BENDIS’ DARDEDEVIL, PART 3: THE BIG PICTURE
Two weeks ago, I promised to look at the rest of Bendis’ “Daredevil” run after spending an inordinate amount of time exploring the opening page of issue #26. Though that first page does have it all — it’s not the key to the entire Bendis/Maleev epic, but like any great comic book page, it has the narrative DNA reflected inside of it — and I’m sure you know all that, since you read the column, right?
And you were probably aghast at the diversion into Omega Land and Gerber Town last week. I hope you weren’t. I hope you have Omega the Unknown posters on your walls and James-Michael Starling tattoos in your heart.
Anyway, back to Bendis!
In the opening Bendis/Maleev “Dardevil” arc, time is fragmented into the present, the recent past, and the more distant past, and that technique is repeated throughout the entire run. It’s not Bendis’ use of time switch captions (like “Today” or “Three Months Ago”) that is particularly innovative, though it is nice to see how Maleev provides space for the captions to be incorporated as visual elements of the page, rather than top-left-corner rectangles that we traditionally see in comics, even now. What’s interesting is how long Bendis sustains the time-hopping in the opening arc.
It’s one of the things that made his “Daredevil” slightly less effective as a monthly comic than it is as a collection (or as a stack o’ comics read back-to-back, depending on your preference). The story jumps back and forth through time half a dozen times in the opening arc, cutting from the narrative present, when the Kingpin is betrayed and stabbed by his own lieutenants, to a week ago, as we build toward that event, and Daredevil deals with problems of his own, to three months ago, when Mr. Silke begins working his schemes alongside the Kingpin-who-he-will-soon-betray. And then back and forth, back and forth, between those timelines. With a couple of “Yesterday” and “Two Days Ago” captions thrown in to provide even more temporal layers.
The time jumps can be disorienting in “Daredevil,” but Bendis holds it together by keeping each layer of time focused on a relatively linear series of events. And since he shows us, almost immediately, that it will culminate in the Kingpin’s apparent death, we know where all the timelines are heading, we know where they will converge.
As a brief aside, it’s worth pointing out that the Bendis/Maleev “Daredevil” is difficult to divide into clear-cut arcs, although the trade paperback collections must break off the narrative at certain points to make for easily portable volumes. But when I say the “opening arc,” I’m really speaking about the first five issues, when we start with the Kingpin’s stabbing and then end with the Kingpin’s stabbing, after having seen how everyone got to that point. Yet the Bendis/Maleev “Daredevil,” more so than almost any other superhero comic in history — including the similarly long-form “Captain America” by Ed Brubaker, or “Green Lantern” by Geoff Johns — reads as one single, very long arc. Yes, it can be subdivided. But it’s one story from issue #26 to issues #81, chronicling the emotional disintegration of Matt Murdock, the fall of “Daredevil.”)
By playing with the flow of time, Bendis can structure stories that may unfold in traditional ways — if the pages were cut out of the comics and rearranged in linear order, we would see the typical plot arc of Freytag’s Triangle, with the rising action, climax, falling action, etc. — but don’t follow the same rhythm as a typical superhero comic. Or a typical superhero arc.
Here’s a primer on the typical superhero arc, if you’re interested. A cheat sheet for how the average 5-issue arc is structured: Issue #1 — Hero goes about his normal business, some strange things occur, shocking reveal/twist on final page; Issue #2 — Hero deals with the fallout of the twist at the end of issue #1, regroups to gather more info about the threat; Issue #3 — Hero finds out another twist to the story, and faces a beatdown, emotionally or physically; Issue #4 — Hero regroups once again, gains allies or improved strategy, faces the big baddie; Issue #5 — Final showdown. Hero wins, though the baddie might escape, and the victory may be short-lived. Epilogue with some joke about the events of the story.
That’s a comfortable pattern, and it expands or contracts depending on the length of the arc, but that’s how many superhero comics are structured. Lay that template over random trade paperback collections and see how similar they all are, in terms of the unfolding of the plot. It’s the default story structure.
Bendis gets around it by chopping up the narrative bits, and by doing so he can emphasize different thematic aspects of his story. He’s particularly interested in the relationships between fathers and sons, and between public and private. He can parallel Daredevil’s struggles with those of the Kingpin by cutting back and forth between different timelines, even if his ultimate goal isn’t to equate the two characters.
Though, by the end of issue #55, Daredevil has declared himself the new Kingpin (or the equivalent), so parallels between the two characters are not merely for show.
