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Andy Diggle’s Daredevil – Reborn (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.

Well, by the end of Daredevil: Reborn, it is certainly time for a change.

Radar love...

Radar love…

If there’s anything positive to be said about Andy Diggle’s tenure writing Daredevil, it’s that he demonstrated how refreshing a new direction might be. Diggle inherited one of the strongest street-level superhero noir comics on the stands, and managed to bungle the title mercilessly. Shadowland demonstrated that the urban aesthetic and the psychological drama associated with the comic don’t blend well with the demands of superhero events.

Reborn, Diggle’s four-issue epilogue to Shadowland, tries to leverage the street-level noir associated with Daredevil into a Western revenge thriller. Sending Matt Murdock to New Mexico to do penance for his sins, Diggle pulls out all the tropes we expect from a sun-drenched crime thriller. There are corrupt sheriffs, drugs, guns, locals afraid for their lives, secrets nobody speaks aloud and a mysterious stranger from out of town.

Not afraid to coin a cliché...

Not afraid to coin a cliché…

In theory, this should be a novel twist on the type of story readers have come to expect from Daredevil. Since Frank Miller wrote the title, Daredevil has been associated with gritty crime stories. Changing the setting from Hell’s Kitchen to New Mexico should freshen things up – add a bit of excitement to things. At the very least, it should make a diverting change from the status quo of Matt Murdock.

There’s something quite fun about seeing a big city superhero out of their element. Yes, comic book companies have heroes who do live outside major metropolitan areas, but it’s always fun to see Daredevil or Spider-Man venture beyond their comfort zone. Not only does it open up a wide range of new tropes for the writer and artist to play with, it also allows them to comment on what readers have come to expect from the comic. How much can you change the ground rules of a Daredevil comic and have it still be Daredevil?

Leaping into action...

Leaping into action…

Unfortunately, Daredevil: Reborn doesn’t work. It doesn’t work for a number of reasons. The most obvious is the problem that has recurred throughout Diggle’s tenure writing Daredevil: there are some nice ideas here, but the execution isn’t sharp enough to carry any of them off. There’s nothing about this story that is especially memorable, with the comic feeling like an exercise in joining the dots.

Matt Murdock left New York a broken man at the end of Shadowland. He has to return reinvigourated by the star of Mark Waid’s run on Daredevil. There’s obviously a gap there, and Reborn exists as four issues of padding designed to fill that gap. Absolutely nothing in Reborn is unpredictable. Almost everything is incredibly trite and convenient. Diggle has decided on the type of story he wants to tell to bridge the gap, and he proceeds to craft the most functional version of that story imaginable.

Eye see...

Eye see…

Everything is meticulously calibrated. If there’s a cliché that might help, Diggle doesn’t hesitate to integrate it into the plot. So Matt Murdock passes through a small town with a dark secret. He vows not to get involved, and yet he allows himself to get drawn into it. The local authorities are corrupt. There’s a small blind kid for Matt to empathise with, a kid who needs a hero more than the rest of his small-town community.

Oh, and his mother’s implied to be a prostitute, just to underscore how tragic his life is and how corrupt the community has become. For bonus points, she’s the widow of the last honest cop in town, and has been forced to sleep with the man who blinded her son and get involved with the men who may or may not have murdered her husband. You really couldn’t hope for a more contrived set-up, as it seems like Diggle is trying to cram as many clichés into as tight a space as possible.

Faster than a speeding bullet...

Faster than a speeding bullet…

Inevitably, the series features Matt confronting his own guilt and responsibility for what happened in Shadowland. Because subtlety and nuance are not a good fit, that ends on taking the persona of drug lord Calavera, who just happens to have exactly the gift that the plot needs to move things along. “I can split open your soul and show you what I find there,” he boasts, failing to mention that he also has the power to be exactly what the plot needs him to be at a given time.

It’s all rather rote and paint-by-numbers. There’s no sense that Diggle is having any fun doing “Daredevil as a gritty modern day Western.” A superhero version of No Country For Old Men should be fun and playful and absurd; instead this story of desert redemption is trite and overly serious. It gets particularly painful when Daredevil has his heroic epiphany in conversation with the comic’s little blind boy. This is a kid that Matt will never even thing about again, and who offers nothing but cliché statements, but the comic treats it as the height of profundity.

Matt's not thrown by any of this...

Matt’s not thrown by any of this…

The writing is lazy. On top of all the clichés-as-shorthand, we also get convenient exposition and awkward dialogue. “An’ while we’re at it… let’s go over the plan,” one bad guy insists, as they chat in a wide open space – watched by our hero with super-powered hearing. When Calavera is confronted with the re-energised Daredevil, he is shocked. “Not possible — I sent you to hell!” he protests. Daredevil corrects him. “I sent myself to hell. And now I’m back, Calavera… for you.” Ugh.

The worst part is that all of this has been done before, and better. You could argue that Daredevil has really been trapped within the shadow of Frank Miller since the eighties. It’s hard to dispute that, even if I think it’s a little simplistic. I think that the best writers since then have found a way to play with the expectations and set-ups established during Miller’s iconic run. The very best writers have pushed those ideas further, like the way that Bendis’ Daredevil run just ran with the threads from Born Again.

Landing on his feet?

Landing on his feet?

Unfortunately, Reborn feels like it treads over old ground. It feels like a re-hash of one of Miller’s old stories – and not necessarily one of the better ones. Miller wrote a couple of issues of Daredevil leading into Born Again, and one of them was a small-town thriller called Badlands. The entire four-issue Reborn miniseries feels like it is trying to capture the mood and ambiance of that one-issue Miller story, right down to painting Matt Murdock as the stranger who wanders into town.

Even the title is an allusion to Miller’s massively influential Born Again story arc, the archetypal “tear Matt Murdock down and rebuilt him” comic book. In a way, Diggle’s run has just been an extended version of that character arc – you allow villains to dismantle and corrupt Matt Murdock, pushing him into a psychological breakdown; then, against all odds, you allow him to claw back. What had been a novel structure is now trite and dull.

Bouncing back...

Bouncing back…

Perhaps this makes a case that Daredevil needs to banish the ghost of Frank Miller – at least in the short term. The comic will inevitably return to that iconic run, but perhaps Reborn exists as a cautionary tale. There is only so far you can stretch Miller’s influence, before the comic itself reaches breaking point. Of course, this feels a little much. It’s hard to blame the failure of Diggle’s work on the influence of Frank Miller given the success of other writers working within that influence.

Still, that’s the legacy of Daredevil: Reborn and the work of Andy Diggle on Daredevil. It’s the point at which it became clear that trying to emulate Frank Miller was not enough of itself to sustain a comic like this. Perhaps a new approach was needed. That might be the best thing that can be said about Daredevil: Reborn; that it paved the way to Mark Waid’s Daredevil.

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