Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Daredevil, Rebirth of a genre! by Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli

The brightly colored costume has been a trope of the super hero genre since Superman’s first appearance in 1938. In fact the long johns have defined the entire genre so much so that the publishers wouldn’t publish an issue that didn’t have them wearing the brightly colored skivvies after all, what’s a Superman comic without Superman? On the other hand, to non comic enthusiasts it’s the costumes that make superhero comics so childish and so silly.

So, in 1986, when Frank Miller wrote a story where Daredevil is fighting crime without a costume, he is breaking a long standing tradition and publishing rule. But then again, he is Frank Miller. He revitalized the whole of the mainstream American comics industry with his groundbreaking work on Daredevil in the early 80’s, he can do pretty much what he wants.

The iconic Daredevil 168, Jan 1981, on Miller's first writing  job he creates the phenomenal character of Elektra.
Frank Miller had made a rep as a young hot shot who could not only draw as good or better than anyone, he could write too, and much better than anyone else in the industry at the time. With his first written story, Daredevil 168, the origin of Elektra, he blew everyone away with it’s deep emotional resonance. And he kept blowing people away month after month for the whole of his 23 issue run of writing and drawing Daredevil from issue #168 (1/81) to #191 (2/83).

Daredevil 191, Feb. 1983
Fast forward three years to 1986. David Mazzucchelli is quietly kicking ass with his amazing art work on Daredevil for the last two years. He and writer Denney O’Neil are continuing Miller’s lead of making Daredevil moody and gritty. They have his girlfriend commit suicide and have his law practice going down the tubs. 

Mazzucchelli is bringing a realism to the comic that is rare in the world of superhero. It is well researched art and very un-formulaic. Mazzucchelli chooses fresh and fluid figure work over the easy to reproduce stock poses that are common in superhero comics. He does research and actually uses photo references for his rich backgrounds. This is no small feat when you consider that he has to produce 22 pages of this every 30 days plus a cover. And he often inked his own work as well.
Daredevil 221, DD goes to Venice to destroy a crime syndicate and Mazzucchelli has the opportunity to draw incredible Venetian architecture.
Suddenly Frank Miller shows up again. He wants to come back to where he left off 3 years ago. With Murdock’s love dead and his law practice falling apart, where could he go? Where else? Kingpin learns his secret identity! And like a smart villain (that only Miller can write) he ruins Matt Murdock’s life in secret.

 Matt’s mortgage is not paid for the last three months; His electricity gets shut off; and he is being accused of paying a witness to lie about a case. Matt’s life descends to the point where he questions his own sanity.

He hits rock bottom. But at the last minute, just when you think it’s all over for him, in classic comic book fashion, he is… Reborn.

In the climatic issue #231, King Pin has got a lunatic serial killer running around in Daredevil’s long johns to sully Daredevil’s name. Murdock knows about it and is on it. In classic Freudian tradition Matt Murdock has to fight himself. 

In order to incriminate Daredevil, King Pin has arranged to get a psychotic guy running around killing people in Daredevil's costume, but Matt Murdock is having none of it.
There is something really thrilling seeing Murdock in his civilian identity fighting his alter ego. Stripped of his costume, the symbol of his identity or ego, his soul laid bare.

There is more mystery and power in this one scene than all of Daredevil's previous appearances. It transcends the genre. Suddenly you are not reading a superhero comic any more, suddenly you are reading a story about a simple guy who is fighting for his life. This is the story of a guy fighting the system. This could be the story of you or I.  

Superhero stories are the stories of mythology. Superman is the Hercules of our time, being an example of someone that overcomes adversity and encourages us to do the same. Here Miller is showing us that we don't need superpowers of a costume to fight our demons. Here Matt Murdock is no longer the mythical figure of Daredevil. Now he is a normal guy, an every man.This was the start of really making the superheroes more human and realistic though it would take some time for the influence to be felt. First we would have to go through the Image age of the 90's with it's humungous weapons and scantly clad rubber women. Even Miller himself in the 90's would abandon this more realistic model for his exaggerated expressionism of Sin City. It would take a decade or so for the guys who grew up on Miller's work to mature and become pros themselves for this influence to finally be seen in mainstream comics in such work as Brubaker/Rucka's Gotham Central or Bendis' Powers but it definitely did have a profound influence on the medium, helping it mature to the point where you no longer have to be embarrassed to admit that you read funny books.

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