FIFTEEN THOUGHTS ON FRANK MILLER’S DAREDEVIL
I’ve been reading Frank Miller’s run on the monthly “Daredevil” series in the past month, via the trade paperback series Marvel put out earlier in this decade. It’s always been a hole in my Marvel reading history, so I’m happy to finally fill it. While I have a few issues left at the end of the run to read, I had a great time reading through the rest of it. That even includes the first volume, which contains just the issues (then bi-monthly!) written by Roger MacKenzie and David Michelinie. They provided a great baseline for the rest of the series, but we’ll come back to that in a bit.
Here, now, are fifteen assorted thoughts I had while reading the three volumes in the series.
1. The Gladiator is a Marvel villain I had never heard of before Ed Brubaker used him recently. Having read his appearances in these books, though, I can see what his shtick is. It does make his recent appearance feel somewhat redundant, though Brubaker’s modern storytelling style worked well for the character’s arc.
2. Building on that, I see a similar problem with Daredevil as I do with the X-Men. Every generation of creators wants to do their own version of the most famous run on the title. That cycle repeats itself often with the X-Books. Everyone is doing their take on the Claremont/Byrne years. You bring in the Sentinels. You bring in Phoenix. You kill Jean Grey. You reshuffle the characters. You destroy the mansion. When the next creator comes on, they reverse that all before heading down the path, themselves.
So it is with Daredevil, except it’s with Kingpin, Bullseye, Elektra, and (it would seem) the Gladiator. Maybe that guy with the stilts. Matt Murdock is a lawyer with moral conflicts. His cases lead him to defending indefensible clients. He falls in love over and over again. His secret identity is compromised in some way. One of his lovers usually gets killed by one of the villains who cycle through.
Ed Brubaker is showing some signs of his wires getting crossed, though, as he’s moved the X-Men to San Francisco, instead of Daredevil.
I want to reread all of Brian Bendis’ run on the book now, to see how much of the same continuity he picked up on. Heck, I want to rewatch the movie, too.
Does this cyclical storytelling happen with “Thor,” as well? Does everyone come in to do their version of the Walter Simonson years?
3. I think of Frank Miller as the “Dark Knight Returns” and “Sin City” guy. Those books were my first exposures to him, and I’ve followed everything he’s done since. I never saw much of Eisner’s influence on Miller. Some of that is my own fault of timing. I read the “Sin City” volumes before I read Eisner’s work. The correlation wasn’t in mind when I read them.
I can see it better now. The Eisner and “Spirit” influences, in particular, on Miller’s “Daredevil” are unmistakable. Take a look at how Miller sets up title pages to incorporate the title lettering into the scene, whether it’s by the very carefully windswept trash forming the letters, or fragments of signs. Look at Miller’s panel construction. He plays with the sequential narrative, using panel shapes to his advantage. Long tall panels get used when Daredevil is jumping down buildings. Multiple ghosted Daredevil images are used in single panels to show how quick and flexible he is. Sometimes, the panel layouts are just repeated from page to page for the heck of it, creating an internal consistency to the storytelling, set apart from all the other issues.
I wonder if this type of playfulness with the format would work so regularly in comics today? When this run of “Daredevil” first came out, it was a monthly book, only. Nobody wrote for the trade or worried about how well a collection would read down the line. The sole focus was on providing a great read, one month at a time. While attracting and holding onto a readership was important, I think that month gap between issues led creators to be more playful with their format on a regular basis. These days, such storytelling plays are labeled as “stunts” or one-off things. They’re fun for a diversion, but looked at askance if done on a regular basis.
The Eisner influence is just as apparent in Miller’s New York City. It looks like Eisner’s, right down to the brick work, the common people on the street, the manhole covers, the sewer pipes, etc. You can’t not see the influence here.
4. You can also see some early “Sin City” elements appearing in the art here. The stark black and white chiaroscuro isn’t there yet, but some of the storytelling techniques are clearly evident, including the facial close-ups, the two-bit thugs on the street, the concentration on foreground action while the backgrounds drop out, and even some of the thicker brush strokes with the ink line, even though those came from Klaus Janson, who didn’t work on “Sin City.”
I just noticed, also, that Janson began coloring the series in the second half of his run with Miller. Interesting. I need to flip back through the book to see if there’s a noticeable difference in coloring styles when Janson handled the Doc Martin’s Dyes.
