Daredevil is a title that is knee-deep in dark and gritty, and there’s no denying that successive writers seem intent on outdoing each other when it comes to heaping misery on the poor unsuspecting Matt Murdock. Is this what makes the title work, as many would suggest? Or does painting oneself into a corner thematically put unnecessary restrictions on the types of stories that can be told?
This is a common point of discussion among Daredevil fans, and I have made my opinion known on this subject on numerous occasions in the past. The way I usually put it is that Matt Murdock, as a character, is like a great actor who has been typecast into playing only one type of role. No one ever bothers to try to cast him against type because his regular gig has been a successful one and doing something different might seem too risky.
At the same time, because the actor – or character in this case – is truly more versatile than what he’s given credit for, we as an audience are really missing out. While Daredevil writers are bending over backwards trying to find ever more imaginative ways of screwing up his life, the key to greater success and wider appeal for the character of Matt Murdock might lie in taking a step back and doing something truly radical, that is realizing that cutting down on the hyperbole and utilizing the many sides of Matt Murdock makes him a more interesting and relatable character.
This topic is the source of frequent debate among Daredevil fans and before getting to the points I wanted to make here, I also want to point you in the direction of another post by Comics Alliance’s John Parker. I agree with almost every one of his points, except for a small detail I’ll return to below.
Swashbuckling versus Shakespearian tragedy
Should Daredevil meddle in carefree swashbuckling camp or continue in the current vein of misery so deep that it borders on absurd? How about neither? I remember an interview with Ed Brubaker (though I can’t remember which one) from just before it was announced that he was leaving the book. In it, he acknowledged – as he had done before – that the Daredevil title was indeed quite depressing but that the fun carefree swashbuckler take on the character wasn’t what fans wanted. I don’t remember exactly how he worded it, but I remember reacting to the fact that he was contrasting two widely different takes on the character, appearing at opposite ends of the emotional spectrum of past and present Daredevil stories, and I was a little annoyed that he didn’t acknowledge the fact that there is a lot of ground between these two extremes.
I personally don’t want the traditional “fun” superhero experience from my Daredevil stories. Cracking wise and joyfully bouncing all over town beating up silly villains in silly costumes just isn’t what Matt Murdock does. Every one gets that. Not venturing into that territory isn’t the same as having the character never catch a break, rarely smile or joke (though there are exceptions, see below), and straying further and further away from having any kind of normal life. Well, as normal as the Marvel U gets anyway. In fact, the nearly one-sided take on the character we’ve been seeing for the last decade – and it’s been a good decade, don’t get me wrong – risks making Matt Murdock into a parody of himself. Without letting the pendulum swing back into the light and giving the character some time to breathe and get back on his feet, each successive blow to his mental health and his loved ones loses its impact and leaves us wondering why he doesn’t just blow his brains out.
Was Frank Miller’s run really that dark?
Many would argue this is all Frank Miller’s fault, or rather, the fault of later writers trying to match Miller’s success by using the same elements that featured in his first run and, even more commonly, in Born Again. All the talk about how dark and gritty the Miller run was always makes me wonder how much of this view is actually inspired by Miller’s stories and how much of it is just a weird comic book meme floating around.
It’s true that when Miller left the title, Daredevil had been transformed into a radically different character than he was when Miller first found him. His stories were edgier than anything that had been seen before with this title and they were indeed much darker and much more “serious” (for lack of a better word). At the same time, I would argue that only rarely during his run did Frank Miller reach the heights of relentless suffering that has so frequently been seen in later years. People remember the tragic death of Elektra and Matt’s troubled relationship with Heather Glenn, but there were so many other stories in the Miller-era that varied considerably in tone.
The Elektra saga, with all its greek tragedy overtones, was most definitely a defining story arc, but I would argue that the average Miller issue had more warmth and humor in it than what we’ve seen in the last three-four years of Daredevil combined. In between having his long lost love bleed out on his doorstep and digging her lifeless body out of the ground, Matt managed to come across as a relatively balanced character. He was troubled, for sure, but often capable of coping well and even enjoying his life and his friendships. He even had the strength to reach out to others, such as Becky Blake and Melvin Potter, and help them battle their demons.
It is often pointed out by people who, like me, are growing weary of seeing their favorite character constantly out of luck that Born Again actually ended on a high note, unlike most of Matt’s more tragic stories today. That’s a very good point, but I would also encourage anyone who hasn’t read the earlier Miller stuff in a long time to go back and read it again. More than likely, you’ll marvel at how much lighter those stories were than you might remember and how many happy moments Miller provided to balance out the tragedy of the darker ones. Modern writers would be well advised to do the same.
Does all the current misery really make the title more grounded?
