THE DAREDEVIL DIALOGUES PART 3: FRANK MILLER RISES
In Part 1, Ryan K. Lindsay and I discussed the early years of “Daredevil,” while in Part 2, we talked about the genius of Steve Gerber, among other things. This is the week you’ve been waiting for. Frank. Miller. Daredevil.
Tim Callahan: Last week I provocatively described Frank Miller’s run as “overrated” as a bit of a tease (a.k.a. a total tease) leading into this week. But I think maybe both of us should hold off on giving an overall evaluation of his run until after we dig into it a bit. After that, we can overrate or underrate the heck out of it.
Here’s what I will say: though Frank Miller takes over the penciling with issue #158, and takes over the writing with #168, the first real Frank Miller issue isn’t really the introduction of Elektra, or the smart characterization of the Kingpin, or the crazy and malevolent Bullseye. No, that stuff is just a mere precursor to the real Frank Miller of issue #173, which features a leather-masked S&M bondage villain, a young woman who was raped so hard she — no exaggeration — lost the use of her legs, and a scene in which Daredevil undergoes a beating, and gets beer poured all over him (in a visual parallel to a scene of sexual submission), and then confesses that being treated that way helps him sympathize with the rape victim.
What a vicious, morally corrupt, certainly-offensive-from-our-perspective-today comic book. “Approved by the Comics Code Authority,” I might add.
There’s this common narrative about Frank Miller out in the world of comic fandom, that Miller has grown increasingly deranged or something. That his stories have become more sexist and more violent and more exaggerated as he’s produced more work over the years. And a superficial reading of his career from “Daredevil” through “Dark Knight Returns” to “Sin City” to “Dark Knight Strikes Again” to “All-Star Batman and Robin” might support that narrative. But “Daredevil” #173 pops a hole in that misinformed bubble.
Yet, there’s no denying the power of that issue. It’s like a dagger to the gut. A morally problematic dagger to the gut. It’s the issue where Marvel comics grew up, but what did they grow up into?
Ryan K. Lindsay: I’m wondering right now what people are making of Tim’s words — because they’re all true. That issue is brutal, to be sure. The major conflict comes from the fact that Becky Blake, the paralyzed lady in question, never reported the assault. Murdock takes her to task for this and in the end she does the right thing. It’s an interesting way for Miller to have written this female character, though he balances it with the aforementioned “beer rape” scene — can we call it that? That one image of Daredevil being pinned face down to the floor is uncomfortable, to put it mildly. And this was back in 1981. It kind of makes you wonder how this issue got passed through editorial, though Miller is careful about the words he chooses and action he lights.
This isn’t the first instance of a Daredevil comic with Miller’s involvement being a little rough. Back in #160, Bullseye and Black Widow fight and not only does he do a fair degree of Hell’s Kitchen tap dancing on her but he strangles her with the cord of her hairdryer — and that’s the image they use on the cover! This isn’t a comic for kids any more, no sirree. Miller was subscribing to the Dre Theory on women well before Dre even knew what a trick or garden implement was. Though it wasn’t actually Miller who scripted this violence, it was Roger McKenzie.
As you read Miller’s run on Daredevil, you see many instances where he just wants to make it uncomfortable. Ladies get brutalized, Murdock loses a bit of his mind and/or soul, and it feels like the heroism gets downplayed and instead people are just getting by. Aside from the spandex, this is just a crime comic with contract killers, death, and plenty of mixed emotions.
Do you think Miller was trying to take the next logical step after the works of people like Shooter by making this comic more for adults, or was Miller blazing his own misogynistic trail into the hinterlands of darkness that reside within his own mind? Was he conforming to Daredevil’s next evolutionary step, or was he bending Daredevil to fit the mold of the stories he wanted to tell?
I wouldn’t feel comfortable saying that his Daredevil run reveals Frank Miller to be a misogynist, just as I wouldn’t feel comfortable equating any work of art with the complexities of the artist himself. (Even Dave Sim, who requires anyone who wants to be his friend to sign a “Dave Sim is not a misogynist” form, has too many conflicting views for me to fully endorse a dismissal of the man simply by calling him names, even if he does express views and opinions that seem obviously to come from a misogynist perspective. But views and opinions can be debated, and labels just end up as name-calling.)
