Make Mine Marvel, Malapropist: How to Read Daredevil – pt. 1

I asked my friend (and EPA-co-writer) Nathan to join me for some back-and-forth about the status quo of Marvel’s maybe-most-put-upon hero, Daredevil.

Greg: A little under a year ago, in Ed Brubaker and Michael Lark‘s last Daredevil issue, Matt Murdock accepted an offer to lead the Hand, a clan of ninja assassins with whom he has long been enemies. From what I understand, current writer Andy Diggle‘s run has seen DD attempt to reform the Hand while perhaps overstepping his bounds as an urban vigilante.

Brubaker’s last issue ended with a hell of a cliffhanger, but Diggle’s first Daredevil comic didn’t make a good impression on me, and since then I’ve found no real incentive to check back in with the series.  That, and I’ve found everything else I’ve read by Diggle underwhelming—even before his tenure on DD began, he struck me as a less-capable writer than Brubaker, or for that matter Brian Michael Bendis.
Bendis, who wrote Daredevil directly before Brubaker, had a long, acclaimed run on the title–one of my favorite extended works of superhero storytelling, and I believe one of yours as well. It begins with a clever act of genre subversion: Sammy Silke, a small-time hood with big aspirations learns that Daredevil is blind attorney Murdock beneath the mask.  Silke leaks the information to the press, and in the media circus that follows, we learn that among the members of New York’s criminal underworld, DD’s identity was more-or-less common knowledge. (We also get recurring exchanges between DD and police, criminals, or bystanders in which they address him as Matt Murdock and he unconvincingly rebuffs them.) Silke’s actions disrupt criminal New York’s balance of power, and out of desperation, Daredevil declares himself the new kingpin, seizing control in hopes of at least reducing crime to a more manageable level.
I want to put forward that Diggle’s positioning of Murdock as Hand leader amounts to an actual misreading of the character.   Midway through Bendis’ run, we learn—or at least it’s heavily suggested—that Matt’s decision to become kingpin was informed by his grief at the loss of Karen Page, a longtime love interest.  Bendis’ Daredevil has been in the throes of a nervous breakdown since before Bendis even started to write him.  (Blog reader: this works well enough in execution.)  So while declaring himself the head of a large criminal network is something Murdock did, it’s not the kind of thing he does—the action is significant because it’s somewhat out-of-character.  And, I’d argue, not an indication that Daredevil is more authoritarian by nature than most of his costumed peers.
Brubaker, following Bendis, portrayed Matt Murdock as a screw-up and an asshole, but a mentally-sound one despite his many bad decisions.  It’s possible that Diggle’s take on Daredevil is a total departure from Brubaker’s: that Murdock never recovered from his breakdown.  But this strikes me as (1) unlikely and (2) if true, an uninspired attempt to squeeze every last narrative drop out of Bendis’ ideas, a needless prolonging of a storyline that already had came to a satisfying close.  In fairness to Diggle and Brubaker, the whole DD-as-Hand-leader scenario might be editorially-mandated—not the story Diggle wants to writer, or the way Brubaker had wanted to end his run.  Even so, the problems as I see them (the misreading and/or rehashing of Bendis’ run) remain the same.
Maybe reading subsequent Diggle issues would resolve my grievances.  But I’ve been burned before, so I ask: have I misread the Bendis/Brubaker comics myself?  Or, are there aspects of Diggle’s Daredevil issues, distinct from the overarching narrative, that make the comics must-reads?  Is Roberto De La Torre’s art so pretty, or Diggle’s Foggy Nelson dialogue so sparkling, that I should brave what appears to be a mangling of one of my favorite characters?

Nathan: Finally, a disagreement. I’ve stuck around with Diggle’s Daredevil longer than you have, in part because I hold Diggle in higher esteem than you do, and also because Daredevil is just one of those few characters I follow no matter who happens to be writing him (Spider-Man is probably the other big one). On that first point, I loved Diggle’s Green Arrow: Year One, which I maintain is one of the two or three best “Year One” stories DC has put out, I have great affection for the first few volumes of The Losers, and his run on Thunderbolts had a lot of great moments, even if his long-term plans were strangely protracted (possibly because he was taking over on Daredevil).

I’d suggest giving Diggle another shot, though, if you’re willing to listen to my advice. On paper it does seem remarkably similar to the Bendis story in which Daredevil became kingpin of New York. But, if you’ll remember, Bendis made the (rather brilliant) decision to not really show the adventures of DD-Pin, instead flashing forward a year to a point where Murdock’s nervous breakdown is all but obvious to everyone around him, especially his poor new wife. Bendis was never really interested in what made the Kingpin the Kingpin–that’s probably why he killed him off early in the run. Instead, as you mention, a lot of the strength of the series came from Daredevil’s supporting cast coming to terms with the fact that Murdock was seriously off his rocker. One of my favorite moments in Bendis’ run (did I mention it might be my favorite Daredevil run ever, outpacing even Frank Miller’s?) is when Luke Cage, Reed Richards, Peter Parker and Dr. Strange try to stage an intervention. Murdock doesn’t take that well–instead, he tells them that maybe they should hold down their own corners of New York in a similar manner, with Cage taking over Harlem, Dr. Strange handling the Village, Spider-Man working Queens and Mr. Fantastic taking Manhattan. I’ve been watching The Wire lately and I find it even more astonishing how these deeply embedded power struggles can be transposed so thoughtfully to a superhero context.

Diggle’s Daredevil, so far, isn’t so much about Murdock as it is about the Hand, one of Marvel’s most intriguing villainous organizations (although too often a go-to plot device whenever a writer needs a lot of expendable henchmen). I don’t know if you read [Matt] Fraction and Brubaker’s awesome run on The Immortal Iron Fist, but there’s a lot of similar East Asia iconography-building and criminal behavior crossed with magic and mysticism that made that book so endlessly inventive. A three-issue arc featuring Murdock traveling to Japan (co-written by Antony Johnston) has a lot of really cool backstory regarding the Hand and their particularly zealous approach toward social justice.

Another difference between Diggle and Bendis’ run is that this time Daredevil’s main target is systemic–mostly, police and judicial corruption. Corrupt cops are a staple with Daredevil, of course (more often than not employed by Wilson Fisk) but I don’t recall a story that looked at the problem as affecting other spheres of New York civic life. Diggle’s first proper issue was that “The List” special, which set up a brawl between Daredevil and Norman Osborn that will probably never happen now that Osborn has been dealt with. But, Diggle made the decision to keep those Osborn-appointed cronies entrenched in the system, and they are not only going after Matt Murdock but also disbarring Foggy Nelson and taking Dakota North‘s license, among other things (I don’t want to give too much away).

I’d also suggest giving DD another chance because Diggle is spearheading an interesting-looking event book this summer that features Daredevil at its center (which is definitely a first for Marvel, and good on them). Called “Shadowland,” it looks to be about (I think) a gigantic prison DD and the Hand plan to set up in the center of New York that would house all the corrupt cops and public servants that manage to evade the New York justice system. A bunch of street-level Marvel heroes (always my favorite type) are going to show up, including Spidey, Wolverine, Elektra, Moon Knight, Ghost Rider (!), Luke Cage, Iron Fist, the Punisher, and a few others. It’s billed as “the battle for the soul of New York” and will probably wrap up Daredevil’s tenure as leader of the Hand. If nothing else, I bet this will be way better, and have more interesting consequences, than anything in Siege.

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