Pipeline: Revisiting Frank Miller's "Daredevil: Born Again"

Tue, July 3rd, 2012 at 2:58pm PDT

Comic Books
Augie De Blieck Jr., Columnist

BORN AGAIN: THE WRITING

Last week, I reviewed the "Daredevil Born Again Artist's Edition." I spent that time looking at the art in the book, the book itself, and some of the production issues that challenged this new printing. This week, let's wrap it up with a look at the writing and the lettering.

Frank Miller's narration and dialogue started to hit its stride "Born Again." There's a sweet spot in his writing that hit between the late 80s and early 90s. His sentence structure got so staccato and so rhythmical by the time of the third "Sin City" story that it became the subject of better satire than mimicking. Here, though, it works well. It flows more naturally; when a character starts speaking in two word sentences and two sentence caption boxes, it feels like a purposeful change of pace, and not like a stylistic crutch used to define a world. Miller got hung up in that world after "Sin City" and still hasn't returned from it.

Here, though, the sharp pointy sentences are reserved for moments of higher drama. During a fight, Daredevil isn't thinking to himself in florid legal prose. He's thinking as fast as his body is moving. And even when his thoughts ramble on, it's done in short increments, with lots of caption boxes separated by double-dashes.

One of the more impressive things Miller does in the series -- and it's something Mazzucchelli points out in his introduction -- is introduce Daredevil's origin in every issue. In modern times, this hardly seems necessary. If you don't know it by the first issue, recap it there and move on. But Miller returns to it. It's tough for me to tell just how much of that is the writing style of the day and how much of it is Miller pounding home all of Matt Murdock's worries and problems, starting from his original damage. It's possible to tell a Batman story without hammering home Thomas and Martha Wayne's death every 20 pages. It's tough to tell a Daredevil story without harping on the sensory perception issues and how it shapes his world. That said, Miller breezes through it every issue without dragging the story down.

Ultimately, "Born Again" is exactly what the title is about: stripping the character down, taking everything away, and then watching him rebuild. It's an angle Miller is pretty good at. He gets a good opportunity here to lay waste to Matt Murdock, and then give the character enough drive and ambition to battle back from it all to beat the bad guy, win the girl, and save the day. He works all the angles. Matt has IRS issues, loses his home, loses his career, loses his friends, and winds up penniless on the streets. But then Miller writes him into more corners to the point where he's losing his mind, gets stabbed, and then trapped in a car that's dumped into the river, presumably to drown. And it's at that last moment that things turn around, with a knowing look from Matt Murdock and an adrenaline-boosting caption box to get things going.

Yes, it breaks the chains of believability in many ways. You have to buy into this. You have to accept the pattern Miller is riffing on here, like you do with so many action movies where the lead character is dragged down only to magically will himself into getting better enough to take down the villain. If you can't do that, you likely will think this book is so much macho claptrap.

The plotting is exceptional, as well. Miller juggles a lot of plots over the course of the book. Every character has a story, and they all come crashing together at the end. Along the way, not everything gets wrapped up in a neat bow, but these issues were part of an on-going series. Miller left some choice bits for the next writer to expand on. The biggest and most obvious one, to me, is the revelation of Daredevil's mother. Miller never comes out and says that that nun is Matt's mother, but the implication hits you pretty hard over the head. There's so much other stuff going on in the book, though, that it's dropped quickly to get to the big action-packed climactic finale.

The only part of the story that I didn't buy into was near the end, when the war between Matt Murdock and the Kingpin escalates into Matt Murdock versus the evil and vicious military-industrial governmental complex, given shape in the form of Nuke. Miller's not subtle. We've always known that. He takes the bull by the horns, shouts out every story point, and then runs the bull through the China shop. But "Born Again" features a tool of the military with a one-dimensional pro-American slant that attempts to portray fanatical patriotism with a flag painted on the character's face, and magical pills in red, white, and blue. To a certain degree, this is on the level, at best, of juvenile pablum. It's unsophisticated and too blunt. But, then, this is a superhero comic book from 1985. Was I expecting too much?

Miller had a lot to say about patriotism in Reagan-era America. It came out again in "The Dark Knight Returns" not too long after this. This is all of a piece. People loved this kind of work back then, even as they now they dislike Miller for this kind of work as his politics seem to have shifted.

And that's the sound of email inbox exploding with political responses. Ah, election years...

So let's balance that out with the deafening sound of silence I always get for mentioning lettering.

Lettering, more than any other part of the creation of a comic book, is half art and half production. It seems to be prone to the most visible mistakes along the assembly line, even after the fact. That's particularly true of the pre-computerized age of lettering. You see it in a few spots of this book, where a blue pencil line points to a word in a balloon with a correction notice off in the margin. The you'll see how the correction was made, usually by doing a new bit of lettering on another page of art board and then gluing it on top of the mistake. In print, you don't see the lines where that patch was glued down. In a book like this, you see it.

The title at the bottom of this page was pasted in, but you can see the rough outline for it just below, in a more loosely drawn style

Usually, it's obvious, though. As amazingly precise as comic book letterers can be, asking them to draw the same sentence at two completely different times will often result in noticeable differences in style. Sometimes, it's a function of the production and not wanting to have to redraw the whole balloon. Words get squeezed into spaces they have no business being in. Other times, the letterer is just in a different state of mind or physical being, e.g. when a tired hand makes a correction to a word balloon originally drawn with a well-rested hand. There's a different there you can see.

