“Decalogue Part III: Thou Shall Not Lie”
Writer: Brian Michael Bendis
Artist: Alex Maleev
Publisher: Marvel Comics
“But as the stories and confessions continue, a growing sense of connection between the group starts to grow.”
Although Marvel is to be applauded for providing an “orientation page” at the beginning of the comics under its imprint, did not the Lord say unto Moses: “When thou art a multi-million dollar corporation with the resources to produce the highest quality entertainment product, thou shalt not let the intern write the plot summary”? One might also think twice before naming a five-part (or six-part, depending on which solicitation you read) story “Decalogue.” Yes, the conceptual (or at least titular) framework of the current Daredevil story arc suffers from a half-assed editorial presence, but, due in large part to the genius of Alex Maleev and Dave Stewart, issue #73 nonetheless manages to outshine every other Marvel comic released this week.
Daredevil #73, like the last two issues, is a tale of the hero as related by the attendees at a support group for those whose lives he has affected. This time, the wife of a serial killer who was apprehended by Daredevil recounts her discovery of her husband’s evil deeds. Maleev and Stewart wordlessly narrate the buried memory of the loving wife descending into the darkened basement with a drink for her husband, only to find a hideous Lovecraftian demon perched on his shoulder, whispering madness into his ear. This scene visually epitomizes the theme of Bendis’s story: bearing witness. Across two pages, shadowy panels depicting the horrific conference alternate with close-ups of the wife’s face as she registers the presence of the miniature creature and then closes her eyes against the shock. It is effective as a scene of terror because the viewer is made to see it through the eyes of a witness.
But this scene is merely a prelude to the heart of the issue, a nine-page action sequence, again without words, in which one of the killer’s would-be victims is rescued by Daredevil and watches as he battles the mystically powered villain. As with the wife’s memory of her husband in the basement, this witness serves as the reader’s avatar. The subtle detail of her face as it reacts to each twist and turn in the fight is a triumph for Maleev. She looks at Daredevil in gratitude; her eyes narrow in concern as the fight moves to the rooftops; her jaw drops in disbelief as they struggle on the ledge; she winces as the killer falls from the roof. As Daredevil’s whip lashes out to catch him, her face is frozen, her mouth parted and brow furrowed. Finally, she can take no more and faints as “the devil,” her savior, catches her.
The shift in focus from superhero to witness is reinforced by the loosely sketched rendering of Daredevil and his foe in comparison with the delicate nuance of the woman’s expressions. Stewart’s smears of red, which bleed outside the penciller’s lines, are all that mark the figure of Daredevil who is otherwise devoid of any detail. The background is a wash of gray and lavender, but each panel that features the witness is an alarming yellow. No other Marvel book on the shelves today so boldly eschews the obsessive realism that typifies the “house style” for a more emotional punch. This approach values energy and dynamism above fidelity to a photographic record of “reality.” Hopefully, as Bendis and Maleev’s Daredevil run comes to a close, Marvel will find more opportunities to showcase Maleev’s unique voice.
Looking at superheroes from a distance is not new territory to Brian Michael Bendis. He and Michael Avon Oeming broke new ground with their unique approach to Powers, in which much of the superhero action occurs “off camera.” Before that, Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross pioneered the concept of the Marvel Universe as seen through the eyes of a witness in Marvels. But neither of those books took the idea to the extremes seen in Daredevil #73. The cover of the trade paperback of Marvels features Giant-Man ’s enormous form filling the lens of a camera. He is put in the perspective of a photographer, an ordinary person, not that of another supernatural being, and in this way his enormous size is made real. But it is still Giant-Man, and not the witness, who dominates the image. In Daredevil #73, the superhero is a figure half seen in the distance, barely made out by a character whose point of view the reader truly connects with—the witness.
A support group has been meeting in a church basement to discuss how Daredevil has changed people’s lives in Hell’s Kitchen. Each person tells a story related to the Commandment on the book’s cover. In this issue, “Thou Shalt Not Lie,” a woman talks about her husband. He had been attacking and killing women until Daredevil put him away. The wife says she never suspected her husband was a killer, although there was one night she saw a scarred creature talking to her husband. Ironically, the last woman the killer attacked is at the meeting. She refuses to believe a “demon” compelled this man to attack her.
Until another member shows a drawing of the creature. It was drawn by her daughter the night she killed herself.
