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 Klaus Janson taking up art duties in “The Assassination of Matt Murdock,” the continual descent of Matt and Daredevil in Bendis and Maleev’s ‘Lowlife,’ and the end of ‘Through Hell’ with Zdarsky and artist Jorge Fornes.
Daredevil Vol. 1 #173-177 ‘The Assassination of Matt Murdock’ and other stories
It feels like it’s been such a journey to get to this point but we’re officially here, Miller and Janson are a full fledged writer/artist pair, and it’s a genuinely spectacular debut. Across ‘Ladykiller,’ ‘The Assassination of Matt Murdock’ and ‘Hunters’ Miller and Janson craft a really strong slate of stories, with Lanky Frank provides breakdowns and Kinky Klaus finishing the art.
I feel like Janson brings such an interesting new style to the series. Daredevil especially, looks amazing in this. There’s this extra level of detail to his suit that’s a bit more precise and a bit more house-style, while having that Frank Miller physicality too. The other great detail is in how Daredevil moves here. There’s so much motion in this comic and the page layouts adapt to that movement in a really inventive way, it keeps the action choreography feeling so strong. We even retain some of Miller’s calling cards, like his dramatic lighting and emphasised reaction panels, Miller’s theme-heavy backgrounds even improve under Janson. Miller really puts him through his paces too, going from BDSM brawlers to balcony meet-and-greets to absurdist demons of the psyche.
Frank Miller holds up his end of the story too with a really great set of scripts. The Hand are here! And once they arrive the stakes only go up, he writes such a large-scale story so effortlessly, no wonder they’re iconic villains by now. But the thing I really want to focus on here is the really stand-out story he gives us in ‘Ladykiller.’ I didn’t think this would ever exist, but Frank Miller wrote a genuine and truly sympathetic story about sexual assault, and it’s not a mysoginistic mess. It’s really, really special. Becky Blake’s story has more layers to it than you’d ever really expect from a 20 page comic, and Matt has a real honest to god character arc in it. He starts off as this judgemental prick, chastising Becky for letting her attacker ‘get away with it.’ But as he’s put in a position of true powerlessness he gets over his own trauma-driven accusations and treats the situation with actual poise. It was also really interesting seeing how Gladiator, as a delusional yet innocent man on trial, reacts to the events of this issue. His faceted anger was especially unexpected. Miller helps shine a light on the grimier side of being a defense attorney, something “Daredevil” often lacks, as he shows Gladiator essentially begging for a second chance after being hurt by the system and his own state of mind.
As I touched on with the ‘Ladykiller’ stuff, this arc does a lot to really flesh out its characters. For once we got to see Foggy bail on Matt, rather than vice versa. His (regrettably rushed) transformation into a guilt-ridden, angry, stubbled Foggy Nelson was one of the most interesting through-lines of these issues. I felt genuine strong emotion when Foggy thought he was a failure and Matt consoled him, the poor boy is too nice for his own good. He even goes on to absolutely decimate in the courtroom, winning the case all on his own. What a fucking legend. We got to see the beginnings of Kingpin vs the Daily Bugle as Ben and Jonah (another dynamic duo) went after Kingpin’s proxy-mayor candidate. I swear, Miller introduced him three issues ago and he’s already looming large in the background. I found it really interesting when Elektra forced Melvin Potter into the regressive identity of the Gladiator, it’s not something you see often in superhero comics, heroes who’ve grown beyond their personas and are forced to go back, it’s like stuffing Nightwing into the tighty-whities. Elektra herself is an absolute star of this arc, her taking on a whole Hand hideout feels genuinely epic; and her fight with super-ninja Kirigi was awesome, he just takes so much abuse and the art really sells it. I mean, she hits Kirigi with a TRUCK, blows it up and sinks him into the ocean, and I bet he’s still alive too.Continued below
Something I don’t think Miller gets much credit for is how he can be genuinely funny in his writing, part of that is just the general hilarity of 80s comics, like how Matt’s staircase is lined with the creepy faces of statues, or how Miller gives Daredevil a brand new weapon just so he can get rid of the old billy-club-with-a-boner. But also, the Wall-Eyed Pike sequence is the funniest shit. God I love his dumb fishbowl face and his dumb demolished house. It was impossible for Frank to wrong though, any comic with Turk in it is never not going to be great, I loved seeing him suit up in a giant mech suit just to have Daredevil wipe the floor with him regardless.
