When Words Collide: Notes on Being Mike Murdock

Mon, January 9th, 2012 at 2:58pm PST

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer
6

Sequart Books, fine publishers of such comic book lit crit classics as "Grant Morrison: The Early Years," "Minutes to Midnight: Twelve Essays on 'Watchmen,'" and "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" have announced a new book-in-the-works edited by CBR's own Ryan K. Lindsay.

No doubt green-lit thanks to the multi-part "Daredevil Dialogues" from early last year, (read parts ONE, TWO, THREE, and FOUR, if you haven't already!), this upcoming book will feature an array of essays on Daredevil and the men and women who worked on the character over the past 48 years.

I will have a chapter in the book -- a chapter devoted to a topic both near and, yes, dear to my heart: Mike Murdock, Matt Murdock's zany twin brother!

Over the past week or two, I've been rereading the early issues of "Daredevil" in preparation for writing the "Being Mike Murdock" chapter, and I have a few thoughts, still in raw form. So this week, I thought I would present some of my notes and reflections, and when the book comes out (which will be probably late this year or early next year -- Ryan K. Lindsay, please respond!) you can compare these formative thoughts to the finished chapter. Or you can assume I just polished this stuff up for publication and added smoother transitions between the ideas and properly-formatted MLA citations. Either way is fine. (But I'm sure the book will also have a dozen essays worth reading, so, you know, you'll want to look for it when it comes out, particularly if you're fond of high-flying blind superhero ninja guys in red costumes who are sometimes sad.)

Some of these notes may seem off-topic, but they aren't. They are all about the glory of Mr. Mike Murdock, somehow.

1. In the very first issue of "Daredevil," back when he sported the yellow-and-black costume that would later be popularized by Dennis "D-Man" Dunphy, our title character scraps with some thugs, and taunts the heck out of the chubbiest one. Here's a sample of the kinds of things that come out of Daredevil's mouth in that opening issue: "If it's exercise you want, fatso…you've come to the right guy!" (As he catapults a thug into the air with his feet.) And, on the following page, as he jumps over the diving thug: "Bite your tongue, porky! Think what a loss that would be to the world!"

This is Matt Murdock, blind lawyer, dressed as a superhero. And this is how he talks in that role.

2. Here's what he says when the police show up in issue #1: "The name's Daredevil…remember it! You'll be hearing it again…I promise!!"

3. Mike Murdock doesn't show up until "Daredevil" #25, but there are plenty of things worth looking at before he first appears.

4. What is the true identity of Daredevil? Is he Matt Murdock playing dress-up and acting like a cocky superhero? Or is Daredevil the true identity and Matt Murdock, conservative, hesitant lawyer is actually the pretend role?

This is similar to the Superman/Clark Kent dilemma, but when Stan Lee introduces Mike Murdock, the question of Daredevil's "real" identity -- and personality -- becomes increasingly complex.

5. Throughout the early issues, Daredevil's internal monologues (via thought bubbles) and his word balloons when no one is around are purely expository. Basically, they all boil down to some variation on "this is what I'm doing or this is what I plan to do." Very literal. Is that an indication of his true persona, or just a convenient storytelling device from Stan Lee?

6. Here's an example of how the early Daredevil would talk to non-overweight bad guys. He's taunting a falling Electro, when he says, "Stop whining, you high-voltage heel!! The curtain itself is bulky enough to break your fall! And there are sure to be some police waiting below to wipe away your tears!"

7. Yet, in that same issue, Matt Murdock is characterized as wishy-washy and corny. He tamely jokes with Foggy Nelson and Karen Page: "Anyone know where a fella can find a good lawyer?" And when he's talking to the villainous Owl, in prison, acting as his potential lawyer, he says, "Sorry! I was, eh, thinking! You're to return here tomorrow at ten!" He doesn't display any of the confidence he shows as Daredevil.

8. But, even in his Matt Murdock role, he still doesn't seem to like fat people. He just never says it, but when he's talking to the Owl in that example above, the thing that distracts him is this thought, based on what he's sensing as he sits across from the Owl: "His deep voice tells me he's large…gross…with a barrel chest!"

9. A key plot point for the creation of the Mike Murdock identity kicks off nine issues before the character appears. In "Daredevil" #16, Spider-Man guest stars, and, as was so often the case in old-timey comics, the two heroes swap punches. (They spend much of this issue and the next one fighting, actually. They never really get to a true "let's team up and fight the bad guy" agreement.)

10. Later in that issue, Matt Murdock vehemently defends Daredevil -- who, this early in his career is still a mystery to some, and often suspected to be in cahoots with criminals, which is why Spider-Man is quick to try to beat him up -- and Murdock says to Foggy Nelson, "I know that Daredevil has no connection with the Masked Marauder! He can't have!"

Foggy, surprised by the normally even-tempered, normally bland Matt Murdock's reaction, replies, "Okay, Matt -- we were only talking! No need to fly off the handle! But tell me something -- how can you be so sure about Daredevil?"