So there’s something supernaturally evil in Hell’s Kitchen. And I know one group member knows what’s going on. He’s always smiling smugly and egging people on. Even odds say he’s Mephisto. Why not? The story has obvious religious themes. And Mephisto is the only Daredevil villain yet to appear in a Bendis story. (Seriously, we’ve seen Stilt-Man, Gladiator, Leap Frog, Purple Man, and every decent foe you can name. Only ones left are Mr. Fear, Matador and the Wild Boys.)
You either like the art of Alex Maleev or hate it. I like it. It has a gritty noir quality that fits the world of Daredevil. Most of the issue is just people talking, which is where Bendis excels. When Daredevil fights the killer, it’s all silent. I think Bendis is learning when to shut up and let the action tell the story. Again, Maleev does a fine job here following the action and revealing the killer’s surprise power.
My biggest complaint with the story so far is it’s a five-part story called “Decalogue.” Technically, it should be ten parts long; one for each commandment. But what kind of story can you base on “Keep Holy the Sabbath Day”? But I like what I’ve read so far. I’m curious to see how this ends.
Plot: The “touched by Daredevil” support group continues in the church basement in Hell’s Kitchen, but it’s getting freakier.
Comments: Maleev over-inks as usual. Daredevil appears only in the stories of others. The denizens of Hell’s Kitchen are corrupt, so even this group of relatively normal, non-criminals must make their own uneasy moral compromises with fathers, husbands, thieves, liars, murderers and abusers of women. Self-help groups are about coming to terms with denial. People trying to survive in Daredevil’s turf do so by denying their danger. So encounters between competing systems of self-delusion are likely to get ugly, as they do in this issue. Last month we learned of a normal son who rebelled, dramatically, against a criminal father, with some input from Daredevil as a symbol of hope and defiance.
Here we find a wife who turns a blind eye to her husband’s evils, until the night she sees them manifested as a gremlin whispering in his ear. Is this gremlin real, or another aspect of psychological disease? Another woman, one of the husband’s victims who was saved by Daredevil, violently objects.
And then a third admits to seeing the same demon. While the priest gets freaked out and tries to shoo everyone away. And a silent party in the group smirks mysteriously.
To sum up: No Daredevil. Possible literal demon. Sad, deluded people. In the continuing story of Bendis’s examination of how men in tights might impact real word despair and corruption, this is another chapter.
This issue continues the idea of a Daredevil-themed support group which reflects on Matt’s “lost year” of turf war against the Hell’s Kitchen underworld, this time presenting the story of a criminal’s wife who becomes convinced that her husband’s crimes aren’t simply motivated by his own evil. When victims refuse to believe her sympathetic explanation for her husband’s crimes, she flashes back to a twisted, almost dreamlike event which suggests that darker forces are at work, and that super-villain The Jester may somehow be involved…
I wasn’t as impressed with this issue as I was with last issue, which presented a fully self-contained story which occurred on the periphery of Daredevil’s life, yet still managed to be deeply affecting and engrossing. Whilst the story presented by the troubled wife of a vicious rapist never elicits the same kind of sympathetic emotional response this time around, the suggestion of a larger plot at work promises to bind “Decalogue” into a little more cohesive a story than I expected. The introduction of The Jester into the storyline was a surprise (and perhaps throws some light on the mysterious, over-confident stranger in the group who has yet to show his hand), and it seems as though Bendis may be working on the reinvention of another one of Matt’s foes in a more modern light.
Alex Maleev’s art is sketchier than it has been in the past, but is still perfect for the subject matter, adding a dreamlike quality to the flashback sequences and a real sinister edge to the bizarre being that is described by the woman testifying in this issue. Whilst the fight sequence involving Daredevil is a bit of a throwback to the stiff poses and static action that characterised Maleev’s early work on the title, Dave Stewart’s sparing use of strong colour really brings the visuals to life, and gives the fight far more excitement and intrigue than the simple pencils would have provided.
We’re still no closer to discovering exactly where this arc is headed, although some clues are being dropped plot-wise, and I’ve begun to notice the baseball-cap wearing member of the church group who we’ve yet to glimpse the face of (frequently obscured by word balloons and never well-lit, could this be an interloping Matt?), and a lot will depend on the final couple of issues, but I’m still getting some enjoyment out of this new format of single stories which relate to Matt’s yearlong war on crime. Seeing the superhero through the eyes of the general public reinforces the idea of DD as an urban warrior, and cements his street-level persona far more convincingly than another urban slugfest. A good issue of a story that I’m keen to see continue.
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