When Words Collide

Tue, January 25th, 2011 at 10:58am PST

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer

THE DAREDEVIL DIALOGUES PART 1: PURPLE MEN AND HEPCATS

Almost a year ago, I reflected on Brian Michael Bendis's "Daredevil" run, but Daredevil has a much larger legacy than that admittedly influential take on the character. And with the recent fallout from the disappointing "Shadowland" series and the metaphorical resurrection of Daredevil in the "Daredevil: Reborn" comic, I've been thinking about Daredevil's past, present, and future. So I started a conversation with CBR's newest reviewer, Ryan K. Lindsay, looking back on the great runs in Daredevil's past, and talking about the good and the bad over the years.

The big questions: What is the aesthetic history of Daredevil? What's the foundation of the character? What does it mean to be a "Daredevil" comic? And why should we care?

Let's begin.

Tim Callahan: Let's talk Daredevil. It needs to be done. Because here's a character that has been part of the Marvel Universe forever, and I've read a zillion comics featuring the character, but other than the Bendis piece I did last year, I never really thought about the character in any meaningful way until recently. And this is a character that Frank Miller -- one of my favorite creators ever -- cut his teeth on. But out of everyone I know, you're the biggest Daredevil freak. You love the character, right? To me, even more so than other superhero ciphers, Daredevil is a nearly blank canvas for writers and artists to work with, even after all these years of continuity. I mean, what's the appeal of the character? Is there any substance there beyond, "he's a blind superhero who fights in the streets and is sad?"

Ryan K. Lindsay: I am a massive Daredevil fan. I've read nearly every tale and I own nearly all of them as well. I love that the last decade has just been a golden era for Daredevil tales, and yet has offered variety. I've thought long and hard as to what it is exactly that makes Daredevil stand out from the pack and I think I have it: the man is fallible. You have to remember that he was launched as solely being an ersatz Spider-Man. He quipped and swung through the city and was largely ignored for his efforts. It would be decades later that Daredevil would become a character defined by what he could not do, and I don't mean see.

Every character can have their essence boiled down; Superman is the epitome of nobility and grandeur, Batman is the search for a warped and dark perfection against all odds, Spider-Man is funny and yet still has heart, Deadpool is annoying. Everyone has their niche, and Daredevil's is that his life just doesn't work out. But he keeps on trying.

I don't meant to say that to write Daredevil you need to make his life terrible, though most manage to anyway. It just means that Daredevil, as a character and a title, is a tragedy and must nearly always be looked at through that lens. It is superhero noir and in this genre there are rarely happy endings. Events resolve in a more pragmatic fashion where the protagonist is changed, never the same, and usually not in a good way. It can still give success to the man in the red horns, but in the end you have to know that his life is hard. Even when he wins, he's still blind. Even when he lives, one of his loves still dies. Daredevil is the playground where creators are able to show that the world isn't fair, that the bad guy can win, and that once you have accepted these terrible truths, only then can you go forward and become the best you can be. This is a real struggle that people can associate with; the world is hard and things don't always go your way, but you have to keep on trying. Whether you are a superhero or just a blind lawyer.

I like that Daredevil realizes the best he can be isn't the best person that years of human evolution is able to generate. He doesn't expect to be the pinnacle of purity and nobility, he understands he can make mistakes. Maybe that just sounds like an extremely verbose way of saying, "Yeah, he's sad," but I think it runs deeper. I think Daredevil captures the human condition in some respects, and that makes him relatable more than many of the other heroes passed out in pamphlet form each month. It was only once Daredevil became a darker-toned character, and his world was tinged with the danger inherent in real life, that he became relevant and admired by a larger audience.

I think his ability to reflect the real world, and thus the people within it, makes him a relatively open character to write. You can place him into any number is situations and he'll fit. Being a hard-boiled character, Daredevil also works well by delivering much of the tale in the first person, a tried and tested trait of the genre, and this also works to give the reader a greater understanding of how Matt Murdock is being affected by the trials he finds himself tested by. I'd say another large draw of Daredevil is that Matt Murdock is just as compelling a character out of the spandex. I'll often judge a creative team by how well they write and draw Murdock. He's a notoriously difficult character to get just right, in my eyes, and I would say Lark did an exceptional job. But getting Murdock's inner thoughts through captions has opened up his psyche as he deals with the world and himself. The main dramatic struggle is often inside the main and only reflected by that around him.

Historically, though, is Daredevil really a hard-boiled character? It's easy to think of him that way, with Frank Miller's interpretation being the most prominent, and with the past decade of Brian Michael Bendis and Ed Brubaker (and to a lesser extent Andy Diggle, who was really doing supernatural kung-fu stories more than street-level noir) doing their riff on the Frank Miller kinds of stories, but for 20 years before Frank Miller, Daredevil was swinging around and getting into fights with Stilt Man and Angar the Screamer, and in the fifteen years between Miller and Bendis, he was fighting demons in the underworld (Ann Nocenti's run), playing Tron-meets-Samurai-high-tech dress up (Dan Chichester's run), and basically just leaping around in typical Marvel superhero fashion (Karl Kesel and Joe Kelly's runs).

So I guess my question is two-fold, then. As mentioned above, is Daredevil really a hard-boiled character, or is that just the way you prefer to see the character? And are there aspects of those other runs -- runs which show, proportionally-speaking, that Daredevil is not as noirish as he's been portrayed in the past decade -- that get to the core of the character as well?

I will admit that to a fair degree, I just prefer to see Daredevil as noir fiction. There is plenty of evidence to the contrary. But there's also evidence that Batman carries a gun, Superman is a total dick to Lois and Nick Fury is a heavily illiterate goon (or at least sounds it) as well as being white. I like to think that a character can change over time, and so can their core focus. But is that just cherry picking? Maybe...but it can also be seen as condensing a character to his best aspects over time. Perfecting him, if you will.

Perhaps I should redefine my overall idea of Daredevil. I would say that at his core he is a fallible character and it just helps that being so makes for a perfect fit with noir fiction. If you look through his history, you'll find he hasn't always been noir but he has always been an imperfect man. While that might be atypical of the Marvel U, it feels that over time Matt Murdock was made more and more to be a man whose path was always the hard road.

There is no doubt in my mind that Daredevil spent years languishing as a carbon copy hero in the Marvel U, and while there's literally decades of this history, I think, to a degree, it can be wiped away by years of the better stuff. Sure, in a Morrisonian way, every Daredevil story is true, but some just aren't as good. Should we look at Purple Man as the useless hack who is not interesting or should we know him as Bendis revolutionized him, a sleazy scum bag who really has reasons to be feared? I'd like to think Daredevil's days as the Scarlet Swashbuckler are well behind him and not likely to resurface any time soon.

Is Daredevil as a noir character a retcon? Sure. But it's a damn good one. I think if you polled 100 Daredevil readers, 98 would say Daredevil is a noir character. I'm sure plenty of commenters will hit the CBR forums right now and prove me wrong, but that's how I see it. Though, I think Daredevil only started to really mean something when the act of writing him meant something to the creator. So, I think Daredevil as a deeper character can be supported with data from plenty of his tales.

Do you think it's fair to define a character as what he is most effective as? Otherwise, with all these years of continuity, does any character truly have one personality?

I tend to side with those who say that comic book characters don't really have personalities. Do people say that? I do, and maybe I'm alone.

Superheroes are costumes and concepts, and each writer or artist who works on the character is basically doing his or her variation. His or her own interpretation, just like I wouldn't say that Adam West's Batman is somehow more "true" than Christian Bale's. They are just different takes on the character, and those differences imbue the character with distinctively different personalities in each case. The same is true when a new creative team takes over a character. There might be some shared history, and some vague sense of continuity, but characters, when handled by writers and artists who actually tell meaningful and/or engaging stories, are practically recreated with each new creative team, even if the differences are subtle.

Yet, from my recent rereading of early Daredevil issues, I've noticed that while he might not always have been a noir character, he has been constantly troubled, and constantly a magnet for trouble from others. He's a character with an interior life from pretty early on, and it's a conflicted one. You'd classify him as essentially, fallible, right?

Daredevil has had varied runs from characters, but he's usually portrayed as quite fallible in them. Let's have a quick look, shall we?

Nocenti will always be known as the writer who took Daredevil to hell, but she also wrote other tales that were much more personal. She took Murdock through a socio-political wringer that affected him and painted Hell's Kitchen in a different light. There's the disturbing two-part saga of Rotgut, or Murdock wandering across America, well before other heroes were "Grounded" into doing it. Murdock goes through a mental crisis and forgets who he is. He might be joined by the Inhumans on some of his travels, but he's still just a man crushed on the inside. When he returns to Hell's Kitchen he calls himself Jack Murdock. Then Bullseye finds out what's happening, and he decides to hop in the red tights and make Daredevil look bad. It's a warped story of identity and necessary function within society.

Nocenti understood that Murdock is a character torn because his father taught him not to fight and with each day he does his thing in red, he's going against the man who raised him and who he loves. Murdock is torn every day, but beyond honoring his father he has to do the right thing for the greater good. That's internal struggle and she got that completely.