5. There’s a stark contrast between Roger MacKenzie’s storytelling style and Miller’s. The two, as writers, do completely different books here. MacKenzie focused more on the Villain of the Month and crafting stories that fit neatly into issues, with regular pacing. While Miller might have been able to break loose with his layouts under MacKenzie’s scripts, it would not have felt right. A more standard three tier grid layout was appropriate, though it stagnated the pages. Your eye moved rotely from panel to panel, slogging through the dialogue and captions from action to action. Comparatively, Miller’s scripts allow his art to zip across the page. The different panel shapes and repetitions make for more interesting reading. Miller played with storytelling. We take his “tricks” for granted today, but I imagine this was a massive breath of fresh air for Marvel Comic readers of 1979/1980.
6. These issues were done during the Jim Shooter era at Marvel. You could almost have a drinking game to see how many pages or panels into each issue Miller could go before Matt Murdock/Daredevil recapped his origin in the space of three thought balloons. It was a necessary and smart convention of its time, but it reads very funny today.
You get a bonus drink if Matt explains how his billy clubs work. If he breaks the third wall to do so, chug. (Alcoholics, rejoice: “Daredevil” #185, page 1.)
7. That’s an awkwardly drawn thumb on the cover to the second trade paperback. It makes Elektra look six-fingered.
8. Elektra is a strong female character. Matt Murdock’s girlfriend, heiress Heather Glenn, swoons over her man and would give anything for him. Yin, meet yang. There’s a sequence in the second book that’s so over-the-top that it made me cringe. I thought Miller was doing a romance comic parody. Well drawn and imaginatively laid out, but a little too emotive. It gets better in the third volume when she fights for her company and tells off Murdock, though.
9. In Diana Schutz’s introduction to the second volume, she mentions how different Miller’s “Daredevil” was. She talks about how cinematic it was and how Miller cut through all the purple prose common in comics at the time. Comics must have been really bad at the time, because Miller lays down some lines in these books that you want to gag on. They make his “Sin City” narration look positively lean. The use of wide panels, though, works for the “cinematic” label.
I do give Miller points, though, for finding a new way of having Daredevil think his origin to himself in each issue. It’s never the exact same sentence twice.
10. So, Daredevil loses his radar sense due to a bomb in his law office, only to regain it via hallucinations involving the devil while practicing his archery? Can’t say I bought into that storyline (“Daredevil” #177) all that much, though the flashback art (in black and white with DuoTones/Zip-a-tones) was pretty.
11. Elektra’s sais have a major Achilles heel I haven’t seen addressed before. It’s an inherent flaw that allows a sai to pierce someone from behind, slice through their body, and yet not make it through the front of their shirt. Even in the classic panel of Bullseye skewering Elektra, the sai never cuts through the back of her costume. It cuts through the front just fine. It makes it through her gut. It pops out her back. But it only pushes her costume’s material out on the backside, never piercing it. I’m guessing human flesh or blood dulls the blade through the magic of The Comics Code Authority, to the point where it can’t make it completely out the other side.
Do I get a No Prize, Marvel?
12. Roger MacKenzie came back to help write the first story in the third volume. It’s an interesting collaboration. For starters, it’s a Very Special Issue, no doubt meant to educate the youth of 1982 on the dangers of angel dust. We get a solid page of doctor talk that reads like the Wikipedia entry on the origins, effects, and long term damage done by the drug. There are even two additional people in the credits thanks for their special expertise.
After that, it becomes a more standard CSI type investigation by Daredevil, with a few twists and turns. The story runs two parts. MacKenzie only stepped in for the first, probably to help solve a deadline issue, if I had to guess. (Issue #181 was double sized. Janson had a heavier hand with his inks in the following issues, before drawing some issue on his own.) It’s great in the way it shows the difference between Miller on his own, and Miller working with another writer. With MacKenzie, his work returns to the style he had in his first year on the title. It’s very grid-like. It’s straight panel-to-panel continuity. There are no fancy page layouts, no tricks in the marriage of words and image. It is, indeed, a very standard comic book story for the time. The caption work still evokes that classic private detective pulp fiction feeling, with some of the overwriting that people today still make fun of Miller for.
Once MacKenzie departs from the title again, Miller opens everything up. Panels go wide. Dialogue becomes more terse. The action flows more freely, without everything being explained in dialogue details.
13. As with “Sin City,” Miller likes to have recurring street tough characters there for the purposes of comic relief, running gags, and entry points into the seedier underworld. They may be fairly one note, but they’re entertaining as heck. I was beginning to root for poor Turk by the end of the second volume.
There’s also a bar in the series that had multiple characters thrown through the window by Daredevil. I think that Josie the bar owner might have been a pre-cursor to the Black Canary in “All Star Batman and Robin.”
14. Like I said at the top, I’m still a few issues away from completing all of Miller’s run on the title. But from where I’m reading right now — the middle of the Black Widow storyline that Janson drew — Matt Murdock is the biggest jerk in the history of Marvel Comics. He puts Tony Stark to shame. The way he’s manipulated Heather Glenn into marrying him is ruthlessly shameless and pathetic. Of course, the way she pines after him doesn’t speak volumes for her character, either. I can’t wait to see how this storyline resolves.
15. Marvel is currently republishing these collections
in new chunks. Volume 1 is out this week. If you want someone to explain it all to you now, I’d recommend Chris Marshall’s Collected Comics Library, or the Man Without Fear website. The stories are worth reading, but you appear to have a choice as to how you wish to consume it.
And, of course, this isn’t the end of the story, as Miller went on to do more, much of which was recently collected in Marvel’s “Elektra Omnibus,” and then in “Born Again” with David Mazzucchelli. I really enjoyed his “Man Without Fear” mini-series with John Romita Jr. in the 90s. It was reprinted in the “Frank Miller’s Daredevil Omnibus,” but I believe is also due out soon in its own standalone hardcover. Like I said, I’ve lost track of all these releases. See those links above for all the details.
I just know that after nearly three trades’ worth of material, I still have plenty to go!
I’ve seen this topic come up every once in a while, but it’s something I was pondering this week: What are our modern day superhero classics? When you look back to thirty years ago, you can cite Claremont/Byrne’s “X-Men” and Frank Miller’s “Daredevil” and Walter Simonson’s “Thor” and the Wolfman/Perez “Teen Titans.” Moving ahead a little, you land in the era of “The Dark Knight Returns” and “Watchmen.” “Sandman” straddles the 80s and 90s, but I want to limit down on superhero comics for this discussion.
What books of the 90s and 2000s will stand the similar test of time? Which books will still be selling in collected editions a decade from now? “Marvels” seems like an obvious choice. I bet “Kingdom Come” will be up there, too, while we’re discussing Alex Ross works. But what else?
Darwyn Cooke’s “New Frontier” would have to be a contender, I think. Some would argue for the Loeb/Sale “Long Halloween,” while others would be vociferously against it. (If nothing else, Loeb has picked up the polarizer from Rob Liefeld.) But with an internet of fractious fans constantly snarking and nit-picking every comic from every angle, and a sea of personality conflicts now exposed that influence one’s opinion of a work, is it even possible to name the modern day classics? Or will those recede in time, as the work remains prominent?
Is it too soon to name “All Star Superman?” Many people were ready to declare it a modern classic after the second issue, so that might be coloring my opinion.
Ellis and Hitch’s “Authority” seems a likely candidate. Would Millar and Hitch’s “The Ultimates” make your list?
How could “JLA/Avengers” not land on the list? The sheer spectacle of it all is enough to land it in the category, but I don’t hear people talk much about the book at all. Internet conventional wisdom — not mine — seemed to think it was a serviceable job, but not spectacular. I thought it was exactly what it needed to be. It proved a strong hook to hang dozens of character on, getting them interacting, and providing a cataclysmic threat to be defeated. And George Perez drew the thing! I think it’s underrated. I want to go reread it now, myself.
It’s not a superhero comic, but I’m throwing Don Rosa’s “Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck” on the list.
The books I think of today as being long-lasting classics aren’t even superhero books. I think of “Y the Last Man” and “Strangers in Paradise.” ‘The Walking Dead” might make it, too, but its lack of a planned ending might mean it becomes a great monthly serial, but it won’t be legendary book for story content twenty years down the line.
And how do we even judge this? By what’s in print and still selling strongly every year, a decade later? In a day and age of digital comics and “Waiting for the Trade,” it seems like everything is always readily available. Is that metric flawed, too?
And wouldn’t this be much more challenging to ask after comics of the mid- to early-90s?
Next week: My trip down memory lane continues with “Tom Strong.”
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