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, Brian Michael Bendis in the 2000s and Chip Zdarsky in the 2020s.
This week we have Miller and Janson’s ‘The Last Hand’ and other stories, a landmark 50th issue with Bendis and Maleev’s ‘Hardcore,’ and the Battle for Hell’s Kitchen in ‘Inferno’ by Zdarsky and Checchetto.
Daredevil Vol. 1 #178-182 ‘The Last Hand’ and other stories
In the most unsurprising news of the month, Frank Miller and Klaus Janson’s “Daredevil” continues to be fucking impeccable, we hit a couple more milestone comic book moments, see their trademark creative firing on all cylinders and somehow hit the seemingly impossible point of Too Many Turk Cameos. Shock horror, I know.
I feel like comic book covers (especially those from the Big Two) are infamous for being bloated and overstuffed, especially in the 70s-90s, that’s why I was so caught off guard by the quality of covers on display all throughout these issues. Issues #178, #180 and #182 were especially standout just because of how strictly and creatively they limited their design elements. That kind of discipline definitely translates to the interiors as well. The precise pacing that Miller and Janson have is still super well rendered with staccato panels and articulated action scenes, but the most marked difference in terms of art here is Klaus Janson coloring his own work. There’s one particular frame that I really think highlights this perfectly. The image on the left is just fucking amazing to me. There’s so much style and fidelity in it and the way the colors and lines sit in contrast to Janson’s usual style shows you how it’s a polaroid in a dark room, I don’t know, it just amazes me how clearly produced and communicated this really powerful image is.
I think the action beats in this arc are the best evidence for the synergy between Janson and Miller, there’s just so much enthusiasm in each fight, it’s infectious to read. My personal favorite was probably in issue #178 where Elektra is fighting these three guys, which doesn’t sound like such an amazing feat, but the way Miller and Janson overlap the panels and cramp these figures in with their own counterparts makes everything feel closer, faster and fiercer (I think it probably helps that Elektra can apparently kick through walls, having ankles that powerful will never not be terrifying). Miller also knows how to inject just enough pulp and spectacle into a scene, like the showdown in the cinema between Elektra and Ben Urich, where the environment not only makes the whole encounter more tense, but literally gives an excuse for the most dramatic lighting possible. Other times there’s just full-blown comic book insanity, like when we get canonical, irrefutable proof that Daredevil can beat an alligator in its natural environment. That whole scene in issue #180 is very DKR, especially when Matt becomes KING OF THE SEWERS!! I think all these great tricks of pace, layout, scope and spectacle all come together perfectly in the climactic fight between Daredevil and Bullseye. There’s a reason issue #181 is one of the most momentous and well remembered Daredevil comics in history, it’s a gut punch in the best way possible.
Now I know I’m spouting an indefensible amount about this creative team, but I still feel like I haven’t done Frank Miller’s writing justice. I’m obviously going to be biased seeing as we had an entire issue of Ben Urich sleuthing his way across New York, but I’d argue this is still objectively great. I do find it pretty funny just how accurate a progression it is that in the 80s the media is doing everything in its power to break open their own mini-Watergate and stop a mayor who works with gangsters getting elected, while in the modern day “Daredevil” series ‘Mayor Fisk’ himself ran and went unchallenged by the media. Totally nothing topical in that. Anyway, this culminates in Urich getting STABBED through his supple chest (it turned out to be kind of an anti-climax but it still affected me emotionally far more than it should have). Still, for every insane spectacular story beat like that, there’s all these more understated nuances that keep the arc super engaging, like the constant sense of claustrophobia in issue #180, or the ruminating grief of Matt after he loses Elektra. I think if I had to point at any problems here, I’d wish for some more thematic weight to the story being told (nothing crazy, but something integrated like in ‘Ladykiller’) and a scene between Fisk and Vanessa when they were reunited would have gone a long way. Anyway, Lanky Frank’s comedy is still rippin’ and roarin’: we got Foggy saying his all new catchphrase (“Zippitty do da, zippitty ayy”), a 40 foot floating Kermit the Frog, the Heroes for Hire bleeding an excessive amount of TMNT vibes, a very timely Perry Mason reference and a metric tonne of Turk Cameos. I swear that man has too many schemes for his own good, it would be a small miracle if the Punisher didn’t just shoot him in the face at the start of the next arc.Continued below
I think Bullseye gets some really great characterisation all through these issues. We get a really surgical inner monologue from him, which definitely helps balance out his very manic exterior. I think I like that element of Bullseye, he’s unpredictable and seems unhinged on the exterior, but on the inside everything he does takes discipline and forethought. We learn that Ben Poindexter is just an alias too, which is cool, keeps him from seeming too ‘on the nose.’ We also get Bullseye’s reunion with Mr. Slaughter, who continues to have absolute balls of steel. I think that guy might have a chemical imbalance that makes him immune to fear. The one moment I wish we got to spend more time on though was Bullseye’s murder of Elektra. Like obviously it’s been trumped up in later comics and it would have felt weird to place that much emotional weight on a new character at the time, but I wish we at least had some more dialogue from Bullseye, or got Matt’s point-of-view reaction. Still, what we did get was pretty good.