Then there's D.G. Chichester's use of Typhoid Mary, which is a great example of still playing Daredevil as a fallible character. She might be a goofy looking character, but her tragedy with Daredevil is something that really shows you how dark Matt Murdock can be. There's a great issue, #297 in fact, brilliant issue, track it down, where Daredevil realizes he needs to get Mary out of the way. He ambushes her, fights her and yet there's still great attraction between them. He understands that they will each always have great chemistry even if they know nothing should ever come of it because they are toxic together. We get violence as sex, right before we get sex as sex. Murdock kisses her in the rain, takes her to a cheap motel, sleeps with her and while she's asleep, organizes her involuntary commitment to a psych ward (with forged signatures on the papers) and has her woken by the authorities who put her away.

Imagine that, in a comic, where the hero seduces the mentally unstable lady, takes advantage of her and then has her locked up. It's criminally cruel, but it's for the greater good and we get to see how this affects Murdock through his captions and his actions afterwards. It's just a brutal scene that really sells Daredevil to me. He is one of the few heroes who can do this. This is why you pick up Daredevil, to see a man bend his soul into a pretzel.

Could you imagine Peter Parker or Clark Kent getting away with this? This issue alone shows me Daredevil is not like other heroes. His book isn't even about heroism -- it's about the struggle of a hero, but it's not about heroism. I challenge a mainstream superhero to be as deep as Daredevil.

Even in the early Stan Lee issues, the ethical struggle is there. Daredevil is a lawyer by day, vigilante by night, and though the use of legal jargon is mostly nonsense in the early stories (any scene involving a judge or a courtroom is more preposterous than a "Perry Mason" rerun), Lee shows his protagonist to be someone who has an internal struggle between the law and his heroic obligation. And though Matt Murdock began his crimefighting career to avenge his father's death, he's not driven to vengeance like Batman. He's just a man who is trying to do what's right, and screwing up often, even if he mostly saves the day in the end. But it all comes at a personal cost.

Then again, as I've said, even if that's part of the concept of the character, each creative team provides their own variation, and they might not always have explored the personal cost as deeply as some of the better Daredevil stories. Or maybe not "better," but just more essential. What do you think?

Sure, there have been examples where Daredevil has not been so deep. There was the Tree of Knowledge techno story, or the time he was brainwashed into becoming Laurent Levasseur by S.H.I.E.L.D. and pulled a mission in France. There are those Angar the Screamer tales and the team-ups with Uri Geller, but I think that when written well, Daredevil is a character where the drama exists within the man. To me, that makes him a very noir type character. He can go into other stories, there's a whole Marvel U to play with, but when he works best is when he is tormented by himself as well as his enemies.

I'd even go so far as to say that I cannot believe Daredevil has not yet been given a MAX title. Matt Murdock in an adult-only setting is such a complete set-up for win that I don't know why Marvel hasn't invested in it yet. Daredevil would fit MAX really well, but moreso the world he exists in would be greatly enhanced by being given the opportunity to be as harsh as it can be. Murdock, the hero and the lover, would work so well in that setting. Imagine getting a Mr. Fear tale in MAX, or even bring back Man-Bull and completely reinvent the character. I'd write that for free.

But that's a tangent. I think that recent times, and Frank Miller, obviously make Daredevil a noir character but you can also see slices of darkness within the man in the runs of others over time. You don't need to write Daredevil into actual crime fiction to be able to show how bleak his existence can be. He might not need to necessarily come across as a hard boiled lead but when he's written right you can see he's a man who lives in a harsh world.

Recently, Brubaker handled this sublimely throughout his run. I can think of many examples where he gave Matt Murdock reason to question himself as a human. The moment where he wakes up next to Dakota North is hands down one of my favorite Matt Murdock scenes of all time. You'll notice not many people complained when that occurred, because it was completely in character. If Spidey or Captain America cheated, then you'd hear about it, but for Murdock, it's just another day with another bad decision. Life is hard for him and he's not always right. He's not exactly wrong, he's just human. That's why I love the character, because these things can happen.

Do you feel that this pigeon hole Daredevil finds himself in locks him out from new readers or better storylines? Is he stuck in a spiral of just being the sad hero with lots of dead girlfriends?

I don't think there's anything inherent in the setting that (as you so specifically outlined) works best for Daredevil that traps him in an endless cycle of despair and dead lovers, and I don't think he's a character who repels new readers in any way. He's one of the most accessible Marvel superheroes, I think, because he is so flawed, and his stories are just a sliver away from the kind of "reality" that you might see on a TV cop show. Other than when he slips into the realm of the supernatural, which has been quite rare over the past decade, until the recent "Shadowland" misstep, he's Mr. Screwed-Up-Lawyer-on-a-Cop-Show and he just happens to wear a costume and run around the rooftops once in a while.

That's an oversimplification of what Daredevil is, probably, but he might seem that way to a new reader, and that makes me think that he's a character who would be an easier sell to a vaguely interested prospect than a more-obviously-ridiculous character like Spider-Man or Captain America. I mean, Spider-Man and Captain America are great characters, but they seem further away from reality than Daredevil, even though he has a magical radar sense and ninja skills. Those things are more believable, somehow. Probably because they aren't as emphasized in recent stories in the way that every Spider-Man story has him swinging around on webs and cracking bad jokes and every Captain America story has him throwing his shield off six walls and posing all square-jawed. (I don't know why I'm taking such a weird reductive stance on Spidey and Cap, but there's just such a difference in tone between those two characters and Daredevil, and I suppose the tonal difference began with Frank Miller, but it changed Daredevil forever -- much like Swamp Thing can never escape the shadow of Alan Moore, even decades later.)

But let's flash back a bit, to the pre-hard-edged-noir days, before Frank Miller. You may have more experience with those comics than I do (I have read, maybe 20 total, including the first year of Daredevil stories and then a smattering of random issues after that, before the Miller days), or maybe you don't. I don't know. But what are the highlights of those earlier years? I'm sure we'll spend plenty of time later in this conversation discussing Miller and Bendis and Brubaker (and maybe more on Nocenti and Diggle), but what about the guys from the first 20 years of Daredevil's existence? What would you rank as the quality stuff from back then?

I think it's very interesting that Daredevil is one of those few supers who can be your first in the genre. Like you say, Spidey and Cap are kind of extreme characters; you have to be able to suspend disbelief enough to think that a guy can climb walls upside down or that a trained soldier would ever actually fight in battle with massive, red welding gloves and gaudy boots with those cuffs. Those two guys come across as perfect examples of what the superhero genre appears to be to outsiders, and the same can be said of the likes of Superman or Green Lantern. These characters are larger than life and you have to switch off logic, or rational science, to truly appreciate their tales. But Daredevil, and I think Batman is a comparable contemporary, is someone you can read if he is written well and take him as a character, not just a super.

If someone comes into comics on the backs of literary works like "Maus" or "Y: The Last Man" or something like that, and they want to dabble in the caped community, then Daredevil is a character you can use as a relatively gentle transition. You want a character who is more grounded, a book more in tune with character and tone rather than pomposity and extravagance. Well, at least that's how Daredevil is now, but not so much in his past.

I've read most of the pre-Miller stuff and it's sad to say that a Daredevil fan could skip so much of it and not really miss out on too much. You could start with Miller's run and really get everything you need. Obviously, the beginning has the origin, has Karen, all of that, but it's all so thin for so many years that it no longer feels necessary. But that's not to say there isn't some stuff you should absolutely reward yourself with, so I'll try and highlight a few quick ones for you.

It always feels like Stan Lee's contribution to Daredevil gets overlooked far too much. His run on Daredevil is nearly the same length as his runs on "The Avengers" and "X-Men" combined. Lee obviously had a special spot for Daredevil because he stuck with him for so long, yet when people mention Lee's creations, Daredevil is always one of the last on the list. It's a shame, because Lee worked his inventive magic with Daredevil as much as he did with the other titles, but when you collect it all, it just isn't as good. It pales in comparison to the Spider-Man and Fantastic Four runs in both length and quality. Due to Daredevil's second-rate status as a poor man's Spidey, Lee seems to lean towards exacerbating that comparison by using Spidey villains far too often and using a similar voice and tone that just didn't fit Daredevil.

Even the villains just didn't seem to catch on, which is a sure fire way for a title to slump. Doc Ock and Magneto and Galactus and Kang all captured imaginations. The Matador and Frog-Man just didn't. Nor did the Masked Marauder, who looked like he was wearing a novelty Cylon tissue dispenser for a mask. Daredevil lacked for a true nemesis for years, and that was possibly his greatest downfall. An extra shame is that the potential was there -- Mr. Fear and Purple Man started strong but just never got off the line under Lee's direction. Electro, a Spidey villain, even set up a group called the Emissaries of Evil, but it was simply a pale Sinister Six recycle and it comes across as that completely.

