The Complete Frank Miller DaredevilA column article, Comics Bulletin Soapbox by: Dave Wallace
Daredevil Visionaries #1, #2, #3
The Man Without Fear
Frank Miller (although Roger McKenzie writes in Visionaries 1)
Daredevil Visionaries 1,2,3: Frank Miller (p), Klaus Janson (i)
Born Again: David Mazzuchelli
The Man Without Fear: John Romita Jr. (p), Al Williamson (i)
Forever linked with the history of Daredevil is the unassailable figure of Frank Miller. A favourite creator among fans thanks to his high profile work on such genre-defining classics as “Batman – The Dark Knight Returns” in 1986 as well his more recent, equally original work in the medium (“Sin City”, “300”, and “The Dark Knight Strikes again” – ok, let’s not mention that one…), Miller made his name writing and illustrating issues of Daredevil in the early 80s that not only redefined the character, but also expanded the horizons of what people thought was possible in comics.
With interest in the character of Daredevil at a high (thanks more to Brian Michael Bendis and Alex Maleev’s excellent work on the current title than to the relatively average movie), it seems high time for another evaluation of this man’s body of work on the title…
“Daredevil Visionaries” 1, 2 & 3
Collecting Daredevil issues # 158-#161 and #163-167 (vol.1), #168-#182 (vol.2) and #183-#191 (vol.3).
This is where it all began. Taking the reins of a book which had been performing badly and was facing cancellation, Miller was let loose on Daredevil by the powers-that-were at Marvel – and it couldn’t have been a more timely appointment. Comics were at risk of stagnating, and a change was long overdue in the market. Frank Miller, along with his contemporaries, was instrumental in realising that change.
Whilst Daredevil Visionaries #1 is notable as Frank Miller’s introduction to the Daredevil canon (as artist, with Roger McKenzie writing the first DD stories Miller worked on, and Miller beginning to co-plot the tales as the partnership developed), it is only with issue #168 (in Visionaries #2) that he began to write the stories he illustrated. It is here that we witness the birth of Elektra, and with her Miller’s Daredevil legacy.
If you’re used to the glossy and detailed feel of modern comics, your first reaction may be to see the artwork as simplistic and flat: however, it would be a mistake to dismiss the collection as equally simple on this basis. From the off we see Miller employ a densely constructed style using flashback, montage and voice-over (gradually taking over from thought-balloons) in a way which would later become familiar – indeed, the very devices which current favourites such as Bendis have mastered so completely. This style is used to craft the initial tale which introduces Elektra, telling a self-contained story whilst setting up a believable and meaningful relationship which would be so important over the coming years, all within the space of a single issue. Detractors of the “decompressed” Marvel storytelling we see today, with stories paced-for-the-trade, will find much to enjoy here. Indeed, it is for this reason that Miller’s 3 “visionaries” collections feel slightly unbalanced, with the meat of the Elektra tale contained within the second volume, only to be followed up in the slightly more slender third. Since all of these issues form one huge overarching epic, you’ll get most out of the TPBs if you read them in sequence – but they are still enjoyable as separate collections.
One of the delights of this slightly older style of comic is the more frequent intervention of the more outrageous elements of the Marvel Universe than we’re used to today. The characters’ descent into a society of sewer-dwelling mutants, an imaginary fight with Murdock’s literally realised inner demon and a silly encounter with Power Man and Iron Fist all integrate themselves into Miller’s more serious take on DD. Whilst these devices are very much indicative of the comics world at the time, they can serve to take you out of the more compelling story – especially when you’re used to the more straight noir take that Bendis is providing today. However, Miller wisely opts to play it straight as much as possible, and we see that his artwork follows suit. Those familiar with his stark Sin City work will see the seeds of that light-and-shadow worldview being sown here. Whether it’s a brooding investigative journalist in his office with the blinds down, an ill-fated trip to the cinema, or an overlord gangster sitting behind his desk in a darkened city penthouse, the atmosphere that Miller creates with his liberal use of black shadow and dark shapes and textures just feels so perfectly suited to the noir storylines that it shifted the entire tone of the character: for evidence, just check out Alex Maleev’s work on the title today.
As volume 2 progresses, we are treated to many classic character arcs: the ever-focusing madness and ultimate victory of Bullseye (just compare the Bullseye from issue #169 with that of #181); the closer involvement of Ben Urich with DD and his coming to fruition as a major character in the Marvel Universe; the transformation of the Kingpin from overweight novelty Spider-Man villain to seedy crimelord of palpable menace; an overload of ninjas; the onslaught of Kirigi; and – of course – the culmination of many of Miller’s initial story threads with the death of Elektra. It’s this final mini-arc which is so often quoted as the pinnacle of Miller’s initial run, but it is only after you read the story in the context of preceding issues that you realise what a labour of love it must have been for Miller to so carefully construct the many layers of this major work.