After ‘Gangwar’ and ‘Elektra’ Miller had me engaged, but this time Miller and Janson have left me genuinely amazed and super invested, I really can’t wait to see where the rest of these puzzle pieces fall in the weeks to come! Next time we’re seeing the climb of the Kingpin in ‘Paper Chase.’
Daredevil Vol. 2 #41-45 ‘Lowlife’
Where ‘Underboss’ and ‘Out’ established the tone and contention of Bendis and Maleev’s series, ‘Lowlife’ cements it and gets us ready for the dynamism to come. However, to cement that status quo, a lot had to slow down this arc, it’s not necessarily a bad thing, we’re just settling into the second act as quirks turn into tropes.
So, I think there was still a lot to like in ‘Lowlife,’ but there’s not really much to surprise you. This arc really excels in character work, but it comparatively stumbles in terms of plot, motion and spectacle. After just making its way through ‘Trial of the Century,’ the caught-red-handed murder of Uri Rosenthal felt especially egregious, and pairing that with an uninspired and overdone interpretation of The Owl definitely didn’t help either. Bendis’s extended bits of candid dialogue dragged more than usual as well, that said, I think it placed a really great spotlight on letterer Cory Petit, who handled the heavy dialogue scenes really deftly and kept a spotlight on Maleev’s art. I take it for granted, but Bendis is really, really good at producing tone in his writing, which does come down to Maleev’s facial acting too, but the amount of moods, characters and contexts here really showcased the team’s unique empathy for the cast and scenarios they create. All plot grievances aside, revisiting Silke in prison and the promise of the Kingpin coming back to storm New York was a really exciting and engaging prospect.
I think ‘Underboss’ gave us a good look at Daredevil, ‘Out’ showed us Matt Murdock, and now ‘Lowlife’ is showing the interplay between the two. For example, when Daredevil first saves Mila we see him being really sympathetic and conversational in costume. We also get to see that Kingpin’s unique relationship with Matt was one of the few things that allowed him to keep a distinction between those two parts of his identity and now that that’s gone, new kinds of stresses are sinking in. Maleev illustrates this really well in the scene where the police search his house as Matt’s panic is illustrated through red-tinted panels that add a bloodrush to the scene. Bendis backs this up by instantly turning Matt’s inner narrative wildly irrational, as a basic “things are bad” devolves into “I don’t deserve her” and “I don’t deserve to be happy,” he’s an anxious guy who’s losing his privacy and his trust in himself because of that. While I think it’s regrettable that Mila has to be used as a prop for Matt’s emotional baggage, it’s a really interesting interpretation of things. I’ll also never get sick of scenes where Daredevil ‘works the beat’ and shakes down Hell’s Kitchen, especially when it’s tinged with that heavy judgemental rage unique to Bendis’s Daredevil, at one point he flips a fucking car, what a loose unit. Anyway, great interpretation of Daredevil that I’m really interested in seeing progress.
Now, I’m so sorry for wasting all your time because I still haven’t brought up the stand-out star of this book, the Spectacular, the Sensational, the Saucy STILT-MAN! It took us a collective 30-something issues across six different writers but the bad boy’s finally here and we get to spend a single glorious scene with him. I honestly can’t get enough of this version of Stilt-Man, he’s just this tired, angry guy whose biggest concern is his girlfriend’s hospital bills, it’s funny and it’s a great contrast to the obsessive personality of Matt Murdock. I liked the idea that all of Matt’s small-time enemies are more scared of Daredevil when his cage is rattled, they don’t like him when he’s out of his element. The appearance of Stilt-Man also comes, naturally, with one of the most interesting teases of the series. At the end of their encounter, as Stilt-Man tries to put together the pieces of the Murdock/Daredevil relationship, he accuses Matt of secretly being the Kingpin. Honestly it could just be a throwaway joke or a red herring, but it’s such a weird and out of place detail that left me super intrigued.Continued below
We got another minor Gladiator appearance this week which leaves us flushed with Melvin Potter content this week. These five-issues were definitely the strongest in terms of character balance, every major player here had at least one really defining moment that I enjoyed. The only exception to that sentiment might be Mila. I’m never really a fan of writers who have women throwing themselves at Daredevil, especially when they constantly describe how intoxicating they smell. Now, I really like the sweet and vulnerable side of Matt Murdock that Mila reveals, but I don’t think she’s convinced me why she has to convince as a character other than just being a blank slate for Matt Murdock to fuck up once again. One new character (at least I think he’s new?) that I did love though, was Special Agent Driver. When he comes to arrest the Owl he’s just the best, quippiest guy around. The idea that the FBI and the IRS can just fuck up supervillains is never not going to be funny for me. I just love him with all my being and he better become a regular.
