Current Reviews


Daredevil #116

Posted: Tuesday, March 3, 2009
By: David Wallace

Ed Brubaker
David Aja (p), Stefano Gaudiano (i), Jose Villarrubia (colours)
Marvel Comics
Editor's Note: Daredevil #116 arrives in stores tomorrow, March 4.

"Return of the King, Prologue: On the Costa Da Morte"

For the first time since issue #106, we're treated to another standalone character-based issue of Daredevil this month. This time, Brubaker focuses on Wilson Fisk -- previously known as the Kingpin -- and chronicles his attempts to make a new life for himself in Europe before his past inevitably returns to haunt him.

The writer's portrayal of Fisk as a tortured villain makes for a nice change from the usual tortured hero, keeping the title fresh and proving that there's more than one way to approach a superhero book. The Kingpin's struggle for redemption becomes a surprisingly powerful and sympathetic portrayal of the villain and makes me very keen to see what the writer has planned for the "Return of the King" arc when it begins in earnest in issue #117.

Brubaker uses past Daredevil continuity perfectly here, taking advantage of the Kingpin's long history in the Marvel Universe without letting the references to previous stories overwhelm the one that he's telling in this issue. This isn't the first time that Wilson Fisk has withdrawn from his villainous activities only to have his past come back to haunt him (and tempt him to return to his Kingpin role), and Brubaker acknowledges this with his references to the Frank Miller era, in which Fisk was similarly torn between his role as a villain and his feelings for his wife, Vanessa. Rather than making this issue feel like a rehash of those old stories, however, it adds credence to Fisk's current dilemma, with the weight of the character's history making his attempts to live a normal life and pursue a normal relationship feel even more doomed and necessarily temporary.

Some of Brubaker's references to past continuity aren't quite so direct. There's the dramatic irony of the flashback scenes that show Vanessa Fisk's concerns about bringing her unborn son into a world of violence and crime (given that we readers know that Richard Fisk met his end at the hands of his own mother back in Bendis' run). There's also the early reference to Fisk's relationship with his parents, and an implication that his father's abuse led to him becoming the man he is today. These more personal moments help to humanise the Kingpin, and to establish him as a rounded and multi-faceted character rather than a simple caricature.

In addition to this, Brubaker's decision to imbue Fisk with a certain tenderness -- perhaps even a hopelessly romantic nature -- and a desire to escape his criminal roots makes for a satisfying and three-dimensional portrait of a villain who can come off as one-note and cliché under lesser writers. I'm reminded of Paul Cornell's recent work with the character of Blade in Captain Britain, as both he and Fisk have benefited from a relaxation of the more extreme elements of their personalities, allowing them to become far more interesting as characters.

The plot of the issue is fairly straightforward, growing out of the story threads that were left dangling at the end of the previous issues. Brubaker continues to turn the Hand into a far more competent and far-reaching organisation that it has seemed in recent years, making the threat posed to Daredevil feel more serious than it has in the past. There's also a surprising amount of space dedicated to Fisk's romance, with Brubaker evoking the universal pleasures of a new relationship, and encouraging the reader to empathise with the Kingpin via his extensive use of the second person in his narration of the issue. It's an unusually heartfelt and openly emotional story for Daredevil -- especially given that the romantic lead is the Kingpin -- but it never crosses the line into trite, saccharine sentimentality.

The artwork for this issue is provided by David Aja. I make no secret of the fact that Aja is one of my favourite artists in superhero books at the moment, and I continue to miss his contribution to the Immortal Iron Fist title, so it's a real pleasure to see him crop up here.

Aja brings a strong sense of realism to the issue that helps to ground Fisk's story in a relatable real-world environment: the bar that the Kingpin and his girlfriend visit actually looks like an authentic Spanish bar, and the streets that they walk down look exactly like the kind of winding, narrow lanes that you find in many European towns and cities. They might seem like minor details, but it all helps to reinforce the idea that Wilson's new life is far removed from his old one.

The influence of Jim Steranko on Aja's is also evident, most notably in one stunning pop-art page that features abstract images of Spider-Man, Daredevil and Bullseye, and in which only the colours black, white, and red are used. It's a showstopping page that demonstrates just how valuable the contribution of a good artist can be. Lesser illustrators might have struggled to make a page in which the Kingpin stares out to sea and remembers his past encounters with Daredevil and Spider-Man feel fresh and attention-grabbing, but Aja turns it into the visual highlight of the issue.

There are also some more sophisticated techniques at play here, with several subtle visual metaphors that reflect the themes of the issue. Whether they were requested by Brubaker, included by Aja on his own initiative or purely accidental, they work wonderfully to underscore the emotional beats of the story. We see the soft sea gradually wearing away at the hard rocky coastline as Wilson encounters Marta, his new lover, for the fist time; the same sea contains a quiet power that only occasionally makes itself known in the brisk violence of a crashing wave, mirroring the Kingpin's temperament; we see the ebb and flow of the tides that mirror the peaks and troughs of Fisk's criminal career; and, eventually, we see the sunset, symbolising yet another transition from lightness to darkness before a bolt of lightning announces the unwanted intrusion of his old life. The natural laws of storytelling are symbolised wonderfully by Aja's depiction of these forces of nature, making the journey that Wilson takes in this issue feel as inevitable and out of his own control as the weather, or the motions of the spheres.

There's also a great set of panels in which Fisk and Marta share an umbrella on the beach: it's a low-key moment that Brubaker and Aja use to emphasise the differences between the two characters as well as to reflect the themes of the issue. Marta's umbrella appears comically ineffective in sheltering Fisk, reflecting the idea that, by offering him the protection of her love, Marta not only cannot prevent Fisk from being affected by the rain but also leaves herself completely vulnerable to the elements, too.

That the story doesn't feature Daredevil himself (aside from a brief cameo appearance on the page I mentioned earlier) is irrelevant. That the book returns so quickly to the characters and concepts that were dealt with in the book's last storyline isn't a weakness, as Brubaker shows that there's plenty more life in them yet, and that things are about to get a lot more complicated than they were in the previous arc. That the issue's conclusion is predictable (in a brave move on Brubaker's part, we're told what is going to happen very early on in the story) doesn't lessen the impact of the denouement, as the creative team tells the story so effectively that its dramatic implications are conveyed in full to the reader. You might well have seen this kind of story told before: however, I doubt you've seen it told as perfectly as it is here.

Daredevil might not have the finest rogues' gallery in the world: in fact, you can probably count his truly memorable adversaries on your fingers without running out of digits. However, with villains that are as complex and fully-realised as the Kingpin is here, there's really no need for any more. Ed Brubaker's reintroduction of Wilson Fisk is a great standalone story that also sets up the next phase of his work on the book, ranking as one of the best issues of Daredevil for a long time -- and considering the high quality of Brubaker's run so far, that's quite a compliment. This is inspiring storytelling that builds on the foundations of Daredevil continuity to tell a fresh story that touches on the universal themes of love, redemption and the challenge of overcoming our inherent human flaws and breaking out of cycles of self-destructive behaviour. If only all superhero comics were this good.

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