This brings me to another common line of defense for the camp who insists that Daredevil, like good coffee, can never get too dark. Some people seem to hold the view that the tragedies that constantly befall Matt Murdock make the book more realistic and sets it apart from the fun and adventure of the traditional superhero comic (even John Parker of Comics Alliance, in the post I linked to further up, seems to make this point though I agree with him about the rest).
In my mind, grounded can never equal melodramatic. True, all of us occasionally have drama in our lives (even though it’s not commonly of the superhero/secret identity/random villain tryin to kill our significant other variety), and many have experienced loss and tragedy. Bad times, like good times, are part of life and should influence what happens in a superhero comic aspiring for a certain degree of realism. But the appeal of the low-powered “regular guy” with a regular job who lives in a regular house that makes Matt Murdock so relatable is, for me anyway, diminished to a great extent by the fact that his life is now so overwhelmingly tragic that it makes Les Misérables look like a sit-com by comparison. I argue that, without a certain amount of balance, Murdock’s suffering becomes hard to relate to and make sense of. Sometimes I long for even the Bendis days (and those were tragic times as well) where we at least got the occassional glimpse of an ordinary life amidst the chaos.
Another thing that makes reading Daredevil less rewarding than it could be is that I feel like the tragedies – as long as writers insist on writing them – aren’t properly dealt with after the fact. Matt Murdock has a long list of events in his past and present that obviously must affect him in different ways:
He was raised by a loving but imperfect single father with many issues of his own.
He was bullied by his classmates and kids in the neighborhood (and there is very little to suggest he had proper adult support).
He lost his sight at a vulnerable age, a life-altering event he had to adjust to (heightened senses or not) and which naturally affected his sense of self.
He lost his father to violent crime at a young age (late teens going by Man Without Fear, and early twenties going by the original origin), leaving him with no real support system except Foggy.
He’s lost one girlfriend to suicide, two to violence and his wife to mental illness. In at least three of these cases he would feel a great amount of personal responsibility and guilt over failing women he loved.
How does someone cope with all of this? Some of these things have been addressed in the past, but these days Matt’s response to hardship seems to be to develop a bad case of PMS (I’m a woman, I can say that) or act like a sulking teenager. Seeing Matt actually try to cope with his life challenges in constructive ways would be so much more interesting. Even with Shadowland, which at the outset looked like it might provide us with a case study of what happens when all those unresolved issues come back to haunt you cut straight from Matt being his usual self to full-blown villainhood. So much wasted potential.
Peter Parker’s way isn’t the only way to be funny
I’m going to cut straight to the chase: Daredevil is a book that would be well served by featuring more humor. I’m not talking about verbal villain bashing á la Spider-Man or full-blown situation comedy. I’m talking about characters, more specifically Matt Murdock in this case, occasionally showcasing his wonderfully dry sense of humor (which we get a glimpse of all too rarely). You know, the way people in real life joke with people around them. I don’t know a single person for whom trading quips with friends and coworkers isn’t a perfectly normal aspect of life and a daily occurrence. Now I wouldn’t want any writer going overboard here (though I think that’s unlikely), but as a way to normalize the character and widen his emotional range? You betcha.
I would never suggest molding Matt Murdock into a character he’s never been – and even though he was once a “poor man’s Spider-Man” I would never suggest we go back there – but the fact of the matter is that he evidently does have a very cool, understated sense of humor that fits even the darker tones of the book quite well. One recent writer on Daredevil who was successful in showcasing Matt’s wit was Brian Michael Bendis. Going back further, the Kesel run (while occassionally over the top) also featured a main character with a sense of humor that was a good fit for Matt Murdock.
What’s Matt’s sense of humor like then? Well, it’s dark and dry with undertones of sarcasm but often delivered with a certain amount of heart. It’s also often self-depricating. Matt has been known to make humorous observations about the superhero lifestyle and the troubles of living with two identities as well as joke openly about his blindness. His life is absurd on so many levels, and it’s to be expected that he would see the humor in it as well. Humor is also a great coping mechanism and would be a requirement for someone who’s lived through everything Matt has and made it to the other side.
No one knows what the future brings for Daredevil (well, except for a few people at Marvel), or even if he will technically survive the month of November. Regardless of what happens, we know that he’ll rise again in some form, and hopefully get his title – or some other regular title – back shortly. When this happens, I do believe change is needed. Not necessarily very dramatic change, but a slight change in tone.
If an organic story development means having to deal with the fall-out of Shadowland, then let future stories deal with that and let the character work through some of his unresolved issues for a change. Show us where his resilience comes from, where he gets his will to live and affect the lives of people around him. What I love about Matt Murdock is his depth and complexity as a character, and I’m looking forward to stories that tap into this complexity while remaining relatively realistic and grounded.
What are you hoping for?