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Mark Waid, Chris Samnee, Paolo Rivera et al’s Run on Daredevil (Vol. 3) (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.

Daredevil had been one of the most consistently reliable books at a major comic book publisher over the last decade or so. Under creative teams from Kevin Smith to David Mack to Brian Michael Bendis to Ed Brubaker, the gritty street level superhero has enduring a whole host of twists and shifts that have made the book a compelling read. Indeed, the only real problem with the run was that Andy Diggle couldn’t quite stick the landing and so we ended up closing out that incredibly run with a bland and generic crossover like Shadowland.

Still, Daredevil remains an exciting book – a comic that affords the writers and artists a bit more freedom than they’d enjoy working on a more high-profile or major character. When Spider-Man’s identity was revealed by J. Michael Straczynski during Civil War, the publisher almost immediately hit a reset button in the form of One More Day to tidy up everything. When Brian Michael Bendis revealed Matthew Murdock’s secret identity to the world, there was no attempt to stuff the genie back in the bottle. That radical shift remained in play for the rest of Ed Brubaker and Andy Diggle’s run, casting a shadow over Mark Waid’s as well.

The big smoke...

The big smoke…

However, reading Andy Diggle’s Daredevil, it’s easy to get a sense that the character was suffocating under the influence of Frank Miller. Frank Miller and Klaus Jansen enjoyed a character-defining run in the mid-eighties. For Miller, it paved the way to The Dark Knight Returns, and it really shook the foundations of the superhero genre. Suddenly superheroes weren’t infallible; suddenly fights could get genuinely dirty; suddenly dressing up in a silly costume to fight crime was treated as something that might be deemed a little eccentric.

This had a dramatic impact across the superhero genre. At the same time, however, it really defined the character of Daredevil. In his year years, Daredevil often seemed like a cheap knock-off of Spider-Man; an imitation of a far more popular hero. With the work of Frank Miller, Matthew Murdock become more conflicted and more complex. He became a hero who could make mistakes, a hero who didn’t have the best judgement, a hero who could fail. This pushed the character of Daredevil more towards gritty urban crime and film noir conventions, and further away from superhero conventions.

Radar love...

Radar love…

Decades after Born Again, writers are still drawing on that iconic take on Matthew Murdock. The Kingpin is still considered one of the – if not the – greatest foe of the Man Without Fear. Kevin Smith killed off Karen Page, the character who betrayed Matthew Murdock in Born Again. Brian Michael Bendis wrote a story featuring the character who planted the bomb in Born Again, two decades after that story was published. Miller cast a long shadow over the character. One of the (many) problems with Andy Diggle’s Daredevil was the way that it demonstrating that riffing on Frank Miller was getting old.

And so, Mark Waid’s run on Daredevil is absolutely fascinating. It’s a clear departure from the grounded urban realism that came to define the character, often feeling like an attempt to reconnect with the character’s Silver Age roots. Brought to life by some of the best artists in the business, the run just pops off the page. At the same time, Waid doesn’t ignore or avoid or overlook what has come before. He just seems to realise that there are other ways of approaching the character.

On top of the world...

On top of the world…

Mark Waid’s run on Daredevil is easily one of the very best superhero comics published over the last few years, by just about every possible measure. The characters are well-realised, the plotting is wry and clever, the developments are organic and exciting, the pacing is perfect, the artwork is beautiful, the underlying themes are meticulously and carefully developed. Working with a murderer’s row of artistic talent, there are very few books that can claim to look as good as Daredevil.

Like Matt Fraction and David Aja’s Hawkeye, there’s a sense of experimentation and excitement to Waid’s Daredevil. It feels like Marvel is moving away from an approach that was worked for over a decade to try something new and engaging. There’s a lot of risk to this. It has been quite some time since a Daredevil comic looked – or felt – anything like this, but it’s also strangely engaging. This is something novel and exciting, an approach to the character which isn’t necessarily what anybody would have expected coming out of Shadowland.