The thing I really noticed about Daredevil this arc is how much his mood changes. I think out of everything that Miller and Janson have contributed to Daredevil’s world (Elektra, Stick, Kingpin, The Hand), the most additive element was how much pathos they added to the character. He’s realistically gone from stern, but chipper to straight-up depressed and it’s a great direction for him. That sort of inherent anger, anxiety and grief feels overdone in some characters, but it really seems like it started with Daredevil and not many creators have done it better since. Anyway, those sadboi vibes don’t stop him from remaining an utter icon all through this arc, I especially like how he manages to still clean-up shop for a whole issue while on crutches, he’s just that great.
So that’s that, ‘Paper Chase’ and ‘The Last Hand’ managed to hold up the star-studded status quo of this arc within amazingly realised art and writing, it’s only faults were the things it didn’t have enough of. It’s sad to think that next month we will be essentially finished with all the collaborations between Kinky Klaus and Lanky Frank.
Daredevil Vol. 2 #46-50 ‘Hardcore’
Last month when we looked at Bendis and Maleev’s ‘Lowlife’ we were hitting a bit of a slump, it was feeling like new plot and spectacle wasn’t coming quickly and the stuff that did come wasn’t really much more than filler. Still, with the promise of Typhoid Mary and a vengeful Kingpin on the way I went into ‘Hardcore’ really excited for what this team could throw our way. Unfortunately, other than a couple of interesting scenes and perspectives, this arc just digs deeper into the hole that made ‘Lowlife’ so frustrating.
This whole arc feels like the art and writing is running on autopilot, none of it is egregiously bad or anything, but it just feels like the trappings of Bendis, Maleev and Hollingsworth without any of the flair. Repeatedly through this arc Maleev reuses art between panels. I understand that he’s on an insanely tight schedule, but that always feels cheap, regardless of context. There’s so much ‘talking heads’ style plot in this arc too that Maleev’s art often just falls flat aside from the rare moments where he’s finally given the conditions and real estate to create an amazing splash page with all the silence, shadow and gravity he’s so renowned for. In issue #50 we also have a bunch of guest artists come in to detail the fight between Matt and Fisk, and while it’s a fun adventure through this character’s artistic history, there also isn’t a huge amount of variety between the styles on display, especially with artists like David Mack and Lee Weeks in there, I think they’re capable of some really powerful artistic flair that wasn’t coming through here. Still, they only had a panel to work with so maybe I should be a bit more chill.
