Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Frank Miller’s run on Daredevil holds up 3 decades later

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As I mentioned last month, Daredevil on Netflix is the show comic books (and comic book fans) have always deserved. It is able to take what should be something rather silly and hokey (i.e. superhero comics) and present it as quite plausible, earnest, and dramatic.

The show is clearly inspired by Frank Miller’s work on the character way back in the early 1980s with its brooding characters; moody settings and foreboding atmosphere. It wasn’t quite as intense as some of Miller’s more famous works, but it was unlike anything that had been seen or done in mainstream “tights-n-fights” comics until that point. There are three volumes of TPBs and an omnibus that collect this run – Daredevil by Frank Miller & Klaus Janson. I decided to read all three to see how they would hold up 30 years later and whether they’d live up to the hype. They most certainly did and more. Here are my observations:

Daredevil1You can clearly tell when Miller starts writing Daredevil

I have a fairly large collection of Bronze Age and “Copper/Tin age” comics from the 1970s and 80s. I’m pretty familiar with how they were written and the lighthearted tone they had. Miller’s first few issues strictly as penciler seem par-for-the-course for the time. Daredevil and Spider-Man team up to stop a few costumed crooks at first. The stakes aren’t very high and there isn’t much in the way of drama or character development. This is what superhero comics had always been, so there’s nothing surprising or especially memorable about those early issues.

However, once Miller begins co-writing the series, it slowly but surely begins to take on a more serious tone. Though by no means realistic, there’s definitely a sense of tension, jeopardy and suspense to the stories that you wouldn’t normally see in comics of that caliber. Instead of simply fighting the villains and rounding them up for the police, the implication becomes that the criminal element is here to stay and there’s a vast conspiracy afoot. Contrast that to Batman where every costumed villain operated independently – he’d toss one in jail and next month there’d be another goon to take down. In Daredevil’s world, the crooks, stooges and henchmen all seem to be operating as part of a larger criminal element rather than on their own. It’s actually rather a bleak outlook as the reader realizes Daredevil’s pursuit might be all for naught.

Daredevil2Miller took a cinematic approach to his page layouts

I always found Miller’s artwork in the early days to be pretty standard – this was well before his trademark blocky/semi-abstract look of Ronin, The Dark Knight Returns and Sin City. Any comic book artist could draw characters, objects and backgrounds, but the truly great ones know how to actually plot and pace a story as well as frame it dramatically. So many of those older comics seem to be a hodgepodge layout of randomly chosen frames. Sure, there’s connection between the pictures, but how many actually were able to use their panels for cinematic effect? That is to say – to give the comic a sense of scope, artistry, movement and drama?

Looking at Miller’s layouts, it’s clear he want to do more than just jump from frame to frame to fill up a page. He would repeat panels nearly identically with minor variations to give them real weight and drama. It reminds me of watching an independent movie where the focus is more on drama and atmosphere.

Miller made The Kingpin a tragic villain 

Daredevil3One of my complaints about the Daredevil show on Netflix is that the Kingpin character is a little too soft for a supposed mastermind crime lord. It’s not uncommon for a villain in that position or power to have a girlfriend or wife, but it is uncommon for him to actually have any emotional depth or for their relationship to be treated in any way romantically. The way Wilson Fisk is portrayed on the show by Vincent D’Onofrio makes him appear to have some kind of mental handicap as he’s perfectly calm most of the time, but a raging bull whenever things don’t go his way. This character trait makes him seem a bit weak and soft, but at the same time it’s at least unique and impressive since this is atypical for a mobster character of this stature.

Reading these old DD comics, it’s clear that Miller wanted to give The Kingpin some weight and depth (no pun intended). Sure, he could’ve just been a color-by-numbers/straight from Central Casting villain who’s only concerned with making money, but by giving him not only a love interest, but a tragic romance, he becomes rather sympathetic. In the comics at the time, Kingpin had exiled himself to Japan to escape the dangerous life he had been living. However, the goons back in New York want him back so bad they actually kidnap his wife Vanessa which forces him to come to her rescue.

It does not work out well for anyone.

Daredevil4Daredevil himself is a little nuts

Throughout Miller and Janson’s run on Daredevil, Matt Murdock is portrayed as a tortured soul with a penchant for masochism. It’s a major contrast from his literal neighbor Spider-Man who seems to just get into hijinks rather than life-or-death situations. Murdock is torn between his quest for justice in the costume and his love for his fiancĂ©, as well as his friend Foggy Nelson and their bleeding heart pursuit of justice for those that can’t afford it. Throw in his whole love/hate relationship with Elektra and you’ve got a character who makes Batman seem completely normal and emotionally stable.
There’s a rather interesting and slightly disturbing issue – #191 to be exact – in which Daredevil plays Russian Roulette with a catatonic Bullseye. Not surprisingly, DD spares his life (the gun never was loaded), but the very fact this was a premise approved by both the Marvel editorial staff and the Comics Code Authority (more on this shortly) is quite surprising.

Though in the larger context, it’s actually not unbelievable that this is a route Miller would take with the character. In his constant battles with Bullseye (and victories over him), Murdock is put in a position in which he could either kill Bullseye or at least allow him to die. Not surprisingly, he chooses to save him every time and openly acknowledges that doing so could and probably will (and does) lead to Bullseye killing again in the future. It’s a great philosophical depiction of capital punishment and justice – the kind of topic on which political science and law school students write essay after essay for years. Since this is a mainstream comic book series, it doesn’t come across as biased towards either side or didactic; the morality of the situation is difficult to ignore. Miller seems to be saying that any man with the powers and responsibilities of a super hero who’s put in such perilous situations repeatedly would eventually be driven a little mad.

elektra-deathI can’t believe these were Code-approved books!

As I said, I have plenty of experience with comics from the 1970s and 80s, but I don’t remember them being as violent as Miller and Janson’s Daredevil. I’m not sure what the exact wording of the Comics Code Authority was back then, but I always thought that death was never allowed to be shown or even implied in the comics. I’m currently reading through Batman: The Legend of the Dark Knight which was a non-code series that frequently featured blood, gore and death. These Daredevil issues may not have been as gruesome as a rated R movie, but they sure came close.

Consider that one of the most famous scenes of Miller’s run was Bullseye killing Elektra by impaling her with her own sai. Sure, you don’t actually see the weapon penetrate the skin and there’s no blood, but there’s no ambiguity to that picture, either. That’s a pretty horrific way to murder someone and an excruciatingly painful way to die. And yet, every issue had the “Approved by the Comics Code Authority” stamp on the cover. Not that I’m a prude complaining about standards and practices (hardly), just that this is a little shocking in retrospect. I wonder if readers at the time were as aghast by it then as I am now.

Conclusion

If you’re a fan of the Daredevil show or even just a fan of well-written comics (superhero or otherwise) you’d do well to pick up the three volumes (or the omnibus) that collect Frank Miller and Klaus Janson’s run on Daredevil. Truly great works of art and literature stand the test of time and this is a perfect example of that.

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