Pipeline: Revisiting Miller & Romita Jr.'s "Man Without Fear"

Tue, February 25th, 2014 at 12:58pm PST | Updated: February 25th, 2014 at 12:58pm

Comic Books
Augie De Blieck Jr., Columnist

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DAREDEVIL: THE MAN WITHOUT FEAR

For no reason in particular, I re-read the 1993 miniseries, "Daredevil: The Man Without Fear" this weekend. I didn't plan on it. I came across it in a long box I hadn't opened in a while, cracked open the first issue to take a look, and a half hour later put down the fifth and final issue.

It's long been one of my favorites, and this was a nice reminder of why that is. In my mind, it's both Frank Miller and John Romita Jr. at peaks in their career. The two work together beautifully, with Romita's visuals matching Miller's storytelling sensibilities.

This is the first time I've read the book since reading Miller's classic "Daredevil" run. While my memory for some of the details of that run are a little sketchy now, I still recognized moments and people he was writing to help set up the material in his stories from a decade earlier.

The series had started out as an original graphic novel before being split into a five issue miniseries. That really shows in the last couple of issues, where desperate scrambles for page fillers result in a couple of odd essays from Miller and Romita. But before that, each issue feels like it stands on its own, though they blend together well, overall, to tell what is basically "Daredevil: Year Zero." It's Miller going back to his classic run on the character and retelling Daredevil's origin story, with lots of tips of the hat to his own work and style on the series.

It is a wonderful exploration of Matt Murdock's character, of how his days being bullied on the school yard lead to his time in law school lead to his return to the city and, on the very last page, his first appearance in costume. It's mostly a great character study, low on the superheroics and stronger on the training, the action, and characters. You get Stick, Elektra, the Fixer, and the Kingpin, of course. Typhoid Mary is there if you know where to look for her. The only one missing from the series is Bullseye.

Elektra is just as magnetic a personality as you remember, capable of just about anything. Romita's version of her is compelling and chilling all at the same time. She's a mysterious blank slate with a smirk and a set of eyes that look into just the right places. She doesn't talk much. She just looks at you and her body language gives it all away. She's all action, and Romita plays with that beautifully. She fits right in with that late 70s/early 80s aesthetic that the book needs to fit in with the timeline of Miller's original run. The scene in the city with her big white fur coat and overly large black sunglasses are perfect.

Some crime lords are just dumb. Not a single person reading this panel doesn't automatically know the action that's about to happen in the next panel. If the patched wonder here didn't see that, then he was too weak and stupid to lead.

Kingpin is as cold and vicious as you remember. He doesn't actively and physically do much in the book. He's not the physical presence fighting off his enemies with his karate kicks the way we later see him. He's a presence in the room, standing out from the darkest shadows, surrounded by black inky space in a white suit under a spotlight. Romita again can concentrate on a character's physical form to fill the panels and convey the tone of the scene. He doesn't need Kingpin to punch anyone to be intimidating.

Take a little of Will Eisner's New York City, add in some Sin City silhouettes and Miller blockiness, and you get pages like this one.

Miller's story works Murdock through the city, in a series of action pieces, including plenty of rooftop running, back alley hand-to-hand combat, and some more imaginative sequences where the setting allows Romita to shine. Something as simple as Matt chasing Elektra through a snowy park comes to life equally from Romita's steady camera work and Miller's syncopatic captioning. Bigger moments like Murdock taking on a warehouse full of thugs or an Elektra car chase scene are handled just as assuredly. Miller's story backs Murdock into some ridiculously tight corners, but Romita's layouts and distance from the action always emphasizes how strong and how clever Murdock can be with his gifts.

This is a great two page sample of the kind of work Miller and Romita did in the series. It starts off with a lyrical place setting. It's more of Miller's trademark captions playing against the city setting. Romita plays along, swooping his 'camera' from inside Matt's dorm room, through the window, across town, through the park, and beyond. It's setting you up for the jarring transition in the next page, which is a full page splash of Matt Murdock jumping in the air, a full moon perfectly positioned behind him. It's bold and it's graphic and its a perfectly designed page.

The inks from Al Williamson here fit in more with the style of Scott Hanna's inks than Klaus Janson's. Williamson was a master inker

Taken to the extreme, Al Williamson's inks could look like something from a woodcutting. Or maybe "Ronin?"