As always, Bendis and Maleev give the best Foggy Nelson to grace the page, I can’t get enough of his zero tolerance policy for Matt being a dick while also backing him up more than anybody else. Foggy is that friend who never approves of anyone else’s choices but sticks by them anyway, he even gets to go proper Watson here as he puzzles out the Owl’s scheme alongside Matt. He’s just so fucking supportive, I love that even when Foggy is right and knows Matt’s doing something wrong, he trusts Matt’s judgement anyway. I really liked seeing Luke Cage’s perspective on Matt being outed. He’s always had more to lose than any white guy would by not wearing a mask, but he still shows his face as a statement. Even when Luke’s preachy he has a point. His presence was also a good way to give Matt a chance to snap, Cage is the kind of guy who can take it and he might be the only other person around him who’s ideology and convictions are just as strong as Matt’s.
‘Lowlife’ was a story that probably could’ve propped up its story beats more, but the insight it gives into characters and outlooks it presents are some of the best in comics. Next time we’re going to tackle the return of the Kingpin and the emergence of Typhoid Mary in issues #46-50, ‘Hardcore.’
Daredevil Vol. 6 #16-18 ‘Through Hell’
Alright! We’re on the other side of the tunnel with the end of ‘Through Hell,’ now being helmed by stand-out artist Jorge Fornes. I don’t think this reaches the adrenaline highs and emotional depths of the last five issues, but the roadmap it gives for the future is a confident, intriguing and novel one.
I loved Jorge Fornes’s linework throughout this, but his work really sinks under colorist Nolan Woodard. Everything feels that bit more janky as every character’s face becomes a flat slab of colour. Even in the sequences where Woodard works, like the silhouetted break-in to a server farm, I know Jordie Bellaire could have done it better. Her colors were what defined issue #10 and without them here Jorge Fornes’s work just can’t pop. At least we have Julian Totino Tedesco’s covers to inject the book with a metric tonne of sex appeal. I think some of Fornes’s character designs can be hit-or-miss too, on one hand I love how his Elektra has a headband rather than the full headcap, it fits his linework a lot better. But Fornes’s Bullseye looks fairly dopey, to be fair he only had to draw one page of him, so odds are he’s working off of Checchetto’s character designs for #19 and #20.
In what seems to be a bit of a trend this week, Zdarsky uses these issues to resolve the tensions of the last five, ramp up the tension for the next arc and delve into some deeper emotional stakes. This works miracles for Cole North who completes his transformation from a predictable stick in the mud to a downright inspiration who mirrors Daredevil perfectly. In terms of rising tension though, it seems like Chip is happy to just start dropping bodies. I really started to like Tommy Libris in these couple issues, he’s a screw-up whose tunnel-vision is leaving his family trapped in a gang war they don’t want to be a part of, but then The Owl straight up murders him. You couple that with Izzy Libris shooting Hammerhead in the, well, hammerhead, and these issues are really starting to get a bodycount. Now odds are Hammerhead’s not dead because it’s the easiest death to retcon, his head is usually pretty bulletproof and we’ll likely see him in a hospital bed, but things are getting heavy nonetheless.Continued below
Still, most of the gravitas of this book is shared between Mayor Fisk and the Stromwyns. The moment where Quinn and Una just empty a room full of New York’s 1% with a whisper just shows so clearly how powerful they are. They’re such compelling villains after like 8 issues, it’s magnetic. That mainly comes down to just how far out of his league Daredevil is; these guys can just fuck up a neighborhood on a whim and he’s just running around with a stick and a blindfold. The other really stand-out scene was Daredevil and Kingpin’s first reunion since he gave up the cowl. I just love the interplay between the two, Kingpin’s humored indignation at Daredevil coming back after a chance at freedom, clashing with Daredevil’s desperation for them to bury the hatchet, just for a moment, is so compelling. It felt stylistically like their main scene together in ‘Underboss,’ only this time the character dynamics are so, so different.
