Okay, time for another review. By the time I’m done with this one and Daredevil #106, I’ll be up to speed, so I’ll be able to do reviews a little closer to their actual publication date from now on. As usual, anything down to the cut (or dashed line) is safe reading for everyone, but those who have not yet read this arc and don’t want the spoilers should stop there.
As is evident from the high marks I gave this arc, I’m a huge fan of this story. Still, it’s been interesting to note that this one really had fans split down the middle. While I suspect that the people who did not care for this story were fewer than its fans, the book has certainly shown a small decrease in sales over the last few months. My guess is that it will pick up again as all the Rucka fans come onboard for Daredevil #107, but it’s clear that Without Fear was not everyone’s cup of tea. The complaints have usually centered around the pacing, the heavy focus on Matt’s personal life (and Milla in particular), and the fact that the story was effectively a continuation of the previous arc. With Daredevil #105, though, some previous sceptics actually admitted that the pacing made perfect sense in retrospect. I will come right out and say that Daredevil #105 was one of the best single issues of Daredevil I’ve ever read, and it makes the entire arc so much more effective. I think this arc benefits from being read as a trade paperback, and I can imagine people liking it more when they read it a second or a third time.
Without Fear doesn’t read like an action comic. It reads like a psychological thriller. Issues #100-105 certainly have their fair share of action, but the emphasis is on building suspense with each issue and to show how Matt and those around him react to the events as they unfold. The character-building elements are evident in this arc and Brubaker manages to show Matt (in both his guises) doing some things we’re not used to seeing him do while making it all seem perfectly in character. It is also interesting to see how Brubaker demonstrates Matt’s devotion to his wife in these issues, making even some hardcore skeptics of their relationship come around.
Kudos also to Michael Lark for drawing even very high-powered villains in a style that makes them both recognizable and “real.” While I’ve noticed Lark’s art becoming a little “sketchier,” and looking slightly more rushed over time, I find myself becoming more and more of a fan of his work.
This arc begins with the big anniversary issue, that is the 100th issue of Volume 2. There isn’t much forward momentum in issue #100, where the focus is on the art rather than the writing. By the end of issue #99, Daredevil had been captured by his old adversary Mr Fear and subjected to his fear gas, while learning that Milla had also crossed paths with him. What this encounter has done to his wife is still unknown to Matt, but the reader knows that Milla isn’t exactly acting like herself these days, and that her erratic behavior has led to the death of an innocent bystander in the subway…
The beginning of issue #100 follow two separate developments as Milla is taken into custody by police, with Foggy at her heel, and Matt is getting an earful from Mr. Fear. Larry Cranston – the third Mr. Fear – is, as oldtime readers will know, and old law school classmate of Matt Murdock’s. He is also a former associate from the time Matt was living in San Francisco with Natasha, though their partnership was brief. While Mr. Fear will skillfully be transformed from costumed has-been to major threat during this arc, his motives here come across as petty at best. Petty does not translate into harmless, however, as Matt is doused with fear gas and thrown out the window, though not before coming to the horrifying realization that Cranston has gotten to his wife.
Desperate, but lucid enough to know that he won’t be able to control his actions, he tries to stay away from the people around him, for fear of hurting them. When held at gunpoint by two police officers half-ready to arrest him, Matt’s loses his grip on his sanity and is thrown into a hallucinatory state. Thus begins the more interesting inner journey Matt makes in this issue as scenes from his life pass by and artists change hands.
The art in this issue is spectacular and my personal favorites are the scenes drawn by Marko Djurdjevic and Lee Bermejo, though the retro-style of Romita Sr fits the story beautifully as well. The way the different styles are combined in this issue is a stroke of genius, and all I can say is that, for a blind guy, Matt sure can dream up some very pretty hallucinations… Matt’s altered state gives us, among other things, a look at his conflicts with the Kingpin and Bullseye, his relationships with Elektra, Karen, Natasha and Milla, and – most poignantly – his father who ultimately helps him find his way out. This sequence is actually quite moving, and gives the reader a lot of insight into Matt’s mind and the heartbreak he’s gone through.
Once he emerges on the other side, he sets out to find Larry Cranston, beginning his search with his apartment. In it, he finds not the man himself, but an unkown mystery person who is blown to bits in what Detective Kurtz in the next issue appropriately calls a “forced suicide bombing.” Matt manages to get out just in time and finally makes it back home, desperate to find Milla. Instead, he finds Foggy waiting for him, ready to tell him the news that Milla has gone “Melvin Potter” and has been arrested for murder.
The next issue begins with Matt going out of control with rage as Daredevil in his search for Mr. Fear. The broken arms and legs he leaves in his trail is enough to let Turk, who has suddenly risen to a position of some importance, to question the wisdom of his decision to back Mr. Fear. The way he puts it is: “Even the Kingpin learned eventually… You don’t push Murdock too far. There’s a monster sleepin’ in that man that you don’t wanna wake up.”
The story then cuts immediately to “three days ago” (presumably mere hours after the final events of issue #100) with a devastated Matt going with Foggy to visit Milla, heavily sedated and in restraints. Her mood swings from terrified of what she’s done to enraged, and Matt promises to save her. Assistant D. A. Algren shows up to discuss Milla’s case and Matt and Foggy learn that he won’t consider releasing her on bail until she passes a psych evaluation. The way he sees it is that if she has, in fact, been given a drug that drives her homicidal that’s even more reason to be cautious.
Furious, Matt returns with Foggy to the office, storms in and slams his office door shut. Dakota North fearlessly decides to face him, she has information the share, and Matt starts off by yelling at her in the style of a moody teenager. Dakota sets him straight and reveals her connection within the NYPD before handing out some friendly advice: Matt is Daredevil, after all, and if he wants to be with his wife after lights-out, he can.
The next scene is the first obvious example of Brubaker breaking classic superhero clichés in this arc. Instead of the hero taking to the streets, shaking down bad guys, we have the hero taking a night “off” to be with his mentally fragile wife. It’s really a very strong scene and beautifully rendered through both art and dialogue. In between just holding her and being with her, Matt tries to teach Milla some of the meditation techniques that were once taught to him, so that she can pass her psychiatric evaluation.
The next day, Matt (as Daredevil) meets with Detective Kurtz at the scene of the explosion to do another run through the crime scene. He learns that the unfortunate victim of the bombing was a chemistry teacher at Empire State University, a “fractured genius,” named Dante Govich.
Milla’s psych evaluation starts out fine, giving Matt reason to get his hopes up, before she gets pushed around too much by the questions and has to be prevented from attacking the psychiatrist. This naturally leads her to be put into protective custody in Bellevue and Matt completely loses it in court during her hearing. He is found to be in contempt of court and hauled off to spend the night in a holding cell, though this is never explicitly shown. The end of the issue begins where it started, with Daredevil shaking down thugs looking for answers. The twist at the end is Turk, who has decided to switch sides, watching the scene from afar with the Hood at his side.
Issue #102 opens with an excellent exploration of Larry Cranston, his life and his motives. We see him sharing his bed with three beautiful women, in a luxury penthouse suite that his powers of control let him keep, out of the view of the public – no questions asked. He tells the story of Dante Govich, and how he helped take his powerful drugs to the next level:
“His experiments — once he came under my persuasion — once he looked at me with fear and awe — made all this possible. Dante understood the links between fear and love… The synaptic paths from desire to paranoia to insanity. Under my thumb, he created new drugs beyond anything I could have dreamed of.”
The art in this opening pages is as sinister as Cranston’s evil – though still very petty – motives and there is no doubt that he will go to any lengths to reach his final goal: the destruction of Matt Murdock’s life.
There are other obstacles in his way however, as the Ox shows up in the middle of Cranston’s combat training (where even his highly-skilled trainers fear him too much to not let him get the upper hand) to alert him to the mayhem going on in the Kitchen. Earlier that day, Ox and the Enforcers have had a run-in with the Hood’s henchmen – Thor villains Razor Fist and the Wrecker. As the story shifts to the scene of the action, we also see Detective Kurtz alert Dakota to what’s going on.
When Dakota gets his call, she is waiting by the elevators at the District Attorney’s office with Matt and Foggy. Foggy tries his best to make sure that Matt won’t lose his temper again, and also tries to broach the Lily situation, thinking that she might be able to help. Matt is vehemently opposed to this idea, but their conversation is interrupted as Matt runs off to deal with the super-brawl between Mr. Fear’s and the Hood’s men. He makes the wise decision to try to use them against each other, knowing that he is out-powered, and out-numbered. His strategy appears to be working until the Wrecker eventually manages to bury him under a pile of rock.