This arc also marked the point where Bendis settled most rigidly into his own eccentricities, mostly to his detriment. There’s so many moments of useless or anti-climactic exposition that could have been substituted or made space for some bolder art from Maleev. At one point we have an entire of page of just Milla just sitting in front of the radio with a metric ton of text on the page, and it literally has NO PURPOSE, it’s just the recap page again but disguised as a radio show. There are so many moments like this, like when we learn about Kingpin’s momentous journey towards revenge… except its told entirely through bulky exposition. It’s just weird that Bendis keeps willingly depriving his comic of gravity just so he can verbalise something rather than visualise it. It’s frustrating because even within this arc we see how he’s capable of awesome, silent moments; like the intro to issue #50 where we see the Kingpin eliminating all opposition in the space of three pages, Bendis and Maleev can pull that off, they just keep refusing to anyway. The weird thing is as well, despite the really bloated dialogue, not a lot happens in this arc. There’s some good character development and some interesting encounters, but there’s just not much plot. Issue #47 is just an entire issue of context that doesn’t really need to be reiterated. It also means we get the same cliffhanger of Matt getting set on fire rehashed three different times, which turns a super dramatic moment into something kind of pedestrian. Still, pacing and presentation aside, this arc had a really fun ending that can hopefully inject some new life and a good direction into the book (I know I said almost exactly that about last month’s cliffhanger, but it’s not my fault I’m painfully optimistic).Continued below
One part of this arc that I did unequivocally enjoy though was how much airtime we got to spend with our villains. Maleev pulls together some great character designs for all of them, Kingpin is back in his 00’s Morpheus shades, Bullseye has a fun out-of-office-hours look to him, and he creates a really interesting and visually distinct look for Typhoid Mary. The cover to #46 highlights it well, the hair’s more toned down than the classic JRJR look, her chunky belt and leather jacket combo is really punk in a way that fits the character, and her neck and stomach tattoos are interesting in a way that feels organic to the character. I don’t think the look translates as well to the interiors, especially under different lighting, but it’s still a great design for her. That said, Bendis doesn’t always hold up his end of the bargain in terms of characterisation. I think the more conversational yet calculated style of Bullseye is interesting and really well introduced, and the dynamic between Wilson Fisk and (the ever-marvellous) Agent Driver was spot on (especially with a surprise Turk cameo), but both feel relatively harmless in the end. The most hard done by character though is inarguably Typhoid Mary. She’s just cheesy and vapid and comically insane to the point of monotony all throughout this. I feel like this kind of airheaded murder-fanatic style female villain is just another facet of the ‘crazy bitch ex-girlfriend’ trope that so many male writers lean on, it’s uninspired and you see facets of it in Bendis’s other female characters here like Milla, who has just been a receptacle for Matt’s existential angst all through this series. It just irks me.
Anyway, that aforementioned existential angst is actually pretty well done in this arc. So while Milla is essentially used as a prop, she does at least ween out some interesting perspectives on the Man Without Fear. My favourite was probably the idea that Matt is myopic to the point of perpetual long-term self-destruction, his tunnel vision becomes so focused on a specific person or problem that his double life crumbles all around him and his painfully loyal friends are left to pick up the pieces. That feels especially relevant here as we see the steady progression of Matt’s life, freedoms and privacy being progressively ripped away from him in a way that leaves him reeling and in desperate need of a way to feel control over his life. I think that desperation for competent control has been a great central characterisation for this eternally frustrated and aggressive incarnation of Daredevil. I mean, in his fight with Bullseye he’s hitting Lester’s self esteem harder than his face, and it’s not like he’s pulling his punches either, he literally carves a target into the man’s skull (I have no idea why the FBI just let him get away with that one). Still, with all that stress, rage, myopia and desperation it really organically sells the idea that Matt would claim the title of Kingpin. His identity has always been used as a form of catharsis for the frustration he feels about the legal system, the fact that he’s now moved from above ‘legal’ and ‘illegal’ to simultaneously immersed in both makes sense for a man who finds himself trapped in a watchful world. It’ll be really interesting to see how Matt interprets his new position and how Hell’s Kitchen will be restructured in his wake.
Sorry, that was all very psychoanalytical and wanky, I very much enjoyed the return of playful banter between Matt and Foggy, and that Matt can apparently recover from being burned alive remarkably well. He’s a resilient lad. See you guys for issues #56-60, ‘The King of Hell’s Kitchen.’
Daredevil Vol. 6 #19-20 ‘Inferno’
It’s insane to me that ‘Inferno’ is only a two-issue arc seeing as it’s one of the most impactful and intense stories of the whole series. This has Zdarsky and Checchetto firing on all fronts with bullets of pure plot and pathos. The Battle for Hell’s Kitchen is here and everyone’s getting pulled into the frey.
