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Daredevil: End of Days (Review)

To celebrate the release of Thor: The Dark World towards the end of next month, we’ll be looking at some Thor and Avenger-related comics throughout September. Check back weekly for the latest reviews and retrospectives.

The Dark Knight Returns casts a pretty long shadow. In many ways, the definitive work from writer and artist Frank Miller, and – along with Watchmen – one of the books that singularly defined mainstream comics. Written by a superstar team of former Daredevil writers and artists – and a slew of in-jokes and references to a rake of others – End of Days can’t help but stand in that shadow.

The Dark Knight Returns gave us a look at a retired Bruce Wayne donning the cape and cowl once again. End of Days has a similar set-up, beginning immediately following the murder of Daredevil by his arch-foe Bullseye, and allowing us to watch the investigation conducted by dogged reporter Ben Ulrich.

This is the end...

This is the end…

In many ways, the connections between Daredevil and The Dark Knight Returns seem obvious. Before Frank Miller wrote one of the definitive Batman stories, he worked on an extended run on Daredevil. You could argue that there are certain thematic through-lines connecting Miller’s Daredevil work to The Dark Knight Returns, including a somewhat cynical and deconstructionist attitude towards superheroes.

Indeed, the postscript to Miller’s run on Daredevil, the superb and massively influential Born Again, was published directly alongside The Dark Knight Returns, the first issue of both storylines hitting the stands in February 1986. While The Dark Knight Returns is undoubtedly more well-known and more influential, both stories heavily influenced all subsequent portrayals of the character, to the point where Brian Michael Bendis’ extended Daredevil run is pretty much a sequel to Born Again, building on the same themes and ideas, just on a larger and more extended scale.

Cracked mirror...

Cracked mirror…

There’s an argument to be made that the character of Daredevil is really Marvel’s best analogue to DC’s Batman. He’s a (relatively) mortal man who typically works on a local scale to fight injustice and to keep his city safe. He’s associated with the sort of grounded “grim-and-gritty” aesthetic that has been increasing in popularity since the seventies. He’s frequently portrayed as obsessive and almost self-destructive. He lends himself to more cynical portrayals, exploring his psychology and quite willing to question his effectiveness and his heroism.

So, even if writers Brian Michael Bendis and David Mack didn’t go out of their way to invite comparisons to The Dark Knight Returns, any story focusing on the end of Daredevil’s career is inevitably going to evoke that most influential of comic book stories. However, Mack and Bendis don’t just embrace the comparisons, they seem to actively revel in them. End of Days is dripping in shout-outs and references and homages to Miller’s iconic Batman story.

Beat-down hero...

Beat-down hero…

We’re told that Daredevil had retired (and Matt Murdock had disappeared) for years before this story. There’s every indication that the world around Ben Ulrich is going to hell, as comic book heroes seem to have been forced into hiding, while politicians make vague-sounding assurances on national television. However, there are also more specific and pointed references, beyond the general sense that this world has gone to hell.

It seems like the next generation speak their own language, with the youthful lingo of Ulrich’s photographer lingo Suki evoking the unique dialect of the mutants from The Dark Knight Returns. “Wells, I know you scuz him back in the day,” Suki assures Ben. “You K’s?” When Ulrich visits the Punisher, looking for insight, trying to figure out what Matt Murdock had been doing all these years, the Punisher has a suggestion. Perhaps, like the ageing Bruce Wayne of The Dark Knight Returns, he has been training “a new Daredevil. A small army.”

The last Castle...

The last Castle…

Bendis and Mack pilfer all manner of plot points from Miller’s work to help create a strange sense of familiarity. Shrewdly, they push most of these to the background, as if trusting readers to take these references as homage. These are the plot beats you’d expect in a story like this, but they are not the story itself. Prostitutes play dress-up as superheroes to sate unwholesome desires.

The return of Daredevil prompts an old rival to suddenly become active again. As the news reports acknowledge following the Punisher’s sudden escape from maximum security, “The real question is… what inspired Castle to escape after so many years?” Okay, Frank Castle never utters the world “darling”, but his manipulation of the media to assist in an escape prompted by the sudden reappearance of Daredevil feels like a nice shout-out to The Dark Knight Returns.

