Thursday, March 3, 2011

Review - Daredevil: The Man Without Fear by Frank Miller

Short review: The origin story of Daredevil retold from his childhood, through his teen years and up to the moment in which Matt Murdock accepts his destiny as the man without fear all given the typical hyper violent somewhat misogynistic treatment that is Frank Miller's trademark.

Murdock is blinded
Trains to fight all injustice
Daredevil is born

Full review: In the early nineties, several years after his long and successful run with the character, Frank Miller returned to writing Daredevil for a special series filling in the details of the character's youth and origins. The result is the graphic novel Daredevil: The Man Without Fear. Oddly, though the content was originally conceived as a graphic novel, due to the fact that Marvel had phased out the graphic novel format, it was released as a limited comic book run. The materials from the run were then later collected together and released in its present form as a graphic novel.

Daredevil is one of my favorite Marvel characters, possibly because his alter ego Matt Murdock and I share the same profession. The interesting thing about Daredevil as a superhero is that his primary "superpower", his enhanced nonvisual senses, serve primarily to offset the fact that he is blind. Granted, his senses are so enhanced that he actually is more aware of his surroundings than a typical sighted person, but for the most part, his superpower is mostly effective in making him not disabled. Daredevil is also interesting insofar as he is one of the few comic book superheroes who has a regular "day job" as his alter ego that is more or less directly connected to the same impulses that drive him to don a mask and hunt villains in the night. Unlike, say Tony Stark, who is a playboy industrialist, or Peter Parker, freelance newspaper photographer, or any number of other heroes who have jobs that are often glamorous or exciting, but have basically nothing to do with their super-heroic persona, Matt Murdock is a lawyer who advocates for the same poor and downtrodden people that Daredevil fights to protect. Of course, this means, as Miller notes in his introduction to the book, that Murdock in his persona as Daredevil, is a lawyer who routinely breaks the law, a tension that makes the character even more interesting.

Daredevil: The Man Without Fear is basically a straightforward and linear story. it starts with Murdock as a young boy being raised by a single father in the slums of Hell's Kitchen in New York. His father, a one time boxing champion, is now a boozed up has-been pressured by the mob to work as an enforcer. His father pushes Matt to excel academically, hoping his son will have a life that he was never able to achieve. The younger Murdock grates under this pressure, tormented by bullies on the schoolyard, but forbidden to fight back with his fists. Still, he obeys, building the strong will that is one of the hallmarks of the character. Eventually Matt is blinded in an accident, with radioactive material spilled into his eyes. He is then instructed by a mysterious character named "Stick", who is also blind, in the ways of martial arts, learning to use his other senses to compensate for his lack of sight. This is all very quasi-mystical, as it is made clear in the story that Stick was shadowing Matt before his accident, apparently possessed of foreknowledge that the accident would occur. This version of the Daredevil origin story also deemphasizes the traditional "radioactive materials did it" back story explanation for Matt's heightened senses, substituting the mystical martial arts training provided by Stick. (This makes one wonder why other blind people do not routinely develop similar radar powers. Apparently they aren't dedicated enough or something).

In one of the pivotal events in Murdock's life, his father refuses to throw a fight for the mob and gets killed as a result, starting Matt's career as a crime fighter. Matt then goes on a revenge fueled murder spree, killing all the men who participated in killing his father, but killing an innocent woman along the way. This causes Stick to disavow him as heir to the shadowy mystical organization that Stick is part of and sets Murdock free from that potential entanglement. The story then ticks off all the requisite back story boxes. Murdock goes to college and law school. meets his longtime friend Foggy. Comes across and has an ill-advised and ill-fated romance with the unpredictable and dangerously mercurial Elektra (who is already apparently under the influence of dark forces, hearing disembodied "voices" that drive her to commit unspeakable acts). Matt befriends a young girl named Mickey in Hell's Kitchen who frequents the same abandoned gym that Matt has haunted as a youth, and when she is kidnapped by a minor functionary in the Kingpen's organization he once again takes on organized crime, this time in an effort to save Mickey. This brings him to the attention of the Daredevil's long time nemesis, the Kingpen, and all the pieces of the back story are in place. The final panel of the novel is Matt's coming out as Daredevil in his familiar red costume with horns.

As an origin story this graphic novel is effective to a certain extent. Unfortunately, the story pretty much assumes that one already knows a great deal about "Daredevil lore", as the connections between various characters are left undrawn, and the significance of some events is left unexplained. For example, though there are oblique references to the organization of which Stick is part of, the significance of this organization is left entirely a mystery. It is implied that Elektra killed her own father at the behest of her inner voices, but whether she actually did, and whether the demons that drive her are anything other than delusions is entirely unexplained in the pages of this book. Those who had read the comic book series in the years before this run was penned will immediately understand who they are, and why they are important, but for someone reading this as an introduction to the Daredevil character, it will be essentially meaningless. The graphic novel has a sort of "fill in the boxes" feel to it as well, checking off the required elements of the back story one by one like clockwork. As a result, as an introduction to the Daredevil character, this graphic novel is less than effective. As a gift to longtime fans of the series, it is perfect. While I give this a strong recommendation to anyone who is familiar with the Daredevil character (and who, as a result, has probably already read this graphic novel, making this recommendation redundant), for someone just starting to read this particular superhero's tale I can give only a modest recommendation, as much of the material will probably seem confusing and extraneous to the story being told within its pages.

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  1. I'm a big Daredevil fan. Definitely going to check this out.

  2. Like the haiku, that's clever.

  3. @Robert: I write a haiku for all the books I review. Mostly just because I can.