As you move to Volume 3, it feels like more of a mixed bag in comparison. In the same vein as volume 2, there’s some interesting legal drama, as well as a return of the comedy sketches including Turk and Josie’s bar which alleviate what would otherwise be an overly pervasive, po-faced seriousness of tone. However, an attempt at darkness with the Punisher doesn’t quite come off (although a storyline about the drug-related deaths of schoolchildren provides serious subject-matter, we’re just more used to that kind of thing being done far more frankly today) and a comedy tale with Foggy as the hero and narrator, whilst amusing and worthwhile, feels like stalling – especially when we know there are bigger things around the corner. Indeed, it is only when we reach the second half of this book, with the introduction of what seems like half of the ninjas of Japan and their subsequent resurrection of Elektra, that things get back to the exciting high standard of the issues in volume 2.
The resurrection of Elektra and her subsequent continuity was to become a bone of contention for many comics fans, with Miller eventually distancing himself from her use as a recurring character. We see little of that here – although her return seems as much a reason to revisit a tried and tested formula as it does a real leap onwards in creativity. Indeed, by this stage it was as though Miller had come as far as he wanted to for now. The storytelling was on the verge of becoming repetitive and it was too his credit that he chose to leave his initial run on a high, rather than drag it out any longer than absolutely necessary. You can see from these collections how far Miller developed with just his initial run on the title: compare the final story here, “Roulette”, with his first self-penned issue, “Elektra”, and you’ll appreciate Miller’s ever-growing confidence with his dark material, a comfortableness with more complicated structure, and an absolute command of voice-over (as opposed to those pesky thought balloons) which will leave you in no doubt as to why he has been hailed as a master of his trade.
Along with the standard pinups and new cover art, Visionaries 3 also contains some additional Frank Miller Daredevil and Elektra work – the out-of-continuity stories of “What If Elektra had lived?” and “What If Daredevil became an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.?”, as well as a black-and-white Elektra tale from Bizarre Adventures #28. Of likely interest only to completists more than casual fans, the two “What If” stories are intriguing curiosities – well above-par for the norm in the area (but less compelling than regular continuity stuff) - whilst the Elektra story lives up to its book title as being off-the-wall and difficult to follow, especially as some of the pages have rumouredly been printed out of sequence.
Something which is often forgotten in these collections but which cannot be overstated is the collaborative element between Frank Miller and the awesome talent of Klaus Janson. Already a respected inker before Miller’s rise to fame and notoriety, Miller pushed Janson even further to achieve what is arguably some of his career-best work. The complexities of Miller’s deceptively simple pencils were hugely enhanced by Janson’s polished finish – especially when you consider that he took over as colourist from issue #179. Their partnership was to define an era in comics (Janson fulfilled similar duties working on the Dark Knight Returns) and it almost seems surprising that Janson too does not get billing on the TPB covers. Still, those who appreciate his contribution to the books will not be swayed by such detail, especially when there’s such good teamwork to enjoy here.
All in all, the Visionaries series is definitely the place to start if you want to understand why Frank Miller has been put on the pedestal that he has when it comes to Daredevil. The Elektra story is both character and genre-defining: To paraphrase Miller himself on the Daredevil movie DVD (worth getting just for the excellent creators’ documentary on the second disk), this was rape and murder in a medium which people had hitherto assumed was the exclusive domain of kids and their wish-fulfilment fantasies. Miller helped open the market up to a more sophisticated and mature audience, rather than the child-friendly overly-simple fare that Marvel had been putting out for an audience which just wasn’t there. But for far more than simple shock value, the story is worthwhile as an excellently planned over-arching comics-noir story which was enjoyable in individual instalments as well as as a whole.
Daredevil: Born Again
Collecting Daredevil issues #227-#233.
Born Again, held up by many as the definitive Frank Miller story, shows how far Miller was able to push these adult themes a few years later. From the moment Karen Page returns as a junkie ex-porn-star who sells Matt Murdock’s secret for the price of one last fix, things in Daredevil’s life go from bad to worse: within the space of a couple of issues, Matt loses his home, his job, his girlfriend and his sanity as the house of cards that is his life begins to fall to pieces. Indeed, it is this domino effect (if you’ll forgive the mixed metaphor) which makes the tale so compelling to read from issue to issue.