But, there’s certainly a consistency to the way Miller portrays women in his Daredevil work, and it’s a kind of consistency that follows him throughout his career. He falls into the Hemingway trap — or maybe it’s the “Hemingway School of Writing Female Characters” — where every woman is either an Aphrodite or an Athena, and the best among them (or the most popular, or the ones Miller seems overwhelmingly fond of) combine those two archetypes into one.
Elektra is the clearest example of the combination, of course, but notice how he de-feminizes the Black Widow when she comes back near the end of his run. She sports a more traditionally masculine haircut and even her tight bodysuit seems more utilitarian than sexy. No, she’s almost pure Athena. Heather Glenn is pure Aphrodite, all beauty but no wisdom or will. She’s at the mercy of Matt Murdock’s ever-changing moods before ultimately falling for the manipulation of one Mr. Foggy Nelson, who displays some of the strategy that might have led to his former success in local government by committing conspiracy and forgery.
By casting all of his females in the Aphrodite or Athena mold, Miller does tell some pretty great, hard-hitting, emotionally-packed stories, just as Hemingway did. But there’s no doubt that in both cases, the male characters are given more depth, more personalities and more vibrant contradictions. Miller’s Matt Murdock is a mess of a man, barely holding anything together in his personal life. He only seems to know what to do when he’s in costume, in conflict. Kingpin isn’t a simple cartoony robber baron in Miller’s depiction. He’s disciplined, brilliant and yet a tortured family man who falls prey to Daredevil’s blackmail, when Murdock holds information about Vanessa Fisk over the Kingpin’s head. Ben Urich is a crusader for truth who is too good of a man to expose Daredevil’s identity, yet his relationship with his wife is barely present, and he works too hard for too little reward.
Miller didn’t create any of those characters, but he gives them life, and builds on what was handed down to him from previous creative teams. He gives birth to Elektra in his first issue as writer/artist, and he resurrects her at the end, but she never feels as real as his male heroes and villains. She’s a four-color fantasy of a woman. The dream girl. The one that got away.
You got to Hemingway before me. Damn. I feel like I should also drop Chandler in, but maybe Miller can just be Miller. I find it intriguing thatÂ his manly style of writing, his surprisingly terse yet florid prose, his stark characters, is evident and polished,Â even at this nascent stage of his career. Miller will not accept anyone on his stage unless they are interesting, unless they bring something amazing to the page. Miller seems intent on showing us broken people, male and female, because broken means drama and the moments of levity are few and far between in Miller’s tenure. If Elektra is the dream woman, then I don’t think Miller offers up a man worthy of standing beside her.
Every male Miller writes is cracked down the middle, in some way. Fisk is ruined because he can’t be the man his wife needs him to be. Urich doesn’t seem to realize he isn’t the man his wife wants. Bullseye is like a shattered mirror, I won’t even go into detail. Turk is a perennial loser at life. Matt Murdock is probably the worst; he just seems lost. The man clearly isn’t happy with life or love, and yet he’s proposed to marry Heather. It’s a dick move that never feels completely justified. Murdock is a man lost within himself and he’s not afraid to drag others down with him.
The issue where Murdock loses it and digs up Elektra’s body says much about this man’s state of mind. He becomes a desperate soul on a sick mission, and after seeing him touch her dead face and declare his love, I don’t think he should have been doing much else for a while. Miller pushes his lead to the edge, makes every choice in his life hard, and then gloriously catalogues the consequences. Perhaps this is what a perfect woman does to a man, she breaks him.
I sometimes get the feeling only Foggy Nelson is a whole man under Miller’s guidance. He’s the best friend, the rock, the dependable one. Nothing breaks him, yet he doesn’t mind doing some breaking. His forged notes at the end between Matt and Heather are a sneaky and manipulative move. Foggy is the determined man who doesn’t seem to crumble through this whole saga, no mean feat considering a contract is taken out on his life.
Though, it’s the portrayal of “Guts” Nelson that always gets to me. I love this one-shot issue where Foggy narrates, in his best hard boiled voice, and winds up vying for a gig as Kingpin’s top assassin while trying to find out some more information on Glenn Industries. It doesn’t try to revamp Foggy, he doesn’t suddenly become the muscled hero, he’s just an accidental Jake Gittes, but one who gets the information and manages to fool them all in the process. I wish there were more Foggy tales like this because it plays up his two best features, his brains and his fortitude. And maybe his luck and friendship with Daredevil help in some regard, too.