I think the most interesting insight these issues give us is what Daredevil looks like when paired with Elektra; they aren’t teen lovers anymore, they’re their own uncompromising personas with very distinct personal goals. I found it really interesting that we had Matt repeating the rhetoric Elektra espoused to him in the first five issues. He’s convinced himself that she’s right, Daredevil’s not enough, he has to be more and that he needs to aim upwards. I don’t think any of that is necessarily wrong but I am wary about what Matt will become when faced with that kind of deconstruction. You’ve also got to be worried when Elektra takes one billion dollars, especially with her figuring out Matt’s identity again. When the penny drops things are going to be tense. That being said, she knows how to make Daredevil stylish. I can definitely fuck with Daredevil using a full staff, very funky. I feel like it’s significant that Matt wears black when he’s with Elektra, but then goes back to wearing white while on his own; now we have to see if it’s Bullseye, the Stromwyns or Fisk who makes him bleed red again.
-“We collectin’ for the Jimmy Fund. Me, I’m Jimmy” -Jimmy by Frank Miller (“Daredevil” Vol. 1 #173)
-“Becky, something happened last night that made me understand at least a part of what you went through, three years ago. And I wish I could say that it’s all right– that everything is all right, now. But I can’t. The man who battered you has been arrested. But there isn’t enough evidence to convict him… without your testimony… He’ll go free– and you’ll spend the rest of your life imprisoned by that one hideous memory. Becky, he robbed you of the use of your legs. Nothing can change that. But don’t let him cripple you.” -Matt Murdock by Frank Miller (“Daredevil” Vol. 1 #173)
-“She hates him. She does. And she will not imperil her own life, to save his. She will not. And yet, she finds herself on the next flight to New York.” -Narration by Frank Miller (“Daredevil” Vol. 1 #174)
-“You must be desperate. It is fortunate for me that I do not care.” -Elektra by Frank Miller (“Daredevil” Vol. 1 #175)
-“How is it that, blind as you are, every one of your girlfriends ends up looking like a european supermodel?” -Foggy Nelson by Brian Michael Bendis (“Daredevil” Vol. 2 #43)
-“So I guess ‘taking a hint’ isn’t one of your powers” -Luke Cage by Brian Michael Bendis (“Daredevil” Vol. 2 #43)
-“This is you, Matt. This is your life. And we both know that every story has a shitbag in it. And right now, it’s you.” -Luke Cage by Brian Michael Bendis (“Daredevil” Vol. 2 #43)
“That’s so sad. All the Kingpin’s men couldn’t put a decent kingpin back together again” -Special Agent Driver by Brian Michael Bendis (“Daredevil” Vol. 2 #45)
-“It’s like a symphony of lives. My heart swells as I listen to the Kitchen laid bare.” -Matt Murdock by Chip Zdarsky (“Daredevil” Vol. 6 #16)
-“I know you feel like your hands are tied. Maybe people have dirt on you. But I know you’re a good cop. So, lets start fresh, Captain Cervantes. Clean Slate. No bastards above us, just you and I and the rest doing our jobs. Our real jobs. Here’s the deal: I’m off the Spider-Man case. Off all the “super hero” cases. And I’m reassigning myself. My target now is The Owl. I won’t stay out of Hell’s Kitchen. People are getting hurt. You can fire me. But you won’t. ‘Cause you know I’m right. And once we’re done with The Owl? I’m transferring to Internal Affairs” -Cole North by Chip Zdarsky (“Daredevil” Vol. 6 #16)
-“…You’re him. You’re the man who killed my boy. Daredevil…He was my light. But he was on a terrible path. I have no doubt what happened was a mistake. I can see it on your face. Your desperation to make amens. Joey came to me with this because he’s lost. He doesn’t know what to do about you. How to punish you. But anyone who can see… or listen… can tell that you’re punishing yourself. And you should. It’s only fair. My heart is broken. You made a mistake, and he’s gone. But I know you help people, and you’ll carry this and… I forgive you.” -Mrs. Carraro by Chip Zdarsky (“Daredevil” Vol. 6 #17)
-“If you have a recording device on you, we’ll destroy it. If you spread a story about us, we’ll kill everyone you talk to. If you give the story to the media, we’ll buy the media, provided we don’t already own it.” -Quinn Stromwyn by Chip Zdarsky (“Daredevil” Vol. 6 #17)
-“The difference between the cops on the take and you? You’re not even making money for being dirty.” -Cole North by Chip Zdarsky (“Daredevil” Vol. 6 #18)
Getting left on three seperate crazy cliffhangers is a pretty rough end to this, but hopefully you’ll be back next time for Miller and Janson’s ‘Last Hand,’ Bendis and Maleev’s ‘Hardcore,’ and Zdarsky and Checchetto’s ‘Inferno.’