So here goes, the first of Brubaker’s four arcs so far to get some extra attention from yours truly. I assume that most of the people who read this blog (or, will stumble across it in the future) have already read this book. However, if you haven’t read Brubaker’s run and don’t want the spoilers, it’s safe to read up until the cut where it says “Click here to read more” (marked by a dashed line if the URL you followed links directly to this post).
Another thing to mention is that I’m reviewing this arc almost two years after it first came out – and after reading what came after – and this will probably influence what I have to say about it. I don’t necessarily see this as something negative, however, but as a chance to get another perspective on this arc and Brubaker’s subsequent work.
When Brubaker took over the book from Bendis, they had already agreed to send Matt Murdock to jail. This made for an incredibly smooth transition from one writer to the next and sent Brubaker and Lark off to a great start. In fact, it would seem that most fans still hold The Devil in Cell Block D as the team’s finest effort yet. I agree with all of the praise lavished on this storyline, but unlike some readers, I don’t generally see the later issues as being of significantly lower quality. Also, Brubaker’s entire run holds together extremely well when read in sequence, with events neatly transitioning from one to the other in logical ways with scarcely a needlessly dangling plot element in sight.
Brubaker generally puts heavy emphasis on inner monologue and gives the reader an extensive look into Matt Murdock’s mind. Given the main protagonist’s rather unique situation at the beginning of this story arc, it’s an artistic choice that makes a great deal of sense, and I’ve appreciated its continued use in later issues as well. When we come into issue #82, the first few pages are, in fact, narrated by Matt himself:
“It’s not a nice place anymore. Okay… it was never that nice a place, but now… Now, it’s not even a safe place. My city… My city has gone to hell. It’s like a rabid dog, escaped from the pound… half-scared, half-psychotic… Running wild. Running with the junkies and the mobsters and the killers. Ready to tear the throat right out of Hell’s Kitchen all over again. And all of this. this rapid fall from grace… It’s all my fault. Because I’m not there to stop it. My city has gone to hell… while I rot in here.
What is so nicely done about this is that the art in the backgound is that of Daredevil – or rather, someone impersonating Daredevil – busy with his usual antics high over the roof tops. This trick serves a few different purposes. It introduces the reader to the “other Daredevil” that will remain an important part of the story throughout these issues, satisfies those readers who just have to see the costume at all cost, and makes for a very effective and shocking contrast when the art cuts to Matt Murdock’s actual location in Ryker’s. As we enter the story, thirty-two days have already passed since Matt’s incarceration and Brubaker immediately gives us another example of his ability to get into Matt’s head, in every sense of the word. He is one of those relatively rare Daredevil writers who really makes full use of Matt’s senses to give some additional depth to the story and the character. In this case, we learn right away that Matt’s first month behind bars has been a less than pleasurable one, with his heightened senses only adding insult to injury. The excellent art all throughout these early issues also helps to set the tone, and the extent of Matt’s misery is clear.
The basic set-up is efficiently communicated in a couple of pages. We learn that Matt is in protective custody, and that he is already being treated as a convicted criminal by the corrupt prison guards who both fear him and taunt him. After he gets his hands (literally) on a copy of The Bugle, and learns that there is someone impersonating him, the story cuts directly to a scene between Foggy Nelson and Ben Urich. Ben is understandably suspicious of Foggy, whom he presumes must somehow be involved in the activities of the new Daredevil, and their exchange is an emotionally charged one. At the sight of the mystery man wearing Daredevil’s tights, Foggy goes outside to inform him that he doesn’t condone his actions and wants nothing to do with him, and the stranger disappears.
In this issue, Brubaker reintroduces Becky Blake, familiar to longtime readers as a former secretary of Nelson & Murdock’s, and also introduces private investigator Dakota North in the pages of Daredevil. Brubaker’s introduction of new characters and the clever use of old ones – in some cases believed to be permanently retired – has been a great aspect of his run on the book, and it was an interesting choice to bring Becky back, now as a full-fledged lawyer.
Meanwhile, Matt gets himself into a heap of trouble after a prison guard leads him into a trap set up by Hammerhead, and he has no choice but to use his skills just to stay alive. His actions land him in solitary confinement. Meanwhile, Foggy has learned from Dakota North, who has connections within the FBI, that Matt’s right to be in protective custody is being challenged. The reader has already been treated to an exchange between the FBI director and the warden at Ryker’s, which spells out quite clearly that the feds have no desire to ever see Matt’s case go to trial.