I don’t think the “Guts” Nelson story works all that well — it feels too much like a parody of itself, which is maybe the point, but then it’s an Aaron Sorkin “Studio 60” level of parody, atonal and misguided. You’re absolutely right about the sequence where Matt Murdock digs up Elektra’s body though. He’s so convinced that she’s alive, so obsessed and beyond reason, that even though I knew what was going to happen — and that she’d be resurrected later — the sequence still has a powerful fakeout. The reader gets suckered in, thinking that Murdock will find her grave empty, because it’s such a common cliche, but it turns out that Miller wasn’t telling THAT story. He was telling the story of a man who is so deeply broken that he acts irrationally over the death of his dream girl.
Remember that he didn’t even really have a relationship with Elektra. Other than their college fling, years before, Murdock spent far more time with every other woman in his life than he did with Elektra. She appears in issue #168, and dies a year later in issue #181. And in that year of stories, she’s only really in a few scenes with Daredevil — most of the time she’s skulking in the shadows, killing people and/or fighting with Bullseye.
Yet Miller gives her comparatively brief appearance (in the larger Daredevil saga) such emotional weight that she is a character that has remained a central part of the Marvel mythos ever since. Even when, for 15 years of that time, she wasn’t appearing anywhere. I mean, now the character is like Wolverine, Jr., popping up in almost any series at any time. But from the mid-1980s through the late 1990’s, Marvel kept her out of circulation. A break-glass-when-Frank-Miller-returns-to-Marvel kind of situation.
Okay, now’s probably the time for a confession.
Last week, when I talked about Frank Miller’s “Daredevil” run being overrated, I was probably exaggerating. When I wrote that, I was thinking of the run in this context: it’s considered by most to the be the best Marvel comic of its era. The Marvel equivalent of the Alan Moore/Steve Bissette/John Totleben “Swamp Thing.” One of the great heralds of the age of comic book Modernism. And I don’t think it’s quite in that class, honestly. It seems to get extra credit because it’s a Marvel comic, and there wasn’t much of that quality at Marvel. (Even Walt Simonson’s “Thor,” while a very good comic, doesn’t do much to change the rules about how comic book stories were told).
Yet, after my recent compulsive reading of every single “Daredevil” issue from #1 right through Frank Miller’s run, it’s pretty clear that Miller was doing something drastically different, narratively and aesthetically, from what came before, even if a cursory read through his run shows comics that look similar to what you might have seen from Wolfman and Colan, or Tony Isabella or Gil Kane. As I mentioned last week, Klaus Janson’s inking played a major part in how Miller’s run looked, and he provided inks for many issues before Miller’s arrival. So there’s some consistency before and after.
But Miller did do something drastically different in his issues. Once he takes over as writer from Roger McKenzie, and there maybe was a hint of this when he was influencing McKenzie’s scripts to some degree, “Daredevil” becomes a book that has a whole lot more weight. A stronger sense of physicality, a much stronger emotional impact, a different kind of pacing. It gets both harder-edged and feels like it has more room to breathe.
So my question is this: what does Miller do during his run to create this feeling? And if I do concede that his run is pretty spectacular on a lot of levels, what is it that makes it so spectacular? What is he doing with words and pictures on the page that other writers and artists in the previous 160+ issues hadn’t been doing?
It appears you’ve given me enough rope, I’ll start fashioning this loop now. I agree with you that Miller’s run is spectacular, I would go so far as to call it phenomenal, though perhaps I am slightly biased towards a great run on my favorite character, but it does feel like Miller does something different and my theory is thus:
Miller no longer plays Daredevil like a superhero. Sure, there are ninjas, and super-senses, and super-spies, and lots of costumed fighting, but this no longer feels like a superhero book as they felt then. You could probably take out all the spandex of this comic, just give Daredevil and Bullseye trenchcoats, and it would work just fine. Hell, it might even be improved.
Miller writes a mainstream Marvel superhero as a great old EC Crime SuspenStory, and instead of getting eight pages, he’s got about 400 of them. He elevates this section of comics to something I don’t feel it had ever really been to this extent before. As you say, Marvel had done these sorts of tales before, with Daredevil, and Shooter and Wolfman presage Miller’s run, and even the ability to be individual was there with Gerber, but Miller gets the credit because he stuck the landing. He made the shift and kept it in another gear for years. This is his legacy, how he did that…force of will would be my first thought. But what is Miller doing with the words and images differently?
