Welcome to the Daredevil Retrospective, where I’m going to trace our way through 40 years of Daredevil and the seminal runs that began each era, Frank Miller in the 1980s, Brain Michael Bendis in the 2000s and Chip Zdarsky in the 2020s.
This week we have Frank Miller’s bold debut as Writer/Artist on “Daredevil,” Matt’s identity under threat in Bendis and Maleev’s ‘Out,’ and the beginning of ‘Through Hell’ with Zdarsky and Checchetto.
Daredevil Vol. 1 #168-172 ‘Elekra’ and other stories
We’re officially in the thick of it now with Lanky Frank Miller taking the reins on “Daredevil” as both writer and artist. It’s a stark change too, so let’s dig into it.
Even from the beginning of #168 we have the perfect introduction to the series’ new tone, it’s full of action, sullen lighting and more Turk than you could ever hope for. He even has a sword cane!! Obviously parts of this haven’t aged well (like Elektra’s painfully racial nickname ‘Olive Oil’) but it’s such an ambitious and energetic group of issues that do a really great job of showcasing what Miller can achieve artistically when he’s writing for himself. His page comps get more creative, there’s more pace to the work and each character’s fighting style feels instantly distinctive. We get some great Frank Miller hallmarks throughout as well: a grimy metropolis, a gangwar and the thiccest butts you’ll ever see. I love that in #169 Frank gives himself an excuse to draw Daredevil in a million different outfits, it has that adorable wish fulfillment feel to it, like he was worried about getting kicked off the book at any second and wanted to draw Matt Murdock as much as he could before then. I’d love to see him redo this series with his later-stage pencils.
With the introduction of Elektra we see the main emotional thrust of what this story is going to be about; old scars cutting new wounds. In #168 we even get the proto-Daredevil look from “Daredevil: The Man Without Fear,” which I really appreciated. These issues are littered with amazing endings, in #168 we have Elektra and Matt falling back into their old rhythm at the docks, then in #169 there’s Daredevil and Bullseye having their brutal fight on the train tracks where Daredevil, despite knowing Bullseye deserves death, goes and saves him anyway, or #171 where Daredevil’s drowning in a tank, Vanessa’s seemingly dead and there’s the promise of a gang war looming. There are some genuinely innovative plot beats here too, like Kingpin’s manipulation of Daredevil and Bullseye, or the way he figures out Lynch’s betrayal, or the way Daredevil becomes responsible for all the Bullseye’s carnage. It really feels like a cornerstone story.
Other than the issue with Elektra, the bulk of the character development sits with Daredevil, Bullseye and Kingpin. They have such a great dynamic, all bringing such markedly different mindsets to each confrontation. For example, Bullseye’s biggest asset, other than his powerset, has always been his unpredictability, he’s like a more tolerable Joker, it’s what makes him such a great foil to the law-driven Matt Murdock. Kingpin is his own kind of unpredictable too, he seems to play the game by its rules, only to bend them in the background. That’s really well encapsulated in how he ‘swears off’ violence to be with Vanessa, while still revelling in combat whenever he can. It wasn’t until after reading the book that I realised this was Kingpin’s first appearance in a “Daredevil” comic, and it’s great that from the very start it’s apparent that you absolutely do not fuck with the Kingpin. I mean he beats the shit out of Daredevil, calls him small-time and then makes him deal with his competition for him. No wonder his bounty was ten times Daredevil’s. The Matt Murdock in this story is a weirdly chipper guy too. I mean at one Bullseye throws him out a window and Matt just doesn’t come after him because he’s got a date to go on instead. It’s perfect. A couple of other smaller highlights here would be college-age Foggy trying to join a frat and the unexpectedly smart dialogue of Mr. Slaughter. He even talks about cement shoes at one point so I’m going to retcon shit and say he got along with Levitia Libris.Continued below
This story was so much more engaging and grand than I ever expected and I can’t wait to see what the series will look like next time with Klaus Janson on art.
Daredevil Vol. 2 #32-40 ‘Out’
Where ‘Underboss’ gave us a lot to digest in terms of plot, ‘Out’ lets us ruminate on one thing, the battle for Matt Murdock to reclaim his secrecy. The first seven issues are a thoughtful, albeit slow, character piece; the final three issues, ‘Trial of the Century,’ are a bit more of a dissapointment, even if they have their redeeming moments.