This is where Murdock first truly realizes that his secret identity is precarious, which maybe should have occurred to him earlier because it is an amazing coincidence how Daredevil gets involved in all the same cases and characters as Murdock's law firm does. So here's what Murdock thinks to himself, finally: "Uh oh! I've got to be more careful! I almost gave myself away!" And his quick cover-up to Foggy, to explain how he would be so confident that Daredevil would have nothing to do with the villain du jour? A simple, "I don't know, Foggy! -- Just a hunch -- that's all!"

11. For a trial lawyer, Matt Murdock is pretty embarrassingly bad at being convincing.

12. "Daredevil" #16 ends with Spider-Man (spelled "Spiderman," without the hyphen for all the purists out there who know "Spiderman" was once a valid spelling) bursting through the window of the Nelson and Murdock law offices because somehow his Spider-Sense also has the ability to detect when Daredevil is nearby and the buzzer in his head goes off like crazy when he swings past that particular window.

He assumes Foggy is Daredevil (because it can't be the blind guy, or the girl, so obviously it's the chunky guy who looks nothing like Daredevil, physically. As Spider-Man gets ready to punch Foggy in the face, he calls him out: "Alright, horn-head! The masquerade's over! Now this is where I learn the truth about you!"

13. In the following issue, Spider-Man leaves (after everyone pretends to have no idea what he's talking about), but then Foggy acts all coy, as if he might just secretly be Daredevil because he knows that will get Karen to notice him more. Matt Murdock doesn't comment on how pathetic that is, though he probably should, even though he has since used the same move a zillion times to pick up women.

14. "Daredevil" #17 features a ridiculously virtuoso bit of writing by Stan Lee on page 3, where Karen, Foggy and Matt are all in a single panel, cranking out their own thought bubbles about what they think is going on, and it's hilarious. It also adds up to seven total thought bubbles in a single panel, which even Stan Lee comments upon in the footnote caption box, because he was meta before meta was cool.

15. The subplot takes a bit of a back seat for half a year, and then really kicks back to the forefront at the end of "Daredevil" #24, when Karen and Foggy open a letter addressed to Matt. Here's Karen's dialogue in the scene: "It's from Spider-Man -- he says he knows that Matt is -- Daredevil! But tells Matt not to worry -- he won't reveal his secret! Oh Foggy -- can it -- be true!"

16. Maybe I missed it, but at no point does Spider-Man ever really find out Daredevil's identity in previous issues, and last we saw of him, he thought Foggy was Daredevil. I guess he went back to Aunt May's house and reflected a bit, then wrote a wildly dangerous letter that just goes to show how dumb Spider-Man can be about revealing secret identities. Which explains a lot about what happened in this past decade.

17. In "Daredevil" #25 -- a.k.a. the single greatest issue of the series until Frank Miller started writing it -- Foggy and Karen confront Matt about the letter, and we get the most ridiculously hilarious (and genius) conversation:

Matt says, because he's a wonderboy lawyer with great intellectual ability, "Okay, group -- I can see that I can't keep the truth from you any longer! You're forcing me to tell you about -- my twin brother!"

Yup, that's what he goes with.

But Matt continues, as if channeling the legendary attorney, Mr. Thomas Flanagan: "I've never told you about him before -- because he asked me not to! His name is -- eh -- Mike -- Mike Murdock -- and he's a dead ringer for me!"

That's the ticket!

Foggy, though will have none of it, because he is actually a lawyer and not an imbecile: "Come off it, Fella! I roomed with you all thru college -- we were buddies -- we confided about everything -- and you never mentioned a brother!"

But this is Matt Murdock we're talking about, a man who violates every single code of ethics on a daily basis when he ends his lawyerly days and goes out on vigilante patrol at night, gathering evidence and tampering with court cases. So Matt sticks with his preposterous lie: "I, eh -- I couldn't, Foggy -- Even in those days he was a loner -- always practicing to be an adventurer -- he never wanted anyone to know about him -- and, since he was my own twin brother, I kept his secret -- all these years!"

18. Foggy is still suspicious, realizing, finally, that Matt must be Daredevil, but Matt throws him off the scent by pointing out that he is, in fact, blind, and Daredevil is clearly not.

Introducing: Mike Murdock!

19. Ooh, good one from Matt. Unexpectedly reasonable after the rest of the goofiness he was spouting.

20. But now Foggy wants to meet this brother. This "Mike" Murdock. Because, once again, Foggy is a lawyer and rightly demands to see the evidence for himself.

Instead of confiding in Foggy, or just, I don't know, saying he was joking and he has no idea who Daredevil is, Matt shows the true attributes of a man without fear (or common sense), and so he thinks, "I was a fool for lying! Now he wants to meet a brother who doesn't exist! But I've got to bluff it thru somehow!"

Right! Because that's clearly the best way to handle this situation. Concoct a completely absurd alternate identity and then try to pass yourself off as your own twin brother who is also secretly Daredevil.

Matt Murdock's mental problems and trouble handling reality did not begin when Elektra died, or even when he went in outer space thanks to Steve Gerber. No, they were always there. Mike Murdock is just the first indication (besides the whole, dressing up a superhero and hanging around rooftops at night while taunting fat people deal).