Williamson's ink line doesn't hide anything. It gives the line art a very light feeling. The weight on the page is felt by the way Romita stages the action and moves the pieces around. Murdock, wrapped with a bandage over his eyes and clad in a black gym suit, looks like a lightweight dancing across the page because Romita draws him like that. Murdock bounces across roofs, but can then land a fist on a punching bag with the weight of an anvil behind it. When he punches a guy out, that force is felt in the way Romita moves the bodies around the page, and the way the bodies react. It's not that the inks suddenly get heavier or that Williamson needs to add more details to the page. Williamson helps with the shadows, sure, but he doesn't draw chunky inks on the page to weigh a scene or a character down. He doesn't need to. Romita's got that covered. Williamson finishes the art with a stylistic layer that fits in, but makes Romita's art look like nothing anyone else has ever drawn over him.

The end result feels very European, somehow. It's neat and precise, at times lacking any kind of contrast and large black areas. For a book from 20 years ago, it allows the colors to carry more of the art than was the norm at the time. Christie Scheele's colors for the series are beautiful, too. It's a very simple style, not screaming out for attention, but keeping the art clean and readable. You get the classic of-that-era purple and green backgrounds, but they're contrasted with brighter foregrounds. The original mini was printed on glossy paper with a cardboard cover at a higher price point. It was used to great effect, with a coloring scheme that might have been muddied completely on standard newsprint.

One of the other interesting things about this miniseries is how much it feels like a Frank Miller comic, just drawn by someone else. Miller's scripting techniques are pretty distinctive. You can pick them out in a crowd, mostly in the way he narrates the story through captions. Whether he's writing "Spawn" or "Martha Washington" or "Sin City," you can feel Miller's voice in the work. John Romita doesn't change his art style for Miller in this book; his storytelling and some of his gesturing seems very Miller-esque. I wonder how much of that is an attempt to work in the style of the series, or if any of it came from layouts, perhaps, from Miller for some pages. When you see Matt Murdock flying through the night sky or dancing atop the rooftops, you can't help but have flashes of "Dark Knight Returns" or "Sin City." This was written at the same time Miller was working on "Sin City" pretty much full time. Maybe it's just the influence, but I do wonder if there was a more direct hand there somewhere?

Heck, you can also see hints of David Mazzuchelli and "Born Again." This panel screams of the kind of layouts Mazzuchelli did in "Born Again" with Kingpin staring out at the city, usually drawn on a separate page and blending in later in a single color. (I reviewed the beautiful Artist's Edition of that book here and here.)

"Daredevil: The Man Without Fear" actually began its life as a movie treatment before expanding out to a large degree and becoming this miniseries. It would make a convincing origin story, if the world needed another one of those kinds of movies. In the early 90s, though, an origin movie would have been perfect for Daredevil. It would certainly have kept the special effects budget lower than a superhero slugfest. Miller struck more luck with his script for "Robocop 2," of course. The Elektra segments of the book do feel a bit superfluous towards the central plot, though they help reinforce Miller's definition of the Murdock character in a way nobody else could. (According to Romita's text at the end of the book, though, those were added in during the development of the comic version of the story treatment.) The book reads well on its own, but works even better in the context of Miller's landmark run on the main series. If you missed this one, pick it up in whichever form you can find it today, including digital. (To be honest, the digital version's colors are just a little too bright. I prefer the slight muting effect of paper in this case.)

FRANCOIS SCHUITEN

I learned this week that Francois Schuiten is going to be at the big show in San Diego this summer. This is the first time I kicked myself that hard for missing San Diego in a number of years. I hope he gets an Ink Pot Award, if he doesn't have one already. (And, yes, Benoît Peeters will be there, as well.)

While there, Schuiten can help promote "The Leaning Girl," a new book (in America, at least) in the "Obscure Cities" series being published next week, after a successful Kickstarter campaign. You can see the book in motion here.

From the publisher's website:

Beginning in the spring of 2014, Alaxis Press will publish the internationally acclaimed graphic album series, Les Cités Obscures, in English, as THE OBSCURE CITIES. As a longtime fan of the series, publisher Stephen Smith is personally translating the first release, The Leaning Girl. This title will be released in March 2014. Alaxis Press is committed to completing the series in English beginning with the titles not already published by NBM publishers, which released The Great Walls of Samaris (1987), Fever in Urbicande (1990), The Tower (1993), Brüsel (1993) and The Invisible Frontier (2002-2004) under the series name, Stories of the Fantastic.

I couldn't be more excited to finally find this. Those books are amongst my Holy Grails of books that seemed doomed to never appear in print in English. Suddenly, there's hope. Let's support Alaxis Press in the hopes that the project can give us the rest of the series.

I've written about Schuiten's work in Pipelines past:

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TAGS:  pipeline, daredevil, frank miller, john romita jr, man without fear

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