Early in Daredevil's career, you can see Stan Lee trying to get traction with some of the more offbeat antagonists in those first handful of issues, particularly the ones drawn by Joe Orlando. The Owl and the Purple Man -- as ridiculous as those two characters became -- began as creepy, oddball threats. The Owl was half gothic villain, half mobster, with an owl-shaped HQ overlooking the city and a vicious attitude. The Purple Man was a bushy-eyebrowed agitator who Daredevil couldn't figure out. After all, as Daredevil admits, after poring over his law books, there's nothing illegal about asking people to do things. (Though, yes there is, if you're asking them to give you all the money in the bank vault, and it doesn't exactly bolster the case for Matt Murdock's lawyer skills when he can't even figure out that such actions are illegal.) But Daredevil beats the Purple Man with his wits, ultimately.

(By the way, I always wondered if the Owl and Purple Man were based on actual people, at least visually, since Joe Orlando drew them both with such specific, distinctive facial features.)

Once Wally Wood comes in as the artist -- and you know I love Wally Wood -- the stories become more generic, more typical superhero fare, with punching and quips and less weirdness. It's pretty clear that Stan Lee changed up his approach to writing the character once Wood took over, and I don't even know how much quality there is in the rest of that Lee run, even if it ran for many years after Wood left the series.

I'm going to lean on the side of Lee being a crappy lawyer, not Murdock. But if Lee only wrote the issues after they were drawn, does that mean Wood went generic or Lee asked for it?

I don't think Lee's run will go down in history as a classic, but there is one aspect I would highlight because it always makes me smile. Bear with me on this one:

Most seem to hate this guy, but I absolutely love Mike Murdock. This swinging hepcat might have existed within some pretty flawed logic, but that doesn't stop him being fun. When Matt Murdock is almost outed as being Daredevil, he created a new twin brother who he says is the real Man Without Fear. Thus Matt starts pulling triple duty as both himself, Daredevil, and his extravagant twin who wears some hideous clothes and speaks like he fell out of a bad cautionary flick about the negative effects of Mary Jane. Needless to say, it's hilarious.

Mike is a concept that doesn't really work and is mildly embarrassing, to put it bluntly. It's a dumb idea, especially for a college trained lawyer to cook up, and yet its execution is just too much to ignore. Mike is always calling people "kitten" and "baby" and generally being a grade-A jerk. How no one notices they never see Matt and Mike in the same room is just one of those things you have to forego. This is comics at its most fun!

The best part is that Matt (who likes Karen) starts to get doubts that Karen (who likes both Matt and Daredevil) shows Mike more affection. It's a love triangle with two points, or four depending on your social math. Considering Lee's greatest strength was playing with dramatic irony between how Matt and Karen acted and how their thought balloons showed them to feel about each other, it all gets much more crazily insane once a third "character" enters the mix. It skips from a Shakespearean tragedy of love to a Carry On flick.

Instead of doing a remake of the Clone Saga, Marvel should invest in getting someone like Zeb Wells to write a mini about the Mike Murdock Chronicles. It would be hilarious, to say the least.

I love how preposterous the entire Mike Murdock situation is as well. Foggy Nelson and Karen Page begin to suspect the Daredevil/Matt Murdock connection, so he introduces a never-before-mentioned-to-his-friends identical twin brother? And this guy admits to being Daredevil (which means he has to talk in his hepcat voice when he bumps into Foggy or Karen while in costume, and he hits on Karen and insults Foggy repeatedly). Then Matt Murdock "kills off his brother" just by leaving a piece of red "DD" fabric behind in an explosion, and when Daredevil shows up fighting the Jester in the very next issue, Foggy automatically assumes that it must be a brand new, non-Murdock guy under the cowl. That is absolutely worthy of a deeper look by a contemporary creator. Matt Murdock has had some crazy internal demons for a long, long time, and the Silver Age ones are more hilarious than most.

The ultimate shame of Lee's run is, no matter if it's fun and inventive or not, Matt Murdock doesn't really stand for anything. Spidey and the rest of the stable all had their underlying social meanings or places and Murdock is lacking that. He's just another hero with a sharp wit and the market already had that, and better, so he didn't demand true attention. The art was usually good, Gene Colan especially stood out as making the issues look better than they really were.

It would have been easy to see Daredevil disappear forever if it weren't for the subsequent years from Roy Thomas and Gene Colan.

NEXT WEEK: Steve Gerber and Frank Miller and more Daredevil

In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" and editor of "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen regularly at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.

Follow Tim on Twitter: TimCallahan

TAGS:  when words collide, daredevil, marvel ocmics, frank miller, stan lee, mike murdock

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