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Andy Diggle’s Run on Daredevil (Review/Retrospective)

This April, to celebrate the release of The Amazing Spider-Man 2, we are taking a look at some classic and modern comics featuring Spider-Man (and friends). Check back daily for the latest review.

One of the most remarkable things about Daredevil was how consistent the quality of the title had been. Andy Diggle inherited Daredevil at the height of its popularity. Ed Brubaker’s Daredevil was well-loved and enjoyed, climaxing on a celebratory 500th issue. Brubaker had come on after Brian Michael Bendis’ much-lauded run on the title. The two are considered among the best writers to work on the character since Frank Miller redefined the Man Without Fear. Diggle was succeeded by Mark Waid, who has made a reinvigoured and nostalgic Daredevil into one of Marvel’s best-reviewed and best loved books.

These are all great runs. Andy Diggle’s Daredevil run is not well-remembered. Diggle essentially wrote twelve issues of the main title, and almost the same number of crossover tie-ins, miniseries and one-shots. Whereas those other successful runs of Daredevil existed with their own space and freedom, Diggle’s Daredevil was very much event-driven. The big moment in all of Diggle’s Daredevil writing is the street-level crossover event Shadowland. It’s a problematic event, and quite a few of those problems reverberate back into Diggle’s work on the main title.

And yet, despite that, what’s most frustrating about Diggle’s Daredevil run is that it really could (and should) have been so much better.

The Devil you know...

The Devil you know…

There are many wonderful things about Daredevil as a comic book character, and I suspect that they all contribute to the character’s pedigree. Working on Daredevil comes with a certain set of expectations and freedoms, and those tend to invite a bit more experimentation and playfulness than most other characters. Daredevil is not as popular as Spider-Man, so he’s typically free of that level of editorial scrutiny. Writers and artists tend to have a bit more freedom than they would have on a more iconic character. One suspects that even Frank Miller only got away with so much because Daredevil was a relatively low-key character.

Daredevil is a comic that tends to operate under the radar, appropriately enough. Despite the fact that Bendis and Brubaker were becoming two of Marvel’s most popular and beloved writers while working on Daredevil, the title never explicitly tied into the main Marvel universe continuity. While there may have been references to the shifting status quo, the comic never had to worry about publishing a Civil War tie-in or a Secret Invasion crossover. The comic was self-contained and free to pursue its own narrative threads without being beholden to whatever was happening in the larger books in a given month.

Taking the matter in hand...

Taking the matter in hand…

That’s probably what’s most striking about Andy Diggle’s run on Daredevil. It feels like the first time that editorial has really noticed and engaged with the title. It seems like Marvel looked at the critical success of the work done by Brubaker and Bendis, and decided, “Hey, we should probably do an event, or something.” After all, the only thing greater than having a well-written and well-loved book is having a book you can hype to the masses, and can market using Spider-Man or the Punisher or any number of other popular characters.

So, Andy Diggle’s Daredevil is practically overwhelmed by Shadowland. The first Daredevil comic that Diggle writes – Dark Reign: The List – serves to articulate the new status quo. From a plotting point of view, it provides the character motivation and the building site necessary to get Shadowland off the ground. From an editorial standpoint, it signals that the relative independence of Daredevil is over. The comic can no longer exist in its own self-contained universe. The force of Marvel’s continuity – in the form of Norman Osborn and the Dark Avengers – will come crashing through.

No bones about it...

No bones about it…

And Diggle’s run rushes towards Shadowland. The event kicks off eight issues into the run, which means that there’s relatively little time for Diggle to set mood or ambiance, to establish and foreshadow plot points, to gracefully guide the comic to where it needs to be. And so everything moves very fast – too fast. There’s no room for elaboration or nuance, there’s just the big list of plot points and character beats that need to be ticked off in order to get everything aligned so that Shadowland can kick off whenever it is appropriate.

It’s a shame, because there are some nice ideas here that could work well, if they had more space. It seems like the Hand are able to erect a giant skyscraper dojo in the middle of Hell’s Kitchen without anybody batting an eye. It seems like Norman Osborn really should devote more attention to this Daredevil problem, but then he’s gone. It seems like everybody involved in law enforcement in New York – with a few small exceptions – is completely and unambiguously corrupt, justifying Daredevil’s plan, somewhat.

Shadowplay...

Shadowplay…

If Diggle had a bit more space, things would flow easier. We barely get introduced to the character of Detective Kurtz before he becomes a narrator in the Shadowland tie-ins. We don’t know enough about him for him to seem like anything more than a clumsy viewpoint into generic urban chaos, a character who does little more than shake his fist angrily at Matt Murdock for allowing things to get so bad. “Daredevil, you’re killing this city,” he offers at one point. Later, “Damn you to hell, Daredevil… this is on you.” And so on. He feels more like a cliché than a character, a convenient mouthpiece for forced dialogue.