Now, I feel like I have to be more specific about the writing here than just that it’s ‘really fucking good’, but honestly this is Chip Zdarsky at his best since “Know Fear.” I think the best testament to that is how issue #20 is bookended with pure prose and it works, I mean this book has one of the best artists at Marvel and somehow taking away two pages from him was one of the most impactful moments of this series, rather than leaving readers feeling cheated.You can feel the thought and care that Zdarsky’s putting into his scripts, for example Hector (one of the Civilian Daredevils) is protecting his blind, aging father when the violence erupts, and later when Hector is injured then his blind, aging surrogate father figure comes to protect him, which is a great bit of symbolism. I mean for an arc that’s so action-heavy, that’s a pretty bangin’ metaphor they snuck in. The whole social movement that the Civilian Daredevils embody pays off so well in this arc, for a series that looks to analyse Daredevil’s impact on systemic issues, it’s a really inspiring point. Even though each drug dealer he beats up and each person he holds accountable doesn’t have that much of an impact, the accumulation of it all is inspiring enough to create an army of inspired mentees. That probably helped play into the really well balanced stakes of this issue as well. It definitely feels like this could be the midpoint, or at least a turning point, in Zdarsky and Checchetto’s run. I feel like between this, issue #21 and the Annual, we could be looking at a bold new direction for “Daredevil.”Continued below
Now I know I don’t have to keep saying, but it’s consistently mind-blowing just how good Checchetto’s work has been all throughout “Daredevil.” He makes the mayhem here feel genuine in a way that a lot of other superhero books can’t, there’s just so much chaos and freneticism to the action on the page. Yet still the golden rule of Checchetto remains, no matter who is on the page, how much they’ve been beat up, and what their role is, he will make them sexy. I mean, Matt Murdock gets smashed through a windshield and comes out the other side looking like he just walked on a glass-shard catwalk. I want him to set Daredevil on fire. He also pulls out some amazing character designs for the Stromwyn’s eclectic band of criminals, we get another pretty funky Bullseye designed that’s more deranged than the minimalist Maleev look. Rhino is rocking some laser-red eyes and we also had the arrival of the incredible DOCTOR STILTSTAPUS! That’s right, Stilt-Man’s got an upgrade and he is ready to rock, if last month was Wilbur at his most grounded, then this is him at his stilts-iest. How far you’ve grown Stilt-Man, never stop achieving the impossible (the impossible being slightly longer and more practical stilt-legs). Now if all that wasn’t enough to get me enthused, which it was absolutely was, Checchetto really checked the last box on my bucket list by including one Mr. Ben Urich in issue #20. He was adorable, he was well rendered, and he had one page of glorious, irreplaceable perfection that I will forever cherish. Also, it would be a cardinal sin if I didn’t mention how great Julian Totino Tedesco’s cover for issue #20 was, that man never stops achieving.
The whole team managed to cram in a smorgasbord of great character moments this issue as well. Even though he doesn’t get a lot of airtime, the deflated and purposeless Kingpin we saw in ‘Through Hell’ had some really organic growth here. Also, this might also be the first comic to ever make me care about Bullet. I mean, figuring out his name is actually Buck Cashman definitely helped with that, but still, he was just this hilarious voice of reason in a group of psychos. It’d also be criminal not to mention the amazing return of Typhoid Mary in this arc, never in a million years would I have seen the Sister Elizabeth reveal coming, such a great moment. Plus her dialogue is SO MUCH better than in ‘Hardcore.’ I’ve got to say she pulls off the nun-chic aesthetic she has going too. The last real notable side character moment would undoubtedly be the downfall of Leland Owsley, the fact that he’s betrayed by a crew who see he’s gone too far and then gets a triple beatdown from Matt, Fisk and Cole is just the ultimate act of karma. So well deserved and really helped elevate his whole role in this series.
