BENDIS’ DAREDEVIL, PART 1: BACK TO THE BOARDS
I haven’t written about this much, or ever, really, but Brian Michael Bendis got me back into comics.
Or back into Marvel superhero comics, at least.
Like a lot of my generation of comic book readers — i.e. those of us who were the perfect age for the amazing shift that occurred in the mid-1980s — I drifted away from superhero comics in the mid-1990s. Image crushed my spirit, not because the image comics were so poorly written, though they mostly were, and not because they usually failed to arrive on any sort of reasonably schedule, but because the ridiculous popularity of Image led to weak sauce competition from Marvel and DC, and instead of building on the jump-start that the likes of Miller, Moore, Sienkiewicz, Mazzuchelli, and Morrison gave the genre, the mainstream superhero comic turned into monstrously bad imitations of what they thought Image comics were all about. Grotesque figure drawing, terrible storytelling, and poor-parodies-of-Scott Williams, and missing-the-point-of-Rob Liefeld rendering.
It didn’t bother me at all, honestly, as much as I hyperbolically say that it “crushed my spirit,” because I just didn’t read those terrible 1990s superhero comics. I stuck with much of the Vertigo line, I explored what Tundra had to offer, read plenty of Dark Horse’s Icon sort-of-line, and, in general, enjoyed the heck out of the comics I read in the 1990s.
But though I’ve always loved superhero comics, I completely ignored much of what came out from mainstream DC during that era, and I don’t think I bought a single Marvel comic from, say 1992 until 1998 — or at least not more than a handful. The only thing I even considered buying was the early Marvel Knights stuff. Quesada was on to something there.
It wasn’t until I became a member of Club Bendis that I really jumped back in to the Marvel universe, and I know I wasn’t alone.
Back in those days, around 1999-2000, there were already plenty of places online to read about comics, to talk about comics. But around the time of “Sam and Twitch” #9, or maybe it was “Powers” #1 — I started hanging out at the old Bendis boards. I seem to recall guys like Chris Allen posting a lot on those boards back then too, and Chris Ryall, and some guy who adopted the moniker “Griffin Mill,” a would-be producer in the mold of the Robert Altman antihero. I don’t know if those old Bendis boards are archived anywhere, but I posted regularly for about a year — I was a regular, under the name “TCallah,” I think, or maybe “AbeVigoda.” I had a couple of internet names back in those days, and I can’t remember which one I used with the Bendis gang.
Bendis was an exciting creator. He had a strong authorial voice. He was viciously funny in his letters pages and in his message board posts. He was smart about narrative and dialogue and cinema. And only a few months after I started hanging out on his boards, he started talking about some secret Marvel projects. One of them turned out to be “Ultimate Spider-Man,” and another turned out to be “Daredevil.”
Ten years later, Bendis is the architect of the Marvel universe, and he rose through the ranks faster than any of us could have imagined. I have criticized his work as much as I have praised it, but there’s no doubt that he’s a major talent in the industry. A man who still has a strong authorial voice and keeps pumping out the comics at rate both fast and furious.
And I’ve read everything he’s written during that time.
So that’s a bit of background, to put things in perspective when I say this: “Daredevil” is his masterpiece.
Some of you might be saying, “Duh, everyone knows that ‘Daredevil’ is Bendis’ best work.” But for a long time, I wouldn’t have agreed with that. I would have argued on behalf of “Powers,” even if the ends of the arcs were always weaker than the beginnings. Or I would have argued for “Ultimate Spider-Man,” which is the best long-form Peter Parker story ever told, even if the Mark Bagley art isn’t top notch work.
As a regular reader of “Daredevil,” or, at least, one who read it like crazy throughout the 1980s, dropped it post-Dan Chichester, and then picked it back up again when it was relaunched by Kevin Smith and Joe Quesada, I found Bendis’ “Daredevil,” or Bendis and Maleev’s “Daredevil,” I should say, to be a strong start with a weak finish. I thought the decompression killed the narrative, and Maleev’s Photoshop-heavy artwork mixed with Bendis’ overly-Mametesque dialogue served to accentuate Bendis’ worst instincts and turn “Daredevil” into a bleak pit of despair rather than a story.
