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Thursday, April 9, 2015

Please Allow Me To Introduce Myself: Brian Michael Bendis' Daredevil



Kevin Smith only stayed on Daredevil for eight issues, but, while "Guardian Devil" wasn't very good, it was quite popular, bringing increased mainstream attention to Daredevil for the first time in years. Marvel smartly didn't try to recreate Smith's style for his successor, however; rather than another hyper-verbal screenwriter, they recruited indie writer/artist David Mack, best known then for his Kabuki Image series. Mack's covers were haunting and impressionistic; his stories were often experiential, focused on sensation and feeling. It couldn't have been a bigger (or more necessary) change of tone from Smith. After his popular "Parts of a Hole" arc, Mack stepped back from writer to artist, bringing his Caliber Comics compatriot Brian Michael Bendis in to write an arc. The series then went to Back to the Future screenwriter Bob Gale for a little-loved follow-up, perhaps attempting to bring new readers in as Smith had done. But after that brief tenure, Bendis was back, this time with his Sam & Twitch artist Alex Maleev.

Bendis was, in many ways, the perfect melding of what Miller, Smith, and Mack were trying to do. Like Miller, Bendis had an affinity for urban crime stories - before writing for Marvel, he published books like A.K.A. Goldfish, Jinx, and Torso, which helped popularize crime noir style in comics. Like Smith, Bendis was known for heavily stylized dialogue, motor-mouth characters who bounced off one another in conversation like pinballs. And like Mack, Bendis was an indie comics guy who was bringing a different style of comics storytelling to the mainstream. Fittingly, as someone who managed to combine nearly everything that had previously been successful about the series, his 56 issue run with Maleev remains a major high point of Daredevil to this day.

You can see the change in the very first issue of Bendis' run, Daredevil #26*. The opening of Bendis' "Underboss" arc, the issue has, essentially, two stories. In the first, a week in the past, a mysterious supervillain has publicly targeted Matt Murdock, making a brutal mass attack on the steps of the courthouse that plays out with the intense imagery of a suicide bombing. While the story is something that would fit well in Miller's run in many ways, Bendis and Maleev have a patience that gives it an added emotional punch that Miller would have missed; the attack and the aftermath take five whole pages, mostly wordless, that lets the horror of the situation set in before we ever see Murdock suit up and give chase. In the second story, which the issue opens with, we see the Kingpin confronting a mobster who thinks he's gone soft, who thinks he's playing too many games instead of going for the kill. Sammy Silke yearns for the good old days, the days when the mob ruled with an iron fist, and he believes he can bring those days around again.


Though Bendis, like Miller, uses crime fiction heavily as an inspiration, Bendis' work tends to be a bit more psychologically grounded. In my articles about Frank Miller and Kevin Smith, I suggested that it was melodrama that drew people to books like this, street level stories with enormous, tragic emotions driving them. Bendis' book is more restrained in tone, but you don't reference the fall of Julius Caesar in the first few pages unless you're playing with big themes; Bendis would highlight the Shakespearean nature of the book's core conflicts later in the arc, reinforcing that idea. While this is far and away the most restrained of Daredevil's fan favorite runs - enough to disprove my theory? YOU DECIDE - it maintains Miller's dedication to telling grand, operatic stories on an intimate scale.

Bendis' work is often criticized for its languorous issue-by-issue pacing - what's often called 'decompressed storytelling' - but, reading this issue, there's a vast difference between patience and just shitty pacing, between what Bendis does in "Underboss" and what Smith does in "Guardian Devil." By the end of this issue, every major conflict of the arc, and in many ways Bendis' book as a whole, has been highlighted: Organized crime in Hell's Kitchen is going to go through some major changes while Matt Murdock finds himself targeted because his secret identity isn't quite secret enough. Variations on these two basic ideas would define much of Bendis' groundbreaking run, and both are set up in his first issue on the title. 'Decompressed' or no, Bendis took Miller's Daredevil to its natural conclusion and he did so in one of the most sharply written comics Marvel has ever put out.


While I'd be shocked if the Netflix series used the stories from Bendis' run - many of which have power precisely because these characters all have so damn much history - this is almost certainly the tone the show will go for. Miller's Daredevil used the themes of crime fiction, but the tone and style of his storytelling was classic Silver Age comics; Smith mostly did that again, but worse. Bendis is the writer, to my mind, that successfully integrated the tone and pace of the genre with the style of superhero action, which gives the show a powerful, long-running template on how to tell serialized, human crime stories in a world of superhumans.
Looking to dive into Brian Michael Bendis' Daredevil before the Netflix show begins on April 10th? Here's where you should start...

Daredevil: Ultimate Collection Volume 1
Daredevil: Ultimate Collection Volume 2
Daredevil: Ultimate Collection Volume 3
- These collect Brian Michael Bendis' Daredevil run, including his first short arc with David Mack.

Tomorrow, to conclude Please Allow Me to Introduce Myself

 
*As I said, this isn't Bendis' first issue, it's merely the start of his run. This is a story that feels wholly his, which is why I decided to start here. I'd still definitely recommend going back to check out Mack's year on the book, too, however.
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