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Friday, April 10, 2015

Please Allow Me To Introduce Myself: Mark Waid's Daredevil

Brian Michael Bendis took the ideas that Frank Miller had introduced to Daredevil and took them to their logical endpoint. It made for a helluva run, but it also made it predictably difficult to follow up on. Ed Brubaker, the writer who had reinvented Captain America a year prior, took over, and his policy seemed to be, "More." Darker, meaner, faster, harder. At first, it worked; "The Devil in Cell Block D" is brutal, pulpy fun. But as the energy left the run, it became so dour it was hard to enjoy. Andy Diggle, who followed Brubaker, took things even further, having Matt possessed by a demon and bringing war to Hell's Kitchen, casually murdering villains and sending ninja assassins after his fellow superheroes. Then Mark Waid took over, and all the sudden the character once nicknamed 'the sightless swashbuckler' was smiling again.

Mark Waid's Daredevil (Vol. 3) was a breath of fresh air. Waid didn't ignore the darkness that had so come to define the character for the thirteen years prior. Rather, he did what Miller did: Took those basic elements, and slapped a new coat of paint onto 'em. But where Miller (and later Bendis) were taking a cue from crime fiction and Smith was taking a cue from Miller, Waid is basically doing the same thing that Grant Morrison did so expertly on Batman and trying to reconcile decades of wildly different tones and atmospheres into a single, coherent worldview, showing that there's no need to abandon the character's lighter roots to tell the same sort of melodramatically bleak stories Miller helped inspire.

In Daredevil #1, we open on Daredevil... at the Cloisters, a series of beautifully restored, lushly colorful abbeys maintained by the Met. It's gorgeous -- but Matt can't see it. And he's not there to take in the sights, he's there to stop an assassin named the Spot from kidnapping a child from a mob wedding. No matter how bright things are, there's that darkness, lurking under the surface. After Daredevil fights off the Spot in a beautifully-illustrated set-piece - Waid's Daredevil has uniformly lovely art from people like Paolo Rivera, Marcos Martin, and soon Chris Samnee - we settle into set-up, as Matt finds out what his legal career will be like, post-Bendis/Brubaker. He meets new A.D.A. Kirsten McDuffie, and finds hidden depths to the case on which he's working. And then comes the epilogue, where Matt and Foggy visit the grave of Matt's father. It's a cheerful story, one that largely exists to explain Matt's shifting attitude and set up a future graverobbing arc, but the imagery that opens it is hellish and apocalyptic, a picture of what Matt can 'see' when he dreams.

Waid's run was criticized by some readers as being too 'cheerful'. I normally have a considerable patience for different points of view - did you see how kind I was to "Guardian Devil?!" - but that is simply incorrect. Waid's run was no lighter than that of Bendis or Miller, his art team just used colors and didn't set every single scene at night. For all the wit, charm, and adventure of the few pages of Daredevil #1, there's that dream sequence at the end there to assure readers that Matt's darkest impulses and worst fears are buried in a shallow grave, at best. The series that was to come would keep the colors, but dive deeper and deeper into melodrama without allowing Matt (or the book itself) to wallow the way past writers had.

Because instead of a crime drama, Waid's story would become a psychological thriller that borrows from things like Gas Light. As high as Matt is on life, as hard as he's fighting, he is a person who has a darkness inside him. Not violence, necessarily. Not hatred, or rage. Depression. A sometimes all-consuming sense of helplessness that can cripple you. And that's the feeling Daredevil #1 evokes, revisiting the series and knowing what Waid has planned, when I see the graveyard sprawling out in front of Matt. No matter how hard he fights, that will always be waiting for him. Not dark enough? Pshaw.

This isn't a run that the Netflix show will be tackling for a good long while. Part of the power of Waid's story comes from its conscious refutation of the aesthetic of the previous runs. How bleak can things get before they descend into camp? How many of Matt's lovers can be murdered by a vengeful supervillain before it becomes more ridiculous than tragic? How often can he descend into tortured antiheroism? How often can we see the same story before we get sick of it? Waid's story keeps the tone themes, but the tone helps refresh the content in vital ways. That's not something the series really demands yet, as much as I hope to see the cocky, swashbuckling Daredevil Mark Waid brought to life in this issue. If anything gets brought over to the Netflix series, it would probably be an earlier acknowledgment of his depression, though topics like that are still essentially verboten on television.

Looking to dive into Mark Waid's Daredevil now that the Netflix show has begun? Here's where you should start...

Daredevil, Volume 1
- Collecting Daredevil #1-6. This is where you start if you're not sure if you'll be into this.

Daredevil, Volume 1
- Collects Daredevil #1-10, 10.1, and Amazing Spider-Man #677. This is where you start if you want to dive right in to a great arc.
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