First of all, thank you so much to everyone who commented (or contacted me through other means) to offer support in response to my latest post. It means the world to me, and just proves that the TOMP community is made up of some of the best people – and comic book fans – in the world!
And, thanks for all the post ideas. I’m making a list of all of them and hope to get to them over the next few weeks and months, interspersed with ideas of my own, and the usual reviews and comments on whatever comes up. First on my list is to begin to tackle Daniel’s idea to look at Matt’s happier times, and that whole side of his personality. It feels like the perfect topic to lighten anyone’s mood, and it also makes for an interesting contrast with the darker side of the character.
Mark Waid has strongly indicated that Matt Murdock has underlying issues with depression, which made his take on Sister Maggie’s battles with post partum depression even more meaningful (aside from her story being compelling in its own right, depression is often at least partially hereditary). Of course, Matt’s long list of actual trials and tribulations, along with his mental health battles – which go back decades – don’t negate the fact that he has had happier times and that he’s got a real optimistic streak to motivate him. To quote myself from an earlier post:
“What I recognize in a character like Matt Murdock is that ability to joke, smile and laugh – and do so genuinely, not as a front (or in Matt’s case, perhaps not only as a front) – while at the same time navigating the inevitable slumps and rough patches that you know may be waiting around the corner. It is possible to be both an incurable optimist, to have your “center” propel you forward and give you meaning even while occasionally dealing with feelings that seem to threaten to stop you in your tracks. Real people are complex, and it’s a great thing to see creators of fiction let that complexity shine through their characters as well.”
It’s interesting to note that whatever is bothering Matt Murdock at any one time, and that may be nothing at all, the answer always seems to be Daredevil. When he’s feeling low and defeated, his life as Daredevil seems to act both as a coping mechanism and a compulsion based on a (somewhat exaggerated) sense of duty. When he’s happy, that too spills over into his life as a vigilante. He clearly enjoys the physical aspects of throwing himself off high buildings and the obvious sense of accomplishment that comes from having trained his body to endure almost any situation.
During the first few years of the title, being Daredevil clearly offered him a way to escape the persona of Matt Murdock, the uptight and timid blind lawyer. I’ve talked about the conflicted feelings around his identity in How Daredevil became Matt Murdock. This is interesting because it shows that even the relative carefree days of the Silver Age were not devoid of underlying conflicts. Matt may have thoroughly enjoyed playing the part of Mike Murdock, his made-up identical twin brother, and Mike may have even been a more genuine take on the underlying character. But pretending to be someone else, even as a way to manage a secret identity, is hardly the sign of great mental health. Even early in Daredevil history, there were clear signs of self-loathing and resentment.
As the topic of Matt’s personality and changing moods is a pretty big, I will only be able to scratch the surface with this post, and will be doing so by going back to the very beginning of the title’s history. At the end of this post, you’ll find links to previous posts that deal with Matt’s emotional life (aside from the one’s I’ve linked to above). Altogether, that should make for a good foundation for exploring this topic further in the coming months.
The frustrated optimist
As origins go, I quite like the one we see in Daredevil #1. You would expect no less from someone who loves the character, but considering how weak the writing was on some of the early issues of Daredevil (Daredevil #2 anyone?), the relative quality of the very first issue stands out. The pacing is good, it covers a lot of ground and it cleverly establishes Daredevil’s raison d’être.
One interesting conflict that is apparent right from first glimpses into Matt’s early fictional life is the one between his desire for self-realization and the demands and expectations placed on him by those around him. In his early adult life, the same conflict is evident in terms of how he feels about being Daredevil, as opposed to being Matt Murdock (again, see my previous post). But this struggle pre-dates Daredevil, and even Matt’s accident. As a young boy, the source of frustration was not the need to conform to society’s expectations of a blind man, and a lawyer, but rather the strict rules laid down by his father. While young Matt is presented as a genuinely good student, one who probably would have excelled in academia even under less rigid circumstances, his strong desire to express himself physically, and play sports with the other kids, shows us another side of him aching to get out.
Even before he was Daredevil, Matt responded to frustration the same way we’ve seen him do time and time again: By finding ways around it. Instead of accepting the limitations placed on him by his father, he works out in secret. As he builds his physical strength, he finds a new mental strength as well. Allowing himself this way to escape gives him great joy. His secret life as a would-be Daredevil in training fills the very same purpose here as his life as the de facto Daredevil does later in the series. When he finally dons the costume, that too is in response to the frustration he feels over the fact that no one has been tried for his father’s murder. Becoming Daredevil means doing “something” as opposed to doing nothing. I think Mark Waid really nails it in the interview I linked to above:
“I think you see very clearly in Daredevil that depression is inertia. What fuels depression is that sense of helplessness, that sense of not knowing what to do next, that image of sitting on a gargoyle in the rain on the rooftop, frozen by inaction. To me, Daredevil come to grips with that and is actively pushing past. I wrote a scene where he feels that paralysis that comes with depression and he pushes through it. He makes an active decision to move forward. Any movement is better than no movement at all.”
To Matt, the Daredevil identity becomes a vehicle for action, and a way to directly address the inertia which looms whenever disaster strikes. As Matt, he is subject to the whims of others to some extent. He’s burdened by his father’s expectations, the taunts from the others at school (who misunderstand his reasons for keeping to himself and consequently mislabel him), and later by the prejudices of society. While the latter is not often touched on explicitly, it’s obvious that Matt – at least in the early days – had resigned himself to being regarded as weak. As Daredevil, he instead becomes the “actor,” his way of transforming himself from a chess piece into a player. It is perhaps no coincidence that the storylines which have brought Daredevil his greatest defeats, and been the most demoralizing, are not the ones in which he is challenged physically, but the ones in which that agency is taken away from him by the manipulation and scheming of his enemies.
The way this all feeds into and strengthens the need for the secret identity is something that Mark Waid later picks up on. The secret identity, and secrecy in general, can be viewed as coping mechanism, as summarized in Daredevil #22 (vol 3), when Matt explains: “Even when I was first blinded, I never told anyone about my radar or my hyper senses. Not even my dad. I enjoyed having a big secret. When people make you feel like you’re weak and helpless, it’s empowering to know something they don’t. And, boy, did I need empowering.”
The Daredevil identity was borne out of frustration, but is fueled by an incredible amount of optimism, sometimes bordering on over-confidence. The way Matt decides to go after his father’s killers in the very first issue clearly demonstrates his willingness to throw caution to the wind, in the hopes that his hours of training and heightened senses will be enough to carry him. He’s not certain that they will, however, and at least once he catches himself wondering whether he’s bitten off more than he can chew. This, in turn, is a behavior that will continue repeating itself over the coming decades. Matt often gets in over his head, does foolish things, and is prone to recklessness. We see him as fearless, but perhaps optimistic to the point of delusional is a better word for it.
One thing is for sure, Matt Murdock needs Daredevil. He needs the physical joy of it, the power it gives him, as well as the adrenalin rush. Being Daredevil is one of the best ways Matt knows to express himself when he’s happy, and it is often the only way for him to exist at all when he’s down (see much of the Brubaker/Lark run at the end of Daredevil vol 2). When you look at the entirety of the character’s life, it’s easy to see why.
As mentioned, I will have plenty of opportunities to return to this topic, looking at Matt’s remarkable ability to bounce back, and what exactly – besides being Daredevil – brings him the most joy. In the mean time, here are some recommended posts that deal, in one way or another, with Matt’s psyche: