Comics You Should Own flashback – Daredevil #26-50; 56-81

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Comics You Should Own flashback – <i>Daredevil</i> #26-50; 56-81

Ah, the Bendis/Maleev issues. Will they ever recapture the magic?

Daredevil by Brian Michael Bendis (writer), Alex Maleev (artist, issues #26-37, 41-50, 56-81), Manuel Gutierrez (artist, issues #38-39), Terry Dodson (penciler, issue #40), Gene Colan (penciler, issue #50), Lee Weeks (penciler, issue #50), Klaus Janson (artist, issue #50), John Romita, Sr. (penciler, issue #50), Joe Quesada (penciler, issue #50), Michael Avon Oeming (artist, issue #50), David Mack (artist, issue #50), Michael Golden (artist, issue #65), Greg Horn (artist/colorist, issue #65), P. Craig Russell (artist, issue #65), Phil Hester (penciler, issue #65), Chris Bachalo (penciler/colorist, issue #65), Jae Lee (artist, issue #65), David Finch (artist, issue #65), Frank Quitely (artist, issue #65), Rachel Dodson (inker, issue #40), Dave Gutierrez (inker, issue #50), Tom Palmer (inker, issue #50), Al Milgrom (inker, issue #50), Danny Miki (inker, issue #50), Ande Parks (inker, issue #65), Tim Townsend (inker, issue #65), Matt Hollingsworth (colorist, issues #26-50, 56-62), Dan Brown (colorist, issue #63), Dave Stewart (colorist, issues #64, 66-81), Justin Ponsor (colorist, issue #65), June Chung (colorist, issue #65), Frank D’Armata (colorist, issue #65), Richard Starkings (letterer, issues #26-41), Wes Abbott (letterer, issues #26-31, 33-41), Jason Levine (letterer, issue #32), Cory Petit (letterer, issues #42-50, 56-64, 67-69, 71-79), Randy Gentile (letterer, issues #65, 80-81), and Chris Eliopoulos (letterer, issues #66, 70).

Marvel, 51 issues (“Volume 2,” #26-50; 56-81), cover dated December 2001 – March 2006.

SPOILERS below, I guess. Doesn’t everyone already know what happened?

Bendis and Maleev’s run on Daredevil has only just finished [Edit: Hey, that dates this, doesn’t it?], but it can certainly take its place alongside any of the great Daredevil story arcs of the past. It’s interesting to look at this run differently than perhaps others would. What I want to look at is how Matt’s life during this run mirrors the creators’ fortunes, especially Bendis’. Not that Bendis endured the sort of wringer he puts Matt Murdock through, but I would argue that these 51 issues, which show the Fall and Rise and Fall of Matt Murdock, also show the Rise and Fall of a specific creative team. All the issues are very well done and should be in your collection, but I want to examine why Bendis perhaps lingered too long on the book and maybe tainted his legacy on it.

Writers and artists stay too long on books all the time, but it’s interesting to consider whether Bendis stayed too long because he had nothing more to say or perhaps because he wanted to say too much.

Bendis made his presence known quickly on the book, as within the first few pages Sammy Silke, a Young Turk with a connection to Wilson Fisk through his father, organizes a group of men to stab the Kingpin, leaving him for dead. Silke even quotes Julius Caesar, in case we don’t get the reference. This brutal act would have a bit more resonance if Dan Chichester, then later David Mack, hadn’t taken down the Kingpin before, but it’s still a visceral way to begin a run. More than the event, Bendis is setting a tone for his run. Chichester’s Daredevil took down Fisk after building a case against him and driving him to the brink. Mack’s Daredevil didn’t even take out Fisk – it was a low-level flunkie whose twin brother Fisk accidentally ordered killed. That “death,” leaving Fisk blinded, is where we find him in issue #26, when Silke shows up.

Chronologically, Bendis’ run does not begin with Silke’s Roman-style execution of the Kingpin. I have deconstructed the timeline for Bendis’ Daredevil, and it’s pretty fascinating, especially in the early issues, to see how Bendis constructs his stories with regard to time. The reason the execution, although it comes later than other scenes, is at the beginning of the run, is obvious: This is a stunning event, and announces to the readers that nothing is sacred for this book anymore. All bets are off, and anything can happen. Bendis is, of course, setting us up for the revelation of Matt’s identity, which comes in issue #32. The Kingpin’s “death” foreshadows that more stunning event thematically, and it’s nicely done.

Bendis is known for his talkiness, and occasionally these issues move glacially (well, back before the glaciars all started melting and “glacially” meant slowly).