The subsequent conversation between Matt and Foggy gives us a very clear idea of how desperate Matt is to get out of prison at all cost. Foggy, initially skeptical of crossing certain legal boundaries, quickly realizes that he must do whatever it takes to help his friend and the two part ways. Matt is taken back to his cell while Foggy and Dakota are walked into a trap of their own. As Matt listens helplessly behind the steel door of his cell, his best friend meets his apparent demise.
The next few issues of this arc are a study of what happens to a man who has lost everything. The scene showing Matt punching his fists bloody against the wall of his cell while having an inner dialogue with his father really reminds the readers of just how many people he has lost in his life, and how his latest loss has pushed him to the edge. He talks about the rage that lives inside of him and we all know that he’s going to take it out on someone. Following the ruling by which Matt joins the general prison population, a string of violence ensues. The entire prison, meanwhile, is being pushed to the edge as well, as rumors of an impending riot begin to surface.
While Matt is busy beating up anyone who might have information on Foggy’s killers, and just staying alive in a place filled with all of his old enemies, Ben and Dakota set out to look for the man hiding behind the Daredevil mask. Eventually, enough information is revealed to link Foggy’s killer to the new Daredevil, the link in question being a lawyer named Alton Lennox, who is nowhere to be found.
One thing that is interesting about how the events of this arc unfold is to see prison politics being played and to follow Matt’s choices as he makes unholy alliances with old foes. Initially suspecting the Kingpin of Foggy’s murder, he meets him in the prison yard, half-planning to kill him. The realization that Fisk is innocent triggers even more frustration before Matt fully realizes just how badly he is being played. There is a whole prison being used just to get to the two of them, and to stay alive they must put their differences aside and work together.
To complicate things further, both Bullseye and Punisher are added to the mix. The scene where Frank Castle breaks the neck of a pimp, only to immediately turn himself over to the police (so he can get in on the action), is one of my favorites of this arc, just in terms of who undeniably cool it is (and this is coming from a peace-loving blogger who is usually all about character development…). On another level, both Bullseye and Punisher are used in this story to show Matt what boundaries shouldn’t be crossed and who he doesn’t want to become. When Fisk provides a means of escape at the height of the riot, Matt refuses. Fisk’s plan includes Bullseye, and that is one avenue Matt would never be willing to take. He instead turns to Castle, who in turn shows his human side by telling Matt: “You don’t want to be me. You needed to remember that.”
The very last issue of this arc, #87, starts off with Matt escaping from prison, posing as a hostage for the Punisher. Back in the city, Matt dons a spare costume and goes looking for his impostor. The scene where the two Daredevils meet incited some controversy as most fans agreed that Matt should have been able to recognize Danny Rand under the mask as soon as he got within close range, and I’m inclined to agree. While Matt’s senses are not inherently more infallible than anyone else’s (he just has access to other sources of information), I believe this was one occasion where Brubaker stretched logic to accommodate the story he wanted to tell, which included a very interesting fight scene between the two.
As the two friends finally realize the other’s identity they band together to follow the lead to Alton Lennox. They end up in his empty office, where they find that the computers have been wiped clean, and are soon joined by Ben and Dakota. Temporarily stumped with no leads to follow, Dakota comes to the rescue by pushing the reprint button on the fax machine. Lennox has left the country and headed for Monaco. This sets up Matt’s further adventures in the next arc, and in the next few pages we see Ben Urich reluctantly helping his friend out by getting him the items needed for his impending transformation. With a set of colored contacts, some hair dye and a fake passport, Matt Murdock temporarily becomes Mike Murdock. The hardcore fans cheered with excitement. Finally, we also learn that a certain Foggy Nelson is very much alive…
Even after reading this arc a few times, I’m amazed at just how much story can be squeezed into six issues of a comic. This is action-packed to the max with an enormous amount of forward momentum, while also providing plenty of room for quieter scenes and good dialogue. The art is amazing as well, and I can’t help but feel that it looks a little tighter (for lack of a better word) than it has recently. Either way, I find myself becoming more and more of a Michael Lark fan as the series continues.
The Devil in Cell Block D is solid entertainment and gets an 8.5 out of 10 from this humble reviewer.