Quiet Fury...

Quiet Fury…

Comparing the character to the Joker is also an effective way of marking the character as an antagonistic force. The Punisher here is not a hero by any stretch. He’s something very dark sitting at the centre of the narrative. He’s a cautionary tale, a contrast, a warning. He is the antithesis of what a superhero should be, but there’s something more than that. Although he was created well before The Dark Knight Returns, he is very much a child of that miniseries.

A large part of the Punisher’s ascent and popularity is a result of the cynicism and skepticism engendered by that iconic comic, the sense that comics need to be dark and edgy in order to be grown up, that “violent” and “brutal” are synonyms for “sophisticated” and “adult.” Introduced in the seventies as a villain in The Amazing Spider-Man, the Punisher finished the eighties with two on-going series, his violent modus operandi apparently a massive hit with the fans.

Breaking out...

Breaking out…

The rise of the Punisher’s stock is arguably one of the most obvious demonstrations of the shifting paradigm. His climb up the sales charts and into the A-list coincides almost perfectly with an obvious darkening of mainstream superhero comic books. The Punisher himself, locked up and chained to a chair, boasts of his influence to Ulrich. “I couldn’t be more proud of him if he were my own son,” he tells Ulrich, as if positioning himself as the father of this particular movement in comics.

Because, beneath the homages and the shout-outs to The Dark Knight Returns, what is really interesting about End of Days is that it represents a clear reversal of that classic comic. It feels more like a rebuke to that particular story, a none-too-subtle rejoinder and a quiet rejection of the mood and atmosphere that The Dark Knight Returns brought to mainstream American comic books. After all, Daredevil seems the perfect character with which to make a counter-argument.

Squaring it all...

Squaring it all…

This is most obvious in the structure of the story, which feels like an inversion of Miller’s work on The Dark Knight Returns. Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns opens with Bruce taking up the cowl again, wearing the bright blue-and-yellow of Adam West’s iconic Caped Crusader, and then rapidly descending into darkness and cynicism. (Artistically, Batman starts out with vaguely familiar proportions and develops – or devolves – into a grotesque hulking brute.) The Dark Knight Returns climaxes with an epic confrontation between Batman and two other icons, with Bruce disappearing into the night with his own makeshift army.

End of Days is very much a reversal of this. It opens with the iconic confrontations between Daredevil and Bullseye and Daredevil and the Kingpin, rather than saving these fights for the climax. It suggests that Daredevil had retired, lived in secret, only to return to the scene before going in a blaze of glory. In contrast, the series ends with Daredevil in his classic costume, picking up again from the beginning.

Still getting a kick out of it...

Still getting a kick out of it…

It’s also worth noting that Miller’s dystopian United States was set in a grim alternate future projected from 1986. This is what the future of Batman would look like, taking then-current trends and exaggerating them to absurd degrees. In contrast, End of Days is set in a dystopia that looks very familiar. None of the satire feels heightened or exaggerated. Indeed, it’s possible to read the book without even noticing the use of media or the government’s policies.

End of Days doesn’t appear to be set in an alternate world. It could just as easily be set today, in a world remarkably similar to our own. Things are grim, but they’re grim in a realistic way. “As of Friday there is no Daily Bugle, and there is no me reporting for it,” Ulrich tells us – it’s a shockingly dark turn of events for the Marvel Universe, but one which seems to fit with the current economic climate.

Ulrich has an amazing fantasy...

Ulrich has an amazing fantasy…

The nation’s African-American President appears on television to reassure his countrymen. “There is no military-industrial complex employing weapons for the protection of energy subsidiaries,” he promises. This isn’t as ridiculously absurd as Ronald Reagan’s somewhat casual response to the use of nuclear weapons in The Dark Knight Returns. This doesn’t feel like a satire of some grim future so much as a cynical (but grounded) commentary on American foreign policy.

The message is quite clear: the dystopian world teased by Miller in The Dark Knight Returns has arrived. This is particularly true in comic books, which have been living in a pale imitation of Miller’s dark alternate world for quite some time here. Despite the fact that Daredevil brands the book, the central character of End of Days is Ben Ulrich. Ben Ulrich is a reporter, but he is primarily – as we’re assured by other characters repeatedly – “a writer.” He’s a writer trapped inside a dark comic book world with nothing but darkness and despair.