I really want to make mention of Miller’s vertical establishing shots. Every time I think of this run, I think of the excellent, vertical panels that would open many scenes. He gives us the setting and then the right of the page catches up with a tall stack of panels. It could be seen as cinematic — all I know is I like it.
A three page sequence I would direct people to so they can best understand this comic is the entry to issue #179. Ben Urich lets his wife down over a public phone. It’s a heartbreaking moment in just two panels as we get his one-sided conversation. He’s running down a lead on the Cherryh Mayoral story. He wanders into the cinema to meet his source, a very New York spoken goon. Before he gets more than a mouthful of information dropped, his chest spikes out and he slumps forward, dead. Ben’s eyes widen, fear and understanding gripping him to his chair like a meaty fist. Elektra sits in the row behind, trenchcoat tight and hat pulled low. She warns Urich he could be next, and reminds him of what a vulnerable position he places himself by getting caught up in this story. She tells him to stay as she leaves, and he does.
This scene is simple, there aren’t any costumes, there is one death and the whole thing feels clammy and uncomfortable. Miller lights his characters to show them not in their best light. He gives the air a texture, he makes you slowly work through the scene with his brilliantly reactive panels. Is this the first time a comic has done these things? No. But it was a change of direction for this tone to be used in a Marvel comic.
I think this run does get extra credit for happening in a Marvel book because then, as now, people want their favorite tales to happen to their favorite character. That’s why the Big Two sell so well. Miller’s entire saga, Murdock’s toxic relationship with Glenn, Kingpin’s use of assassins, the mayoral corruption, these are all things that didn’t predicate themselves on the guy in the red horned spandex. This tale could have happened anywhere, with a few tweaks, but people love that it happened to their man in the Marvel U. It made their favorite comics, the ones for kids with the bad pun jokes in them, matter. As did Moore with Swamp Thing in the DCU. People want the comics they already read to offer them more. You look at some of the best Daredevil stories and you’ll find they don’t necessarily need him as the lead, it could be anybody, or more importantly, they just need Matt Murdock. Spidey stories generally need him, in costume, and Superman stories sure aren’t going too far without a man who can fly, but Daredevil fits into a nebulous vacuum which makes his use more versatile.
I always felt Miller’s run succeeds because he succeeds in warping a little part of the Marvel U and that’s a testament of creative quality. If you hold a Miller “Daredevil” issue up against anything from the Stan Lee era, you will notice a large difference, in both words and pictures, and yet those stories now inhabit the same landscape. Maybe Miller’s run was aided by coming through just when the first comic readers were growing up and it hit them at the right developmental time. If that does have some hand in it, I think it takes back seat to the fact Miller just created a phenomenal run, no matter when you place it. He knew how to lace emotion through his words, even if it was heavy handed at times, and he knew how to structure a page, whether it was a frenetic fight with ninjas or a scene of a reporter considering his own mortality and how much he should have stayed home with his wife to have that casserole. Miller’s characters breathe on the page and that’s got as much to do with artistic ability as it does with smart choices of angle, panel size, and lighting. Miller’s pages look different from what you would expect of a mainstream, for kids, comic. Probably because it’s not for kids. Miller seems more influenced by the old EC comics than he does Kirby or Romita.
The greatest example of what Miller brings to comics in his Daredevil run can all be found in his final issue, #191. “Roulette” has Daredevil, in costume, holding a gun against the incapacitated Bullseye’s head, playing a little Deer Hunter with him. Not only is that subject matter, just as a short sentence, brutally adult but it is brilliantly captured. I stand by this issue being one of the greatest issues ever created, and that’s while admitting the flashback meat of the tale about Hank Jurgens and his kid doesn’t really stick the landing.
The framing device of Daredevil and Bullseye is engaging and engrossing and it’s only one room and two people, one of which can’t move. Miller uses one image broken through multiple panels to slow the action, make you linger. He controls the pace, you feel like you’re in the Ludovico Technique. Miller is completely in control. Miller also sees the transition from goony old thought balloons to captions. It instantly looks more literary, but it helps that Miller fills these captions with real emotion and character resonance. This is a journey into the dark heart of the new character Miller has created from the tatters of the old Scarlet Swashbuckler. This is Miller telling the world, I might off this guy, but here’s your guide book on how to use him for the future. Enjoy.