21. So we get, in "Daredevil" #25, one of the greatest single panels in all of Daredevil's history, where, soon after some other business we cut back to the law offices of Nelson and Murdock and who should be sitting with his feet up on the desk when Foggy and Karen walk in? One Mike Murdock!

He wears: wrap-around green sunglasses, a white fedora with a yellow feather, an orange checkered sports coat, a yellow vest, and a western bow tie.

His first words (in response to Karen's surprise at seeing someone who is clearly Matt's identical twin brother -- but not Matt just wearing different clothes): "You can say that again, doll! Ol' Matt's the one with the brains -- but I'm the family pussycat! The name's Mike, gang -- and try not to applaud -- I'm almost as shy as I am glamourous!"

22. Matt's strategy, to preserve his own secret identity, is to act as loud and insulting as possible as Mike Murdock. Of course, he now has a second secret identity to preserve, but it's clear he didn't think that far ahead. And because Mike Murdock talks a lot like Dardevil (while Matt Murdock, in his suit and tie, is always so hesitant and conservative), I would even argue that Mike Murdock is actually closer to Matt's "true" identity. No wonder he slipped into the role so easily! No wonder he even decided to come up with this preposterous scheme in the first place.

My interpretation is that this "true" Matt Murdock, calling himself Mike Murdock, gets to actually say what's been on his mind all along. He hits on Karen relentlessly, while Matt was always super-shy about it. And, most tellingly, the Mike Murdock persona insults Foggy (who is, remember, his very best friend in the whole world, really) at every turn, mostly focusing on Foggy's weight. And as we've seen, the Daredevil persona also cracked fat jokes whenever the opportunity arose. This "true" Matt is a jerk, let's be honest.

23. Mike Murdock's zings toward Foggy, in issue #25 and later: "You're just a bundle of personality, eh, tubby?" and "…let me warn you, my chubby friend…" and "Atta boy, chubbins!" and, well, it just goes on and on like that.

24. The most disturbing thing is that Matt's plan works, and Foggy and Karen fall for it immediately even though they don't even think to wonder, "Wait, where's Matt, and why isn't he here to introduce us to this brand new person who looks exactly like him?" Nope. Instead, Karen puts the nail in the coffin of reason: "Foggy! This means -- Matt was telling us the truth!"

25. Lest you think my whole theory is suspect, about Matt-Murdock's "true" self actually being much closer to the Mike Murdock persona than it is to the uptight lawyer he's been pretending to be, Matt actually has a monologue in a later issue where he says, to himself, "Just for kicks, I'll become Matthew's frantic, fast-talkin' twin brother! I'm beginning to enjoy the role of madcap Michael Murdock! I guess I'm really as big a ham as 'he' is!"

26. He's doing it not to protect his identity, but just because it's fun. And he admits it's closer to his preferred, hammy behavior.

27. Matt Murdock is mentally unstable, perhaps even psychotic, though not dangerously so, as we can clearly see. And that knowledge, sparked by the appearances of Mike Murdock in year three of the "Daredevil" series, informs every other Daredevil run that followed. The good ones at least. Like Miller and Miller and Mazzucchelli and Bendis and Maleev and Brubaker and Lark.

28. But Mike Murdock wasn't meant to last, and even Matt gets tired of his boorish behavior, so he kills (himself) off in "Daredevil" #41. As he indicates, dressed as Daredevil, via thought bubble, "I just thought of something! -- The nuttiest idea I've ever had! But if I can pull it off…it'll end my triple-identity bit…forever!"

His brilliant, "nutty" plan? To blow himself up after a fight with the villainous Exterminator and company, and secretly escape the explosion, but leave the tattered front logo of his costumer where Foggy can find it.

And it works! Foggy, who was being held captive by the villains, finds the red double-d piece of fabric and says, out loud to no one, "This is all...that's left of him! Mike Murdock…gave his life…to save mine!

29. So much for what I said about Foggy being the intelligent lawyer in the office.

30. Because, and here's the kicker, Daredevil appears in the very next issue (of course!) and Mike Murdock never appears again, and somehow Matt Murdock is able to just say the equivalent of, "Oh that must be some other guy who took his place!"

31. And that's it for Mike Murdock. And that's it for Foggy and Karen's suspicions about Matt Murdock's secret superhero identity -- at least for a while.

32. The series would eventually get a whole lot darker, mostly when Frank Miller came on board, but also when writers realized that Matt Murdock had a history of psychotic episodes, as characterized by the entire invention of the Mike Murdock persona. And if that was closer to his true persona bursting through, than he has even bigger issues of repression, since he sticks with the uptight Matt Murdock secret identity forever after.

33. Mike Murdock was fun while he lasted, and what he told us about the true nature of Matt/Daredevil provided a subtext that would inform the series ever since. Keep Mike Murdock in mind as you're reading the current Mark Waid run on the relaunched "Daredevil" series. Matt may act differently now. He may have put his past behind him, or pretended to. But beneath it all is an obnoxious, fat-guy-insulting, sleazeball of a lout, just waiting to reappear.

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.

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