Taking note...

Taking note…

(After all, the comic opens with a vivid and unnerving shot of Bullseye brutally beating into Daredevil. Bendis and Mack don’t even feel the need to provide us with too much context for the beat-down. A few pages later, Matt Murdock is gruesomely killed by his own weapon. It seems like End of Days is committed to opening in the darkest place possible. Which should really clue us into the direction that Bendis and Mack are going with this.)

Ulrich makes a convincing authorial stand-in. Like Bendis and Mack, he’s written extensively about Daredevil – his work on the character is apparently well-respected by those inside and outside the industry. There are other quite obvious metafictional moments. Maya Lopez, a character created by Mack, is introduced lecturing on “a text that had pictures next to it.” She’s effectively teaching a course about comic books, like Bendis does in Portland.

More than his pride is bruised...

More than his pride is bruised…

Ulrich is wracked with existential angst, forced to write a story which just sucks the life right out of him. Presented with the evidence of the first few pages, Ulrich refuses the assignment to tell the story of Daredevil’s last few days. “There’s no story. The bad guy won.” He’s struggling with the fact that the story around him is completely collapsing, that an end is approaching. After all, comic books don’t really have endings, just as comic book characters don’t even really die.

“Bullseye doesn’t just die,” he protests when he finds the body of the man who murdered Daredevil. “Bullseye doesn’t die. Is this it? Is this where the story ends?” There’s something quite depressing in the notion that it can all end so suddenly and so bitterly – and so pettily. End of Days starts out as a book about death, but it’s not just about the death of Daredevil. It’s about the death of comic book superheroes. It reads like a meditation on the decline of a genre increasingly fixated on the grotesque and the macabre.

The devil you don't know...

The devil you don’t know…

The old “mainstream comic books are dying” chestnut is a refrain heard far too often. The industry is adapting to changing markets, just not as quickly as it should. And there is an argument to be had about whether it is responding in the right way. Still, sales are much lower than they were during the sixties and seventies, comics are now rarely sold in newsagents or drugstores, and the age of fans is raising quite quickly. Even if you’re not convinced that the medium is on death’s door (and there are a lot of reasons to be optimistic), you can understand the superhero genre’s existential crisis.

End of Days treats all this death and collapse as abhorrent – as strange or surreal. Daredevil and Bullseye don’t just die. They certainly don’t die pathetic and meaningless deaths. This is unsettling and unnerving, because we’ve come to expect that mainstream superhero comic books will forever be stuck in a perpetual second act. The Punisher, of all people, calls both Ulrich and the audience out on their discomfort.

Lighten up...

Lighten up…

“A prize fighter — any prize fighter — has an expiration date,” the Punisher tells us. “And a ninja trains. They train their whole lives… and then they train their replacement. A tradition as old as the Earth.” So why should the notion of Daredevil’s death unnerve us so? Perhaps it’s because of something that Frank Castle can’t see, something he has become too dead and cynical to truly appreciate. Daredevil isn’t a “a prize fighter” or “a ninja.” Nor is he, as Ben struggles to articulate in his article, “a soldier” or “a warrior.”

Daredevil is a hero. And a hero has to be something more than a man who can be beaten and murdered in cold blood. And it’s clear that, despite his cynicism, Ben Ulrich buys into that philosophy. When the new Daredevil pushes the villain Bullet to his death, Ben is shocked – despite the fact that the death of this villain was entirely justifiable. When his son praises the murder, Ulrich is quick to correct him, “That’s not what a hero is. That’s– that’s not what a hero does.” He adds, “You — you being alive and safe and — that is what a hero does.”

Speaking Frankly...

Speaking Frankly…

And this is where Bendis and Mack throw a pretty massive curve ball. Despite the title, and the opening scene, End of Days isn’t really the story of the murder of Matt Murdock at the hands of one of his old foes. It isn’t a grim deconstruction in the style of The Dark Knight Returns. It isn’t going to pick at Matt’s psyche and argue that he was just as dangerous or as violent as the monsters he fought. Instead, it’s a celebration of heroism.