Details are a little spotty...

Details are a little spotty…

And yet, despite all this, Waid’s Daredevil is also steeped in the character’s legacy and traditions. Waid is a writer with a fondness for continuity and nostalgia. Depending on the project, this is either the writer’s greatest strength or his greatest weakness. Here, it’s a strength. Waid’s Daredevil seems like a nostalgic tribute to an era of Daredevil that has been largely forgotten – a part of the character’s history that tends to get glossed over in the wake of Frank Miller’s success reinventing the character.

In many respects, Waid’s Daredevil feels like a tribute to the Silver Age. It’s telling that virtually the only major Daredevil supporting character who doesn’t put in an appearance is the Kingpin, the character who established himself as Daredevil’s arch-nemesis during the Miller era. Despite his involvement in Shadowland, the Kingpin is entirely absent from Waid’s run. He is seldom referenced and doesn’t even appear in flashback.

Something to chew over...

Something to chew over…

This should not be taken to suggest that Waid is firmly rejecting Frank Miller’s influence on Daredevil. Characters created by Miller, like Electra or Stick, make appearances in the pages of his run on Daredevil. Indeed, The Omega Effect is a crossover between the Punisher and Daredevil – a relationship largely codified and defined by Miller. However, the complete absence of the Kingpin, the monolithic Frank Miller Daredevil bad guy, does feel like a calculated decision.

Waid’s Daredevil feels like it draws from the broad and sweeping history of the character. The wonderful cover to the final issue of the series makes all sorts of references to creators across the history of the Man Without Fear. Packed files contain references to “Mr. Miller” and “Jansen”, but also to “JRJR”, “Mr. Lee”, “Colan” and “Wood” – all creators who influenced and shaped Matt Murdock. “Everett Storage” is stamped across one of the boxes and there’s even a box labelled “the Other Murdock Papers” in a shout-out to the popular fan site.

This looks like a job for...

This looks like a job for…

To emphasis this point, Waid finds room for classic characters like the Jester, the Spot or Stiltman. Stiltman, a who has been reduced to something of a joke character in modern comics, appears twice. He appears in flashback to establish the bona fides of a story set in the Silver Age – illustrated by the wonderful Mike Allred. However, he also appears in a present-day team-up issue starring Spider-Man. (Or, at least, Doctor-Octopus-as-Spider-Man.)

The Jester in particular is treated as a nostalgic character. Trying to defeat Matt Murdock through a series of overly-elaborate and convoluted plots, he offers, “When most dullards hear the words ‘the theatre’, they envision a twelve-screen multiplex where disaster porn entertains the culturally witless for ninety minutes at a time. Pfaugh.” Give Mark Waid’s criticisms of Man of Steel, this feels a little pointed.

Burn, baby, burn...

Burn, baby, burn…

At one point, the Jester seems to talking directly to the audience. “I’m a master of story,” he boasts. “Almost a living fiction myself, so resilient am I!” He adds, “He who controls the narrative controls the audience, and you’re all the audience. Every one of you.” There’s a sense that Waid is playing with the sort of meta-fictional awareness that has been written into characters like the Joker over the past few years, the sense that certain characters are away of their fictional nature and their role in a story.

So, has the Jester become self-aware? Has he evolved beyond a campy Silver Age bad guy? Has he reinvented himself as a more serious philosophical threat to the Man Without Fear? Of course not. The next page reveals that the Jester isn’t speaking to the reader, but an actual audience of investors, an audience that are very quick to put the character in his place and to point out that he’s really just a bit of a one-note gimmick character – but that doesn’t mean he isn’t great fun.

Making a splash...

Making a splash…

Waid plays with this idea a number of times in the run. For example, at one point it seems like the Spot has dramatically upped his game – that he’s engaging in psychological warfare against Matt Murdock, using his powers in more creative and sinister ways than ever before. Matt describes him as “a c-list teleporter who finally found his ‘A’ game”, reinventing himself as a more violent and brutal adversary. He even gets a nice new character design with lots of black and pointed edges to underscore his reinvention.

