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Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Please Allow Me To Introduce Myself: Kevin Smith's Daredevil

How do you follow a run as groundbreaking and influential as Frank Miller's time on Daredevil? That was the question Marvel was left with when Miller left the title. His editor, Denny O'Neil, took over writing duties after, and his solution was to tone down the bleak anti-heroics of Miller's run while otherwise maintaining look and feel of the book. Ann Nocenti took over after that with a four year long, groundbreaking run that cannily subverted much of what Miller did with the character (which is sadly out of print, or you bet I'd be tackling it here). But Nocenti left the title in 1991, and the 90s were a... difficult period, both for Daredevil and for Marvel as a whole. It wasn't until the end of the decade, when Marvel was finally coming out of bankruptcy, that they began to rebuild, and Daredevil was a big part of that. In a high profile move, Marvel recruited iconic nerd filmmaker Kevin Smith to reboot the title in 1998 with up-and-coming artist/editor Joe Quesada (who would go on to become Marvel's Editor-in-Chief) as a part of their street-level Marvel Knights line.

Though Smith would only stay on for a single, extended arc, his run proved popular, and it is still mentioned frequently in lists of the essential Daredevil runs. After seven years in the wilderness, Daredevil was back on top thanks to Kevin Smith, Joe Quesada, and "Guardian Devil," Smith's eight-issue story. Essentially a sequel to Frank Miller's groundbreaking "Born Again" arc, Smith's run follows longtime Daredevil after longtime girlfriend Karen Page leaves him to take a job out-of-state, only to find herself diagnosed with HIV from her time as a junkie porn star in Miller's story. Meanwhile, Matt finds himself caught in the middle of a seeming holy war, asked to protect an infant who may one day bring about the apocalypse.

A comics page only Kevin Smith could love.
Daredevil #1 only touches on that larger story, however. In his first issue, Kevin Smith sets this up more as a religious action-drama. Daredevil, reeling from his break-up with Karen Page, turns to the church. But, while giving confession, he hears an attempted hit-and-run nearby - one that he quickly prevents. The girl and her child fleeing the car run away, leaving Matt in the dark about why they were targeted in the first place. Or, in the dark until the girl shows up at his law office with knowledge of who he really is and a story that it was a virgin birth, and that an angel has charged Matt to protect her infant.

I have to say this up front: I don't care for "Guardian Devil." That said, I can at least understand its popularity. This is a sequel to one of the biggest Daredevil stories of all time by an indie filmmaker who made being a nerd, for a brief moment in the 90s, feel subversive and cool. It plays with big ideas, relives key moments from some of Daredevil's most famous stories, and pushes the character forward into the twenty-first century with little of the baggage that had accrued in the decade prior. But it's also an overly talky story where Smith's personality overwhelms the page and the character, giving Quesada little room to try anything interesting with his art. The gender stuff is almost uniformly medieval. The pace is maddeningly meandering - Matt hears the girl early in the story, and then mostly just spends the middle of the story wandering around thinking too loudly, before she just walks up to him at the end of the story. This is what we call 'writing for the trade', when issue-to-issue pacing is largely abandoned under the assumption that the series will mostly be read in a nice, collected edition; neither of the core conflicts of the story are introduced or even really hinted at in this issue. 

But, again: I get it. When I was discussing Frank Miller's Daredevil #168, I talked about my belief that it's not the character's darkness that draws audiences to him, but the larger-than-life melodrama. It's not the grimness, but what that grimness represents in the hands of people like Miller, Bendis, and, yes, Kevin Smith: Big tragedy, big consequences, big love, big emotions. These are enormous stories told at a human scale, and Smith smartly realizes that there are few human institutions and emotions as well-suited to handling that kind of grandeur like religion and romance, grounding his story in Matt's Catholic guilt and his tormented relationship with Karen Page. As little as I actually enjoy reading Smith's arc, it's pitched perfectly as a Daredevil story, hitting just the right tone to draw lapsed fans back in the fold and teach newer readers what to expect from the series' superior entries.

To be frank, I can't imagine the upcoming Netflix series will pull very heavily from Smith's story. While it's popular, it isn't terribly influential - and, beyond that, it's not very cinematic. Smith has never felt very comfortable with action storytelling, by his own admission, so he fills up page after page with words. Matt's running internal monologue in this issue often crowds the art right off the page, often to say something the artist could have and should have shown us. While this is the final chapter in Karen Page's story, and aspects of it may pop up in the show one day, it's utterly avoidable.

Looking to dive into Kevin Smith's Daredevil before the Netflix show begins on April 10th? Here's where to start...

Daredevil: Guardian Devil by Kevin Smith and Joe Quesada

Tomorrow, on Please Allow Me To Introduce Myself  
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