I feel there’s two ways to take that comics. It either never happened, it’s all in Murdock’s head. Or it does, but none of those captions are ever spoken. He just walks into Bullseye’s room, pulls the trigger six times and eventually leaves. Either way, it’s one hell of a tale. (Also, I still can’t tell if Murdock has his head out of the costume in that final panel or not…) It’s a Frank Miller masterclass in how to use panels for effect, how to make dialogue seem mealy mouthed enough so as to seem tough, and also how to overdo certain aspects of the story. These were all Miller traits, and yet for all the faults, Miller’s Daredevil run stands the test of time.
I think the fact it’s a Marvel comic makes it more relevant to many readers and so had a greater impact. If he’d done the same thing outside of the Marvel U would he have gained the same recognition?
I don’t think so. There are a couple of forces at play here. One is that this was a character and a setting and a series that had a significant fan base, even if it was one of Marvel’s weaker-selling titles before Miller came in. I don’t know the sales numbers, but the point is that it had hundreds of thousands of readers, I’m sure. That was about the average for a Marvel book in the early 1980s, from what I understand. A new, non-Marvel book at that time, through Pacific or whatever, would have had not even a tenth of the market penetration. It wouldn’t have made as much of an impact on the comics that followed.
A second reason for its success and influence was precisely because it was an unapologetic superhero comic. A street-level action series, sure, but that was in keeping with most of the “Daredevil” issues that came before, except that time Daredevil stopped an alien invasion in the hills, or followed Steve Gerber’s lead and hung out with Moondragon. But while you say that Miller’s Daredevil stories may have worked without the superhero trapping (you even speculate that it might have worked better), I’d argue that the superhero trappings are essential to the quality of the work.
In Miller’s hands, the superhero trappings are distilled to their purest form. Characters with superhuman abilities battling larger-than-life villains. In costume. So many readers, even fans of superhero comics, apologize away the superhero costumes or mock the “spandex” their favorite characters wear. But the reality is that the popularity of superhero comics isn’t just based on the vise-like grip of Marvel and DC over the direct market (though that is a problem all its own), it’s that when you’re dealing with illustrations that take up tiny 3″ x 2″ panels, the costumes provide a wonderfully effective shorthand for drama.
Superhero (and villain) costumes are the equivalent of the comedy and tragedy masks worn by the Greek actors. They are the equivalent of the spectacle of Broadway theater. Sure, comics can go in for the close-up, the way cinema can, just compare the size of the screen to the size of the panel. Superhero comics thrive on their costumes and romantic exaggeration.
So there’s that.
Plus, these characters have become archetypes, and that always provides a kind of dramatic shorthand as well. It’s the benefit of using Sherlock Holmes in your story as opposed to Joe Random Detective. If you want to focus on the plot machinery and the storytelling itself, its more effective to use characters you don’t have to create from scratch (and teach the readers about).
And that’s really what not only supplements the quality of Miller’s Daredevil run, it’s what it relies on. Because if I’m going to answer my own question about what makes his work on the series so much better than what came before — and I do agree with almost everything you say about how his stories work — I’d simply say that it’s a matter of pacing and tone. That’s what Miller does differently.
Pre-Miller, “Daredevil” is a relentless series of events. Every panel pushes the story toward a climax or adds to the conflict or wallows in its own melodrama. Miller actually has panels of reaction. Panels of hesitation. His Bullseye is menacing not because he is an attack dog on every single page. But because sometimes he pauses. He lingers. He seems to be enjoying this, because of the deliberate way he acts.
And if you look at what happens when Miller takes over the writing of the book, he actually starts using more panels per page than he did when he was penciling McKenzie’s scripts. That’s an unusual progression. Think of the Image artists who started drawing far fewer panels per page once they had control over the writing, as compared to the more dense narrative they had to follow at Marvel. But Miller uses the small panels to provide masterful control over the pacing.