Finally, I want to look at how Zdarsky and Checchetto have used these two issues to create a perfect summation of the identity and journey that Matt Murdock has grown into over these past 20 issues. On the art side we get a huge variety of styles and outfits for Matt as he symbolically gains and sheds layers in defense of his neighbours. We start off with what I like to call ‘popped-collar-business-casual-vigilante’ Matt Murdock, which quickly shifts into ‘cowl-on-sleeves-up’ Matt Murdock, before landing on ‘tank-top-converse-king’ Matt Murdock. Still, there are so many amazing little touches to his character design here, like how his ginger curls poke out from under the cowl, symbolising how it doesn’t exactly fit him anymore, or his willingness to use a knife showing a new level of both rage and control. Art meets writing in the great moment where Matt gives up his mask as a bandage for Hector, it really highlights how he’s always adamantly valued other’s safety over his own secrecy. That definitely comes to a head when Matt willingly turns himself in to the police. I think it’s a really great divergence from ‘Through Hell’ where he was learning to turn away from the proverbial “Kingdom of Caesar” in favour of his own moral compass. Still, now that he’s learned to forgive himself for the murder of Leo Carraro it will be interesting to see if the rest of New York can forgive him too.Continued below
These were two of the best issues in “Daredevil” history and you ought to do yourself a favour by picking it up, this arc had some of the best art, writing and growth of Zdarsky and Checchetto’s run. I mean, we literally had Matt telling himself that “This isn’t the time for Catholic Guilt!” and if that isn’t his single greatest piece of character development in years, then I don’t know what is.
-“You will cease your investigation of Cherryh and of his commitments to organized crime. You will sit now and watch the movie. And you will think about how very vulnerable you are” -Elektra by Frank Miller (“Daredevil” Vol. 1 #179)
-“Twenty minutes pass while I think about how a Pulitzer would look on my desk. I try not to think about how I’d look on a slab.” -Ben Urich by Frank Miller (“Daredevil” Vol. 1 #179)
-“Urich’s first law of journalism: If it’s not supposed to be there, it’s a lead.” -Ben Urich by Frank Miller (“Daredevil” Vol. 1 #179)
-“Hell isn’t hot. It’s cold. It’s cold and damp and foul, and if their stomachs didn’t hurt, it’s inmates wouldn’t know that they aren’t quite dead. They shove closer together. They kneel on sores and blisters… and they worship their king.” -Narration by Frank Miller (“Daredevil” Vol. 1 #180)
-“Knowing as we do that is probably the last conversation we will ever have. Why don’t you think about what kind of man you are if your own son conspires to have you killed. While the only woman you love would rather destroy your empire, steal all your money, and leave you to bleed to death in some foreign country, than be with you. L’chaim, fat ass.” -Waldo Dini by Brian Michael Bendis (“Daredevil” Vol. 2 #46)
-“You little ninja bitch!” -Bullseye by Brian Michael Bendis (“Daredevil” Vol. 2 #49)
-“I’m sick of outwitting you. No more games. No more chessboard of life. Now I think I’m just going to beat the shit out of you!!” -Daredevil by Brian Michael Bendis (“Daredevil” Vol. 2 #50)
-“I love smashing shit, but I hate smashing churches, or people, for that matter. But I’m being paid to destroy everything so… Howzabout I smash you last?” -Rhino by Chip Zdarsky (“Daredevil” Vol. 6 #19)
-“I dressed as the Devil and used these gifts to be a blunt instrument. And people got hurt. People died. And it felt like God abandoned me. But he was always there. He knew that I just needed to be better. That, yes, violence is a last resort. But when there’s no other option, when good people are being attacked, being beaten. Sometimes all you can do is… Lift your fists and fight.” -Matt Murdock by Chip Zdarsky (“Daredevil” Vol. 6 #20)
-“You’re Matt Murdock. You’re Daredevil. And out of infinite possibilities there’s only one way this is going to go. My way” -Matt Murdock, Daredevil by Chip Zdarsky (“Daredevil” Vol. 6 #20)
A lot of variety with a good Typhoid/Bullseye through-line this time. Next month we’ll be back for the end to Miller and Janson’s saga in ‘Roulette,’ Bendis and Maleev’s return in ‘King of Hell’s Kitchen,’ and the Daredevil annual ‘One More Day’ by Zdarsky, and artists Manuel Garcia and Chris Mooneyham.