Similarly, we can see how Matt Murdock’s descent and corruption could work. The run opens with the murder of over two-hundred people that Matt was sworn to protect, and he’s confronted by the reality that the systems sworn to protect people have been corrupted and eroded. In this respect, it makes sense to allude towards and acknowledge Dark Reign, the long-form story that put Norman Osborn at the heart of the Marvel Universe. How would his ascent make somebody with Murdock’s guilt and responsibility feel?

The Devil in the pale moonlight...

The Devil in the pale moonlight…

“They knew that evil may only ever truly prevail,” a priest observes at the funeral mass, “when good men stand by and do nothing.” Daredevil condemns himself, “I didn’t do a damn thing. I just stood by and let it happen.” There’s a sense of palpable frustration as he confronts the new reality around him. “We’ve been playing the same old games we always have, but our enemies changed the rules on us. We need to find a new way to play, or we’re dead.”

This is a pretty great hook, an example of the kind of story that could only really work with a character like Daredevil. What if doing the wrong thing is more devastating than doing nothing? What if there is no better way to play? Daredevil is defined as a character with bad judgement, prone to letting ego cloud his senses. This is a hero who can do the wrong thing, who can make mistakes. After all, Brian Michael Bendis “outed” the character, a decision that was never retconned. Ed Brubaker finished his run by having Daredevil take command of the Hand. Daredevil is a character who makes poor choices.

Murdock really should lighten up a bit...

Murdock really should lighten up a bit…

There are two problems with Diggle’s run handles this set-up. The first is in the pacing. As with everything else, the corruption and moral decline of Matt Murdock is rushed. Brian Michael Bendis gave Matt Murdock a nervous breakdown that stretched across fifty issues – there was room for development, nuance and exploration. Here, everything has to get done quickly. So things feel a little clipped.

This is most obvious in the transition from the last issue before Shadowland to the first issue of Shadowland itself. In that last issue before the plunge, Matt Murdock allows himself to turn a blind eye to murder in order to facilitate the greater good. It’s an act that establishes the character as corruptible, susceptible to these poor moral choices. However, in the next issue, he murders a man with his own hand. There’s a huge leap between those two actions, but Diggle’s Daredevil has no room to explore that.

Oh, and he also starts dressing in black, in case there's any ambiguity...

Oh, and he also starts dressing in black, in case there’s any ambiguity…

That’s unfortunate enough, but it’s compounded by the decision that Murdock’s descent is – in effect – a case of demonic possession. It undercuts the character, resorting to a stock generic comic book trope, when the strength of Daredevil has always been about Murdock’s character. Murdock is a character who makes bad decisions, and who tends to allow his arrogance and his pride to get in the way of his better judgement.

While it might be too much to turn him into a murderer in twelve issues, it’s not too hard to believe that the psychologically damaged and fragile Matt Murdock from the end of Ed Brubaker’s run – and having lived through Brian Bendis’ run – might consider something like Shadowland to have been a good idea. It might have been more interesting to explore that idea in good faith – a superhero who genuinely thinks that he is doing the right thing by making such a bold statement – instead of falling back on “he was being mind-controlled.”

Under the radar...

Under the radar…

It’s lazy writing, and it’s part of what undermines Diggle’s work on Shadowland so thoroughly. Part of the appeal of Daredevil has always been watching Matt Murdock trying to deal with the impossible strain that his double life places on him. Removing Murdock’s agency is a cheap copout. It’s an easy answer for a superhero crossover, a convenient excuse for a big fight scene between various street-level characters.

And it’s clear that Diggle realises this. The last issue of his run draws attention to how flimsy this excuse is. “None of this was his fault,” Froggy protests in Matt’s defence. “He was possessed!” Becky replies, “I know you want to believe that, Foggy. But do you know it for a fact…? Or is it just a real convenient excuse?” Of course, the problem is that it’s not ambiguous. It’s quite clear to anybody reading the comic that Matt was in fact possessed. Trying to retroactively add some moral shading to the issue feels like clumsy back-pedalling.

Staying sharp...

Staying sharp…

Similarly, the last page ends with Matt Murdock trying to process what happened. He offers the readers his own account of events, trying to play up his own culpability. “They think I wasn’t responsible for my own actions… but we all are, in the end. Just as we all have to answer for them. Because that first step over the line… that decision to take the life of a murderer — and become one myself… that was all me.” Unfortunately, given we know that the Hand had been corrupting him before that incident, along with Matt’s own capacity for excessive guilt, this just seems like rhetoric, an attempt to convince the reader that this mattered.