So, yes, Miller helped to revolutionize the way superhero comics could be paced within a given sequence. And if you look at the pre-Miller stories, it was a new villain every issue or two. Miller changed that aspect of pacing as well. It became one, much more novelistic, narrative, over the course of several years. It wasn’t what we’d now call decompression, because there wasn’t a build up and climax every five or six issues, it was much quicker than that, but the villains had larger schemes. The Kingpin, Elektra, and Bullseye revolved around the life of Matt Murdock and played a far bigger than the usual villain-of-the-month-club guys and gals that preceded them.
Tonally, Miller lingered in the shadows and the madness of his protagonist. Matt Murdock’s life becomes deconstructed during Miller’s run, as each tiny thread unravels and shows Murdock to be the mess of a man (but a man who strives and tries to be something better) that he still is today.
So much for Miller’s run being overrated, I guess.
And we haven’t even gotten to his return to the character a few years later.
Damn, here comes the hard part, and I see no point in burying the lead. I am not as massive a fan of “Born Again” as every other person alive seems to be. I generally prefer Miller’s first run to this story arc.
Am I kicked out of the club yet?
But let me clarify. “Born Again” is brilliant, there’s no doubt, and it’s certainly worthy of praise and there’s a reason it’s probably the most quotable Daredevil story ever written but then it enters the final act, and Nuke just about ruins everything for me. I just cannot stand Nuke; though on this reread I must admit he annoyed me less than he did in the past. But he stills feels weird, anachronistic, put into the conclusion to this personal story that goes through the five issues before.
The way this tale begins, it’s like Miller has swapped from Chandler crime to flat out Hammett violence. This comic is much more depraved than some of the previous stuff he got away with, yet it doesn’t feel gratuitous, it feels like the logical next step.
I get the feeling that Miller’s first run was full of flawed people, everyone had something wrong with them, but this arc is all about good people, true people, operating in a corrupt and morally bankrupt society. The actions conspire against these Murdock and Urich, instead of the leads being their own worst enemies.
You are out of the club! You don’t love “Born Again” as much as the rest of the random duded surveyed? Pish and tosh, sir!
Yeah, Nuke does kind of come in and screw up the whole thing, doesn’t he?
Let me back up a bit though.
I just reread “Born Again” last night — and the Denny O’Neil issues leading into the Miller issues leading into “Born Again” — and as I was rereading issue #227, I paused and literally said out loud, “This is exactly why I thought of Miller’s ‘Daredevil’ as overrated.” I don’t usually talk to myself, or voice my comic book opinions to my uncaring bookshelves, but what I was talking about was not how disappointing issue #227 was, but how amazing it was compared to Miller’s first run on the series.
As we all know, because I just talked myself into a circle about how, yes, Miller’s first run on “Daredevil” is pretty spectacular, I think Miller did quite a few revolutionary things with the character during his stint as writer/artist. But reading him and David Mazzucchelli systematically dismantling Matt Murdock’s world was a whole new level of amazingness. It’s not just how it happens, it’s the palpable human cost throughout “Daredevil” #227 and the ones immediately after. The tragic tale of Karen Page (who we hadn’t seen for nearly 100 issues). The way the Kingpin gets to Murdock by peeling away the everyday supports that prop up his — or anyone’s — life, but because the Kingpin is, at heart, a thug, he can’t help but “sign” his work by blowing up Matt Murdock’s building. It’s pathos of the sort that Miller’s first run couldn’t even conceive of, because it was too interested in hyperbolic drama and ninja fights.
Yet I wonder how much of that is based on the way I was first exposed to these comics. My first ever “Daredevil” issue was #178 — the Power Man and Iron Fist story. I was nine, and it was a great exposure to the world of street level Marvel heroes and Frank Miller-lite. My next “Daredevil” issue was years later, as I started becoming a weekly comic book reader around the time of issue #220. I didn’t know who Frank Miller was at the time, and I didn’t know he was the guy who wrote and drew the previous issue I had read, years before. I didn’t know that I was only a few months away from “Daredevil” comics entering a whole new phase of sophistication with “Born Again,” where the characters do become the center of the story, and the pain is as real beyond imagining.
“Born Again” is one of the few stories that really taught me how to read comics. What comics could be when a writer and artist were trying to do more than move a plot along.
