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Daredevil by Ed Brubaker Omnibus, Vol. II

Still, it must have been nice for you, Murdock.

What?

To win this one. It seems like you really needed it.

– North and Murdock

There goes the whiniest superhero I ever met.

– Mr. Izo

I’ve said it before and I’ll likely say it again: Daredevil has had an amazing ten-year run under the stewardship of Kevin Smith, David Mack, Brian Michael Bendis and Ed Brubaker. It’s just been a really well-put together comic book which really works. one of the finest compliments of the book I’ve read, and one I sadly can’t take credit for, is that Daredevil mostly avoids the deconstruction which has been a fixture of many iconic runs, while also avoiding the pitfalls of nostalgia that typically define the reaction to deconstruction – instead, the book has found a third way: it has found a way to take the conventional tropes of the superhero genre, and use them to offer something relatively new and exciting, exploring the story potential inherent in ideas like a secret identity, or what happens when a vigilante creates a vacuum in crime. Ed Brubaker, who – if you ask me – has offered the most fascinating run on the character and has surpassed his work on Captain America, finishes his run here and closes a chapter in the life of the Marvel Universe’s most tragic superhero.

Stars in your eyes...

Note: This review will contain spoilers for the end of Brubaker’s run, if you aren’t already familiar with it. I’ll flag them beforehand, but consider yourself warned.

What makes Brubaker’s take on the character so compelling – particularly following the really amazing tenure that Bendis had on the book? Truth be told, I’m not entirely sure. Perhaps it is that Brubaker allows Daredevil to be a superhero again, fighting threats like the Gladiator, Mr. Fear or the Hand, as opposed to struggling against a system fighting to crush him. Perhaps it is that while Bendis carved out a new tract of storytelling potential for the character (with his nervous breakdown, marriage and secret identity issues), it was Brubaker who managed to skilfully integrate these ideas with traditional Daredevil constructs. Perhaps it’s simply the fact that Brubaker’s run is not built upon character gimmicks, but is simply a well-told superhero epic.

Of course, to read it like that, you’d think I loathed Bendis’ run. I don’t. It’s amazing. However, if you put a gun to my head and asked me to pick a writer, it would Brubaker.

Daredevil should be on your radar...

In fairness, there’s a general consensus that Ed Brubaker’s three year run started and ended great, but suffered from a bit of a lull in the middle. I won’t pretend that there are some structural flaws with the story Brubaker constructs, but I am fond of the entire run. Were I to point to a weak spot, it would be Cruel & Unusual, the arc which opens this volume (following a one-shot which follows the aftermath of Without Fear). Not from a story-telling perspective, as it’s quite an entertaining story and a great union between Greg Rucka and Ed Brubaker, both of whom had worked with artist Michael Lark on the superbly awesome Gotham Central. Taken by its own measure, it’s a superb pseudo-noir story which fits quite well in the books typically cynical point of view.

The problem is that Brubaker, more than Bendis, typically follows a more fluid narrative structure. His stories bleed into one another. For example, it’s hard to clearly delineate To the Devil his Due and Without Fear unless you know where one chapter ends and another begins. Similarly, Lady Bullseye dovetails nicely into Return of the King. And although Cruel and Unusual plays perfunctory attention to the status of Matt’s life (using it as a framing device to get him involved), one gets the sense that the series could have easily moved from Without Fear to Lady Bullseye without missing too much of a beat. Perhaps it is also due to the length of Brubaker’s run – at three years it is significantly shorter than that of Bendis, and most of his arcs are a bit longer. So Bendis was able to pepper these sorts of standalone arcs (like Wake Up, his opening arc, or The Trial of the Century or even The Widow) throughout his run, while here it seems like a strangely out-of-tune step.

Way to go picking on a blind guy...

But, in a way, perhaps that’s the point of Cruel and Unusual. Perhaps it’s meant to feel like a throwback, to a “classic” Daredevil story without the emotional baggage and angst the character has taken on his shoulders after all these years. Indeed, given the way that Brubaker finishes up his run, it looks like it might be the last opportunity to tell such a story using the character for quite some time. The hint of nostalgia is evident throughout the story. “I guess this is like the old days to you,” mobster Eric Slaughter observes after Daredevil makes something of a traditional entrance (violently, through the window), “but some of us have moved on.”

