I don’t want to belittle the work of the Daredevil creative teams that came after Frank Miller. A lot of talented people worked on the book, and came up with some very creative stories. But although I would check in on the book periodically over the years, it never really seemed to grab me, or to be telling stories worth my time. Anne Nocenti’s run was quite good, but other than that, the book never seemed to do anything but rework the formula that Miller had set up: Kingpin schemes, Daredevil intervenes, the two of them have a tense standoff, and once in a while Elektra or Bullseye would show up.
This continued for a few decades, and the sales kept deteriorating to the point that the book needed a total overhaul. It was cancelled in 1998, and then relaunched a month later under the then new “Marvel Knights” imprint. Joe Quesada ran that line at the time, and he brought in Kevin Smith (Yes, the Kevin Smith of “how does somebody so funny make such terrible movies” fame) to write and revive the character. Quesada handled the art himself. This was successful, and the book has been relatively strong both commercially and creatively ever since.
Daredevil – Guardian Devil
This is the aforementioned Kevin Smith arc. His goal here was to relaunch the character, and to get people interested in Daredevil again. He succeeds for the most part, though I’m sorry to say the series hasn’t aged well. All of Smith’s standbys are here: lots of pseudo-spiritual Christian whining, potty humour, awkward dialogue, gentle misogyny, and an unhealthy attempt to shoehorn as many panels onto a page as possible. The result is a stilted, clumsy, but still somewhat entertaining superhero jaunt, it’s best legacy was that it set the stage for more talented creators to come in and write some of the best Daredevil stories of all time. While much of the story is quite silly in retrospect, Smith did take a giant creative risk in killing Karen Page, who had been a proverbial plot point/albatross around Matt Murdock’s neck for decades. Risky, but the stories that came afterwards wouldn’t have been possible without this gamble, and I think many people would agree that the character has been the better for it.
Daredevil – The David Mack Years (Parts Of A Whole, Echo – Vision Quest)
Imagine you’re Marvel EIC Joe Quesada. You’ve just wrapped up the most successful Daredevil storyline in decades. What do you do next? Do you A) try to get your celebrity writer to stay and do more? Do you B ) get a writer of equal popularity to attempt to keep the sales up? , or do you C) Get a writer that almost no one is mainstream comics had heard of, and have him introduce new characters that no one initially cared about? Joe went with C, and I’m grateful. After Matt Murdock’s life fell apart in Guardian Devil, David Mack and Joe Quesada try to rebuild the character in Parts Of A Whole, and attempted to breathe new life into his supporting cast by introducing Maya Lopez, also known as Echo. Echo is a character that I still think has a lot of money in the bank, and is just waiting for the right creative team to come along and turn her into a star. This is a much subtler story after the bombast and hyperbole of Kevin Smith’s run, but it’s a welcome change, and it’s one that stands up very well.
Parts of A Whole should be mandatory reading for comic writers that want to learn how to introduce an interesting character into an existing franchise. Echo doesn’t contradict anything in the Daredevil mythos, she enhances it, especially in the case of the Kingpin character. Her story fits so well with his character and history that we’re surprised she hasn’t been there since the beginning. I also need to mention the art of Joe Quesada. He’s never been one of my favourite artists, but I think he reached his career high with this arc. In fact, this is one of those arcs where the script and art go together so seamlessly that it’s difficult to believe that the same person didn’t do both. A few years later, Mack would come back to the character he created and handle both the writing and art on the Vision Quest arc. This is a stunningly beautiful piece, but one that emphasizes style and character development over plot and action, and as such might not be for everyone, especially those that need their comics to have lots of punching and grunting. But it’s one that shows quite aptly how much can achieved in this medium from a creative standpoint. Mack uses an inventive multi-media mix of collage, pencils, and painting to tell his tale of Maya Lopez’ quest to find herself in a truly original, and captivating way. It’s one of the mysteries of modern comics that David Mack isn’t more widely known than he is.