And, then, of course, there are the times when the correction is done in-house. The Marvel Bullpen would make the correction, saving another FedEx bill and time lost with pages in transit. In that case, quality inevitably suffers. The lettering style shifts around a lot, and you'd have to be blind not to see it.

It's fun to see the range of errors that showed up in these pages. I don't mean to be tough on Joe Rosen. From the original art I've seen in general, it's not uncommon for words to go missing, to miss getting bolded, to have a tail pointing at the wrong character with a piece of dialogue that's so expository or vaguely generic that anyone could have said it, or to just lose a vowel along the way. Every creator is only human.

But I laughed when there were corrections in different chapters of the credits for Mazzucchelli's last name and recently retired editor Ralph Macchio's last name. Those double-C's were confusing. Go ahead and laugh. Then spell vacuum without thinking about it. One "c" or two? (In a nice bit of Search Engine Optimization, Target.com has both and gets the leading Google search on the wrong spelling.)

Why was it that suddenly, in a later chapter, the creator credits were done not by hand but rather with some pre-printed font? Just a test? I'm not sure what tools were available in 1985 at Marvel, but I bet it wasn't someone going to Print Shop and printing something out on a laser printer. It looks better than that.

There are a lot of sound effects to enjoy throughout the book, and Rosen's hand lettering keeps everything feeling dynamic and hand-crafted. There's a page or two of action carried solely by the art and the sound effects, with no dialogue. Rosen makes it work. He also does a great job on the blacked out panels where the words carry more than just the dialogue, but also the whole story. Those large block letters show us how loud the words much have sounded to the newly-blinded Matt Murdock. Every little decision counts and adds up to something. Here's a good example of that:

Such a small and simple change, but removing the border from the caption was the right move

From more of an art and craft perspective, I saw the White Out surrounding the border of a caption box. It wasn't necessary, and someone took the time to remove it. It's such a small thing. It's a caption box in a blank white space surrounding Matt Murdock. But it would stick out. Having it float out on its own looks ten times better. And they -- Macchio? Rosen? Mazzucchelli? -- made sure it did.

"Daredevil Born Again" is a great read, accomplished by a group of creators doing some very strong work together. The new "Artist's Edition" version of it is, to my eye, the best looking way to read it. Getting rid of the dated coloring and being able to see all the little details that go into producing the art by seeing pages at original size is glorious. Yes, it's a little pricey, but it's worth every penny. It's available today from IDW and there's even a special San Diego edition of it at the big show next week. The tricky part there would be in carrying it home somehow afterwards.

DC AND THE PERILS OF CHOICE

George Perez has been talking about the chaotic state of things at DC Editorial these days. It sounds to me like DC has found the problem with starting everything at tabula rasa: With no restrictions, there's too many choices. When you have to write a Superman story after 60 years of continuity (or even just 25 years), there are certain parameters you have to work within. Everyone knows them. Some will complain that they feel penned in by it, but at least everyone knows the ground rules.

With The New 52, suddenly everything is open for debate, discussion, rebranding, and recharacterization. Creators who think this is great and that they'll have wide open opportunities to create brand new things are suddenly coming up against the nervousness and the unsuredness of DC Editorial, which is making some things up on the fly. Without those restrictions, the peril of too many choices is rearing its ugly head. Continuity is a victim, creators don't know where they stand from month to month, and the opportunity to "fix" all perceived "wrongs" is making people work twice as hard to get half as much done.

It's like asking a creator for a sketch. Some creators will complain that they're doing the thousandth sketch of the character they're best known for. Others will be happy to know exactly what it is their audience wants and not have to make something up that could disappoint the owner of that sketchbook. (Clearly, Eric Canete is an artist without fear of creativity. Did you see his Heroes Con sketches?)

It's not a new phenomenon by any means. There's plenty of people talking about it:

And on and on. I think this best describes some of the angst and some of the more curious decisions we've seen at DC since their New 52 publishing program began.

Depending on how large a scale the upcoming Marvel events in the fall are, we might see DC's crosstown rival fall prey to this next. It will be interesting to watch.

LINKS A'PLENTY

  • There's an IndieGogo campaign going on now for the next month to fund a reprinting of Don Rosa's earliest comic strip work: "The Pertwillaby Papers" and "Captain Kentucky." Fans of Rosa's Duck work will see some familiar bits there. I have the last set of hardcovers made of these materials probably 10 or 15 years ago. But it looks like they're throwing everything in plus the kitchen sink for these reprintings. It'll cost you $70 for both books, but I don't think any Rosa completist can be without it.

  • A couple weeks back, I speculated on why a piece of Todd McFarlane's "Amazing Spider-Man" art had been redrawn before seeing print. I theorized that it was a right-to-left storytelling blunder. Over on the Pipeline Message Boards, Erik Larsen has a different suggestion: Spider-Man's hand is in the web-spinning pose, but he's throwing a tracer, which is a completely different motion. The art correction definitely supports that theory.

  • Sandra Boynton posted a Superman-inspired panel from her "Amazing Cows" book. Also: Sandra Boynton is on Twitter! Awesome!

  • Not comics related, but I'm still laughing over this thing a few days after first seeing it: The "Dora the Explorer Movie Trailer" video spoof. They could have packed more in, but what they got in there was brilliant.
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TAGS:  pipeline, frank miller, daredevil, dc comics, david mazzuchelli, george perez, superman

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