Okay, maybe that’s a cocky title. First of all, we’re only one issue into the Waid/Rivera/Martín run and there are no guarantees that we won’t see Matt invent a new imaginary relative, pilot a rocket back from space or start teaching extra-terrestrial immigration law in the next few issues (though I sincerely doubt it). There simply isn’t much to go on yet other than the obvious change in tone, which brings me to another reason the title of this post might sound a little cocky: Countless reviewers and other Daredevil fans out there seem more than willing to compare the start of this new era with the tales of Stan Lee, based on this change in tone. I disagree completely, and I’m going to tell you why!
Exhibit A: Daredevil #1 (2011) is actually good issue
Stan Lee is a creative genius, there’s no doubt about it. He created/co-created some of the most iconic fictional characters of the 20th century and I would even suggest that coming up with unique concepts for complex and flawed characters has been his greatest strength. Daredevil is no exception. 1964 saw the introduction of a very unique hero and the introductory issue presenting Daredevil’s origin is a very compelling one. After that, however, things took a turn for the worse.
I’m going to come right out and say it: The origin and a handful of good stories aside, Stan Lee’s run on the book can’t compete with most of what’s come later. Silver Age Daredevil may have given us the vibrant art of Gene Colan, but as far as the plotting went, there were some astonishingly ridiculous things going on at times. Don’t get me wrong, I love Stan Lee’s run, but I love it more for its goofiness (especially when unintentional) than for its actual literary merits.
In this sense, comparing this most recent issue of Daredevil with anything from the mid to late 60’s is something of an insult to Mark Waid. Yes, Stan Lee’s Daredevil run may put just as big a smile on my face as Mark Waid’s first issue did, but for very different reasons. Waid is just much more capable of delivering a story that actually makes sense all the way through, and with several more layers of character work weaved into it. Unlike Stan Lee in 1964, he isn’t writing a dozen or more books per month, and it shows.
Exhibit B: The Swashbuckling Daredevil – unique to Stan Lee’s run?
At this point I’m sure you might be thinking that I’m deliberately reading too much into these Waid/Lee comparisons and that I shouldn’t be taking them literally. After all, it’s not as if people are saying that the similarities run any deeper than the joyful tone or the apparent pleasure Matt Murdock once again takes in his swashbuckling antics. Right?
Well, if that’s true and the similarities really do just boil down to Matt being upbeat and enjoying being a superhero, why restrict ourselves to Stan Lee’s run? In fact, this particular take on the character is neither new nor particularly retro. It may represent a stark contrast to the last ten years of Daredevil stories (though Bendis’s run also frequently showcased Matt’s typical dry wit in between all the doom and gloom), but it’s certainly not something we haven’t seen since before Frank Miller’s days.
In fact, for those who insist on comparing Daredevil #1 to a previous take on the character, it makes more sense to bring up Karl Kesel’s run (see panel above) than Stan Lee’s, with the former combining a more humorous and swashbuckling vibe with the modern sensibilities you naturally won’t find in early Daredevil.
Exhibit C: The Frank Miller run – not quite as dark as you remember
Frank Miller’s run is often seen as the character-defining chapter of Daredevil’s fictional existence. There is a definite sense of before and after when it comes to not only the kinds of stories being told but the character of Daredevil himself. We look at this era as the one which turned the book into a much darker and grittier reading experience.
While I agree that this development certainly changed our perceptions of Matt Murdock – and, in turn, his view of the world around him – I do think that people tend to exaggerate the darkness of the Miller run in retrospect. I can understand why it might have been shocking at the time, but compared to the last few years of Daredevil stories it looks like a day at the beach. In fact, one thing I hope that this new run on Daredevil might bring us back to is the wonderful balance between light and dark that the Miller run represents to me.
Frank Miller wrote many issues which showcased Daredevil very much enjoying being Daredevil and Matt smiling and joking with his friends around the office. I suspect that people tend to look at Born Again or the final chapters of the Elektra Saga and forget about all the other instances of Daredevil being a more carefree character than he is today. The take on Matt that we saw in this month’s Daredevil #1 does not in any way contradict the character we can read about in issues from nearly thirty years ago and I think that the overwhelmingly positive response to the new Daredevil would have been much less positive if people genuinely felt that Matt Murdock or the people around him were acting out of character.
Exhibit D: Decades of character development
This brings us back to the topic of character. Matt Murdock of today is very similar to the Matt Murdock we met during the Miller run, and the core traits of the character have remained pretty much the same since then. However, I would argue that Matt Murdock of 2011 is a very different character compared to his 1964 counterpart. I think this might be the primary reason I’ve personally reacted so strongly to suggestions that the start of the Waid/Rivera/Martín run is reminiscent of Stan Lee’s Daredevil. Tone aside (and I think we’ve already established that that’s not enough to go on), I would argue that Matt Murdock has come such a long day since those first few years that any take on the character that is genuinely respectful of his long history will never share more than superficial similarities to Stan Lee’s run.
When I read Silver Age Daredevil, the biggest difference I see is not in the treatment of Daredevil in costume, but in the understanding of Matt Murdock out of costume. For the longest time, it was hard to get a real sense of just who Matt was. When he decided to make up a fictional twin brother with a very different attitude it appeared as if this uncertainty regarding the dominant aspects of Matt Murdock’s personality were played out right in front of us. There is even a sequence where we see Matt contemplating taking on the Mike Murdock identity permanently, in part because he likes it so much. Had Stan Lee really not decided who he wanted Matt to be yet? That’s almost what it seems like.
The problem with early Matt Murdock was that he was seemingly deliberately characterized as something of a bore, as if both Matt and the people responsible for putting words in his mouth had somehow decided that it was inappropriate for a “mild-mannered” blind attorney to do anything to stand out. At the same time, the Matt Murdock identity was presented as being more of a façade than the Daredevil identity. It was presumably only as Daredevil that Matt could make full use of his powers and rid himself of the pretense that comes with acting like he doesn’t have them.
Over time, the idea of who Matt Murdock really is has definitely become much more clear and many fans today agree that Matt is really much more interesting than Daredevil. Daredevil is more like an aspect of Matt’s personality these days than a representation of his true self and Matt is being very much himself in all areas of life. His private and professional lives come with the unique burden of always having to play down his power set (and there’s a subject for another post) and doing his best to conceal his other life, but aside from that he’s not really lying about who he is as a person. And, since Foggy found out about Daredevil, he also has people around him who know the whole truth, This changes the dynamic of the book in a way that makes it very different from the stories of the Silver Age.
With only one issue to go on, I think it’s clear to everyone that Daredevil has undergone a massive change in tone, albeit one that has an undercurrent of more serious things going on. However, to compare this new take on the character to the one introduced by Stan Lee more than forty-five years ago means looking at this change of tone in a very superficial way and ignoring not only the respect Waid & Co pay to what Matt Murdock has done since then, but also just how true to later versions of Daredevil this seemingly retro approach really is. Personally, I think maybe we should just stop comparing it to anything that has gone before and hope that Waid will continue toward his goal of truly reinventing Daredevil, ably assisted my Paolo Rivera and Marcos Martín.