And, man, it still holds up. Miller and Mazzucchelli are in virtuoso territory with this stuff, and it’s kind of exhilarating to see Mazzuchhelli become more playful as the arc evolves, as his Ben Urich becomes more and more of a withered icon of the truth in a corrupt world. Yes, its largely an arc in which bad things happen to people. It’s nihilistic and chaotic and much closer to the philosophy of life that I probably subscribed to when I first read it, and probably still subscribe to some extent today.
So when, a decade later, I finally went back and read all of Frank Miller’s first run on the book, I suppose I was disappointed to find that it was just a superhero comic. A really good one. But not to the level of “Born Again.”
Reading it all this time was different. In the context of what came before, Miller’s first run gained in stature. It’s narrative and aesthetic pleasures became more obvious. More of a line in the sand. And “Born Again” was still as good as ever. Better than Miller’s first run, yes.
Until the Nuke subplot takes over.
“Born Again” falls apart as the concerns of Matt Murdock’s fall and redemption become overshadowed by the giddy, satirical, hyperviolent patriotism of Nuke. It’s as if Frank Miller realized that he was getting too sensitive in his portrayal of this sordid world and he needed to throw a clown with an assault rifle into the center of the action. Nuke isn’t a failure of a character on his own, but the way he dominates the final act of the story is at odds with the theme and structure of what came before.
Frank Miller nukes the heart of the best story he had ever written.
You know what, though? I still love the heck out of it.
Everything you say about Nuke is exactly what I feel. The tale builds wonderfully, and then it just becomes something else. Polanski gets Smithee’d by Bay, if you will.
I want to see more symbolism in Nuke — is it that Murdock has to dismantle the force-fed American dream before he can live his own? Nah, that’s not right. This is just a spook popping pills and lighting Hell’s Kitchen up and it has no place standing aside the Kingpin setting out to kill Murdock in a set up drowning and as he wonders about the watery death throes of this spandex-clad pox on his house he finds out there is no corpse. This is a sick and twisted villain, not some laser-powered doomsday device, but rather a brutal, and what should have been effective, way to get rid of the man who constantly thwarts and annoys you. Kingpin isn’t a fool here, he does it all right. The only thing that goes wrong is that Matt Murdock is stronger than even he imagined. Especially once backed into a corner.
This is poetry of the black heart, and suddenly I’m meant to buy Nuke launching out of his helicopter and having any real emotional impact on the tale. Miller should have saved this guy for “Elektra: Assassin. He would have fit that Neo-Pop sensibility perfectly. He might even have been too understated a character to survive in that bleak and hyper-comic landscape.
I think I feel about “Born Again” against Miller’s first run as I do “Elektra: Assassin” against “Elektra Lives Again.” I can see the technical mastery and experimental panache of the former examples but the latter always feel like they have more heart. They pick apart at the humanity of the tale whereas “Born Again” and “Elektra: Assassin” show me, unequivocally, that any heart to be found in this world is dead. And black. And probably half-eaten by a very scary man.
I don’t care that Matt and Karen are wandering through the streets happy at the end of “Born Again.” They aren’t happy, they’re ignorant. The world hasn’t changed, they’ve just closed their eyes (or radar senses) against the worst because they know it will always be there and the best they can do is enjoy the fleeting time you get before the world calls back on your door to crush your spirit and step on your blue suede shoes. The end of Miller’s first run shows Murdock reconciling that at least the good of the world is within him, and he believes that can make a difference. Once he’s wandering with Karen, it’s all a pipedream. He isn’t happy, truly, he’s just taking a moment of happiness and there’s a massive difference. The next month it will all be reset, there’ll be another foe, drama and turmoil will forever plague him. Miller is commenting on the superhero condition, these guys can’t change the world, the world would never let them, so they better smile while they can after one terrible encounter because the next is always right around the corner.
It scares me that Miller can swing so wildly between such twisted humanity to such diseased disdain for the human condition. It also scares me that he does both of them so bloody well. I can read all four of these tales and enjoy them, it is just two that touch me more and I want to return to more often. Maybe I’m just a dreamer, a kid with fallen stars in his pocket…
I think we’d better end it with that, before you break into song or something.
NEXT WEEK: We wrap up the DAREDEVIL DIALOGUES with Ann Nocenti, Dan Chichester and Daredevil: France.
In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of “Grant Morrison: The Early Years” and editor of “Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes” anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen regularly at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.
Follow Tim on Twitter: TimCallahan