Bendis sinks into his style in this arc, with a couple of issues that almost feel like a bottle episode, where talking heads gives us a top down view of the story unfolding in front of Matt. It’s fun and I like the way it reveals information, but nothing revealed is actually new information. It also doesn’t make for great art, Maleev’s stuck with a lot of unremarkable blank faces, even his Peter, Urich and Jonah are pretty dialed back. There are a couple of other general points where the pace just drags, like I don’t think we needed 3 pages of one guy just watching Black Widow swing through the rooftops. But all that slow build-up does mean that the moment we finally get back to Matt’s internal monologue it feels revelatory, his thoughts are engagingly discordant now; all that sensory overload we had before is now a processing overload as Matt desperately grapples with what’s going on. It’s what makes #34 such a defining issue. I love the boardroom scene between Rosenthal and Murdock too. It was just too perfect: the stony-faced negotiation, the tenseness, Matt completely beating the shit out of media conglomerates, and suddenly, when it’s so close to a victory, so close that I actually believed it, his ego ruins everything. Also I love that Donald Trump is the one who buys Fisk tower because of course he has the Fisks on speed dial.
By issue 38 though, we get a pretty serious quality dip. The story here is essentially that White Tiger gets caught up in one of those contrived ‘caught red handed’ plots and gets dragged through a lengthy court battle because of it. I feel like this story could have been good and there are the inklings of an interesting theme here, like D.A rationalising Matt taking the case as an outlet and proving ground for his fight for innocence is interesting, but those aspects just aren’t used enough and the story suffers because of it. With such an engaging arc leading into this as well it was just so hard to care about what was going on here. I think I like the ending at least, even if it’s pretty cliche. It doesn’t help that this is to my (rough) knowledge, the only issues not illustrated by Maleev in this entire run. I think Gutierez has an okay Maleev-ish style, but it just doesn’t do enough to feel remarkable. The Dodsons even have an issue here, but it falls apart for me. It’s weird that Matt Hollingsworth isn’t pulling in his usual colors to smooth this out either, it just sits separate from the rest of the run in a really frustrating way.
Maleev’s art remains impeccable. The quiet moments are where he works best, the parts where Bendis really trusts Maleev to tell the story and he pulls in all this amazing lighting and expression to his scenes. Even in a story as street-level as this, the size and spectacle that Maleev imbues some scenes with feels absolutely superheroic. The only part that really annoys me is how over-sexualised this version of Black Widow was. A large part of that sits with the writing but I could do without her giving Matt a personal striptease and striking all those 90s cover girl poses. I know this is a superhero comic and I know she’s been sexualised for her whole history but can these guys just… be better. There were a couple of other weird, less egregious, outfits too, we get Peter Parker in shades which I don’t think has ever been his memo, plus we get weird mid-2000s Luke Cage in his morpheus shades. Still, when Maleev works, he really works. This arc got almost psychedelic with some page layouts that reminded me of the best stuff from Andrea Sorrentino, we even got the broken page layouts that Joe Bennet uses in ”Immortal Hulk.” It’s all so well constructed and brings a really powerful artistic feel to a book that could have easily been dominated by its writing.Continued below
This arc was just studded with great character moments too, we have an awesome scene with Elektra where we can see how obtuse and difficult and avoidant she can be, but Matt will still always want her back regardless. We also get J Jonah Jameson doing what he does best and chewing out the whole Daily Bugle newsroom. It’s so funny that the dubiously named ‘the daily globe’ is just a shitty tabloid in the MU, plus it gives this story a cool angle when the paper that leaks him is non-reputable, it makes his identity more of a debate, everything’s in contention. Anyway, back to JJJ; I’m absolutely enamoured with Ben Urich, what a purehearted liar. He and Peter just staring Jonah in the face and just saying they know who Daredevil is but they’re keeping it to themselves is pitch perfect, especially because Peter didn’t even work for the Bugle at the time.If anyone has some good Ben Urich/Peter Parker team up stories then let me know and I’ll read the shit out of them. I find it sort of funny that Matt’s still wearing his red glasses in all of this, like surely that’s the first accessory you ditch when you’re trying to distance yourself from Daredevil. Still, probably my favourite part of this entire arc is the way Foggy gets treated in these issues, he’s such a perfectly loyal, yet naively misguided companion to Matt. It’s always interesting to me that Foggy is incapable of realising that Matt can never give up on being Daredevil, he has too much optimism to realise. He knows more than anyone that Daredevil is a vice to Matt. It’s that same idea from “Man Without Fear,” Daredevil is an inherently broken identity because it’s motivated by pain and paralysed by fear, it’s a complete intolerance of shortcomings, it’s a coping mechanism that creates the problems it’s nullifying and Foggy hates being there and watching his friend self destruct next to him. That’s why this story is so interesting, it’s the worst time for Matt to be Daredevil, but being Daredevil is the only way he can cope with it so he ends up donning the cowl more. God this book is smart.
