Overdue: What Ed Brubaker did to Reinvent Daredevil
Why would I continue reading Daredevil? I certainly don’t want to. I shouldn’t want to. Unlike other characters, Daredevil has always been particularly good at provoking writers, pushing them to Write The End, challenging them to Ring The Curtain Down. That’s the true legacy of the character—not the suffering, not the anguish of religious torment, but the cold, hard fact of closure. A sense that everything ends, and that many things endure long after having ended. If the Fantastic Four are analogous to Joyce’s Leopold Bloom, adrift in a world they cannot understand, and Iron Man is Fitzgerald’s Gatsby, buying his way into a world every way his inferior, then Daredevil is Hemingway. Old, and hardened, meaner but also cannier, Daredevil intuitively leaps from the pages in the old, familiar line from Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea: ‘The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those it will not break, it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially’.
Daredevil is about endings, and what’s an ending worth, if it is not respected?
In many senses then, Daredevil is a character for Writers. It is genuinely hard as a writer then, given the unwritten and uncontested fact that Daredevil will invariably build to a pinnacle, not to leave an indelible impression on the character. It is not so much a question that There Will Never Be Another Frank Miller, or Another Bendis or Another Wally Wood, but more a sense that the richness of the character will ensure the unique vision of generations upon generations of writers. Daredevil is all about making a statement, partly about the character, but largely making a statement about yourself as writer. The idea of a ‘definitive’ Daredevil proves an illusory one, as each writer already produces a ‘definitive’ Daredevil. There really is no reason to continually read Daredevil, since Daredevil defies continuity. Each Daredevil is unique, and more-or-less encapsulated. Reading and having enjoyed Bendis, is not necessarily a guarantee for enjoying the recent run of Ed Brubaker. So why read Brubaker’s DD at all? Possibly because Brubaker offered the most radical inversion of the Daredevil mythos in a generation.
Daredevil issue 500 marks the concluding chapter in ‘Return of the King’, and Brubaker’s final issue at the helm of series writing duties. With it, issue numbering reverts to the original count for Daredevil volume one, and issue 119 jumps to issue 500. No doubt this particular issue is destined for near-mythical status. It offers a radical revision of the DD mythos, and a firm grounding for maybe a generation of Daredevils still to come. In it, Brubaker fits together the final pieces of a storyline that sees both Wilson Fisk the notorious Kingpin of Crime and the Hand, the fabled mystical ninja cult, return to US soil. And at the head of all manipulations, stands Lady Bullseye, a victim of Yakuza violence accidentally liberated by infamous assassin-for-hire and recurring DD villain, Bullseye.
Over the past year, there was a suddenness to Brubaker’s writing, the return of a vigor. Brubaker is on record musing that the middle year of his three-year run was perhaps his weakest. Publicly he wrestles with a loss of the energy and the urgency of his first year. With DD in prison then in Europe chasing down a conspiracy against him and his law partner, Foggy Nelson, Brubaker’s audience was held in a thrall. Anything could happen, this was entirely new territory. Yet in that same CBR interview, Brubaker considers DD’s return to the streets of NYC an ignominious one. Yet it is exactly this middle year that produces one of the most profound, most complex, and ultimately most meaningful single issues of Daredevil seen since those done by the legendary Frank Miller.
Issue 100, ‘Without Fear’ is a high-water mark for DD, both the comics and the character. Simply put, it is an achievement. Brubaker offers a tour of Daredevil through the years, working with artists from each distinct era. But what makes ‘Without Fear’ so powerful is Brubaker’s skill at rarefying exactly the correct alchemy of each different writer. In the hands of the earlier writers, Daredevil was defined by a particular traumatic event. His childhood act of heroism that saw him blinded, the murder of his father at the hands of low-level hoods, the murder of his lifelong sweetheart. Each moment holds a particular sorrow for Daredevil, and in the grips of a fear toxin, DD must confront each of these. The work Brubaker is most diffident of, is perhaps the most singular DD in a decade. It would stand as perhaps one of the most significant works since Miller or Bendis, yet there remains issue 500. Issue 500 is the game-changer.
It’s the little things that add up. The Hand has returned, and they’ve really done a number on DD this time. How could things possibly have gotten so bad? Lady Bullseye leads the charge that sees Daredevil and his alter ego Matt Murdock’s networks simply routed. And the Kingpin has returned. Back on the streets he helped build by bathing them in blood, Wilson Fisk is himself a victim of the Hand. His peaceful idyll in Spain shattered by Hand machinations, he has now forged a truce with his foremost nemesis, Daredevil, to eradicate the ninja cult once and for all. But far from returning to New York to put an end to Daredevil, the Hand are in town to make him an offer—lead the Hand into a bold new era after the assassination of their leader.
But it is not Daredevil’s decision to ultimately accept the Hand’s offer that will rock the foundations of the character for perhaps a generation to come. Rather it is the reasons behind his decision. The roots of this reasoning paint a different kind of portrait DD than readers have seen recently in the 2000s. Once again his audience encounters a contemplative, reticent, almost meditative Daredevil. And once again, Daredevil finds himself trapped in a world written by a Hemingway or a Conrad, where he must act first, even as he fights to secure his need to think before acting.
But Brubaker’s true skill lies in resolving the very disparate creative visions of Frank Miller and Brian Michael Bendis. Miller’s work focused on telling the story of DD’s connection to the Far East, and his development of ninja powers (powers that would ultimately overcome his blindness). Bendis however, would probe the ostensibly paradoxical connection between a blind attorney and his vigilante alter ego. To this end, Bendis pitted DD against media scrutiny, in a battle to secure both sides of his identity. While in Miller’s hands, Daredevil was meant to fulfill a great ninja destiny, possibly to lead the hand back to becoming the foremost esoteric adepts on the planet. But in a world where superheroes are commonplace, is being a vigilante a sufficient response to that destiny?
So why choose the side of ‘evil’? Brubaker, already a gifted crime-writer before taking up duties on Daredevil, takes DD on a tour of his greatest failures. For Brubaker, it is very much a question of character-as-destiny and DD’s character has been responsible for more than his fair share of pain and suffering of those nearest him. And yet DD is this thing that will simply leap into danger. So what is to be made of Daredevil? Of what use can he be? Brubaker’s genius lies his positioning DD to leap into the ultimate danger, that of the Hand itself. With his personal life decimated, DD can finally launch himself into position where he might redeem the Hand, or die after failing in the attempt. No longer a threat to his friends and family, the redemption of the Hand seems very much like the kind of Daredevil that will always be worth reading.