Daredevil Visionaries: Frank Miller, v1-3

A comic review article by: Dave Wallace

Collecting Daredevil issues # 158-#161 and #163-167 (vol.1), #168-#182 (vol.2) and #183-#191 (vol.3)

Writers: Roger McKenzie, Frank Miller
Artists: Frank Miller (p), Klaus Janson (i)

Publisher: Marvel

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 a whole.

(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 these reviews together. Cheers to Kuljit – an absolute authority on the subject - and all on the messageboards!)

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