Daredevil Vol. 6 #11-15 ‘Through Hell’ Part One
Alright, we’re into our third arc of the Zdarsky and Chechetto chronicles, and it’s a longer arc this time. So with that in mind I thought I’d chop this one up into two sections: issues #11-15, drawn by Checchetto this time, and issues #16-18 by Fornes next time. That way we can spend some more time on Fornes’s art rather than squeezing it in here. I know we literally just covered ten issues of Bendis in one block, don’t call me out on it.
Anyway, now I’ve put such a spotlight on the art, let’s get into it. I don’t know if Checchetto has as much to work with this arc, seeing as doesn’t really get to pull off many of those high action, beautifully lit scenes from “Know Fear” here, but it’s still full of smart costumes, effortlessly great scene compositions and characters who are insanely, irrationally hot. Even Detective Greene, who’s supposed to be the dumpiest beat cop ever made my heart flutter; and those hand wraps he gives Matt and Elektra are never not going to seem erotic, take notes Maleev. There were times here though where some character’s expressions were dialed up a bit too high, still high emotion is always going to read better than flat emotion. We also had artist Francesco Mobili slot in for a couple scenes throughout, he’s previously filled in for Checchetto on “Old Man Hawkeye” and it’s really impressive how well he does here, too. I don’t think he has the same grip on Fisk as Chechetto, but I’m still really excited to see how he comes into his own in issue #22 and beyond. I think we also had the absolute best covers yet in issues #13 and #14, Tedesco brings so much humble humanity and vulnerability to the blood spattered pain and intensity of Daredevil, even without the amazing painted textures and raw technique present, his covers always hold so much emotion and imagery in them.Continued below
Chip’s writing steps up a level here as well, with all the pieces of his story seemingly in place we’re starting to see some heavy story beats land. I think this arc was where I really bought the Owl as an antagonist for the first time. He’s a great villain because he’s the crime boss that’s finally throwing away the rules and following his own motivations, just like Daredevil in a warped way. So while the Owl breaks new ground, Matt and Fisk’s stories run parallel to each other as they learn how easily they can be beaten when no one fears them. This leaves Elektra and Wesley serving as guardians, pseudo-parents to their fractured egos. They’re both even confronting the Stromwyns in their own way and I think we’re almost at the point where they could believably team up. As I mentioned, Elektra goes hard this arc as she dismantles and reconstructs Matt into her own better version of Daredevil. I really like her idea that Matt has always been so afraid of failure that he never sets himself concrete goals, it’s one of those insights that makes sense to explain why he hardly goes after systemic evils like he is here, and also fits Elektra as a mentor seeing as she’s a bounty hunter, she has some of the most concrete goals you can. After all, bounty hunting is a complicated profession. She also brings out a more dangerous side of Matt that Chip perfectly encapsulates by having Matt literally driving blind with her. This edition is a real smorgasbord of Elektra hot takes, huh?
On Cole’s side of the story we had a pretty massive character shift too. We start off with some red-hot Spidey content that left him spiraling, and it only got better from there. I really like how this series has consistently reminded us just how much Spider-Man outclasses his street levels colleagues. We also got to see some serious Spidey as he sticks up for Matt. I love how he can moralise too, actively calling Cole out on his bullshit, which I don’t think Cole can help but respect. I really enjoyed how it was a tiny moment that finally flipped Cole’s perspective away from ‘Caesar’ and towards ‘God’ here too. He just saw people punching down and he knew that the right thing to do was step in, it wasn’t some grand notion, which I’m sure we’ll get tons of later, but it was just a simple moment of morality. I also loved how we are only now hearing about Cole’s rocky past, we got to see his absolute faith in the system before the trauma that caused it, which brings a lot more depth to him. In a series full of cops who are a cliche level of crooked, Cole has been a shining, nuanced light. Also I couldn’t find a place to slot this in anywhere else, but the dialogue of Mindy’s kid crying is the funniest, most cliche thing to me and it truly sparked joy.