When this new and improved Spot, calling himself by the more sinister and imposing nom de crime of “the Coyote”, declares that he has set up a “solo operation”, Matt notes that this is “uncharacteristically ambitious.” Matt wryly observes, “So… you’ve come up in the world. I guess I owe Spider-Man twenty bucks.” There’s a sense that the Spot has perhaps turned into a more brutal and violent adversary for a more grim and gritty world.

Kicking it old school...

Kicking it old school…

Ultimately, this isn’t the case at all. It turns out that “the Coyote” is a different person altogether, exploiting the powers of the Spot for his own cynical ends. “They thought they could make Spot imaginative… more threatening…!” Of course, the doppelganger is ultimately just a common crook. He is later claimed and devoured by the real Spot, an example of the classic character rejecting any attempt to reimagine him or refine him.

Similarly, Matt and Froggy joke together about Stiltman, with Foggy suggesting that Stiltman could be the mastermind behind all of Matt’s recent misfortune. The two burst out laughing at the thought. There’s a sense that Waid is arguing that classic characters don’t need re-working or reinvention. It is okay for goofy characters like the Spot and the Jester and Stiltman to remain goofy characters. These are superhero comics – not everything needs to become more violent or more self-aware.

Shocking twist!

Shocking twist!

This affection for classic characters and reject of the idea that darker or more self-aware is necessarily more mature is one of the hallmarks of Waid’s Daredevil run, creating a sense that it is a throwback to an earlier era. However, the artwork also plays a part. Artist Chris Samnee becomes the regular artist on the book about half-way through the run. Samnee’s art is astoundingly beautiful – clear and dynamic, with a style that evokes classic cartoons.

Even before Samnee signs on the book’s full-time penciller, the artwork on Daredevil is absolutely stunning, with artists like Paolo Rivera and Marcos Martin bringing their unique style to the book. Their clear line work and more classic style is worlds apart from the dark and shadowy approach of artists like Alex Maleev or Michael Lark. Even without considering Waid’s scripting, the book looks stunning.

He's burning up...

He’s burning up…

Special mention must be made of the contribution by colourist Javier Rodriguez, who coloured most of the issues in this volume of Daredevil. Rodrguez offers a rich and vibrant palette that helps Daredevil to “pop” off the page. There’s a sense that the character is finally coming out of the shadows after a decade, to the point where eve the scenes set at night are vivid and engaging. The fact that this creative team has remained on the book following the relaunch is a testament to the quality of their collaboration.

Waid himself also contributes to the nostalgic mood of Daredevil, particularly with his choice of focus and guest characters. As well as bringing back old foes like Stiltman or the Jester or the Spot, he makes a point to focus on characters and concepts that feel tied and rooted in the sixties. Hank Pym is a recurring guest star, with the “hip scientist” and ant motif that defined the character in his earliest appearances. Indeed, Pym provides a link to the classic Avengers universe, nostalgically observing how things have changed. “It’s not like the old days of the Avengers where everyone’s a casual identicard call away.”

A high wire suspense act...

A high wire suspense act…

Watching Pym journey to the centre of Matt Murdock’s mind, you’d almost forget about the difficulties and upsets that the character has endured in the decades since. That said, Waid does cleverly make a point to cleverly compare the two characters – underscoring the idea that both Matt and Hank are superheroes who have not always had the easiest of rides. It’s a clever juxtaposition – just one of many that Waid makes over the course of the run.

(Other highlights include pitting Daredevil against Klaw, a Black Panther adversary who is literally made of sound – the type of classic comic book match-up that really should have happened decades ago. The same is true of the Mole Man, a character who seems tailor-made for a confrontation with Daredevil. Similarly, Waid cleverly establishes Captain America’s anxieties about Matt Murdock in the then-recent events of The Trial of Captain America. Almost every use of the wider Marvel Universe over the course of Waid’s Daredevil is firmly rooted in Waid’s character work.)