There’s a lot of moving on going on here. Brubaker realises he is leaving the title, and he begins cautiously tidying away his own clutter from the board. In Lady Bullseye, the eponymous assassin explains that she is “clearing away your problems, not targeting them.” Brubaker realises he will be passing on the title to a new author – Andy Diggle – and giving him a new status quo to play with, just as Bendis finished up his run offering Brubaker a new status quo to play with. In fairness, both authors fairly efficiently ‘decluttered’ the character before passing him on (“free of the tragedies of this life you’re led, Matt Murdock” – though the book suggests this view is too simplistic), but without employing a simplistic or convenient retcon. We don’t sigh with relief at the conclusion to the relationship between Milla and Matt, and it doesn’t swoop out of the sky from nowhere. It feels logical, and organic – and, in its own little way, tragic.

Just dive on in...

Incidentally, it’s interesting to observe how – slowly and methodically – Daredevil has been repositioned towards the core of the Marvel Universe since his relaunch. Bendis made a conscious effort to sideline him (without ignoring him) by having him reject membership of Bendis’ iteration of the New Avengers (which was, some have argued, just a list of characters Bendis had wanted to play with since he was eight), and kept the plots within his own book mostly self-contained. I love this approach – it means that the character can be picked up without the reader feeling like they are missing anything and also allows the author pretty much limitless freedom in storytelling (without the way, for example, that Brubaker’s Captain America run was somewhat sidetracked by Civil War and Matt Fraction’s Iron Man was dominated by Dark Reign).

Brubaker, on the other hand, seems to want Daredevil occupying a more prominent role within the Marvel Universe. Events in the previous omnibus referenced Civil War and directly overlapped with the Hood’s takeover of New York in Bendis’ New Avengers. Here, the narrative of Brubaker’s concluding chapters – Lady Bullseye and Return of the King – are directly related to the consequences a big crisis crossover at the heart of the Marvel Universe, Secret Invasion. However, unlike most tie-ins or overlaps, Brubaker’s run never feels like a slave to the “larger” story. In fact, it feels like he is harnessing continuity for his own ends, rather than feeling bound or constricted by it. In fact, his storyline is a perfect fit with the larger event and feels like an organic extension of it. I’m still not entirely convinced that Andy Diggle needs to draft a huge event (the mysterious Shadowland) around the character, but I’ll reserve judgement on that.

Dakota North... a model private eye...

Perhaps that’s the key to Brubaker’s successful run. It’s all about integration. He perfectly reconciles the convoluted continuity of Daredevil. When he reintroduces the “zombie ninjas” in the form of the Hand, a cult of international assassins, it doesn’t feel at odds with the “street-level” storytelling that the character has been a part of for most of the last decade. When he faces a bunch of these ninjas on a rainy rooftop, he concedes he hasn’t encountered them “in a long time.” The Hand were a staple of Daredevil originally introduced by Frank Miller during his iconic run. I can’t think of a more fitting symbolism of what Brubaker is doing than incorporating the ninjas into the world crafted by Bendis. He’s reconciling it all, tying it all together.

And now on to that conclusion. Maybe I should wait and discuss that when reviewing the first volume of Diggle’s collected work (as I discussed Bendis’ finale while reviewing the first volume of Brubaker’s run), but I’m not sure I will keep reading Daredevil beyond this. That is by no means a criticism of the ending found here – or even of Diggle – just an observation that I don’t have the money to continue collecting these books indefinitely. If Marvel can bring themselves around to collect a decently-sized omnibus of Diggle’s run, I will likely relent and continue to read, but otherwise I am very much uncertain. So, I should probably discuss the ending here. Consider yourselves warned if you’re one of the twelve Daredevil fans on the planet who doesn’t know how this ends, you might want to look away.

And then, ninjas attack...

Brubaker has given a name to the radical change to the status quo that himself and Bendis have wrought upon departing the book – they call it “the Daredevil challenge” and I think that’s fair. It is a challenge, and one by which a succeeding writer will sink or swim. I imagine the practice will continue beyond these two. Bendis ended his run with Matt Murdock in prison, arrested on suspicion of being Daredevil. Ed Brubaker ends his run with Matt essentially departing his life as “Matt Murdock” and assuming control of the Hand. Both endings are wonderfully poetic and suit the character down to the ground (for example, it’s probably no coincidence that Matt gives up his civilian life when he realises that some mistakes – his affair with Dakota North, for example – can’t be blamed on “the devil inside” and giving that up that other life somehow absolves him). It’s a somewhat fitting conclusion (or, at least, continuation) of the theme of identity that has been core to the character since Bendis’ run, particularly playing with the conventions of the secret identity. This conclusions begs us to ask: what happens if there is no secret identity?