This is one of those new-fangled comic books, written for the trades, and even more so the monster hardcover editions, especially early on, when issues #26-37 really form one big story arc. However, the pace works well for this run, because these things are happening in as “real-time” as is possible in comics – days, months, even years pass during these issues, and it makes the things that happen to Matt more believable, because they’re not all happening within a few days of each other. From the beginning of his run, Bendis is building something, and to build something, you need to take your time. He does, and we are often rewarded with complex, gritty, morally ambiguous stories about Matt Murdock.

That’s what Bendis brings us, ultimately. This is a story of Matt Murdock, not Daredevil. Sure, he makes his appearances, but this is not necessarily that great a Daredevil story. He fights typical villains – Bullseye, Typhoid Mary, and the Owl all make appearances – and he meets his typical friends – the Black Widow is often around, while Elektra, Spider-Man, and Nick Fury are featured prominently – but in the end, this is Matt Murdock’s story, and what happens to him elevates this above a normal long run by a creative team and up to something special. Matt Murdock is a man, not a superhero, and throughout this run, we see what happens to a man, not when you strip him of everything material – which is what Frank Miller did to him, after all – but take away his identity. Matt’s identity belongs to the public after Bendis gives it to them, and he has to learn how to deal with his newfound and unwanted notoriety. The interesting thing about this run is that Matt fails more often than he succeeds, but he keeps trying, not because he is a hero, but because there is really nothing else he can do. Bendis turns this comic book into a chronicle of one man’s life when he no longer has any buffer zone between him and his public persona; there is no place to which Matt can escape. It becomes a fascinating study of a man with everything to lose and nothing to gain and how he holds himself together.

The early issues, of course, deal directly with the revelation in the press that Matt is Daredevil.

Bendis obviously wanted to do this as quickly as possible, as it is the fulcrum around which his entire arc rotates. It’s a wonder no one did this before; perhaps, simply, Marvel wouldn’t allow it. It’s not like Bendis was the super-writer dominating the Marvel U. that he is today; he was relatively unknown when he took over Daredevil, but Quesada (or Jemas, I suppose) apparently had a lot of faith in him. The early issues of the title also came out during those brief, heady days at Marvel early in the century when anything could happen, and Bendis uses that freedom wisely. The question of whether Matt will admit to being Daredevil is toyed with, as is the idea of him quitting, two things we know are not going to occur. However, Bendis nicely sets up the debate over how the media affects our lives and how the pressure from the media can cause people to act differently than is wise. Matt has always been a “daredevil,” but with the media spotlight on him, he acts even more recklessly, and we wonder how much the public unmasking has affected him. Despite Bendis’ early problems with continuity – Foggy’s mother shows up at the hospital in issue #27 and is apparently a different woman than Rosalind Sharpe – he also builds on what has come before, at least with regard to Karen Page’s death. We wonder, even before Bendis brings it up as a possibility during the “King of Hell’s Kitchen” storyline, whether Karen’s death is the final straw for a man who has seen his share of death. Usually, when tragedy strikes superheroes, they shrug it off or deal with it. When they go nuts, they do so in spectacular fashion, like Wanda Maximoff, an interesting contrast to Matt, especially because they’re written by the same person.

Matt’s descent into “madness,” if we can call it that, is much more subtle, because we can understand every single thing he does, but when Ben Urich and Foggy sit down and look at the totality of his actions, they see a nervous breakdown.

Matt denies it, of course, but we can never be sure. At the end of Bendis’ run, his utter and suicidal recklessness gets him arrested and thrown in prison – an unsatisfactory ending, but one that can be seen as logical if Matt has become disconnected with reality. Whether or not you believe that Matt has had a nervous breakdown, the very fact that Bendis introduces it as a possibility makes this a much more interesting epic than at first glance.

Bendis’ run, of course, is divided into two parts: 25 issues from Silke usurping the Kingpin’s position to Matt declaring himself Kingpin, and 26 issues dealing with the aftermath of Matt’s declaration. Looking at the first part, it’s interesting to track how Matt comes to his decision. Silke and Vanessa Fisk get into a war, with all the principals dying, fleeing the country (in Vanessa’s case), or going into custody (in Silke’s case). New York is wide open, and it’s logical to think that others would move in; nature abhors a vacuum, after all. Matt has to deal with these turf wars infringing on the only real estate he cares about – Hell’s Kitchen – and the possibility of him “taking over” is hinted at before the “Lowlife” story arc, when Bendis foreshadows the decision more blatantly in Stilt-Man’s comments that Matt and the Kingpin have always been the same person. The way that Bendis sets up Matt and Fisk as two sides of the same coin is intriguing, as well – it’s certainly not the first time it has been done, but a writer has never gone as far with it as Bendis did. Fisk loses, not his empire, which he had lost before, but that indescribable grip he had on his underlings’ souls; once Silke puts out the hit on Matt without informing Fisk, the Kingpin knows his days are numbered, because someone in his organization has lost their fear of retribution. Matt also loses the only thing that matters to him – his identity. Fisk tries to regain what was his, but Matt can’t; the best he can do is steal what made Fisk potent for so long – the sense of fear. By the time Matt brings down the Kingpin and screams that he is the new boss, we have seen a man pushed beyond what someone should normally be expected to take, and it is a culmination of his journey into the dark places of his soul.

