When Words Collide

Mon, February 8th, 2010 at 2:28pm PST

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer

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BENDIS' DAREDEVIL, PART 2: KEEPING IT REAL

The Bendis and Maleev Run Begins

I spent the entire column last week building up to my analysis of Bendis and Maleev's "Daredevil" run, so I won't mess around with a long intro here. Some digressions in the middle of this sucker, perhaps, but let's get right into the comics this time.

I could spend the entire week talking about the first page of the Bendis/Maleev run, honestly, and maybe I will, because it contains everything.

On that opening page to issue #26, Alex Maleev gives us four wide, evenly-proportioned panels introducing a new character into the Daredevil mythos: Mr. Silke. He's no super-powered maniac like the other Misters in Matt Murdock's life, no hulking brute like Mr. Hyde or devious manipulator with magical weaponry like Mr. Fear. He's just a douchebag gangster making his move in the underworld.

But on this opening page, the entire schema of the Bendis/Maleev run is laid out for us. It's all here, even if its only four panels, slowly moving in closer each time, of a guy with polarized sunglasses, white socks, slip-on leather shoes, and a sleazy sense of self-confidence. Stylistically, it indicates a cinematic approach to storytelling, with the camera at a fixed height, tracking toward the subject incrementally. But it also implies a sense of visual stasis. The panel-to-panel continuity is moment-to-moment, something that will be carried out for the rest of the run, punctuated by dramatic ellipsis between scenes, and frozen moments of action.

There's a visual realism here, twenty-six issues into the Marvel Knights debut of this "Daredevil" series, that hadn't been present before. Quesada's dramatic opening arc featured post-Mignola stylings filtered through classically dynamic poses. David Mack was a dreamlike blend of Jon J. Muth and Bill Sienkiewicz. Phil Winslade brought a Bronze Age grit to go along with the glossy superhero sheen. None of those stories -- none of those artists -- worked in a realistic mode.

Mister Silke

An interlude: there's realism and then there's Realism. If we consider the spectrum from Romanticism to Realism in comic books, with cosmic adventures full of space gods on one side and practically uneventful human drama on the other, we can see that most "Daredevil" stories, from his first appearance to his most recent, tend toward the middle. Realism, in the literary sense, is one of those "New Yorker" stories where nothing happens except a quiet conversation between an old married couple, and the tiny chip in the stoneware warrants a three-paragraph long description. Most "Daredevil" stories don't go that inward. Don't restrict the action and the larger-than-life moments that much. Even Frank Miller, or Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli, balanced their run on the side of Romanticism. Whether its through dynamic leaps across the cityscape, magical ninjas, or drugged-up super-soldiers, their work took the foundation of Romanticism and injected bits of realism. Or operated in a mode of quasi-Realism within a blantantly Romantic milieu.

Bendis and Maleev shift that emphasis. They operate within the scope of Realism, but punctuate the reality with moments of Romanticism. Their Daredevil doesn't operate outside the Marvel Universe -- this isn't an Elsewords or a "What if Daredevil Really Lived in Really Real Life?" -- but by narrowing their focus on Matt Murdock's internal life, on his close cadre of friends and enemies, and by opening their arc the way they do, with a series of photo-real images of Mr. Silke talking to the reader, Bendis and Maleev signify that their "Daredevil" will be different from what has come before. And throughout their run, they stay true to that implicit promise, even when the magical ninjas show up again.

On that opening page, Bendis also establishes his approach to verbal realism -- or mannered dialogue in a Realistic mode -- that complements Maleev's sturdy visuals. It's another cinematic technique, the principal being that when you have a monologue full of flashy language, you don't need to -- you shouldn't -- do anything fancy visually. The stability of the image works to accentuate the power of the words, whereas stylistic experimentation of the visuals would only muddle the language, or distract from it. Think of an atrocity like Richard Kelly's "Southland Tales," for an example of that. While someone like Martin Scorcese (not averse to visual flourishes) knows when to hold steady to let the dialogue carry the weight.

And consider not just how Mr. Silke speaks, but what he says. He talks of a return to the good old days, before the absurdity of the "mutant assassins and ninjas and half-man-half-god-knows what," and he expresses his disgust of the excesses of the Romantic approach: "I mean, that's the business we practice now," he says. "We want something done -- what do we do? We get loud. We hire a guy in tights." He reduces the splendor of Romanticism with reduction, embarrassment. The annoyance of the "loud," the silly spectacle of a "guy in tights." He deflates the epic struggle between superheroes and supervillains with his words.

Daredevil In Action

And we're still only on page one.

Bendis also throws in another clue to the direction he's about to take with "Daredevil" on that opening page. Silke talks about the "tabloid noise," which will, of course, become the main antagonist for this series. It's not Silke himself who will be Daredevil's major adversary, it will be the public, the press, the lack of privacy. And that will lead Daredevil to turn inward even more, which keeps him away from the Romantic conflicts of gods and monsters within the Marvel Universe at large.

And the final line of the first page of the Bendis/Maleev run? "What's your point, Mr. Silke?" spoken off-panel, presumably by the Kingpin. It echoes the impatience of the reader -- though the reader hasn't had time to become impatient after just four panels, but it's the impatience that occurs later in the run, especially when read in serialized installments, when even I fell into the trap of asking, rhetorically, "what's the point?" and "when is something going to happen?"

Those questions launch from the Romantic perspective, from the expectation that superhero comics are a series of good guys, bad guys, and explosions. That the drama will be heightened to heroic proportions. That a comic without a major fight scene is a comic full of too many talking heads. That a comic is "slow" if it doesn't have the frenetic pace of everything else featuring guys who dress up in costumes to punch someone else.

It's also worth noting that a costumed character appears nowhere on the opening page. In fact, no one appears in costume until four pages from the very end of the issue. After the Realism has been established.

And it's also worth noting that, like Romanticism, Realism is a style. A fictional artifice. But Bendis and Maleev remain in control of it throughout.

The rest of issue #26 sets the plot mechanism in motion. The Kingpin is killed, or so it seems, during that opening scene with Mr. Silke. He's stabbed by his own men, betrayed like Caesar, as Silke quotes, not from the more famous lines of Shakespeare, but from the historical account as recorded by Plutarch. Silke rejects the Romanticized retelling of events in favor of the Realistic. Though it's an edited Realism, sculpted for his own purposes.

The Near Death of the Kingpin

The Kingpin lives, somehow, because this is still a comic book story, and it features a supervillain who can blow himself up (though in Maleev's depiction, his powers seem less spectacular, less cartoony, than in any of the character's other appearances), and a hero in a bright red costume who can smell pop tarts and hear Herman's Hermits from blocks away.

Last week, I mentioned that I'd talk about the first volume of the "Daredevil Omnibus," but here I find myself obsessing over a single page from a single issue, and barely discussing the plot of the series at all. Summarizing the plot of issues #26-60 interests me not at all, and the plot isn't what matters anyway. It's the style, the mode of the storytelling that matters. And you can find it on that opening page, then reflected on every page throughout.

But I am interested in structure, and since the two Omnibus editions seem to divide the story arbitrarily between a thick chunk in volume 1 and the rest of the run in volume 2, I'd rather talk about the structure in terms of how the story is really divided into issues and arcs, plots and subplots, past and present. How Bendis controlled the flow of time in the series and broke up the narrative bits for thematic emphasis.

That will be next week's topic, and I promise not to dwell on a single page for 1,000 words.

NEXT WEEK: Structure + Tone = Theme, and other superhero math facts!

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

TAGS:  when words collide, daredevil, brian michael bendis, alex maleev

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