However, the really beauty of this collection is how Brubaker handles Wilson Fisk, the Kingpin of Crime, who has arguably had just as rocky a journey as Matt Murdock has over the past few years. Comic books are a static medium. That’s the way they work. No matter what a writer does, the status quo will always eventually return. That’s why events like Grant Morrison killing off Batman or Ed Brubaker killing off Captain America can feel cheap, because we know they’ll be back, because they sell books and the medium is truly afraid of change. However, it takes a superior writer to make this simple pragmatic fact seem like Shakespearean tragedy.

Dark rain indeed...

It is tragic that characters like Fisk can never truly changed. Once they’ve galvanised themselves into a particularly popular form, that form becomes a template – one that they may occasionally diverge from, but must eventually revert to. So, no matter how hard they try, they can never really be better than they are. In the absolutely fantastic Prologue to Return of the King (perhaps the best single issue of the entirety of Brubaker’s run), that tragedy becomes explicit. The Kingpin has tried to make a new life for himself, with a young woman and her kids (who endearingly call him “Uncle Wheelie”), but even he knows it is too good to last. As he tells himself, “because that’s who you are.”

Despite how Fisk and Murdock may both recognise that “the cycle has to stop”, it never can. As the ghost of his dead wife taunts Fisk, “I told you it wouldn’t end.” She elaborates further, “That you would never win.” In one gut-wrenching arc, Brubaker makes one of the most infuriating aspects of modern comic book storytelling and renders it fresh anew. He’s not trying to tell us that these characters will die or suddenly change dramatically overnight (there’s a perverse irony in Daredevil warning a criminal to “find yourself a new life” when he so clearly can’t himself), but instead is showing us the inherent pathos this creates.

Back-stabbing is just a regular part of life for the Kingpin...

The artwork by Michael Lark (here beautifully supported by David Aja for the aforementioned fantastic Prologue), is as wonderful as ever, perfectly suiting the tone of the book. There’s a lot of darkness and shadows at play here, and it suits the characters and story well.

This omnibus isn’t too hot on extras, I’m afraid – which is particularly disappointing given how good previous collections have been. There’s not a single extra written word present here, just a gallery at the back of the book. Given the size of the volume (which is tiny), it might have been nice to throw in an interview or an introduction or conclusion – even if not from Brubaker himself. That said, the gallery – containing a lot of artwork around the 500 issue celebrations – is certainly impressive (and perhaps my own favourite “gallery collection” of extras.

Brubaker takes a bow and leaves the title...

There are two other oneshots collected here – the Daredevil Annual and The Blood of the Tarantula oneshot. Although Brubaker was involved in drafting the stories for both, he didn’t write either – delegating the writing to Ande Parks. Without seeming harsh, you can tell that Brubaker didn’t write these stories – and it doesn’t help that they focus around a supporting character (the eponymous Black Tarantula) who ultimately gets killed and resurrected as an assassin, becoming Murdock’s trusted lieutenant in the Hand. The very best thing about these two oneshots is that they provide a sort of thematic counterpoint to Bendis’ exploration of the White Tiger in The Golden Age. The very worst thing is that they sap the momentum of the omnibus and aren’t really Daredevil or Brubaker stories at all.

Minor criticisms aside, it’s been a fun ride. I’m not sure if I’ll pick up Andy Diggle’s run (it depends on how Marvel package it, to be honest), but the character has had an amazingly consistent run. A decade is a long time in comic books, and it’s refreshing to see a high standard maintained over so long a period. Marvel are to be thanked for collecting the material into these wonderful oversized hardcovers, treating the run with the respect it deserves. If you’re looking for a noir-themed comic book, or even just one of the best books on the market, you could do a lot worse than Daredevil.

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:

2 Responses

  1. Brubaker’s take on Murdock and Fisk was reminiscent of the Batman/Joker conflict. Neither can change and, I think, don’t know how.

    • Yep, although I think they are both far more grounded. I think Murdock is basically a more grounded, more realistic (okay, relatively more realistic – discounting the “radar” thing) take on Batman. Kinda what would have happened if Miller hadn’t taken his Batman: Year One concept of the character and ran it into parody.

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