A hole lot of trouble...

A hole lot of trouble…

There are other conscious throwbacks as well. Waid’s well-documented fondness for Doctor Strange is on display here, but the character is very much written in the style of a “new age” guru – to the point where leaving Greenwich seems to mess with his aura. “I’m… never relaxed in this part of town. The soulless architecture… the omnipresent energy of people obsessed with profits and spreadsheets and material goods.”

The Silver Surfer makes an appearance, another Marvel character decidedly rooted in the sixties. In a nice contrast with Daredevil, and a way of reinforcing just how firmly he is anchored in that period, Waid emphasises the spiritual side of the Surfer’s power set. The Silver Surfer is literally able to see a person’s soul, illustrated as a sort of glowing aura around the edge of their body. It’s a very retro approach to the character – but it’s one that works, much like putting Allred on a Silver Surfer book.

Surfer's up!

Surfer’s up!

Perhaps the most delightfully absurd example comes when Daredevil teams up the Marvel’s classic monster characters. As with the crossover with the Silver Surfer, it’s the sort of team-up that could never really have happened during the height of the Bendis/Brubaker/Diggle era. It’s the type of crossover that seems a little weird even in the context of the run around it. And yet, that’s the entire point. It’s the sort of delightfully goofy approach that you can only really adopt in comic books.

More than that, though, the monsters serve as another firm connection to a time that has passed. They hark back to the sixties Hammer Horror films, or the gothic work of Roger Corman. These are characters who really seem more like pop culture relics than pop culture icons. However, they do an excellent job clarifying the aesthetic – making it clear that Mark Waid’s Daredevil is very much an attempt to reconnect with that cultural moment.

You may now kiss the bride...

You may now kiss the bride…

Even Waid’s last sweeping arc on Daredevil feels like an attempt to tie things back to their sixties roots. Matt Murdock finds himself fighting against the Serpent Society – a thinly-veiled analogue for the KKK, with “lifetime serpent wizard” seeming like exactly the sort of rank a person could hold in that organisation. Even matt himself recognises this as a throwback. On a trip to Kentucky, he notes that it is like he has travelled back in time. “Here it is, Racism Savings Time, and I forgot to set my clock back fifty years. This isn’t a cab, it’s a time machine.”

Of course, that’s not to suggest that Waid’s Daredevil is in any way out of touch with modern concerns. Indeed, it seems to exist as part of a larger pop culture attempt to arc back towards the sixties. Barack Obama has invited comparisons to John F. Kennedy. JJ Abrams took Star Trek back to its sixties roots. Even the success of Mad Men is rooted in a cyclic fascination with the era. Waid has his finger on the pop culture pulse here, and Daredevil feels as one of the best examples of connecting that past to the present day.

There is no escape from the fortress of the mole!

There is no escape from the fortress of the mole!

As much as the Serpent Society plot line feels like a throwback towards the Civil Rights era, it serves as a reminder of just how easy it is to ignore modern racism. Forces like the KKK may not be as powerful as they once were, and discrimination may not be tolerated as openly as it once had been, but racism is still a problem. It’s just a problem that has been more cleverly hidden over the past few years, more cautiously concealed and couched in ambiguous language or precise phrasing. (After all, what is the “birther” movement but thinly-veiled and widely-accepted xenophobia?)

Much like the Serpent Society, racism remains a pressing concern. The spark that almost starts a race war in Mark Waid’s Daredevil seems to have been inspired – at least in the abstract – by the infamous shooting of Trayvon Martin. It’s a reminder that perhaps we take things for granted, and that certain reactionary elements are not as easy to spot as they might once have been. Reflecting on the Serpent Society, Daredevil muses, “Instead of parading through the streets in hoods and robes… they’ve gone undercover.” This isn’t too far from the truth. In recent years the KKK have enjoyed “a surprising and troubling resurgence” by re-branding.