Then again, there’s a lot about the end of the run that feels somewhat lazy, as if the comic is trying to convince us that all of this has dramatic weight, but without putting the necessary work in. The Shadowland tie-ins have some interesting ideas – it’s nice to keep the focus on Matt’s core supporting cast, for one thing. However, a lot of those ideas feel rushed or under-developed, lost amid countless repetitive battles with ninjas trying to kill our heroes.

Are friends Elektr-ic?

Are friends Elektr-ic?

For example, Kurtz gets himself trapped in a stick-up in Hell’s Kitchen. He tries to disarm some robbers before the Hand arrive to enforce their own brand of Zero Tolerance. However, the Hand arrive and a fire fight ensues. It turns out that those weren’t really Hand ninjas at all. They were just kids playing dress-up. And one of them is now dead from a gunshot wound. The survivor protests, “But… but we were just screwin’ around…”

It’s an awkward scene, one that is clearly meant to demonstrate that Hell’s Kitchen is falling apart. Indeed, Kurtz closes the scene by cursing Daredevil, because this is all his fault. However, it doesn’t make much sense. Why were the kids dressing up as ninjas in the first place? Why were they responding to robbery where shots had been fired? If they had dressed up as Spider-Man instead of ninjas, would this be Spider-Man’s fault?

Brand new day...

Brand new day…

Yes, Daredevil is to blame for Hell’s Kitchen falling apart, but the entire sequence plays like the cheapest and easiest way to kill a kid on panel as a way of demonstrating how far Matt Murdock had fallen. After all, everybody knows that dead kids are the most effective way to make your audience pay attention to something. It’s somewhat typical of Andy Diggle’s Daredevil work. It’s a reasonably solid idea that the writer has no idea how to execute.

That said, some good did come from all of this. After all, this served to cleanse the pallet before Mark Waid took over Daredevil. Indeed, it’s not to hard to see the roots of Marvel’s revitalised street-level line in these issues. Editor Stephen Wacker secured some wonderful talent for the books, and the Japan arc featured art from Greg Rucka’s future Punisher collaborator Marco Checchetto and covers from Mark Waid’s early Daredevil artist Paolo Rivera.

Policing the streets...

Policing the streets…

Andy Diggle’s Daredevil is a disappointment. It’s a comic that really should be so much stronger than it is.

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4 Responses

  1. I’m glad you reviewed this. I havent read Daredevil since Brubaker’s run and wanted to follow up on the whole “leading the Hand” thing.

    Sad to know that it’s a missed opportunity. Guess I should just go straight into Mark Waid’s run.

    Also, THANK YOU for the Punisher reviews as well. Greg Rucka & Jason Aaron were great writers for him. So much so, that I want them & Garth Ennis to supervise whomever writes the film or tv version of the character.

    • Thanks Fooly. I do appreciate the kind words. (It’s nice to know somebody reads the comic reviews. 🙂 )

      All joking aside, the Brubaker ending was really great. It’s Daredevil leading a bunch of killer ninjas while in the middle of a psychological breakdown. That should be the fodder for a great story, like “Matt Murdock goes to prison” was for Brubaker or “Karen Page dies” was for Bendis. Instead, it was just a gateway to a lame crossover and a big reset button.

      It would be great to talk to Diggle candidly about his run. I am very curious to know how much of that run was dictated by editorial. I suspect a significant portion of it was, and there’s a sense that Diggle really isn’t comfortable with fitting everything into it. There’s a wonderful point in Shadowland where Wolverine shows up and Electra wonders what the hell he’s doing there. I was waiting for a Milligan-esque “I’m only doin’ this to boost sales.”

      But you’re right – those Punisher runs were amazing. It’s a shame that the Rucka run couldn’t continue as a low-selling critically-acclaimed niche title. I would like to believe that, with time, it could have been a companion to Waid’s Daredevil and Fraction’s Hawkeye as a book that really demonstrates the diversity in Marvel’s street level superhero line.

  2. Great review. I was so confused at the end when Matt Murdock claims it was his decision to kill Bullseye. I understand and accept that some storytelling (great or otherwise) involves ambiguity, but this was just a cop-out. Are we supposed to believe the “Beast” was not influencing his decision at all? Diggle seems to rescinds this implication but I call shenanigans…

    • Yep.

      I get the sense that Shadowland was a largely editorial-driven event (hey! here’s Wolverine!) and that really hurt it. I would have loved to see Diggle’s original pitch for the run. I really like his early stuff, with Matt withdrawing from his life and trying to wrestle a criminal empire under his thumb. That volume of Daredevil was really fantastic, it’s a shame it climaxes with Shadowland.

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