Of course, you’d be forgiven for thinking otherwise. More than any other superhero, Daredevil seems defined by his failures. He’s a cautionary tale, the character who allows writers to do things they could never do with other heroes. The Kingpin could discover his identity. That identity could be exposed to the world. Daredevil could be sent to prison. He could declare himself the leader of a bunch of murderous villains. Matt Murdock is the one character who can screw up, who can make mistakes, who can pick apart the notion of a mainstream hero.

Knocking down the Kingpin...

Knocking down the Kingpin…

Ben Ulrich even acknowledges that in the opening chapter. Reflecting on the last time Daredevil was seen in public, he concedes, “His legacy to other heroes seemed to be that the ‘don’t kill the bad guy’ rule was true.” One suspects his legacy was also ‘don’t let the bad guy figure out your secret identity’ as well. Of course, all the pain and suffering that Matt endures can become oppressive if allowed to become the norm. It can drown out the fun in comics, one of the reasons that Mark Waid’s Daredevil is such good fun.

Maya Lopez, now teaching sequential storytelling, muses on Matt’s impact on her involvement with the whole superhero narrative. “You’d think dying and being resurrected by the hand would have done it, but no,” she tells Ulrich. “Just Matt being Matt.” It wasn’t her own murder that caused her to withdraw from superhero stories. It was the constant and unwavering suffering of Matthew Murdock. “It’s funny… he’s the reason I wanted to fight crime and he’s the reason I stopped.” All that suffering can become too much.

The devil in the dark...

The devil in the dark…

However, this overlooks one of the great things about Daredevil as a character. Daredevil often serves to reinforce various genre conventions by deconstructing them – Bendis’ run demonstrates why a secret identity is important; his murder of Fisk shows why the ‘no kill rule’ is necessary. And so, here, Mack and Bendis apply this logic to the darkness that we’ve come to expect from modern comics. This is a cautionary tale, but also an optimistic one. Matt repeatedly implores his successor to do better than he did, to improve.

And there’s the twist. End of Days isn’t actually the story of the death of Daredevil. It’s about the birth of Daredevil. It’s an origin as much as a conclusion. The entire final chapter is dedicated to turning the wheel a full circle. Not only does it reveal, quite wonderfully, that Matt Murdoch may have briefly found long sought after happiness (quite pointedly with his Silver Age love interest), but also that there will always be a Daredevil.

A punch in the face...

A punch in the face…

The Dark Knight Returns was about proposing an end for Batman – Miller describes it as the “brass-band funeral” for superhero comics. In contrast, End of Days is focused on the day-to-day living, the sense of turning. It celebrates the “perpetual second act”, by wrapping up both the third and first acts into a single story. The notion that comic book heroes can exist forever in a perpetual present is something to be celebrated and lauded, a reassuring feature of the genre rather than a debilitating handicap.

After all, the whole story is tinged with nostalgia. We’re told that Matt Murdock murdered the Kingpin after being “outed by the press again.” He declares himself Kingpin, just as he did during Bendis’ run. He interrupts Fisk at dinner as the mobster recounts the story of how “this Paladin idiot” got involved in one encounter, recalling the climax of Bendis’ run. There’s a sense that these stories naturally move in circles, and that elements and themes will recur. There will always be a Daredevil, and he will always be trained by Stick. It’s reassuring.

Washed out...

Washed out…

End of Days is a phenomenal work, and Bendis and Mack have drawn together a dream team of Daredevil artists. The artwork is mostly by Klaus Janson, with assists from Alex Maleev, Bill Sienkiewicz and even Mack himself to add to the sense that this is tour of Daredevil‘s publication history. (There are also shout-outs to other notable Daredevil creators, most obviously Brubaker and Miller.) It feels appropriate to draw such a diverse team together, to celebrate a character who has had – with the exception of Shadowland – a pretty stellar decade.

End of Days probably won’t be remembered as one of the great comic book works in the style of The Dark Knight Returns, but it does deserve to be counted among the very best Daredevil stories ever written. And that that puts it in some very good company altogether.

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