Down the rabbit hole...

Down the rabbit hole…

Even outside the political commentary, there’s a sense that all of this nostalgia and affection for the sixties is an attempt by Mark Waid to reconnect Matt Murdock with an earlier part of his existence – before he become nothing but a hero trapped in a self-destructive downward spiral. “You’ve changed since last we met,” Electra notes. “Think back,” Matt replies. “Isn’t this more the Matt Murdock you fell for in college?”

This is a version of Matt Murdock working hard to be the man he used to be, right down to embarking on a journey to San Francisco with a beautiful girlfriend, struggling against “the familiar, paralyzing grip of overwhelming depression.” It’s not a battle that he will necessarily win, but it’s a battle that he is trying to fight. He’ll never be entirely free of insecurity or self-doubt or pride or any of his weaknesses of character, but Waid suggests that Matt doesn’t have to accept these as inevitable, as he seemed to do in earlier stories.

Bullseye's plan really blew up in his face...

Bullseye’s plan really blew up in his face…

In fact, solidifying this connection to the past, one of Waid’s many new villains created for this run on Daredevil is the henchman Ikari. Ikari exists as an explicit mirror to Daredevil; he shares the hero’s unique elevated senses, created through a process designed to mirror the accident that gave Daredevil his powers. However, it’s telling that Ikari does not dress in an outfit mirroring Daredevil’s current costume. Instead, Ikari wears a stylised variant of the Matt Murdock’s original sixties outfit.

With all this focus on the sixties, it would be tempting to pretend that Waid was glossing over Matt Murdock’s recent history. However, the opposite is true. Waid very clearly intends his run to build on what came before. Brian Michael Bendis’ decision to reveal Matt Murdock’s secret identity to the world hangs over the entire run, from Matt’s cheeky “I’m not Daredevil” cardigan through to his final confession in the witness stand, under oath.

Black holes...

Black holes…

Waid is aware of – and acknowledges – a lot of the work that came before. We get a brief flashback set during Reborn. Ed Brubaker’s Lady Bullseye makes an appearance as a minor villain. Bullseye’s character arc picks up from Shadowland. Waid includes an appearance from Matt’s ex-wife Milla, who married Matt during Brian Michael Bendis’ run and was driven insane during Ed Brubaker’s tenure on the title.

It’s clear that Matt is still working through the baggage from those earlier stories, and that they haven’t magically been wiped from continuity because Waid is striking a different tone. Waid deals will a lot of the issues hanging over the book, but he deals with them in his own way. His approach is unique, but he’s careful to emphasise that those stories still inform his take on the character. In fact, the final arc sees the Serpent Society explicitly pointing out that these sorts of things won’t go away simply because Matt wills it to be so.

Three little words...

Three little words…

“How did you so sloppily attempt to stuff the genie back in the bottle?” they taunt him. “With baseless lawsuits, clear-cut perjury, and even the help of a late Kingpin’s wife.” Matt might not want to confront it, and he might put on a happy face to deal with it, but it isn’t simply going to go away. That’s one of the great things about Waid’s run. It is very much different and distinct from what came before, while still building upon it.

In fact, some of the best dramatic pay-offs in Waid’s run on Daredevil work as callbacks to Brian Michael Bendis’ run. In Bendis’ run, it was made clear that Murdock was a character who was too proud to ask for assistance, even when he needed it. Here, there are a couple of points where Murdock does ask for help. He only escapes Latveria when he realises that he can’t make it out alone and calls in outside support. When Bullseye threatens all of Matt’s friends, it’s revealed that Matt has already asked for protection for them. It’s a wonderful demonstration of just how much Matt has grown as a character.

Chewing it over...