Released in the same year as the seminal Dark Knight Returns, comparisons with Miller’s magnum opus are unavoidable. But whereas the cinematic DKR revelled in the grandeur of superheroics (becoming a major influence on all subsequent film adaptations of the caped crusader and his four-colour brethren), Daredevil: Born Again is the comparatively awkward relation, intent on stripping away the various elements of super-hero comics and their genre conventions. The story makes major, irreversible changes to the title continuity; it concentrates as much on the supporting cast as the main character; It provides a protagonist who is at best victimised and strung-out and at worst downright unlikeable, chronicling an ugly, uncomfortable descent into madness; and finally (and most significantly to Frank Miller) it keeps Matt continuously out of costume for around five issues.
Over the course of seven issues, Wilson Fisk so comprehensively breaks down the various elements of Matt’s life that the character is left with nothing – deserted by his friends, and paranoid to the point of insanity. It’s a gleefully delicious dissection of a man, and one in which the architect clearly revels: but I’m not talking about the Kingpin here – it’s Miller who obviously relishes his opportunity to so literally deconstruct Matt Murdock. Indeed, it’s only after we see Daredevil go through such an emotional wringer that Miller can show us what it means to be noble and heroic by re-constructing the hero from the basic building blocks of his character. It’s this redemption arc which makes the climax to the book so uplifting and powerful, and it’s not hard to see why fans clamour to have this part of Daredevil history re-created in a cinematic adaptation.
This time round, Miller chose to not illustrate the story himself, instead working with artist David Mazzucchelli to illustrate the tale. Interpreting such a revered artist’s writing visually must carry a certain burden of responsibility, but Mazzucchelli shines here, eclipsing even the excellent Miller work of the Visionaries books in his realism and detail. Given a lot more character work to do in lieu of simple costumed heroics, the artist rises to the challenge, providing expressive and realistic faces and body language which create a real humanity in the various personalities. However, Mazzucchelli knows when it is wise to amp up the characteristics of his characters, and when the Kingpin, Nuke or the Avengers make an entrance, he makes sure we know about it. Treading a fine line between realism and caricature, he nails the feel that Miller’s writing is aiming for, making the arc enjoyable to read as a piece of graphic storytelling as well as simply a good story. In rendering so perfectly these defining moments of Daredevil history (the Kingpin’s learning of Matt’s identity; Karen Page’s addiction and emotional redemption; the streets ablaze in Hell’s Kitchen), Mazzucchelli earns himself a place in the hearts of all comic fans as a master of his trade.
On the surface, it’s easy enough to see that this is a comic for adults – people die, people get addicted to drugs with gruesome consequences, and there’s some of the most realistic blood and gore that we ever get a chance to see in mainstream, all-ages comics. There’s a darkness at play here which just wasn’t evident before , even in the advanced Miller work collected in the “Visionaries” books. Modifications such as the conversion of Miller’s wry Lieutenant Manolis into a far more layered and less sympathetic character are symbolic of a wish to take the medium to more challenging, even morally questionable places, creating a dimensionality that comics were sorely lacking. But it’s really the standard of writing which marks this out as a mature piece of work, with a cynical, complex plot which mixes realism with the most appealing elements of comics noir. There’s still a heightened sense of reality at play here: The Kingpin’s various dealings (marking his coming-to-fruition as arch-nemesis after his less dark showings in the Visionaries collection) and Matt’s “fatal flaw” and maternal revelations, are positively Shakespearean. But it makes for a much more thrilling comic when you realise that your hero isn’t infallible, or invincible, but a man – albeit one without fear.
In a big year for comics (with the aforementioned DKR as well as Watchmen both hitting the stands in 1986), Daredevil: Born Again stands out as perhaps the least revered of the three, with DKR and Watchmen frequently lauded as deconstructionist masterpieces without so much as a nod to Miller’s work here. Whilst all three succeed on their merits, the Born Again arc should not stand in the shadow of its contemporaries and be overlooked for its contribution to the medium and the industry as a whole. It’s no coincidence that Born Again’s theme of rebirth marks the return and the establishment of a major talent, and it’s to Miller’s credit that he could return to one of the comics which made his name and take it to an even higher level than before, creating this outstanding, genre-defining, and downright entertaining mature piece of work.
Daredevil: The Man Without Fear
Collecting all five issues of this mini-series.