With this, the story cuts back to Cranston’s penthouse where the mastermind himself ponders the new situation, though still not really caring about the Hood’s plan. It’s Murdock he’s after. Meanwhile Matt manages to make his way home through the tunnels and makes the happy and surprising discovery that Milla is back home, waiting for him with Foggy and the new live-in nurse, part of the deal of getting her temporarily released. We learn that Lily had a hand in this as well. More importantly,though, we learn that this was all a part of Mr. Fear’s plan…
#103 opens to a new super-brawl in the kitchen. Here, Brubaker breaks another superhero cliché by having the hero do… nothing. In the big scheme of things, this decision makes perfect sense, however. Daredevil is biding his time, waiting for the Ox to show so that he can be given a clear path to Mr. Fear.
Meanwhile, Foggy and Lily have a meeting with Assistant D.A. Algren, and we get to see Lily’s powers of persuasion in action as she charms him into buying her new version of what did and didn’t happen on that subway platform. Foggy is not completely comfortable with this whole set-up and confronts Lily with his conflicted feelings in the elevator after their meeting. Lily expresses an interest in seeing Matt and Milla, and looks very unhappy when Foggy urges her to drop the idea. At this stage the reader is left with very little to go in terms of what Lily’s actual role is in this story, and the plot thickens.
Next, we cut to a very intense scene between Matt and Milla in their kitchen. This scene is a well-scripted one, and you can almost feel Matt’s desperation as he realizes that Milla is getting worse, and that his efforts to help her are to no avail. What brings this scene down a bit for me, in terms of intensity and realism, is the strange decision on behalf of Michael Lark (presumably) to have both of them wear shades. In the house. While wearing pajamas. In Milla’s case, she even goes to bed with them on! This may be a minor complaint, but it strikes me as incredibly goofy, and goofy doesn’t mix well with the serious tone of this scene. That aside, there is that horror film feeling when Matt carefully keeps his eye (figuratively) on her, and catches her trying to harm herself with a kitchen knife. Before he goes off to work, Matt thinks to himself: “All I know for sure is, I’m running out of time. She’s slipping away… She’s getting worse.” He’s getting desperate, and the events that follow later in this issue, and the next two, show us what happens to a man pushed to his limit.
Matt dons his costume and goes looking for Chico and Merv, who are ready to skip town despite promising to be Daredevil’s “eyes on these streets” in exchange for not being hauled off to prison. They give him information on where to find Doc Parker, the supervillain counterpart to the Night Nurse. After taking out the doctor and the stiched-up Fancy Dan (still recovering from the events of the last issue), and pumping the latter for information, Daredevil shows up at the distribution hub for the Mr Fear’s new drug, where the Ox is about to make an appearance.
Rather than dropping in and taking them all out, which would give the Ox time to disappear, Matt tips off the police and devotes his efforts to taking down the Ox. He tracks him, gets behind the wheel of an abandoned cab, and hits his opponent head on. Hey, all is fair in love and war, right? When the Ox comes to, he finds himself tied up in chains in the company of a hero who’s been pushed to the limit, and in the final pages we see Daredevil threatening the Ox with a blowtorch, letting him know that lines have been crossed (and letting the reader know that he is no stranger to crossing lines himself at this point).
Before this dilly of a finale, we also get yet another glimpse of Lily, who decides to show up at the Murdocks’. But what is she doing there? Time will tell…
At this point in the story, I must say that seeing Daredevil with the blowtorch, about ready to use some serious and physical scare tactics, didn’t bother me the least. It didn’t seem out of character, and the story up until that point had been strong enough to really get the idea across that it was about time for the gloves to come off. There is also another thing to be taken into account here, and that is the fact that in order to get to someone who is ultimately controlled by fear, you need to introduce an even greater threat…
With issue #104, the pace really starts to pick up (but I’ll admit to having little understanding for those who claimed that very little happened during the middle of this arc), as we first see Lily running from Matt and Milla’s house, hailing a cab and muttering “…Matt… I’m so sorry…” Lily’s exact role in this arc is revealed in the next few pages as the story takes us back in time to five days earlier. Wouldn’t you hate to come home and meet someone dressed like a mix between He-Man’s Skeletor and Darth Vader, surrounded by a cloud of green gas? I know I would, and Lily Lucca doesn’t seem all that happy about meeting Mr. Fear, either. His plan for her is clear: she will become a tool in his hands, and get Milla Donovan released from custody. In exchange for her assistance, he promises to cure her from her little affliction.
You would probably also hate to be the Ox facing an on-the-edge Daredevil with a blowtorch in his hand. This is where the story goes next, as Matt burns him once with the flame, then goes on to temporarily blind him before going to work. He doesn’t use the torch, just leaved it on in the background to that Ox can here it, while striking nerves all over his body that hurt more than being burned.