I read every single issue, and liked plenty of them, but mostly for their contrast to other mainstream comics. Not because I thought Bendis and Maleev were building anything special. Their comics felt like sealed systems. Hermetic. Ultimately without any real concern for the types of grand narrative that superhero comics can do so well.
When readers would demand that Bendis and Maleev’s “Daredevil” run be considered in the list of Best Comics of the Decade last year, I wouldn’t exactly scoff, but I would think, “Bendis’ repetitive dialogue and Maleev’s filtered backgrounds don’t a great series make.” Because that’s what I remembered most about the series. I remembered the superficial details. I remembered a few plot points but not many. In retrospect, it was a series in which nothing happened, except Daredevil hiding out from the paparazzi and then finally getting sent to jail, or so it seemed. And it felt like about 100 issues of that. Dragged out. Not so much bloated, as static. Or incremental.
But I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I was wrong.
I was wrong to dismiss Bendis and Maleev’s “Daredevil.” I was wrong to consider it an interesting failure, or a series that never lived up to its potential. Because reading it on a monthly basis, serialized amidst dozens of other releases, that wasn’t really reading “Daredevil.” That was experiencing it in tiny doses. That was catching it out of the corner of my eye as the crushing oppressive force of more traditional superhero comics began taking more and more of my attention.
It’s all Bendis’ fault, either way, since his comics got me back into reading the rest of the Marvel line, and plenty of DC books as well.
But reading Bendis and Maleev’s “Daredevil” in single issues was a fundamentally different experience than reading it the way it needs to be read. A lot of contemporary comics aspire to take a novelistic approach, but “Daredevil” requires that a reader treat it as a novel and read it that way. A few pages a month spaced out among a bazillion action movies will make any novel seem slow, incomplete, superficial. But that’s how I read “Daredevil” originally. Yet reading the Omnibus editions over the past two weeks — all the Bendis and Maleev issues in practically two sittings — shattered my recollections of this series. Nothing that happened surprised me. I had read it all before. But the way it happened, the way it unfolded at this completely different pace, this changed everything.
The sealed system of Matt Murdock’s Hell’s Kitchen became its virtue. The repetition, which I would have expected to be more annoying when chapters were read back-to-back, was part of a powerful rhythm. Maleev’s art, though still problematic in the middle of the run, became less jarringly photo-real, without the influence of other mainstream comics to ruin its look.
I’d always accepted that this was a good “Daredevil” run, but I never had a chance to appreciate it in its holistic, novelistic, fullness. But now I see what it has to offer, and I want to think about it, write about it, analyze it some more.
So that’s what I’ll be doing over the next couple of weeks. I know this week is all buildup and no payoff, but I need to let “Daredevil” sit a bit longer, I need to give it some distance and examine how it works so well as a whole, even if it didn’t astonish me in its parts. And I wouldn’t be able to get very deeply into the series now that I’ve spent all these words providing some context. I’ve run out of time this week to even begin to dive into the depths of Bendis and Maleev’s work.
But since I’ll start with “Daredevil” #26 next week, when Bendis and Maleev’s run properly begins, I will say this about the Bendis’ collaboration with David Mack on issues #16-19, and Rob Haynes on “Daredevil: Ninja,” both of which predated the beginning of his work with Maleev on the series: the Mack issues are gorgeous, but they stand outside the story he tells in the rest of the series, and the Haynes miniseries is a thin action spectacle with no substance. So little substance, that Bendis didn’t want to see it included in either Omnibus edition.
The Mack issues are worth reading, and they give an insight into where Bendis could have gone with the series — more Vertigo-lite, in the post-Gaiman manner — but that wouldn’t really have been his style. He seems to be trying to write something deep and meaningful in that “Wake Up” arc with Mack, but it’s more typical Mack than it is Bendis. No, his true narrative concerns arrive when Alex Maleev joins him on the series.
Then it becomes a Bendis comic. The best of the Bendis comics.
NEXT WEEK: “Daredevil” #26-60, exposed. The Omnibus, celebrated.
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.
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