He has tried to deny his secret, and that failed. He has tried to bring the issue into the courts with the trial of Hector Ayala, the White Tiger, and that gambit failed spectacularly, as all the things people fear about masked vigilantes materialized, including the violent death of Ayala on the courthouse steps. He tried to fight off the contenders to the Kingpin’s crown, and although that succeeded, it was wearing on him. Finally, when he realizes that Fisk is about to return and become a cancer on the city once again, he did the unthinkable.

Issue #50, from its cover portraying a battered but ultimately smug Matt Murdock (one of Maleev’s best covers in the run), to the final few pages, when we see Matt only with his teeth bared, enjoying himself far too much, is a grim portrait of a man pushed past the brink. It’s horrifying to think that Matt has come to this, because even at his worst (and in my last column, I argued that Chichester also toyed with this idea of him becoming a villain to defeat a villain), we have never seen him quite so unhinged. Bendis leaves him there, ruling his New York fiefdom, and we wonder what the consequences will be of his actions.

Then David Mack gave us an excruciatingly slow-moving Echo story for five issues. The less said about that, the better.

Bendis returned in issue #56, and this is where I want to ponder whether he should have. While I respect him for not leaving Matt in such a, frankly, impossible situation for the next writer to clean up, at the same time, reading the final 26 issues of Bendis’ run, one wonders what he was really trying to do. They are fine comics, certainly, and I include them here because they are good reading, but I also include them because they form a dichotomous mirror image to the first half of the run, and I wonder how much Bendis planned it that way.

Shakespeare never gives us the climax of his plays at the end, because he knew that there would be consequences, and similarly, the climax of Bendis’ run is Matt declaring himself Kingpin. If revealing his identity to the world is the fulcrum, then Matt becoming Kingpin is the result. We need to see the consequences, but was Bendis the right person to give them to us? Alan Moore understood that once Miracleman took over the world, there was little left to do with the character, and left it to Neil Gaiman to tell individual morality tales about the people who worshipped their new god before he began to destroy Miracleman’s paradise.

Bendis knows that Matt has to be brought down; it’s just a question of how. However, Moore was making a statement about superheroes, and didn’t care what happened afterward, because his statement was done. Marvel, because of the nature of serial publishing, needs to care what happens afterward, and whether Bendis cared or not, I don’t know. I do know that he attempts a “Gaiman-style” rendering of the “little people” who must adjust to the new regime, a story he tells in “Decalogue” from issues #71-75.

Bendis messes with the chronology once again, as in issue #56 he jumps ahead a year to the “end” of Matt’s reign. “Decalogue” comes first, however, but Bendis misses a huge opportunity to tell us how the people have dealt with Matt’s declaration, beyond the first story, when the girl is inspired by Daredevil and helps stop Bullet. Bendis gets into a demonic possession/Japanese mysticism story, and completely misses the point of Matt taking over Hell’s Kitchen, finally remembering at the very end, when Matt himself awkwardly tries to explain his actions. Taken on its own, “Decalogue” is a perfectly serviceable story, but taken as a part of the grand arc, it fails to offer us what we crave, and it’s part of the reason why I wonder if Bendis stayed too long. Going back to the earlier issues, Matt clears out his section of town, gives up being Daredevil, and marries Milla. The marriage is problematic for the reasons Milla later gives for leaving Matt – was he sane when he married her, or was it just to make the memory of Karen Page go away? Bendis suggests that it was the latter, even though Matt continues to profess his love for Milla. In issue #65, he goes to Stephen Strange and asks if he can bring people (i.e., Karen) back to life. This meeting is after Strange, Reed Richards, Peter Parker, and Luke Cage confront Matt in the park about his actions during the previous year, and it takes place after his marriage. This is a crucial point, because even though we want to like Matt, too often he has allowed his libido to override his nobler instincts. He doesn’t cheat on Milla, but he can never truly commit to her. She leaves him (briefly) because she thinks he has had a breakdown, but even if he didn’t, he can’t let Karen go.

