An Origin Without Peer? – Daredevil: The Man Without Fear
There’s a lot riding on the upcoming Netflix Daredevil show. It’s new territory for Marvel both in dissemination and content: pay-service streaming and street-level vigilante crime-fighting. Matt Murdock and his Hell’s Kitchen environs are going to be a new thread in the interwoven big and small screen House of Ideas adaptations, a dark alleyway as it were, one that could very much lead to grander vistas opening up, both creatively and financially. And this is a good thing. We might not be getting residual checks from Disney anytime soon, but it’s wise to keep the corporate overlords happy. More money for them, more (hopefully) nice shiny things for us.
From the looks of the promo materials, those behind this new adaptation are borrowing a tad from the early 1990s Frank Miller/John Romita, Jr. Daredevil: The Man Without Fear, which makes sense since that was a prestige one-stop origin tale for the horned one. And this means, since we’re only a matter of days away from people binge-watching the new show, that it’s a perfect time for us to take a look at that mini. Hop into the blogintomystery.com time machine!
TMWF was put out in 1993, smack dab in the boom/glut of the early ’90s, when comics were released with all the discretion of a dump truck disgorging its contents. What’s that you say? Daredevil isn’t one of our best-selling titles? Then let’s slap a miniseries onto the pile — you know, for good measure! As with every other special book of this era, it had to have some manner of special adornment, i.e. the spinning rims of the stapled sequential art world. Red foil in this case, depicting a spectral version of Daredevil on the front of every issue, which was pretty much all we got of that familiar costume for the whole run.
Aesthetically, the five issues are quite arresting, some of the finest work that Romita the Younger did in the early half of his career. His rough edges and granite-hewn faces, limned by Al Williamson’s inks, were reminiscent enough of the Miller/Klaus Janson panels to form some connective tissue. Everything is clean and stylish, and the look feels worthy of the $2.95 cover price — this wasn’t always the case with these marked-up books. And the deep blacks are fitting for the protagonist’s milieu, which only truly comes alive after the sun goes down. Take the intro of the Kingpin, which is all shadow and huge hands:
I’ll give you one guess on how the next two panels play out.
It’s with Miller’s half that we run into problems. No one is taking anything away from his landmark run scripting and drawing the Daredevil ongoing. His was a voice unlike any heard to that point, and the noir he injected to this day defines this subset of characters. After all, isn’t everyone’s mental snapshot of the Kingpin him sitting at his desk in a darkened office, scowling, shadows from the blinds a grill on his ample flesh and white suit, smoke from a cigarette held in a dainty holder trailing into the air?
But by this point Miller’s scripting style was played out. (For some reason, as I was re-reading these books I was put in mind of the Spawn/Batman cross-over that he scripted around this time — the one that fell flat as a bag of cement. Not good.) Instead of something refreshing, this feels like a rehash, one that touches bases just to touch them, without much concern for crafting a compelling, focused plot. Look, Elektra! Training with Stick! The Kingpin! They don’t have much to do with the central narrative – because there isn’t one! (The Elektra bit is especially forced, a romance that whacks us over the head with the unsubtle dark side temptations of super-ninjatude. She’s a cartoon.)
Maybe I’m still reeling from the dreadful Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, but I found the text in sequences like this — the death of Jack Murdock — to be absurdly overwritten:
You know what this series could have used? What could have elevated it? Some silence. With a lot of comics, those scripting them have an unquenchable lust to see their own prose choking every panel to death, sometimes forgetting that this medium is a two-pronged artistic attack. Let the images breathe, you know? Let some of Romita’s work speak for itself, instead of inserting boxes of clunky pulp commentary in every panel. Wouldn’t a dash of silence work well when you’re dealing with a hero that’s lacking one of the five senses? Quiet panels as a counterpoint to a man whose hearing is like no other living creature’s? Let the reader’s imagination work? Do we really need dopey words in the panels above? Hello? Bueller?
This is a straight origin story, much like what Miller did with Year One for another horned nocturnal hero. Yet the origin element is where the comparison ends. In YO you at least could latch onto Bruce Wayne’s arc, and it helped that the parallel track of Jim Gordon was there to ground elements sans cape and cowl. In TMWF, there’s no such helper. It’s straightforward Matt Murdock all the way — with very, very brief digressions — and he simply doesn’t come across as all that interesting. Which is a shame, because he is interesting. A blind crusading attorney who has sonar-like abilities that allow him to be a scourge of Manhattan crime is nothing if not interesting. Yet TMWF Matt is boring, a one note point A to point B lug, with the emotional range of a cinder block. (The blank look on his face on the cover at the top of this post, as he holds his father’s shattered body, is the default throughout.) It’s a dubious achievement, but a real one.
Reading some other critical assessments online, it seems that my less than favorable opinion is an outlier, and that the book has an esteemed place on the shelf of Daredevil canon. Fair enough — I could be off base. And Romita’s work is certainly well executed. But it seems that Miller’s contribution is overvalued, perhaps coasting on the momentum of what he had done years before. It’s hard to pinpoint when exactly his style veered into self-parody, but it has to be right around here.
From what one can gather from trailers, the Daredevil show is going to use a modified YO parallel lives gimmick, following the Man Without Fear and the Kingpin as they both find their polar opposite places in the world. And the proto-costume — black attire with a cloth wrapped over the upper half of the face — is a straight pilfer of the Romita look. So while they’re not following the scattershot non-plot of the book (hopefully), they’re borrowing from the good half. This is discretion that bodes well.