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Daredevil: Born Again

Posted: Saturday, August 7, 2004
By: Dave Wallace



collecting Daredevil issues #227-#233

Writer: Frank Miller
Artist: David Mazzuchelli

Publisher: Marvel

Born Again, held up by many as the definitive Frank Miller story, shows how far Miller was able to push the adult themes he began in 1984 a few years later. From the moment Karen Page returns as a junkie ex-porn-star who sells Matt Murdockís secret for the price of one last fix, things in Daredevilís 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 youíll 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 Millerís 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 Mattís life that the character is left with nothing Ė deserted by his friends, and paranoid to the point of insanity. Itís a gleefully delicious dissection of a man, and one in which the architect clearly revels: but Iím not talking about the Kingpin here Ė itís Miller who obviously relishes his opportunity to so literally deconstruct Matt Murdock. Indeed, itís 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. Itís this redemption arc which makes the climax to the book so uplifting and powerful, and itís 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 artistís 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 Millerís 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 Kingpinís learning of Mattís identity; Karen Pageís addiction and emotional redemption; the streets ablaze in Hellís Kitchen), Mazzucchelli earns himself a place in the hearts of all comic fans as a master of his trade.

On the surface, itís easy enough to see that this is a comic for adults Ė people die, people get addicted to drugs with gruesome consequences, and thereís some of the most realistic blood and gore that we ever get a chance to see in mainstream, all-ages comics. Thereís a darkness at play here which just wasnít evident before , even in the advanced Miller work collected in the ďVisionariesĒ books. Modifications such as the conversion of Millerís 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 itís 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. Thereís still a heightened sense of reality at play here: The Kingpinís various dealings (marking his coming-to-fruition as arch-nemesis after his less dark showings in the Visionaries collection) and Mattís ďfatal flawĒ and maternal revelations, are positively Shakepearean. But it makes for a much more thrilling comic when you realise that your hero isnít infallible, or invincible, but a man Ė 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 Millerís 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. Itís no coincidence that Born Againís theme of rebirth marks the return and the establishment of a major talent, and itís to Millerís 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.

(If youíre wanting to find out more about Daredevil, I can highly recommend http://www.manwithoutfear.com, Kuljit Mithraís superb fansite on the character, which has helped me out massively putting these reviews together. Cheers to Kuljit Ė an absolute authority on the subject - and all on the messageboards!)



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