It’s also worth noting that many influential crime movies, from Stanley Kubrik’s “The Killing,” to Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction,” to Christopher Nolan’s “Memento,” reshuffle narrative time to turn relatively basic plots into something far more interesting. And though Bendis might not literally reverse time, “Memento”-style, he does borrow from various cinematic techniques, and the shuffling of time is one of the techniques he seems to latch onto most devotedly. At least in “Daredevil.”
And he doesn’t just keep it to the relatively narrow span, jumping back between the present a few months ago. He makes the shocking decision to leap forward one full year in between issues #50 and the following Bendis-penned story, and the Alexander Bont arc that begins in issue #66, Bendis (with Maleev’s helpful visual signals, switching styles between time periods) jumps to various decades from the past, almost in a “Godfather II” fashion, showing the rise of a criminal empire, and its legacy in the present.
Bendis also gives us repeated instances of showing the same event from multiple perspectives, whether it’s the Typhoid Mary assault — all fear and flames in Maleev’s depiction, but the build-up to that scene differs for each character — or the “Decalogue” arc (which is strangely not a ten-issue arc, something I still can’t understand, even today — and, yes, I get that’s it’s a Krzysztof Kieslowski reference, but I still can’t fathom why you’d use that title for a storyline and not give it a full ten issues). The “Decalogue” arc provides multiple perspectives on the overall Daredevil’s Reign as Kingpin situation, but it also plays with flashbacks and questions narrator reliability. One of the more fascinating arcs in the run, really, even if its title annoys me.
“Daredevil” isn’t all just narrative playfulness when it comes to time. Bendis and Maleev pack other interesting features into their run. It does, for example, feature many of the traditional superhero motifs — the fight with the villain, the anxiety over the secret identity of the hero, the team-ups with other costumed do-gooders, the hero as savior — but Bendis tends to subvert them or use them in unexpected ways.
Take the “fight with the villain,” for example. There’s a sequence where Daredevil punches the heck out of the Kingpin, but that happens in the first third of the run, not in the climax near the end. He also pursues and/or fights a handful of supervillains (portrayed on the more realistic end of the spectrum, even when they are magical ninjas or mutated monstrosities or guys with funny haircuts), though not as many as would be expected in a run as long as the Bendis/Maleev run. Who is the real villain, though? Mr. Silke, who is no match for anyone? The FBI agent who sold out Daredevil’s true identity? The Rupert Murdoch type who publicizes it? The media in general? The public?
No, the true antagonist of the Bendis run is Matt Murdock himself. And an internal conflict is not a great way to create interesting visual narrative, so we get plenty of external conflicts as well. But, in the end, it’s Daredevil vs. himself, and he ends up imprisoned for his actions. He ends up losing almost everything by the end of the run, even basically admitting that all of his recent actions — including marrying Milla — might have resulted from the emotional trauma of Karen Page’s death back in the Kevin Smith/Joe Quesada run that launched the “Daredevil” comic for the Marvel Knights imprint.
Even the “team-ups with other costumed do-gooders” motif is upended at one point of the Bendis/Maleev run, when some of Daredevil’s closest superhero friends tell him that they can’t support him. They provide an intervention, not assistance. He’s on his own, pushing everyone away with his unstable, dangerous behavior.
And the “secret identity of the hero” cliche becomes the meaty center of the Bendis/Maleev story. Everything revolves around the public exposure of his identity, and it leads to questions of ethics and morality. Matt Murdock, who has always been completely unethical as a lawyer who breaks the law as a midnight vigilante, must face the consequences of his actions, even while egocentrically daring the public to catch him in the act of vigilantism. His behavior would be sociopathic if it weren’t the norm for a superhero comic, but at least Bendis focuses the lens on his strange behavior. Looks at it from an unorthodox perspective, and makes typical superhero plotlines seem like deviant lifestyle choices.
In the end, it’s that kind of approach that makes the Bendis/Maleev “Daredevil” such a fascinating Marvel comic. It may not really shake up the foundation of the character, and it may not deeply explore the ethical questions of the superhero melodrama, but it touches on those things. And in the way the story’s told — the focus on a kind of cinematic realism (still Romanticized, but not as abstractly superhuman as even the most down-to-Earth superhero stories of earlier eras) — gives it a psychological depth. It sheds light on aspects of this character, this world, that have always existed, but haven’t been brought to bear on the stories of the past. Not in this grittily elegant manner.
The Bendis and Maleev “Daredevil” is one of the milestones of the Quesada-helmed modern Marvel era. And rightly so, because it dares to do something different. And succeeds.
In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of “Grant Morrison: The Early Years” (which explores “Zenith” in great detail) and editor of “Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes” anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen every day at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.
Follow Tim on Twitter: gbfiremelon