Daredevil – The Brian Michael Bendis Years (Wake Up, Underboss, Out, Lowlife, Hardcore, The Widow, Golden Age, Decalogue, The Murdock Papers)
David Mack’s initial run on Daredevil was successful, but he brought in his buddy Brian Michael Bendis to write his next arc, Wake Up. It’s hard to remember at time when Bendis wasn’t a mega-superstar that seems to write every single Marvel comic on the stands that he is today, but at this moment in time he was just a talented up-and-comer more known for his independent work. Although he was starting to get some traction on Ultimate Spider-Man, it was this run on Daredevil that solidified his reputation. So much so, that I would say that this run one of the best continuous runs on a superhero comic of all time, not to mention the fact that it’s arguably one of the best Daredevil runs ever. Am I overselling this? Not even a little bit.
His run gets off to a slow star, with Wake Up, a small quiet story about a boy whose father is a super-villain. It’s an inconsequential arc from a continuity perspective, but it’s a devastating one in regards to its emotional impact. This story just sticks with you. And although Daredevil barely even shows up in the pages of this story, the critical reaction to it was so positive that Joe Quesada decided to eventually make Bendis the permanent writer on the book.
His first story as regular writer on Daredevil is also his last story, as it’s a continuous epic that would last over 50 issues, and that deals with one central question: What would happen if the world found out that Matt Murdock was Daredevil? The idea had been skirted around before, with Daredevil, as well as other characters, but the idea of an A-list heroe’s secret identity being so incontrovertibly compromised had never really been explored, at least not to any real depth. And any time it had been done, the story would usually end with everything going back to normal, with the general populace believing that the whole thing had been a hoax.
Not so with Bendis’ story. DD’s identity being discovered is just the TIP of Bendis’ storytelling iceberg, and Bendis (along with the extraordinary art of Alex Maleev), uses that one simple plot point to launch one of the most ambitious stories Marvel had ever published.
While Frank Miller’s run was groundbreaking, and truly influential, I have to invoke heresy and say that Bendis’ is the superior story from a cohesive standpoint. There’s a beginning (Matt’s identity being discovered), a middle (Murdock beating Kingpin decisively and making himself the Kingpin of New York), and end (Matt finally brought to justice for his “crimes”, and ending up in prison), which are so perfectly paced that I almost believe that Bendis wrote the entire 55 issue run in one drug-induced bender. It’s one of the very few comic stories of this length where I believe that the writer knew every single plot point right from the beginning, and stuck to that framework, no matter what. From a writing perspective, this thing is flawlessly executed. Bendis knows when to apply pressure, when to apply the brakes, and when to go full steam ahead and kick his characters in the ass. And while he used many of the same tropes that Frank Miller did (Kingpin, Black Widow, Elektra, Ben Urich, Bullseye, REALLY bad things happen to Daredevil on an almost hourly basis etc.), he uses them in ways that hadn’t been explored before (A perfect example is Bendis’ Kingpin. Bendis writes him as weaker, less influential, and arguably much more interesting than previously written).
As the story winded down, I remember wondering exactly how Brian Bendis was going to get Matt Murdock out of the emotional quagmire he had thrown him into, and I worried that the writer would pull the same type of trick that comic writers had been using for decades to get characters out of potentially sticky situations (usually involving time travel, alternate realties, or a combination of the two). But Bendis never takes the easy way out, and takes the character to his logical, soul crushing fate. The ending, while difficult to read for those of us emotionally invested in Bendis’ re-imagining of the character, is the perfect one for this story.
I should have mentioned Alex Maleev before this, but I’ll try to make up for it. At the beginning of this run, Maleev was the quirky artist who was best known for his work on Batman. By the end of it, he was arguably one of the most important (though that view wouldn’t be shared by everyone) stylists in American comics. He literally got better with every arc, a habit which still continued to this day, as shown by his recent work on Spider-Woman and Scarlet.
If you love real and true character development, try this book. If you love bad-ass martial arts action, try this book. If you love crime stories, with a healthy dose of noir, try this book. If you love beautiful, evocative art, try this book. If you love to be challenged by the comics that you read, try this book.
KEEP, with my highest recommendation.
Next up: Daredevil – The Ed Brubaker and Andy Diggle years!