“I don’t enjoy torture. But tonight I don’t care. In between the screams, I beat him. Like he was a heavy bag. And it feels good. I need him more scared of me than he is of Cranston.”
Finally, the Ox gives up Mr. Fear’s location, but before we cut to that, the Hood makes another appearance, his first since issue #101. The Hood finds Ox, and the two of them come to an understanding…
Before long, Daredevil is going at it in Cranston’s suite. The man himself is nowhere to be found, however, but he’s been kind enough to leave a note. Surprised to find that his arrival was expected, and the realization that something must have happened to Milla hits him when he reads Cranston’s message: “Too late, Matt. Don’t you see, from now on, you’ll always be too late.”
Matt arrives home to find Milla’s nurse beaten to a pulp, and his wife hiding in the bedroom, scared of what she’s become. He hears the police arriving in the distance and the following scene, when his wife is taken away and his home invaded by law enforcement, is truly heartbreaking. His mental state is wonderfully complemented by the art where Matt is shown against an all black backdrop.
There is one little detail, however, that has been missed in all the chaos, but now hits Matt has he realizes that Lily has been in his house. Lily carries the scent of Karen Page – a scent he will never forget. Matt descends on Lily like a monster in the night, and he has to control himself to not strangle her when he realizes what she’s done. Lily’s visit to their house was another intervention orchestrated by Cranston to drive Milla into another rage. All Lily had to do was to get near her… There is one things Lily is good for, however. She knows that Cranston is meeting someone in the Kitchen at midnight, and with that the story cuts to the showdown between the Hood and Mr Fear…
Issue #105 makes a great, and completely terrifying and tragic ending to this arc. The issue begins with Daredevil focusing his hearing to try to find Larry Cranston’s voice. Cranston is having a conversation with the Hood, who seems completely puzzled at the fact that the turf war between him and Mr. Fear was all about getting to Matt Murdock. Mr. Fear doesn’t even care about Hell’s Kitchen, the destruction of Matt Murdock’s life is all that matters to him. With the Hood’s scouts reporting that Daredevil is on his way, the Hood and Ox take off, as we get to the confrontation between Daredevil and Mr. Fear.
The fight scene that follows is a good one, but we all know it can only end one way. Cranston is no match for Matt. The reader knows it and so do both combattants. The problem is, that winning the physical fight gets Matt nowhere. He has won the battle, but lost the war. Defeated and beaten to a pulp, Cranston reveals what many of us suspected all along (by issue #103, I was convinced this was going to happen). There is no cure for Milla or Melvin Potter, and Matt was effectively defeated weeks ago. Cranston doesn’t even mind turning himself in, and as Matt listens to the police interrogation, he comments “He’s like an artist claiming credit for his work.”
The next few pages are undiluted tragedy as Milla is checked into a psychiatric care facility and Matt faces the horrendous consequences of Cranston’s actions. The pain and guilt he’s feeling, knowing that Milla’s connection to him is what has indirectly caused her life to be destroyed, puts Matt in a very dark place. This theme is followed up on in #106, and the new status quo following this storyline is probably cause for its own post on this blog before we get to Daredevil #107 at the end of May.
I’m not sure how I feel about the outcome of this story arc, as I was never of the opinion that Matt had to constantly be at his wit’s end for his stories to work, but the pure emotional punch of this is truly the mark of a great writer. Matt has lost another love, thought not to death, but to manmade mental illness, which is even more devastating in a way. It will be interesting to see what Brubaker cooks up next for our favorite guy in red, now that Matt is effectively “widowed” and completely broken. One can only hope that up is the only way to go.
This issue doesn’t end here, however, as we cut to a man who may be temporarily imprisoned but is effectively still running the show. Larry Cranston is in control in Ryker’s. He has all the prisoners at his command, and the prison guards as well, and he knows that he can walk out whenever he wants to. This is his crowning moment as he finally rises through Daredevil’s rogues gallery, from the bottom to the very top. Mr. Fear will continue to be a force to be reckoned with. Man, Mr. Brubaker, you’re good…
That was a long one, being that my reviews are more “summaries with comments,” but I’ll say it again: I really liked this arc, and I’m certain that it will be held in higher regard as a TPB than it was, by some at least, when it came out in monthly installments. Higly recommended! But seriously, it’s time for life to start turning around for Matt, and with even the staunchest defender of the “dark and gritty” themes begging for happier times, I’m sure we’ll soon be able to see Brubaker put Matt’s life back together again.