With Miller’s final work on the character to date, he chose to go back to the start, to Daredevil’s origin story, and re-tell the birth of this superhero as he saw it – no costumes included. Originally developed as a Daredevil movie script treatment (and surprisingly more cinematic than the eventual 2003 product), this tweaked origin story signalled the maturing of a talent who had fully come to terms with his medium and was exploiting it to tell exactly the stories he wanted to: and a perverse sort of logic renders his return to the early years of Daredevil a great pleasure. Whilst the extended origin concept behind the miniseries risked it being boring for the uninitiated – you’ll get a whole lot more out of this if you have a knowledge of what kind of man Matt Murdock will later become – it gave Miller the opportunity to get some kicks out of revisiting key characters from the mythos (Elektra, Stick) and integrating them more fully into DD’s backstory.
Again opting to collaborate with an artist rather than illustrate the story himself, Miller this time found himself working with the revered longtime Spider-Man artist John Romita Jr. Most recently seen illustrating the pages of Amazing Spider-Man and his creator-owned series Gray Area. It’s fun to see Romita Jr finding a more advanced style here, with his detailed cityscapes setting the scene perfectly for Matt’s boyhood origins. You can practically smell the city streets of Hell’s Kitchen through his atmospheric renderings, and the book is so obviously visually dense and satisfying right off the bat - before any action even kicks in – that you’d almost be happy if nothing even happened to Matt. But happen it does, and Romita’s art faithfully recreates the radioactive origin along with the hospital and family scenes that accompany Matt’s accident. From there, the bright Marvel-style origin descends into darker Miller-brand territories, with the accidental killing of a prostitute serving as a constant reminder to Matt – and the reader – of how high the stakes are. Romita’s recurrent motif of her falling to her death gives a feeling in a single image that would take many words to convey, and it’s this kind of perfect integration of artist and writer that makes the book a pleasure to read. Any non-converts to Romita will definitely be impressed by his work here, and it will ensure that you’ll want to pick up his upcoming work with Mark Millar on Wolverine’s solo title.
The eventual original plot here is a fairly straightforward crime-noir tale which is more reminiscent of the Dark Knight Returns than any of Miller’s other Daredevil work. Whilst surprisingly unconnected with much of Daredevil’s history or continuity, the story at least gives Miller’s excellent writing the chance to reprise and polish all the character tics previously explored in his Daredevil work, with the descriptive passages detailing Matt’s sensory perception being particularly impressive, setting a template which would be followed by many modern writers on the book ever since. However, some of his character work seems to be an unnecessary re-writing of history: the linking of Matt and Elektra’s mystical origins by Stick comes off as too convoluted, and much of the crazy-woman-Elektra work only serves to undermine the beautiful simplicity of their relationship that Miller crafted in the first issue of Daredevil that he ever wrote. Such tweaking will affect longtime followers more than casual fans, but even readers who aren’t too concerned with continuity may find it difficult to reconcile some of Miller’s changes with the characters they already know and love.
It’s a shame to say that The Man Without Fear is weaker than his previous Daredevil works, but there’s an occasional feeling that Miller’s relentless pursuit of his latter-day mission statement to get superheroes out of their costumes and make their books about strong characters, not solely attractive graphics has robbed the book some colourful appeal. Whilst in keeping with the gritty origin story he wanted to tell, it would have been nice to actually see some of Daredevil in action by the end of the book, and although Romita’s final splash goes some way to appease costume-hungry fans, this book reads more like one of Miller’s “straight” crime thrillers than it does a superhero book. Without wanting to take away from what is still a hugely enjoyable book, it’s fair to say that Born Again is a more fitting testament to Miller’s work on Daredevil – but for a more solid realisation of where Miller always wanted to take the character, you can look no further that The Man Without Fear.
Of course, if you’re keen to get into pre-Bendis Daredevil in a big way you’ll want to check out all this and more: I could rave about the beauty of Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s Daredevil: Yellow for hours, with its watercolour renderings providing a moving recap for those who are unfamiliar with his early years and the Karen Page story; Kevin Smith’s Guardian Devil run is an acquired taste, albeit one which provides many exciting super-hero thrills, major events and a few respectful nods to continuity; and some would say you should look no further than the Stan Lee and Bill Everett/Wally Wood issues that began the series and are collected in either the bumper-sized black-and-white paperbacks that Marvel churn out or the more respectful (and full-colour) Marvel Masterworks hardbacks. However, you’d be hard pushed to find a run on Daredevil that was more important to the book or the comics world in general than Frank Miller’s works on the title. His various tenures provide a variety of writing and artistic styles that do more than move the character on: they define him, and at the same time furnish us with career highlights of this talented creator.
(If you’re wanting to find out more about Daredevil, I can highly recommend http://www.manwithoutfear.com, Kuljit Mithra’s superb fansite on the character, which has helped me out massively putting this overview together. Cheers to Kuljit – an absolute authority on the subject - and all on the messageboards!)