It’s interesting that Bendis doesn’t pursue this further, but it’s still there.

As I mentioned, issues #56-81 are one long denouement, chronicling Matt’s own fall from his position of Kingpin. Bendis reverts to telling standard superhero stories in these issues – the “King of Hell’s Kitchen” story is a tale of bad guys trying to take out Matt; “The Widow” story is, essentially, about bad guys trying to come to an agreement with and then trying to take out Matt; “The Golden Age” is a tale about bad guys … you get the idea. Taken individually, these are fine, well-crafted stories, but when we look at them in the grand scheme of Bendis’ run, they fail to move things forward. Only with the final storyline, “The Murdock Papers,” do we finally see where Bendis is going with his character.

“The Murdock Papers” is actually one of the weakest stories in Bendis’ run, which is unfortunate, since it closes the book on his involvement with the character. It drags and ultimately serves only one purpose – to get Matt in jail with Fisk. Bendis loses track of his characters in the arc; Ben Urich, certainly, displays horrible judgment, as does Matt. However, while Urich’s behavior is inexplicable, I think that Matt’s can be seen as Bendis returning to the idea that perhaps our hero is not completely sane anymore, which makes this arc, while less gripping than what has come before, interesting on a psychological level. Matt rushes into danger with little thought in this arc, and Bendis is showing how losing his secret identity has unhinged him a bit. Why would he go to the lawyer’s office himself, especially when he knows the FBI is champing at the bit to expose him? Plenty of people know his identity; Luke Cage could have gotten the papers.

Dr. Strange could have “magicked” them out of there! In some ways, it’s sloppy storytelling by Bendis, but I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and look at Matt’s fragile mindset during this arc. He has had his identity exposed; he has taken the burden of cleaning up Hell’s Kitchen upon his shoulders; he has gotten married and his wife has deserted him; and countless villains have come after him because they know who he is – all in the space of about two years. Now, his nemesis is claiming he has all the proof anyone would need about his identity, and he knows where it is. Of course he might go get it himself, especially, as we suspect, he’s not completely sane. Bendis leaves us with a lot of questions, the biggest one of which is whether or not the Matt Murdock currently confined in prison is all there. It’s certainly an anti-climactic ending, but it is tantalizing.

I have failed to heap praise on Alex Maleev for the art on this run, but only because it’s difficult for me to speak to the artistic process. I first saw Maleev’s art in an ill-fated Crow sequel in 1996, and it has improved greatly since then. He drew almost every issue of the run, and I don’t know how much of it is photographic rendering, because the art looks too detailed to be the work of one man churning out an issue a month. It’s beautiful, however, and Maleev does wonders with the faces of his characters; I mentioned Matt’s face in issue #50, but that’s just one example. We need the facial expressions, because one place both the art and the writing fall short is to adequately convey a sense of how Matt sees the world. In my last column, I mentioned that Chichester’s first-person narrative was lyrical in describing the way Matt’s senses relay information to him, and Weeks (who wasn’t alone; Scott McDaniel did it well after Weeks left) was good at creating panels that showed us how Matt was viewing the world. Maleev rarely does this, and when he does, it’s a red smear that is very difficult to decipher, while Bendis gives us very few internal monologues in the book, something that I felt it could have used. Matt, uniquely among heroes, sees the world differently than we do, and while we can look at a panel and see it the same way as, say Spider-Man does and therefore we don’t need Peter Parker telling us what’s in it, Matt would see it very differently, and some of the most interesting pieces of writing in Daredevil have come when the writer tells us what Matt is “seeing.” That Bendis doesn’t do this is frustrating. I understand why he did it, but that doesn’t mean I like it.

Do I sound like I don’t like these issues, especially the final ones?

I don’t mean to; I enjoyed them when they came out, and I enjoyed re-reading them in preparation for writing this. That doesn’t mean, however, that I don’t recognize the flaws in them, and wonder if perhaps Bendis stayed too long. He obviously had two stories to tell: The loss of Matt’s secret identity, which led to his supplanting the Kingpin, and his fall from that lofty position. That the first story is more interesting than the second doesn’t invalidate the latter, but it does make us examine it by the same standards. After Bendis made Matt the Kingpin, he began telling more standard superhero stories, which doesn’t make them bad, but it does make them a little less interesting than the first half of his run. With Marvel’s policy of collecting everything current in trades, these issues are available almost instantly (plus they have the honkin’ huge Omnibi, which are a good way to read this), and they are well worth a read. The Bendis/Maleev run, if not greater than some of the Daredevil stories in the past, can certainly stand alongside them with pride.

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