Now, if “Through Hell” had anything in spades, it was rich pricks, and god I was happy to see Fisk pulp one of them. Now I know that it was a point of intense failure and humiliation for Fisk, but I just fucking loved it. I love that Chip is willing to let him snap and see where the story can go when you push a character so far past the point of no return. Also it’s such a testament to these two storytellers that they can make me believe a room full of characters are such snide pricks that they deserve this kind of gruesome eradication from the earth. They’re all just billionaires talking about how they’re buying the world and just expect that that makes them so much smarter than everyone around them. They’re just fucking juvenile and no one has the courage or position to tell them that. Even the Stromwyns really aren’t much better, they’re a little smarter, a little more coy, but they’re still just huffing their own fumes and getting off on their thinly veiled insults. They also gave Wesley the opportunity to stride confidently into the spotlight in #13. Honestly, that whole issue just shot my interest towards him into the stratosphere, it’s such an amazing switch from just being a reciprocal for Fisk’s emotions to suddenly fucking exploding into the story as he miraculously yet believably saves Fisk from the single worst scenario he could find himself in. There’s a reason he has this job, for all the time we see him overpreparing and reining Fisk, it’s this kind of moment that justifies it, that point where he can snap and solve an impossible problem like the cold motherfucker he is. And on the other end, the raw emotion from Fisk in that issue was amazing. The fear and the actual tears welling up in his eyes were so strong, it was such a perfectly drawn scene. It also sells the fact that later when the Stromwyns have their men attack Fisk, their insult isn’t hurting him, it’s that they’re making him fight. That’s such a perfect encapsulation of the tragedy of the Kingpin, he’s a scarily intelligent mind that’s constantly dragged back into the simple physical arenas that he’s trying to grow beyond. It’s why he’s a foil to Matt, whose paradigm is the exact opposite.Continued below
These issues were so amazing and left me really amped for #16-18.
-“A streak of silver lances the air and agony explodes behind sightless eyes” -Narration by Frank Miller (“Daredevil” vol. 1 #168)
-“I cannot study laws in which I no longer believe” -Elektra by Frank Miller (“Daredevil” vol. 1 #168)
-“The only cops who feel obliged to hassle me are cops with more rank than brains” -Daredevil by Frank Miller (“Daredevil” vol. 1 #169)
-“Vanessa warmed me. Showed me love. And you took her from me. My one moment of joy. My one brief instant of humanity” -Kingpin by Frank Miller (“Daredevil” vol. 1 #172)
-“Do you know what this is? This is a list of all your salaries here at the Daily Bugle. I asked Robbie to pull this for me. I wanted to take a minute and add up how much it cost me. ‘How much what cost you, Mister Jameson?’ I’m glad you asked… I wanted to know how much it cost me… To get my tookis kicked this badly!!” -J. Jonah Jameson by Brian Michael Bendis (“Daredevil” vol. 2 #34)
-“When it comes down to it, this life you’ve chosen brings you nothing but a vicious cycle of pain. I wasn’t going to go into this with you, Matt, but seeing as we are where we are. Here’s the thing, you created it. A cycle of pain. And it starts, brand new, every time you put on that costume. It’s a cycle of pain only you can stop. And you know what? I think you know this, because who do you think you’re mad at out there? The world? Why? For needing you? Have you misplaced your anger so far that you’re mad at the people you’ve sworn to protect?” Foggy Nelson by Brian Michael Bendis (“Daredevil” vol. 2 #34)
-“What will it take then, Matt? What will convince you that enough is enough? Does Bullseye have to kill me now? Then you? Do you have to die? When will it stop, Matt? When are you going to face the music?” -Foggy Nelson by Brian Michael Bendis (“Daredevil” vol. 2 #34)
-“Don’t ‘slippery slope’ the guy who sticks to walls” -Spider-Man by Chip Zdarsky (“Daredevil” vol. 6 #11)
-“There’s nothing sadder than a man who won’t admit he needs help” -Elektra by Chip Zdarsky (“Daredevil” vol. 6 #12)
-“Wesley. Wesley. I… I need your help. I don’t know what to do.” -Wilson Fisk by Chip Zdarsky (“Daredevil” vol. 6 #13)
-“I’m tired, Elektra, tired of going small. Drug dealers and thieves. People driven to a life of crime because of a world shaped by crooked politicians and the money they take.” -Matt Murdock by Chip Zdarsky (“Daredevil” vol. 6 #15)
This might honestly have been the best selection yet with three really stand-out picks. Hopefully we can keep up the momentum next time with Janson’s art debut in ‘The Assassination of Matt Murdock,’ Bendis and Maleev’s ‘Lowlife,’ and the return of Jorge Fornes in the second half of ‘Through Hell.’