Chewing it over…

Waid’s handling of Murdock’s character is exemplary. Despite the fact that this is – in literal terms – a much brighter comic, it’s clear that Matt Murdock is still carrying a lot of baggage. Waid isn’t afraid to let some ambiguity seep into Matt’s character and how the reader views Matt’s character. For example, Foggy asserts that Matt was under the influence of the demon in Shadowland when he murdered Bullseye, even though Andy Diggle came right out and made it clear that Matt Murdock made that decision. Similarly, when Foggy asks if Matt even tried to help Bullseye, Matt ambiguously replies, “I did what was right.”

Waid even has a great deal of fun with Frank Miller’s work on the character. While joking about the idea that Stiltman might be behind the attacks, Waid riffs on one of the most deliciously Miller-esque lines from Born Again. “You shouldn’t have signed it,” Foggy and Matt joke heartily among themselves. Waid even plays with the “Daredevil as Marvel’s Batman” idea that was cemented by Miller’s work on both characters. Daredevil is identified as “Red Batman” and the run opens with Daredevil crashing a mob wedding – recalling The Long Halloween‘s riff on The Godfather. (It’s also a nice contrast with Greg Rucka’s Punisher.)

The diamond standard?

The diamond standard?

Waid’s run is structured fantastically. There’s a clear sense of artistry in how Waid has laid out the thirty-six issue run. The first and final issues are creatively juxtaposed, almost (although not quite) bookending the run with rooftop conversations between Matt Murdock and Kirsten McDuffie. Waid also very clever seeds ideas and plots well ahead of time. The Mole Man plot is foreshadowed in a throw-away line of dialogue from Foggy issues before it comes back into play. The Spot is introduced in the first issue and reappears an arc or so later. There’s a sense that Daredevil is simply a very well put together comic.

Daredevil is a fantastic comic book from a fantastic creative team, ranking as one of the best comics put out by Marvel over the last couple of years. It is a brilliant an engaging read, and an example of just what superhero comics can be.

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4 Responses

  1. This was a great review of a great comic. I’ve recently discovered your blog and have been really enjoying the comic book retrospectives — it’s been great revisiting these runs, especially some of the relatively “older” ones (I started reading comic books in 2003).

    I noticed you reviewed a few Flash issues last year — do you have any plans to tackle Mark Waid’s run? That would be fantastic! And in keeping with the titles you’ve covered so far, I’d also love to see you cover more Dan Slott Spider-Man (the Grim Hunt reviews were awesome) and the next omnibuses of Brubaker’s Captain America 🙂

    • Thanks Pasquale!

      I sort of abandoned the Flash reviews when they failed gain traction (ha!). I might come back to them again, but I wouldn’t be too sure.

      My slate for the year is relatively full, but I am hoping to do a couple of reviews in April for the release of Age of Ultron. Hoping to do Brubaker’s last two omnibus collections and few little bits and pieces. (I seem to like Matt Fraction’s Marvel runs more than most, so I might try to fit in his Thor and Defenders.) Maybe Slott’s Sinister Spider-Man run as a big block, but not sure. I think it started strong, but I think it lost control of itself as it went on.

  2. Hey
    I know that Brubaker’s version and Waid’s are very different in tone. What would you recommend to collect first between these two runs?
    Thanks, I’m a fan of your comic reviews

    • Thanks DD fan.

      Two questions should point you on your way:

      a.) how do you like your comics? Waid and Brubaker are both great runs, but they are very different in tone. Both are dark and have an edge to them, but Waid is much more interested in contrasting that darkness with swashbuckling superheroics, while Brubaker embraces the dark and gritty aesthetic. Waid writes a superhero story about depression, Brubaker writes noir that happens to feature superheroes.

      b.) have you read Brian Michael Bendis’ Daredevil? It’s not a requirement for reading Brubaker’s Daredevil. In fact, I read Brubaker’s Daredevil before I read Bendis’. But I’d recommend reading some of Bendis’ Daredevil first. It sets up plot points and offers a pretty good sense of tone for Brubaker’s run. Waid’s run stands more on its own two feet, where the only thing you need to know is that Matt Murdock did something very (catastrophically) stupid and is trying to put the pieces back together.

      Hope this helps.

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