier to handle. I’m not sure one way or the other (and probably won’t be until my second Brubaker Omnibus appears in the post).

All-in-all, well… Brubaker is my favourite Daredevil writer. Given the pedigree of the talent who have worked on the character throughout the years, it’s really saying something. He manages to not only follow a fantastic run with an equally fantastic run, he also manages to tie it all together while offering something just a bit new to the character. The real beauty is that it all sits so well together.

These stories have quite a "kick"...

I have reviews of Ed Brubaker’s entire run on Daredevil:

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

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